Germany remains clear-cut favorite
Germany will face the Greeks in a quarterfinal matchup colored by European monetary politics; the Czechs will face Portugal. Germany also finished with a perfect record in the group stage, a mark which cannot be equaled by any other side in Euro 2012.
Someone had to go home from the so-called “group of death” and after two straight losses, everyone thought it would be a feuding Dutch side that never seemed to catch fire. They were right. Portugal conceded an early goal to Rafael van der Vaart but then put the pedal to the floor and never looked back.
Ronaldo fired a shot across the bow of his critics, scoring twice and dancing around bemused Dutch defenders in Kharkiv. Even an early goal from van der Vaart could not jump-start the stuttering Dutch machine.
Ronaldo struck once in each half, and should have received more to his credit were it not for the woodwork and Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg. It was a virtuoso performance on the heels of a miserable night against Denmark, when his misses made the headlines and left the Real Madrid striker a bit petulant in post-match comments.
The Dutch started van der Vaart and Klaas Jan Huntelaar for the first time in this tournament, knowing that they needed a win by two goals to have any chance of advancing. As it turned out, the decision produced only mixed rewards; Van der Vaart scoring a sweet goal in the 11th minute and hitting the post late in the game, while Huntelaar proved a complete non-factor.
Still buoyed by the fast start, many expected more from the 2010 World Cup finalists. Instead, they were blown away when Portugal stepped up their pace of play, Joao Moutinho and his midfield partners finding all kinds of space to exploit.
Ronaldo’s first goal was the result of a beautiful, five-pass movement through midfield, as Joao Pereira delivered the final ball with immaculate precision to stretch the Dutch defense. Ronaldo collected, took one step and buried the equalizer in the 28th minute.
Portugal had taken the match over completely by that point and there were only glimmers of a Holland comeback for the remainder of the match. As much as Huntelaar offered nothing up front, Arjen Robben was another no-show and Robin van Persie had nothing to work with. There was no midfield command from Wesley Sneijder either and it speaks volumes that the two best chances other than Van der Vaart’s fell to hard man Nigel de Jong. He couldn’t put either header on frame, however.
Stekelenburg kept the Dutch in the match with a series of fine saves, none better than his dive at the far post to deny Nani, sent in alone by a Ronaldo chip in the 72nd minute. That should have been 2-1 then, but the architects reversed the design two minutes later , with Ronaldo hammering and Nani delivery behind the net to push his nation into the quarterfinals.
In Lviv, Germany looked an ordinary side, perhaps one that was tired from its exertions in its previous two matches. No matter, they stayed solid in midfield and were just dynamic enough up top to get it done against a Danish side that worked hard but were over-matched from the whistle.
This is not to say the Danes lack quality. Nicklas Bendtner raised his value with a fine tournament that showed he can actually score goals with mounted pressure. Simon Kjaer is making a case for being one of the best defenders available in the open market. But after those two, the drop is steep. Truthfully, Denmark’s a side that is hard working and capable of the shock – but not a team that can grit out win after win. Even an average German performance was enough to undo the Danish Sunday night
Credit midfielders Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil for the German win. Both Real Madrid players were the ones pulling the German strings. While they rarely looked willing to move out of second gear, they made their side dangerous on the break and more fluent than a Danish side that showed heart but little resilience.
Podolski had yet to show his true flair but when he was unleashed on Sunday, he made his 100th cap meaningful, stroking home after Thomas Muller laid the ball off for him. Lars Bender would end matters with a 30-yard run to fire through Stefan Andersen with ten to play.
”I think we had the game well under control,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said. ”We had a lot of possession and I was sure that we would score and advance.”
The Germans now will face a Greek side that shocked Russia on Saturday, and will be wary of their opponents’ ability to rope-a-dope. With the current crisis in the European Union, this game is also likely to take on overtones undreamed of by UEFA. They meet Friday night in Gdansk.