Spain aims to make European history

Spain aims to make European history

Published Jun. 20, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

The quarterfinals of the European Championships are now set and the field contains some bold-faced names, with Germany and Spain the odds-on favorites to lift the trophy on July 1. Fallen by the wayside include the cohosts, the Russians and in a shock, the once-mighty Dutch side that collapsed without taking a single point.

Some of the biggest names in the sport will take the field this weekend, and here’s a look at what to expect in those games:

CZECH REPUBLIC vs. PORTUGAL (2:45 p.m. ET, Thursday, Warsaw)

Portuguese fans are probably thinking they caught a break, but underestimating the Czech Republic is a bad idea.


Cristiano Ronaldo will be in the spotlight for the first quarterfinal, apparently having rediscovered his form with two goals against the Netherlands, and it is easy to draw the conclusion that Portugal has by far the more star-studded array.

That would seem especially true if Czech playmaker Tomas Rosicky is unable to go (Achilles). But keep in mind that the Czechs have been there before and prospered: they dominated the Poles in midfield as they swept the cohosts out of the tournament.

For Portugal, the resurgence against the Netherlands was certainly due in large part to Ronaldo and the two goals he scored. But it was equally due to the role played by Joao Moutinho in the center and Joao Pereira, working along the right flank. It was Moutinho who ran the Dutch ragged with his improvisations as the Portuguese creator. Nani and Pepe have made significant contributions in this Portugal campaign, as well.

The Czechs, however, may have found an answer to Rosicky's absence. They have no one to replace him in terms of ideas, but their "midfield by committee" is filled with hard-working runners. Tomas Hubschman and Daniel Kolar are Rosicky’s nominal replacements, supported by Vaclav Pilar and Jaroslav Plasil. With Petr Jiracek providing the bursts into the penalty area in support of Milan Baros, the Czechs have constructed just enough offense to be where they are.

And in the back, the play of Theodor Gebre Selassie has been a story for the sometimes-criticized Czech defense. The son of an Ethiopian father and Czech mother has been a threat with his speed when attacking and has clearly caught the eye.

Portugal is the clear favorite, but the opening knockout match likely will not be a walk in the park to say the least.

GERMANY vs. GREECE (2:45 p.m. ET, Friday, Gdansk, Poland)

This is a game with a heap of political overtones: overtones that German manager Joachim Löw is trying to play down. Fat chance as Greece is teetering on the brink of insolvency and its troubles are shaking the entire Eurozone. Germany, on the other hand, largely controls the direction of European monetary policy: Many Greeks feel that its Berlin’s demands for austerity that are tipping their country over the edge.

So this is a bit of a grudge match (though the teams’ on-field history has been entirely one-sided in favor of Germany) and is a massive game for the Greeks, who are playing to give their nation something to smile about. They are not likely to have an easy time. Greece enters the game without captain and influential leader Giorgos Karagounis (suspended for cards).

Theofanis Gekas has been erratic and Georgios Samaras has been unable to put the ball on frame. Do not discount this team’s willpower, however. Against a Russian side most people would concede was superior, Greece was a frustrating, harrying presence that grew into the game.

By rights, this should be a straightforward assignment for a German side that finished the group stage perfect. Mario Gomez has become good at the right time, with three goals under his belt in the tournament. Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger have been brilliant and Germany’s supposed weak spot — its defense — has been superb. Greek fans should be concerned that Thomas Muller seems to be coming back to top form, as well. His ability to stretch defenses creates extra room for Gomez and Lukas Podolski.

The Germans have shown they can grit wins out against the best teams and now face arguably their weakest opponent to date in Greece. Greece has never beaten Germany and hope their ninth meeting is a lucky one.

SPAIN vs. FRANCE (2:45 p.m. ET, Saturday, Donetsk, Ukraine)

On paper, it’s a terrific match. France dominated Europe and the world from 1998-2000 and had enough left to reach the 2006 World Cup final. Now, Spain has taken the mantle and is aiming to make history by completing a Euro-World Cup-Euro triple.

On the field, it could be a different story. The French have been erratic at best, downright perplexing at worst. Spain looks tired, its collection of Barcelona and Real Madrid stars finally starting to feel the effects of their club and country’s dominance (and thus high volume of matches), which stretches back to 2008.

It doesn't help that the French haven't gotten much from Karim Benzema or that Spain is playing without a striker, even though Fernando Torres did get it two goals against so-poor Ireland.

What's really hard to figure about this match is how the teams will approach it. The French defense — missing defender Philippe Mexes (cards) and hardly deep to begin with — seems ripe for the plucking. If Spain elects to give Torres, or maybe even Fernando Llorente, a run in a two-striker attack, you'd think the French would be hard-pressed for answers.

But the cautious Vicente del Bosque has shown no such invention thus far in the tournament, and even he admits his team is not hitting top form. If the Spain manager sticks with the "pass 'em to death" approach, he may be offering France its best opportunity to spring an upset off a counterattack and a deep-lying defensive game.

France was cut apart by Sweden in its final group game. Maybe you can put that down to the fact that the French knew— at least for all of the second half, anyway — that they did not need to win. Yet, the fact that only Franck Ribery has looked anything close to form on attack should be worrying manager Laurent Blanc. The French coach will be hoping that Yann M'Vila, with a match under his belt after returning from injury, will be able to inject something more into his team’s sputtering game.

For Spain the stakes are huge.

West Germany won the 1972 Euro and the 1974 World Cup, but was pipped on penalty kicks in the 1976 Euro final by Czechoslovakia. That was the first major title ever decided by penalties and it prevented a remarkable triple.

Spain, of course, won Euro in 2008 and conquered the world in 2010. It is aiming to be in Kiev on July 1 to complete what West Germany could not. Off current form, Spain had better start getting things sharp in this quarterfinal.

ITALY vs. ENGLAND (2:45 p.m. ET, Sunday, Kiev, Ukraine)

This could either be a firefight or a slog, and it’s difficult to figure out the script. Neither team is what anyone would call vintage, and both sides have some glaring weaknesses that better teams could drive a tractor through. But both also have some thrilling players, and no one can deny the pride that drives both of these proud teams.

England arrived to the tournament with no expectations; they had a new and unloved manager in Roy Hodgson; a controversy over the omission of Rio Ferdinand; and were left without eleven players who were felled by injuries. And then there was Wayne Rooney, suspended for the first two games for a ridiculous foul in England’s Euro qualifying match against Montenegro.

For once, the lack of smothering pressure from fans and media has paid off. No, England is not great, but it made the quarterfinals and has received great work out of Ashley Cole, Joe Hart and man of the tournament, Steven Gerrard. When the English have needed someone to step up they have found him, whether it was Danny Welbeck getting them past Sweden or Rooney nicking the winner against Ukraine. Gerrard has been involved in so much that it's impossible to overstate his contribution.

England faces an Italian bunch that seems just as damaged. Italy needed a big win in its final game against Ireland and got it thanks to the mercurial Mario Balotelli and the controversial Antonio Cassano; Cassano of course, got into hot water with his mouth after making homophobic comments, while Balotelli's always a step away from a card for mouthing off even after scoring one the greatest goals of this tournament.

But Andrea Pirlo is putting the lie to his age. At 33, he has been instrumental for Italy this tournament, and one of the indelible images was seeing him stalk off after his team’s draw with Croatia. He looked like a man carrying the entire weight of the Azzurri on his shoulders — and indeed he has. Another oldster, Antonio Di Natale, has been shockingly spry — in many ways he has outperformed the much younger Balotelli and has been the main man off the bench.

If Italy is able to impose its game, England will surely have difficulty responding. On this occasion, you would think, Hodgson must have his players aware that conceding too much of midfield against Italy will not be the same as using the same tactics in Group D play.