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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Euro2008 catch-up: Portugal in the QF as the Swiss depart

Before I go onto yesterday's actions, talking points from the previous matches are necessary. Austria v Croatia again brought us better football from a minnow than we had expected. The penalty decision was inevitable as soon as Rene Aufhauser made contact with Ivica Olic. I felt at first Olic played for the foul but replays showed he was genuinely brought down. Spurs new man Luka Modric opened the scoring from the spot. In numerous spells the Austrians pegged the Croatians back towards goal and a number of chances went astray.

The Germans made a strong expected start to their campaign via the finishing of Lukas Podolski, who had started wide instead of upfront. Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez were the main strikers but Klose provided the square pass for Podolski to gain the lead without any heavy celebration for the Polish-born Bayern Munich man. Poland were under siege with chances via Michael Ballack, Gomez and sub Bastian Schweinsteiger, but it was Schweinsteiger's pass to Klose that was mis-controlled that led to Podolski's and Germany's second. As the ball sat up for Podolski he took time to volley it past Artur Boruc. Had to believe this team had won their first Euro tournament match since winning it in 1996.

The 'Group of Death', the oh-so ceremoniously named Group C of Romania, France, Holland and Italy. The less said the better regarding Romania v France. The French started without Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieria but included the likes of Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and a good interim filler in Jeremy Toulalan. France looked set to start with a win given they held the possession mostly but lacked in the cutting edge that gains chances and goals.

But there seemed controversy in the Holland v Italy subsequent kick-off. No Fabio Cannavaro therefore new Wolfsburg signing Andrea Barzagli filled in. The Dutch had Ryan Babel permanently ruled out and Arjen Robben was injured so a 3-man midfield of Orlando Engelaar, Rafael van der Vaart and Nigel de Jong with Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder on the wings. Didnt people snigger at Kuyt on the wing for Liverpool?

Ruud van Nistelrooy (VNR) played the lone striker and his goal on 25mins looked a blatant offside,as the Italians had pushed up to catch him. Amazingly, the goal stood to the shock of the Italians and a number of others watching. But it happened after Gianluigi Buffon stretched to palm away the ball and then shoved Christian Panucci to the side as the attack continued. Panucci remained off the pitch behind the touchline as the ball was passed back towards VNR in an offside position and he guided it in. UEFA rules consider Panucci as being active despite not on the field of play, therefore his position played VNR onside and the goal stood. Seemed bizarre to me but wrongly or rightly, the rules made the decision right.

Italy went on to concede again five minutes later as a Andreas Pirlo corner was headed away by Van Bronckhurst, and with the Dutch counter in full swing under van der Vaart, he found Van Bronckhurst tearing up the left with the Italians swaying to the right and leaving a horrible left-handpath. Van Bronckhurst ran up, took aim and swung the ball across the pitch back to the right for Kuyt, who headed it down to Sneijder. Sneijder was free and by the time he was picked up he was flexible to touch the ball under the advancing Buffon. Van Bronckhurst was involved in the third, bursting down the left again, finding Kuyt whose first effort was blocked by buffon but then composed himself to chip back to Van Bronckhurst, who bungled the ball.

Greece as the holders seemed to show little urgency in defending their title and at times bored us with blatant passing around their back players. One highlight came in the second half from Zlatan Ibrahimovic's strike on 67mins, after playing a sharp one-two with Henrik Larsson and slapping the ball past Antonis Nikopolidis. Sweden earned a second goal courtesy of captain Freddie Ljungberg's effort saved by Nikopolidis, with the ensuing loose ball bouncing near to goal and causing a scramble that eventually emerged with a touch last off Petter Hansson.

Now yesterday's matches, which brought more entertainment. The Portuguese have talent and resilience, the Czech Republic have bravery and valour. The Portuguese were favourites here and I expected they would pin back the Czech for most of the game. Deco got the scoring started as he fed Christiano Ronaldo for a run into the box but Ronaldo was thwarted, the spilled ball picked up and skilfully controlled past Petr Cech by Deco for the opener. But the Czech remained strong and charged ahead for a corner from Libor Sionko's persistence. From the corner it was the former Rangers man who bounced a firm header past Ricardo for the equaliser.

Level come the break, Ronaldo and Deco were on hand again for the lead. Deco was picked up on the right and as attackers and defenders arched towards goal for the expected cross, Deco instead came inside and fed sharply to Ronaldo, who smacked the ball low past Cech. To round the game off (I had predicted a 2-1 win to Portugal), the Czech were caught out by a quickly taken freekick deep inside their right that found Ronaldo onside and sprinting towards goal, squaring in the end for sub Ricardo Quaresma to finish off. Anything but a Swiss win against Turkey later on would find Portugal into the quarter-finals.

Now with history between these two national sides after the foul ending in the WC2006 play-off 2nd leg in Istanbul, this was their first encounter since. The Turks were heavily punished in comparison to the Swiss by FIFA and there was talk of revenge but both sides looked to put put that all to bed. The game last night was nothing of the tempered contest expected but both sides gave an edge to their attack that made it ipossible to split the two into winner and loser. The weather opened up some and the conditions made the ball stop during passes and kicks but Slovakian referee Lubos Michel kept up the game and it was a good decision. Switzerland took the attacks more to their opponents and were granted a goal courtesy of Phillippe Senderos' ball over the defence to Eren Derdiyok, who evaded the advance of Volkan Demirel and then squared for Hakan Yakin to tap in.

The BBC panel suggested the Turks would suffer as they are not accustomed to playing in such conditions and I felt that was wrong otherwise whenever it rained then you are expecting the Turks to lose. Fortunately the weather held up and the groundstaff waded in at half time to make the playing surface more appropriate. Turkey gained a crucial equaliser as captain Nihat Kahveci, in for the injured Emre, crossed from the left for sub Semih Senturk to nod in a header. Both sides battled and blocked and tackled and fought for supremacy as the clock ticked away. What looked stable for the co-hosts now looked threatened and deep into injury time that threat was confirmed. Tuncay Sanli picked up near the centre circle and reverse-passed to Arda Turan on the right. Turan ran on and came inside, past two players, to shoot at goal, the ball deflecting off a heel to go acutely over the keeper and in.

I can imagine the Swiss fans' feelings at that point. I felt low when Croatia's Mladen Petric scored their third at Wembley that eliminated England from the tournament but we had 13mins plus to equalise. Switzerland had less than two and simply had little chance to. Usually the hosts enjoy a good run in international tournaments but Switzerland none the less gave good their prowess in football and should now bow out in style against Portugal, who may well rest players having qualified by default.

Today provides two great contests. Croatia know they were slightly fortunate against Austria having ridden their resistence and determination but now aim to quiet the German force, while the Austrians face off with the Poles, the loser of which may well pack their bags if Germany beat Croatia. Not since Euro2000 with Belgium have the hosts been eliminated in the group stages, and following from the Swiss last night Austria will only be too aware of such a circumstance.



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