I must say the Euros have lived up to expectations thus far. International football is usually not as interesting as club football, especially for those with little emotional involvement towards a single team, but the quality of games hasn’t been bad at all.
Not surprisingly, the best of games was played yesterday between Spain and Italy.
Prandelli started with a 3-5-2 which wasn’t entirely unexpected and neither was Spain’s so-called 4-6-0! Both systems are among the less common ones but are familiar to many of the players who started for each side. Thus the game provided a very interesting tussle.
More than the players though, a key component was the pitch. It seemed very dry and uneven. Now there is an argument that the conditions are the same for both sides so it shouldn’t matter. But if it were that simple why would clubs and countries spend millions on producing high quality pitches? Why not simply draw borders around a barren patch of land and tell the players to get on with it? Even then the conditions would be same for both teams, no?!
The point here is that a good pitch is absolutely essential to a top class game of football. On a dry, uneven pitch the ball tends to get held up or it bounces unexpectedly and makes passing difficult. It’s not so much a problem for teams playing Route One football or even those playing on the counter but ball-playing sides will struggle on such surfaces.
After the game Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, and Puyol didn’t have kind words for the playing conditions. Of course it would be easy to dismiss these complaints as a case of sour grapes but that doesn’t do justice to the game.
The foundation of Spain’s style is their impeccable technique. That’s their single biggest competitive advantage and allows them to control the games. A bad pitch diminishes that strength because it’s difficult to control the ball or to put the right weight on the pass. For instance, you could see Iniesta beating a couple of people with excellent dribbling skills only to get held up for a fraction of a second because the ball didn’t roll smoothly on the surface as he’d have expected. That momentary break in stride is often enough time for defending players to get back in position, particularly when they’re deep and narrow crowding small spaces. Similarly, the reigning champions couldn’t quite establish the slick tempo that helps them create a lot of chances because the speed at which a pass travelled was not completely in their control.
It was a bit like the problems Arsenal faced at the San Siro but in that case only the flanks were re-laid. Here the whole pitch was dry. In that regard it must be said the Spaniards did superbly to adjust after the opening few minutes where they really had problems getting their passing game going. Italy pressed higher up the pitch in that period and had some half-chances but their attackers were wasteful, with Balotelli in particular having an absolute stinker.
Even after Xavi and co found some sort of a rhythm, they struggled to create many meaningful chances in the opening period. The lack of width and that of a reference point have been cited as problem areas but credit must go to the Italians who remained compact and well-organized. They were right on top of the ball whenever it came in or around their penalty box. The vertical runs were manfully tracked with the attackers struggling to find even an inch of space to get clear shots away.
I am not convinced the presence of a conventional striker or a winger would have made that big a difference in that period given the quality of the defensive effort from Italy and the condition of the pitch. This was essentially a fascinating battle between 6 supremely gifted Spaniards and 8 resolute, tactically shrewd Italians.
At the other end, the Azzurri were able to use the pitch to their advantage. They could hit long balls into the channels and it would hold up instead of running out. This way their attackers got a chance to get on the ball. Spain often held their full-backs deep and rightly so as Sergio Ramos was an accident waiting to happen at the heart of the defence.
The Italians had the better chances in the first half with Cassano doing some impressive work down the channels and midfielders occasionally joining in the attack. Motta really should have done better with a free header from six yards after Busquets completely lost track of his run. But the midfielder powered his header straight at Casillas who also made a couple of other saves.
Spain were able to pick up the tempo early in the second half as Italy perhaps were a bit slow to get back into rhythm or they might have come out with an intent to push a bit higher up the pitch. Iniesta worked a good opening with Fabregas but Buffon was up to the task. The World Champions also created a couple of other chances early on.
At the other end Ramos gifted a chance to Balotelli who was able to intercept his back pass but the maverick Italian returned the favour by dilly-dallying as Ramos chased back to put a last-gasp tackle in.
The game got interesting after the introduction of Di Natale who scored with his first shot. Pirlo produced a moment of magic in the middle but it was Ramos who played the striker on with poor positioning to begin with followed by the incorrect choice of playing the off-side trap. Nevertheless, the finish was crisp.
The lead didn’t last long as Fabregas equalized. It’s hard to say what changed for Italy and when but they gave the opponents far too much space. When earlier a couple of players would have been on top of Silva when he received the ball just outside the box, this time the City man had at least a couple of yards to play with. Similarly, the run of Cesc wasn’t tracked with any sort of urgency.
Soon after Del-Bosque introduced Navas to provide width and took Silva off. It’s tough to say whether this was the cause or just a coincidence but Italy were now looking to push up the pitch. The Spanish manager might have sensed this and introduced Torres to exploit the space in behind. The Chelsea striker got into three excellent positions but wasted them. At the other end Di Natale had a good chance but he was stretching.
All-in-all this was a delightful battle between two starkly different sides. The bad quality of the pitch levelled the playing field. The Italians had a good start but didn’t take their chances. Spain finished stronger but again missed some glorious opportunities. The reigning champions will struggle if they have to consistently play on such surfaces because it automatically reduces their quality. But winning under adverse conditions has greater value. Let’s see how they fare. Italy too could go a long way in this tournament but this game is not the right one to judge their level. Ireland and Croatia could take them on at their own game. Performances in those fixtures will give us a better idea about the credibility of the Italian challenge.
In the other game of the day, Ireland lost to a clinical Croatian side. Mandzukic produced two quality headers while Jelavic was opportunistic when he was ruled on-side on a technicality. The Irish must be aggrieved at the penalty claim that was denied but they didn’t really produce enough to merit any points. Their style resembled that of some teams from the bottom half of the Premier League and it wasn’t good enough for this level, especially considering their defence conceded 3 and could have let in more. Croatia could go through from this group if they can get a result against Italy or Spain. It’s difficult to imagine Ireland progressing but they’ll probably try to put up a better defensive fight against the big sides.
England took to the pitch against France in the first game on Monday. It was a tepid affair with both sides playing cautiously at a slow pace. England were deep and narrow in two banks of four – what I like to refer to as Hodgson’s Bus. France had a lot of the ball but were very cautious with it and rarely attempted penetrating vertical runs. There were times when they had five or six bodies in the final third but none in the box. Instead, Les Blues were happy to weave pretty patterns in front of the defence, often only leading to shots from distance. France were clearly wary of the threat on the counter and just didn’t want to push too many bodies forward.
There was no surprise in seeing England score from a set-piece, much like Ireland had done a day earlier. France equalized through a blistering, well-placed strike from Nasri.
For many, if not all, Gooners the performance of Oxlade-Chamberlain in a starting role on the left was probably more of interest. He was again impressive for a young lad but also showed he had a lot to learn. One moment illustrates this fairly well – the Ox won the ball around the half-way line and dribbled past two opponents with twinkling feet. But after getting into space he took three or four touches before releasing Young who was caught off-side. It’s difficult for an attacking player to constantly hold his run and the United man did it once but AOC just took too long to see that pass. It’s such instances that show he needs experience at the top level to sharpen his decision making skills, especially where the team aspect comes into play.
In the final game Ukraine took on Sweden. The co-hosts took the initiative right from the start while the Swedes adopted the counter-attacking approach. The first half was rather dull as there were few chances of note.
Ibra put the Swedes in front early in the second half in a period when Ukraine were temporarily down to ten men and looked distracted in defence. But Shevchenko produced a couple of brilliant headers to win it for his team. The striker’s anticipation, movement, and control were exemplary for both the goals. It was a real joy to see him roll back the years. England and France will both be tested if he is able to sustain this form. His teammates, especially Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko on the wings and Tymoschuk in a holding role, were also impressive.
For the Swedes, Ibra scored a goal, rattled the woodwork, and scorched the Keepers arms with a blazing strike while creating a number of quality chances for his teammates. But he was also a bit frustrating with his decision making and attitude on the pitch. Erik Hamren is trying to play the mercurial striker with a partner but if they can’t retain possession this system could easily flop in the big games. His players did show good fight towards the end but it was too little, too late. They’ll have to be more purposeful from the start in the next two games.
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