28 June 2012

Germany 1-2 Italy

Balotelli 20' 36'
Özil 90+2' (pen)

The Mario Balotelli show. Mario Balotelli, and Italy's defense. The more things change...

This time, Jogi Löw's personnel switches didn't work. Gómez and Podolski returned to the starting XI, along with Kroos, going with experience and Kroos' extra effort in midfield in an obvious effort to stifle Pirlo. All understandable changes, even if I'm perpetually dubious of Podolski, but needless to say, it did not work as planned.

But before Super Mario could save the Princess, Pirlo had to clear a corner off his goal-line, while Buffon parried a cross onto Barzagli, trickling behind the goal rather than into his own net, then saved a fierce shot from Kroos. Italy lived dangerously for the first 15 minutes, but then punished Germany's profligacy with supreme finishing of their own.

There were individual errors we can point to on both goals, but that takes nothing away from the creation or execution of either. For the first, Hummels was beaten too easily by Cassano's ballet, a wonderful spin and cross with his weaker foot, while Balotelli effortlessly out-jumped Badstuber for a bullet header. 16 minutes later, after yet another failed German corner, Italy immediately transitioned to attack through Montolivo's long pass, with nearly every German defender still in Italy's half. Balotelli's run was perfectly timed, splitting Podolski and Lahm, the former stepping forward with the latter playing Balotelli onside. Neither – nor Schweinsteiger – could recover, as Balotelli's sprinted towards Neuer before unleashing an impossible, unstoppable, utterly perfect shot. Those two completely different but similarly jaw-dropping strikes aptly demonstrate why both Manchester City and Italy put up with his less productive antics.

Löw attempted to rectify his errors with two half-time substitutions, replacing Gómez and Podolski with Klose and Reus. But, thanks to the two-goal lead, Italy's defending was the second half star. This wasn't your father's Azzurri, wholly reliant on stingy catenaccio, but the Italians still had an answer for every question Germany asked, vacuuming up pressure before launching counter-attacks.

Germany started the second half almost as brightly as the first, but Lahm shot over after a one-two with Kroos, Italy's swarming defense ensured Khedira couldn't fashion a shot after Özil's burst to the byline, and Buffon brilliantly saved Reus' vicious dipping free kick.

From there, and until Germany's late penalty, Italy looked the more likely to notch the game's next goal. The Germans may be renowned for their counter-attack, but Italy were nearly as effective thanks to Germany's increasing desperation, in everything but the finishing. The finishing was what separated the first and second halves, what separated today's performance from the quarter-final struggle against England.

Diamanti, on in place of Cassano in the 57th, was at the center of the first two chances, releasing Marchisio twice, but the midfielder screwed his shot across the face of goal both times. Di Natale beat Germany's offside trap in the 82nd but shot into the side-netting; Balzaretti had the ball in the net a minute later but was offside. Throwing the kitchen sink finally paid off in injury time with a soft penalty for a Balzaretti handball, Özil notching the spot kick, but it was too little, too late, an unlucky blot on an otherwise-spotless Italian record.

Once again, Cesare Prandelli out-coaches his opponent. Italy's tactics were flawless, and fully merit the victory. Pirlo was rendered less influential by Germany's midfield, but others – specifically De Rossi and Montolivo – compensated. The new back four, with Chiellini returning at left back, shifting Balzaretti over to the right, worked to perfection. Germany were unable to take advantage of Chiellini out wide because of Kroos and Özil's focus on playing in the middle, while Balzaretti was able to cancel out Podolski then Kroos as an "inverted" fullback against players who specialize in cutting in from the flank. Ignoring the temptation to remove Bonucci or Barzagli in favor of Chiellini allowed those two to continue their excellent pairing, neither giving Gómez or Klose a glimpse all game.

Now, we get a replay of the first match in Group C. Spain versus Italy. Can Spain win its third tournament in a row, something that hasn't been done since the 1930s? How will Del Bosque avoid using an out-and-out striker this time? Why are Italy always so much better at tournaments after a Serie A scandal? Will Prandelli revert to the three-at-the-back which stifled Spain for long stretches or continue to dance with what brung them? Can Balotelli do that or that again?

Someone has to win this meeting. Sunday can't come soon enough.

27 June 2012

Spain 0-0 Portugal aet

Spain win 4-2 on penalties

Spain: Alonso, Iniesta, Piqué, Ramos, Fàbregas
Portugal: Moutinho, Pepe, Nani, Bruno Alves

The king still lives. But barely.

"You come at the king, you best not miss." And Portugal had zero shots on target. Zero. 11 efforts: eight off-target, three blocked, all but three from outside the penalty box. Which admittedly, wasn't much better than Spain's two on target from eight until extra time – where they were markedly improved – but Spain's been here, done this before, and have the t-shirts and trophies to prove it.

Sure, after 90 minutes, Spain were as unimpressive as at any time during their run through the last three tournaments. At full time, Spain had completed just 469 of 553 passes, both lows for this tournament. As was the resulting 85% pass accuracy, after 89% against Italy, 92% against Ireland, 89% against Croatia, and 89% against France.

Credit for much of that goes to Portugal, although some was self-inflicted (*cough Negredo cough*) and some was the valid "two days less rest" excuse. But Portugal were outstandingly diligent in midfield; Veloso, Moutinho, and Meireles took turns pressing Spain's engine room, ensuring neither Xavi nor Xabi (nor Iniesta when he dropped deeper) had time to create anything. Portugal's back four has been one of the tournament's best, and Pepe and Bruno Alves remained excellent, while Pereira limited Iniesta and Alba more than any other right back has been able to so far.

Still, Del Bosque's gamble, starting Negredo instead of Torres, Fàbregas, or – god forbid – Llorente, was an utter failure.

He had absolutely zero impact in 54 minutes, unceremoniously hauled off in favor of Fabregas soon after the interval. Regardless of the usual superiority in possession, which was slightly less superior than usual, Spain were limited to one clear cut chance in the first half. The first was from the usual player left free – Arbeloa, typically Spain's least potent threat and unsurprisingly rarely tracked by Ronaldo – but he ballooned his ninth-minute shot from Negredo's cutback. Otherwise, Iniesta had a couple of off-target efforts after linking up with Xavi and Alba, while Portugal fed off whatever scraps Ronaldo self-created, with Almeida much less menacing than against the Czechs.

The second half remained in a similar, yawn-inducing vein, even after Fàbregas replaced Negredo, shortly followed by Navas in place of Silva. Once again, Del Bosque sent on a tricky, cross-happy winger after taking off his "orthodox" striker. It was even less effective than against Croatia, where Navas and Fàbregas combined for the winner at the death. Still, as always always always seems to happen, Spain clawed further and further up the pitch as the opposition tired. Pedro replacing Xavi in the closing seconds, with Iniesta shifting to the play-making central role, exacerbated the gap.

As FourFourTwo amusingly pointed out, Portugal were even worse in extra time than England were against Italy. England! Interplay between Alba and Pedro led to Spain's best chance of the match late in the first half of extra time, with the left-back – Spain's star player today, and arguably throughout the tournament – breaking past three to the byline and cutting back for Iniesta, but Rui Patricio smartly saved the midfielder's placed shot.

With Spain unable to break through a determined Portugal defense despite the vast improvement in the final thirty minutes, we got penalties for the second match running. And there were more than a few similarities to the England-Italy spot-kicks. Level after Alonso and Moutinho missed while Iniesta, Pepe, Piqué, and Nani scored, up stepped Sergio Ramos, with a Xerox copy of Pirlo's Panenka straight down the middle. Once again, psychology works. Once again, the next penalty taker – Bruno Alves – cannoned his effort off the crossbar. Fàbregas scored the fifth, just like he did to beat Italy at Euro 2008, with cameras immediately focusing on Ronaldo, left standing, lip quivering, unable to even have a chance at being the hero. The schadenfreude is overwhelming. Yes, I am a petty, petty man.

By anyone else's standards, Spain are worthy finalists, the superior side in each of their five matches. But by their own, and those we've set for them, it's another ho-hum ground-out victory, eking through thanks to a penalty lottery.

But Portugal winning would have been similar to England beating Italy. Italy were more dominant, in shots and attacking flair if not possession, while England are assuredly not at Portugal's level. Portugal – and yes, Ronaldo – had an outstanding tournament, especially the midfield and back four, and were deserved semi-finalists. But Spain were the better side, are the better side, and will now face Germany or Italy for the chance to do what no other country has ever done.

Are you not entertained?

25 June 2012

England at Euro 2012 (Statistics)

A handful of attacking statistics – combined totals after each's four matches – for the eight teams to qualify for the knock-out rounds seems an apt illustration of where England stands after the quarterfinals.

Congratulations, you're better than Greece and the Czech Republic! And a couple other countries in a couple of categories. Huzzah! It's no surprise to see Spain atop almost every category, except Germany have scored more goals (with far fewer shots) and Italy have taken more shots – which is explained by Italy's unfathomable 36 shots against England. Which is just four shots fewer than England took all tournament.

Unsurprisingly, England come off worst in possession, shots, and attacking third passes. And are above average in goals conceded. That's Roy Hodgson Football perfectly epitomized. And it's Hodgson Football when Hodgson Football works; Liverpool were assuredly below average in goals conceded, especially away from Anfield, during his reign.

Comparing England to their opponents in each match makes for even grimmer reading.

France and Italy were better in each of these categories in the two matches England drew – ignoring the fact England actually lost to Italy on spot kicks. England were statistically better than Sweden in all of these categories save possession; Sweden only scored twice because of two out-of-character defensive errors. And England were better than the Ukraine in just one category: goals scored.

Hodgson and his apologists would argue that doesn't really matter, that it's a results-based game, and England only lost one match because of the penalty lottery. Which has some validity. Had Young's spot kick not hit the crossbar, had one more Italian missed theirs, England could still be unbeaten. Whether they deserve to be is a different question, but you often don't get what you deserve in sport.

However, the question remains whether that, and the above statistics, is good enough for England's national team. At the moment, the sad truth may be that it is.

24 June 2012

England 0-0 Italy aet

Italy wins 4-2 on penalties

Italy: Balotelli, Montolivo, Pirlo, Nocerino, Diamanti
England: Gerrard, Rooney, Young, Cole

Sometimes there is justice in the universe. Also, don't name your male children "Ashley."

Negative football doesn't get punished often enough. And Italy, for all its possession and passing supremacy, were unable to punish England through 120 minutes. But, as usual, penalties punish England.

England made this Italy side – better than expected, decent but unimpressive – look like Spain. The first 15 minutes ended up an aberration, with England surprisingly attacking after De Rossi's early left-footed thunderbolt hit the post. Buffon somehow prevented Johnson from opening the scoring in the 5th minute, palming away the close-range effort after a nice move down England's right, Parker shot narrowly wide from the top of the box, and stellar defending from Barzagli and Abate prevented Welbeck and Rooney from getting off decent efforts. After that, it was pure HodgeBall.

Two deep lines of four coupled with a complete refusal to press the ball outside the final third. By half-time, Italy had 235 touches in the middle of the pitch to England's 79.

The most galling feature was how much license England gave Andrea Pirlo. Already one of the players of the tournament and, at age 33, a man whose abilities are well-documented, handed all the time in the world to create whatever he pleased.

Meanwhile, Gerrard couldn't make anywhere near the same impact for England, whether due to Hodgson's tactics or an inability to play four matches in 13 days. Or a combination of both.

I'm well aware he's the captain, and he'd have to be dragged from the pitch kicking and screaming, but it's criminal that Gerrard's played all 300 of England's minutes, including 120 today. To be fair, it's not as if England had many other options. And Hodgson had used all three substitutions by the 94th minute – even though Gerrard began showing signs of cramp in the 70th – first replacing Welbeck and Milner with Carroll and Walcott, then Henderson for Parker soon into extra-time, due to that player's long-standing injury. Carroll's entrance helped, more influential than the peripheral Welbeck, but removing Milner – whose stamina is his best attribute – was questionable at best.

So, how did England even stay in this match?

Last ditch defending. 13 blocks is the most from any side so far this tournament. Pack the penalty area, and make sure nothing comes cheap or easy. Which is Hodgson's trademark.

Last ditch defending and wasteful Italian shooting. Italy seemed satisfied to fire from long distance, unable to penetrate England's parked bus. Balotelli and Cassano's radars were off all match long, while England got reprieves as Balotelli (multiple times) and Montolivo missed clear cut chances. Diamanti hit the post in extra time, while Nocerino had the ball in the net in the 115th minute but was rightfully ruled offside.

Which meant that Hodgson's tactics "worked," with England making it to the penalty lottery. And it initially looked likely to pay dividends, as Gerrard and Rooney both tallied while Montolivo missed Italy's second. Then Pirlo stepped forward. His Panenka was a back-breaker, a psychological death knell, and a wonderful capstone for a wonderful player's wonderful match. Young and Cole missed England's next two penalties – the former off the crossbar, the latter easily smothered by Buffon. Nocerino, then Diamanti sealed qualification to the semi-final, yet another crushing penalty defeat for England – their seventh in the last eight attempts.

It's tempting to say "we told you so," but we told you so. This is Hodgson, for good and evil. It's ugly, it's dismal, it's overly defensive. But sometimes it works, and it also led to a better-than-expected result, a result England haven't bettered since the 1996 Euros on home soil.

Is it a long-term solution? Absolutely not. And it's indescribably painful when done without any improvement in results, as Liverpool learned. But sometimes you need your short-term medicine.

Still, I'd recommend it remain nothing more than short-term medicine.

23 June 2012

Spain 2-0 France

Alonso 19' 90+1' (pen)

I've never seen a side as comfortably in control with a one-goal lead as this Spanish side.

Compare today with yesterday's quarterfinal. No matter how dominant Germany were, they still conceded an unlikely equalizer and had to furiously rally in the final 30 minutes. That never, ever, ever looked likely today. And France is – or, at least, should be – a far better side than the Greeks.

Not counting Ireland – because, honestly – it was the first first-half goal Spain have scored in a major tournament since beating Chile in the last group stage game of the 2010 World Cup. Goals against Croatia, Italy, Holland, Germany, Paraguay, and Portugal all came in the second half, all after the hour mark, after Spain's death by a billion cuts finally broke down resilient opposition.

Reverting to the Fàbregas-as-false-nine system deployed against Italy, they started with far more impetus today, and should have won a penalty within six minutes. But the referee waved complaints away after Fàbregas was brought down trying to reach Alonso's ball over the top. After 13 more minutes of typical pokes and jabs, Iniesta charged down the left and fed Alba, sprinting around Debuchy and delivering a perfect cross for Alonso, unfathomably left open by Malouda's refusal to track back. So much for Laurent Blanc's use of two right backs to protect that flank.

It was fitting that Alonso was the goal-scorer given his dominance today, the Spanish player with the most passes, most attacking third passes, most shots (all three of the Spanish shots on target), and joint-most tackles and interceptions. And both goals. Surprisingly, after today's strikes, he's now joint-second top scorer for Spain under Del Bosque, tied with Silva behind just Villa, with 14 goals since August 2008.

The early goal allowed Spain to swallow France like an anaconda with a mouse, tauntingly squeezing the life out of it before devouring it whole. Once again, Spain seemingly just *knew* they could hold what they had, taking only eight shots following Alonso's opener after five in the first 19 minutes. Spain had 66% possession against Italy, 76% against Ireland, and 72% against Croatia, but just – "just" – 60% today. Which is still more of the ball than they had in five of their seven World Cup games two years ago.

That France were dismal in the attacking third didn't hurt Spain's chances either.

Set up in such a reactive formation, France were never truly able to respond after going behind so soon. The French were limited to free kicks in the first half: the first ballooned by Benzema, the second from Cabaye on-target but not hard enough to trouble Casillas. They offered slightly more in the second half, but again had just two chances of note. The first saw Debuchy head Ribéry's cross over on the hour mark. Ten minutes later, following Busquets' sloppy giveaway, Ribéry burst down the left, but his cutback-cum-shot from the byline was collected by Casillas.

France's attacking substitutions – Ménez and Nasri for Debuchy and Malouda – in the 64th minute did little to change the pattern of play; that one chance after the changes started with a Spanish mistake. Meanwhile, Spain's substitutes eventually led to their second – after Torres was caught offside approximately 17 times. Pedro and Cazorla, on the other hand, combined to win an injury-time penalty: Cazorla's throughball, Pedro tripped by Réveillère, coolly scored by Alonso for his brace.

This is the eighth consecutive knock-out round game where Spain haven't conceded, stretching back to when they were knocked out of the 2006 World Cup by today's opponent – beating Italy, Russia, Germany (twice), Portugal, Paraguay, Holland, and now France without letting in a goal.

Once again, tiki-taka remains the best form of defense. Spain were always in control if not command, while France were impotent – and weren't helped by Blanc's four changes. It may have been dull at times, and Spain may not have been at its most impressive, but it was more than sufficient. Rather than yet another French implosion, the focus should be on Spain's continuing, seemingly effortless, supremacy. If any side is going to stop them from becoming the first team to win three consecutive major tournaments, they'll have to box far cleverer than France did today.

22 June 2012

Germany 4-2 Greece

Lahm 39'
Samaras 55'
Khedira 61'
Klose 68'
Reus 74'
Salpingidis 89' (pen)

Germany deserve every inch of that score line and more, and probably would have had it if not for unfathomable first half profligacy and two second-half Boateng punch-lines. For six minutes, we actually had a football match. But just six minutes.

Midway through the first half, the "How Did Germany Not Score" count was at five. And that's not including a fourth-minute "goal" rightly (but narrowly) ruled out for offside. Greece weren't just living dangerously, but juggling chain saws and carving knives while blindfolded. Schürrle and Reus, in place of Podolski and Müller, had multiple chances at goal and Özil, unsurprisingly, was the ringmaster bedecked in top hat and tails.

That Löw was comfortable enough to change Germany's front three after that group stage was an apt demonstration of both Löw's chutzpah and that country's embarrassment of riches. Still, with both Schürrle and Reus misfiring – especially the former – and with Klose unable to make an impact (zero shots and just 14 passes in the first half), Löw had to be second-guessing his decision, despite Özil's typical mercurial brilliance and Khedira's all-action running.

But then the captain struck. Ninis – in theory, the man supposedly covering Germany's left back – ran in the opposition direction after Lahm received the pass. To compound the error, neither Torosidis nor Papadopoulos closed Lahm down. And still, Sifakis should have done better; it was a wicked, on-target shot, but a wicked, on-target shot that the keeper got a hand on. It wasn't the first time the goal-keeper should have done better and wouldn't be the last.

Finally ahead 1-0, with 82% of the first-half possession and seven times as many completed passes, Germany should have been able to smother and suffocate the match in the second half. But this is a Greece team that scored early in the second half against both Poland and the Czech Republic in the group stage; down a goal and reduced to ten men against the former, down two goals and completely out-classed against the latter. Fernando Santos has done an outstanding job making half-time alterations, and did the same again today.

Gekas and Fotakis replaced Ninis and Tzevellas, a striker and midfielder for a winger and left back. Both were heavily involved in the 55th-minute equalizer: Gekas to Fotakis in Greece's half to start the blitzkreig counter, a deliciously-chipped throughball from the midfielder to Salpingidis down the right with Lahm caught on his heels, and a perfectly-placed cross for Samaras to tap-in having gotten in front of the lackadaisical Boateng. Salpingidis' cross and Samaras' finish were Greece's first two touches inside the German penalty box.

But the fun didn't last long. Patient, recycling possession ended with Boateng's cross from the right, just too high for Klose but immaculately finished by Khedira's bum-rush, absolutely blistering a volley over Sifakis, his late dart into the danger area catching Maniatis flat-footed. Less than two minutes later, Gekas had a narrow glimpse of another unlikely equalizer, creating space at the top of the box only to balloon a shot well over, but from there, it was efficient, thorough domination as the Germans are ever so inclined to do.

Seven minutes after Khedira's strike, Klose added a third from a pitch-perfect Özil free kick, out-jumping Papadopoulos with Sifakis flapping at air. Six minutes after that, Reus got on the board, destroying the rebound from Klose's shot as Sifakis spilled yet again. Germany tried to deflate the ball, replacing Klose and Reus with Götze and Gómez, but didn't try hard enough, allowing Greece just enough possession to get down the field, with Torosidis' cross casually blocked by Boateng's arm and Salpingidis converting the first penalty of this tournament – with Greece having missed the only other spot kick in that first match against Poland.

Even though the margin of victory was just two, that was as thorough a victory as you're likely to see in a major tournament quarterfinal. Not to be too patronizing, but Greece were fortunate to make it this far, arguably qualifying from their group due to Russia and Poland's failings as much as the earlier-mentioned second-half heroics.

As usual with these write-ups, the crutch that are match statistics sufficiently tell the story. Germany: 709 passes attempted, 649 completed. Greece: 159 of 220. 26 shots to 10, 28 crosses to 7, 76-24% possession. 300 attacking third passes to Greece's 39 is probably the most galling reflection of the disparity.

Whoever Germany face in the next round will most likely provide a sterner challenge.

That, however, might be taking it a little too far.

21 June 2012

Czech Republic 0-1 Portugal

Ronaldo 79'

Midway through the first half, this game turned on its head. The Czechs were impressive early on – 55% possession, 9 crosses into the box (of their 11 total), 5 corners (of their 6 total), but no shots on goal. Unfortunately, that advantage didn't last long. The Czechs attempted 124 passes in the first 23 minutes. They attempted just 184 in the next 70. 79% completed over those first 23 minutes, just 61% completed after. Once Portugal woke up, it was all Portugal all the time, and only a matter of time until Portugal opened the scoring. And once Portugal woke up, this was as one-sided as a 1-0 win can be, only that close because of some excellent Czech defending and a bit of luck from the goal frame.

The key to Portugal seesawing the match was getting its midfield trio on the ball. Meireles, Moutinho, and Veloso were all excellent, wholly out-matching Darida, Plašil, and Hübschman, a 4-1-2-3 completely on top of a 4-2-3-1 – a better holding midfielder, and the two more-attacking midfielders either out-numbering their counterparts or forcing the other midfielder – whether Darida or Plašil – to drop far deeper into defense than he's comfortable.

It's no coincidence that Veloso and Moutinho were also Portugal's top tackle-winners – Veloso with 5 of 5, Moutinho 3 of 3 – and with the most interceptions – Moutinho 3, Veloso 2, the only Portuguese players with more than one.

I thought Meireles' play was especially clever, most likely by planned design. His decision-making still left something to be desired, specifically his propensity to shoot wildly from the parking lot, but his movement was outstanding. He mostly played on the right side on midfield in the three group games, but was parked on the left today. His movement out to that flank to help pin back the dangerous Gebre-Selassie and overload that zone along with Coentrão and Ronaldo.

Of course, rather than the midfield trio, Ronaldo will get the headlines. The poster boy, the goalscorer, the most ubiquitous threat. He single-handedly created all of Portugal's first half chances – a fierce shot saved by Čech called back for a foul anyway, a bicycle kick whistling wide of the near post, a free kick sailing wide of the far post, and then clever control, turn, and a shot off the post seconds before the interval.

Almeida's introduction for Helder Postiga also helped shift the game. Portugal would have preferred not to make the change, with Postiga stretchered off in the 41st minute after a hamstring injury. Almeida, who hadn't played a minute in this tournament until that point, is more of a target man, another threat on crosses who demands more attention from a center-back.

And Portugal clearly favored crosses as the primary mode of attack, little surprise with players like Nani (6), Meireles (7), Coentrão (7), and Ronaldo (3) in the line-up.

With 36 crosses in total and near-total possession after the turning point midway through the first half, Portugal were bound to score from one of them. Only Liverpool can take that many crosses without converting at least once.

The first chance after the restart came from yet another of those opportunities – Meireles storming down the left flank, but Almeida misdirecting his header wide. From there, it remained the Ronaldo show, again hitting the post, shooting over, and heading over. Nani and Meireles added off-target efforts, while Čech brilliantly saved Moutinho's shot from distance in the 64th.

There was little the Czechs could do to stem the tide. They prefer to play on the counter-attack, but Portugal rarely allowed any counter-attacks. Bilek replaced Darida on the hour mark, sending on Rezak to man the right flank, allowing Jiráček – the Czechs' best player in Rosický's absence – to play in the hole, but the Portuguese – specifically Veloso – rarely let him sniff the ball. Baroš' blast from distance, created by dropping deep into space made by Jiráček's movement between the lines, was the Czechs' only shot of the half. One of their two shots in the match.

Still, the Czechs defended well, and while Portugal's onslaught was unceasing and a goal frequently felt inevitable, the goal required outstanding work from all involved in its creation. The biggest surprise was that the cross came from the right rather than the left. Nani's layoff split the winger and left-back, perfectly placed for Moutinho's charge forward. One touch around the flat-footed Plašil, getting to the byline before sending the cross in. Ronaldo's movement and header were just as impressive, aided by Gebre-Selassie's ball-watching. Waiting until the last possible moment to cut in from the left, darting in front of the right-back, then an unsaveable diving header downward, bouncing over Čech into the roof of the net. Just an excellently-worked, if deeply unlikable, goal.

Portugal, reaching the semi-finals for the third time in the last four Euros, will face the winner of France v Spain. And will be in a good position to challenge either side. Both of those teams prefer to dominate possession, which will allow Portugal to counter quickly if they can keep the opposition from breaking through. Neither of those teams have aerially dominant center-backs – Spain's are obviously better than France's – or especially defensive full-backs. Portugal's three-man midfield is well-designed to counter Spain's impressive troika, and the Spaniards will assuredly remember the difficult match against Portugal at the previous World Cup.

19 June 2012

England 1-0 Ukraine

Rooney 48'

Controversy! Drama! Mostly crap football! Never change, England. Never change, UEFA.

Rooney returned, our savior, in place of Carroll as the only change from last match's XI. And Ukraine were dominant in the first half, with Hodgson's side unsurprisingly content to invite the opposition on and hope to keep it tight, play for the draw and maybe, hopefully, somehow score on the counter or from a set play. Nine shots from the hosts to just four from England, but all but one Ukraine shot off-target, most from distance. Rooney had England's lone decent opportunity, but headed a sitter wide midway through the frame, clearly coated in a thick layer of rust.

The hoped-for England's goal came soon after the restart, and from a set play. Gerrard's corner initially cleared, picked up by Glen Johnson and returned to the captain, clever footwork to beat the closing defender, a dangerous right-flank cross twice deflected then spilled by the keeper, easily tapped in by the returning conquering hero at the far post. Don't be surprised when Rooney gets all the credit for a goal any of us could have scored.

Let's get to the fun stuff. Namely, this:

Even with this grainy, television screen capture, you can see the ball's over the line. Ukraine stormed down the left after a long ball from Selin, with both Terry and Lescott caught behind the strikers they were marking. Milevskiy laid off for Dević, who danced around Terry then fired a shot which squirmed under Hart's save, somehow cleared out of the goal-mouth by England's Brave JT. But cleared after it crossed the line.

To be fair, the extra officials behind the goal have made a difference. There has been far less Greco-Roman wrestling by agricultural center-backs and better decisions on corners or goal kicks. On the whole, they've been a valuable addition; an extra set of eyes is usually helpful. This one just did his job terribly today. Now resumes the all-consuming chorus for goal technology. Well, probably not quite all-consuming. The furor after Lampard's World Cup "goal" against Germany was all-consuming. Furor tends to be less all-consuming when it benefits England.

The official behind the goal wasn't the only negligent official today, joined in idiocy by the linesman on that side of the pitch. Not only was Milevskiy offside in the build-up to the controversial no-goal, he was also offside a minute earlier when missing an easier header than Rooney missed. Neither saw the linesman raise his flag. Well done. Idiocy loves company.

After that second stomach punch, Ukraine were never likely to find the two goals they needed to qualify. Hart was tested just once more, wonderfully parrying Konoplyanka's whirling, weaving, diving 35-yard rocket in the 73rd minute, cleared out of the six-yard-box by Lescott. But the scrambling, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink ending suited England just fine. 12 of the Ukraine's 16 shots came from outside the box; only the aforementioned Konoplyanka effort was on target. Shevchenko, left out of the starting line-up due to injury, couldn't conjure a miracle as in the first match. Walcott, Carroll, and Oxlade-Chamberlain came on to give England fresh legs, and England saw out its lead like Hodgson's West Brom or Fulham, not Hodgson's Liverpool.

Once again, and not just because of my overwhelming Liverpool bias, I have to single out Steven Gerrard's performance.

Technically, StatsZone aren't crediting Gerrard with an assist – possibly because of the deflections, possibly because of the keeper's howler – but that goal was created by Gerrard. As were three other chances, more chances created than any other England player. Another supremely disciplined central midfield performance, and four more tackles than holding midfielder supreme and press corps favorite Scott Parker – tackles which came on both flanks, helping demonstrate the defensive effort he put in. He has been England's best player in all three matches, provided assists for three of England's five goals, and has either scored or assisted on five of England's last eight tournament goals. It has been a true captain's tournament, and I'm sure there's absolutely no coincidence that it's happened with Frank Lampard nowhere in sight.

The Hodgson Express steams on to Italy. France's complete failure against Sweden means England avoid Spain, at least for now. Once again, it wasn't pretty by any possible definition, but it worked. That counts for something, as much as I dislike crediting Hodgson for anything except disease, famine, and other assorted evils. But whether that will suffice against Italy, or any of the other sides left in the competition for that matter, remains a much tougher question.

18 June 2012

Spain 1-0 Croatia

Navas 88'

Spain are so very, very Spain.

Restrained, typical tiki-taka. Spain out-passed, Spain out-possessed, but Spain never truly threatened until the very end either. Complete Fernando Torres futility, but instead of replacing Spain's out-and-out striker in a straight swap, Del Bosque sent on an out-and-out winger to play with Silva, then Fàbregas, as a false nine.

And until the 88th minute, it was less than impressive.

Spain knew Croatia would have to come out of its shell sometime, and eventually made them pay for it. Alonso to Fàbregas, who chipped over the top, just beating the offside trap which Spain had been unable to beat until that point. Iniesta and Navas through on goal with five Croatians stood static with an arm in the air, with the former centering for latter, again just barely onside, for an unmissable tap-in.

Spain could well have been punished earlier. The Spanish may have owned the ball, but the Croatians had the best chances until Navas prompted the fat lady's song, as both Mandžukić and Modrić impressed when given the chance. Neither keeper was truly tested in the first half, but Croatia could easily have won a penalty on a counter-attack, with Ramos and Piqué both bamboozled by Mandžukić, as the former attempted to make amends with a supremely rash challenge in the box, only for Croatia to just get a corner.

Croatia's moment of glory nearly came 14 minutes into the second half: Modrić's so-delicious-it-has-to-be-fattening outside of the right foot cross, but Rakitić's point blank header wonderfully denied by Casillas, with Alonso scrambling the rebound out of the six-yard-box by Alonso. 20 minutes later, Modrić started another counter, Mandžukić crossed from the left, and Perišić snapped a shot on goal, again parried by Spain's captain. Had Croatia seized one of those openings, it would have been a very different game. But, whether due to Casillas or the defending before a potential chance got to Casillas, we never found out how Spain would respond if forced to deviate from the familiar script.

The everyday, ho-hum, phenomenal passing statistics:

Xavi completed 94 of 105. Xabi 83 of 93. Iniesta, Busquets, Ramos, Arbeloa, Alba, and Pique all attempted at least 60 and completed at least 54. Every single Spanish starter save Torres and Casillas attempted and completed more passes than any Croatia player. But that's become more than familiar from Spain.

Credit where due, the substitutions baffled, but the substitutions worked.

Croatia were definitely under far more pressure in the last 30 minutes, unable to shift from defense to attack even though they needed a goal to have any chance of advancing because Spain's unstinting pressure rarely allowed them out of their own half. Yes, it was hard to understand replacing an out-and-out – if misfiring – striker with a textbook winger at the same time Spain switched to a false nine, with Llorente and Negredo and Pedro and Cazorla on the bench. But Fàbregas set up the winner with his perfectly timed and placed chip while Navas scored the winner. Death by a thousand cuts still leads to death in the end and Del Bosque evidently knows more than how to manage the egos in his squad.

Let's not pretend this is anything different than what we've seen from Spain in the past. Every single win during the 2010 World Cup knock-out rounds was a 1-0 win with a goal scored after the hour mark, beating Germany by the same score in the Euro 2008 final. As Sid Lowe, and many many others, have written for the last four years, tiki-taka remains as much a defensive philosophy as an attacking one. Spain knew that keeping it goal-less would be good enough no matter how many goals Italy beat the Irish by, and had the faith in their system after the successes over the last four years. And, despite those few scares, that faith was justified.

Once again, Spain's best defense is wearing down the opposition with pass after pass after pass and eking a 1-0 win in the end. And relying on Casillas to make those necessary saves twice in a blue moon. That will continue to be the game plan going forward, and the same result in the next three matches will be more than suffice for Del Bosque and co.

LFC Fixtures 2012-13

I've gotten in trouble for posting the actual fixture list before (the only DMCA notice I've received, in fact), so a link to LFC.tv's official page will have to suffice.

However, I think it's safe to post the fixture list like this:

A few notes:

• That's a hellish start to the season. Granted, they're all home games, but three of Brendan Rodgers' first five Premiership matches with Liverpool will be against last season's top three sides – City, Arsenal, and United – with trips to West Brom (hi Steve Clarke) and Sunderland sandwiched in-between.

• Matches against Chelsea, Newcastle, and Everton – the three sides directly above Liverpool in last season's table – come in quick succession both at the end of October/beginning of November and end of April/beginning of May. It feels pretty safe to say those stretches will go a long way in defining Liverpool's season.

• Liverpool won't play a side that finished above them in last season's table away from Anfield until October 27, the ninth match of the season. It's also the Merseyside Derby – the tenth season in a row that the trip to Goodison will come before Everton's trip to Anfield.

• Liverpool's matches after international breaks: Sunderland (A), Reading (H), Wigan (H), WBA (H), and Aston Villa (A). Sunderland, Reading, and Villa come after World Cup qualifiers, West Brom and Villa after midweek friendlies. Not quite a murderer's row, and, on paper, a far easiest slate than we've seen in recent seasons. But I'll caution that most of those teams have far fewer international players than Liverpool do.

• Given Liverpool's all-too-frequent struggles during the winter months, it's not very comforting to see that Liverpool are away from home for Boxing Day and the next match – at Stoke and QPR – followed by January visits to United and Arsenal before a February 2nd match at Manchester City. Yikes.

• Liverpool start the season on the road, as happened in every campaign during Rafa Benitez's reign, in contrast to beginning the last two campaigns at Anfield – which ended with draws against Sunderland and Arsenal. Liverpool have two wins, five draws, and one loss in season openers since 2004-05.

• A word of warning: many of the match dates currently listed will change. Liverpool will play an awful lot of Sunday and Monday matches this season because of the Europa League. Liverpool will begin that campaign at the third qualifying round, which takes place August 2 and 9. The play-off round is August 23 and 30, and if Liverpool qualify, the six group stage matches will take place on September 20, October 4, October 25, November 8, November 22, and December 6. The games that would follow those Europa League matches are Manchester City (H), Arsenal (H), United (H), Stoke (H), Everton (A), Chelsea (A), Swansea (A), and West Ham (A). Yikes. Again.

17 June 2012

Denmark 1-2 Germany

Podolski 19'
Krohn-Dehli 24'
Bender 80'

So the pre-tournament favorites stroll to another 2-1 win, eliminating Denmark after Portugal's win over the Netherlands. And, in the process, prove that they can succeed with possession football.

Against Portugal, Germany had 57% possession and attempted 463 passes, completing 394. Against Holland, able to play its preferred counter-attacking game after scoring twice in the first half, Germany had 47% possession, attempting 457 and completing 398.

Today, Germany had more than 60% possession, and attempted 170 more passes than in either of those matches – 633 attempted, 565 completed. The top seven passers were Germans, and Schweinsteiger and Khedira dominated proceedings.

While it's not normally within their comfort zone, the Germans were able to kill the game with small cuts because of the early goal. Which they came out intent on getting. Müller had two chances within six minutes – the first fired over, the second wonderfully saved from point-blank range – while Gómez whistled a shot over the bar soon after. Only resolute defending, usually from Agger and usually because of an interception, and that early Andersen save prevented Germany from getting off the mark earlier.

But they were ahead within 19 minutes regardless. A throw-in deep in the Danish zone, a Müller cross worked into the danger area despite Simon Poulsen's marking, Gómez in front of Kjaer far too easily, inadvertently flicking the ball straight to Podolski, who easily avoided Jacobsen's watch and slotted past Andersen.

But Denmark leveled almost immediately, from the expected, most likely only, route. If Denmark were going to score, it was coming from a set play; Germany, much more secure down the flanks – even with midfielder Lars Bender at right back with Boateng suspended – were never going to concede the goals that Holland and Portugal conceded. Jakob Poulsen cleverly won a corner, Jacobsen accurately found Bendtner on the back post, and the striker out-jumped both Bender and Schweinsteiger to head back towards goal, perfectly placed for Krohn-Dehli to head past Neuer.

Seemingly regardless of what was going on in the other match, Germany seemed content after scoring, even after Denmark equalized. The Germans are rightfully confident, and no matter what Portugal or the Netherlands did, a draw would be good enough to advance. They knew Denmark would have to come out of its shell at some point, and knew that their defense was good enough to repel most if not all the Danes could muster. And all the chances continued to come at the end Germany were attacking, even if Germany showed little impatience in creating them.

Still, Denmark nearly proved a goal can come from nothing twice in the second half. Simon Poulsen's usual threat down the left created the first chance, in the 51st, set up by Agger's burst forward. Poulsen got around Bender and centered for Bendtner, whose turn and layoff was whistled past the near post by Jakob Poulsen. 25 minutes later, Agger accurately hoofed a long ball over the top for Bendtner, in behind Badstuber but unable to make clean contact, looping a shot directly to Neuer. He was most likely unable to make clean contact because Badstuber had a full handful of jersey, but the linesman behind the goal saw no reason to call the referee's attention to it.

With time creeping down and Denmark increasingly desperate, Germany's second came from a very German counter-attack. Soon after Denmark were denied that penalty shout, Germany broke forward with nearly all of the Danish players caught upfield, Khedira charged forward into acres of space and found Özil. Unusually, his through ball was too hard for Klose, but fell perfectly for Bender to coolly tap-in with Jakob Poulsen caught ball-watching. Churlishly, I'll also note that the goal came immediately after Christian Poulsen entered play, nowhere to be found as Germany counter-attacked. Game over, despite Agger's amusing bullying in attack in search of an unlikely equalizer, which nearly came from a corner, but the center-back narrowly headed over.

Once again, Daniel Agger didn't deserve to be on the losing side – with more interceptions and clearances than any other player – but Denmark probably did. They were clearly second-best today, only beat Holland because of Holland's undying profligacy, and nearly drew with Portugal because of Portugal's wingers' (read: Ronaldo's) resolute unwillingness to track back. Third in the Group of Death is better than expected, with excellent tournaments from Agger, Bendtner, Andersen, and Simon Poulsen, and despite disappointment from the much-heralded Christian Eriksen. And now, to finish on a selfish note, Agger gets the rest of the summer off, returning to Liverpool after three very impressive matches and, more importantly, without the injury we all feared.

15 June 2012

England 3-2 Sweden

Carroll 23'
Johnson (OG) 49'
Mellberg 59'
Walcott 64'
Welbeck 78'

That just happened.

A mostly sterile first half marked by a singular moment of excellence. A full-blooded, wholly frenetic second half where England looked to have thrown away its slight advantage with abhorrent individual mistakes only to come storming back through Hodgson's inspired substitution. Hodgson. Inspired. Oh, and that substitute was Theo Walcott.

Hodgson reverted to a standard 4-4-2 – Carroll and Welbeck took turns dropping off, Gerrard and Parker took turns going forward – while Sweden were more 4-4-1-1 with Ibrahimovic trying to link attack and defense.

England's Made in Liverpool opener was the only highlight in a fairly dull first 45 minutes. Midway through the half, Gerrard popped up on the right and delivered a sumptuous cross, met perfectly by Carroll's kangaroo jump, unstoppably headed past Isaksson. This picture, via @DanKennett, shows how well Carroll rose over Mellberg and Granqvist. More of that, please.

Otherwise, Parker had an early shot supremely saved by Isaksson – one of the few obviously good things the holding midfielder did today – while Young shot into the side-netting when put through late in the half. Meanwhile, Sweden were wholly limited to shots from distance, some on-target but few threatening, with England's deep back line plugging most of the holes.

That all went out the window in the second half, with England going from comfortably ahead – as comfortable as England can ever be with a one-goal lead – to behind before the hour mark. Both goals came on set plays, both attributable to individual scapegoats.

Unfortunately, Glen Johnson was the first – unduly harsh given his otherwise impressive performance. Ibrahimovic's free kick thundered harmlessly into the wall, but the iconoclastic striker kung-fu kicked back toward goal. Johnson not only played Mellberg onside, caught flat-footed after the initial block, but saw Hart's save from Mellberg's shot ricochet off him and was unable to prevent it from squirming over the line. To compound matters for Liverpool fans, the free kick was sloppily conceded by Carroll, trying too hard to impress in defense with a clichéd center forward's tackle.

Unsurprisingly, the equalizer gave Sweden the momentum, and – dominating possession for the next ten minutes – England's frequent nemesis went ahead from another free kick. This time, the other full-back was mainly at fault, again with fingers also pointed in Johnson's direction. Larsson crossed from the left flank and Ashley Cole bafflingly froze, leaving Glen Johnson marking three Swedes. If England were marking zonally, it was for the first time. And, mostly likely, the last. It was little surprise to see Mellberg (yep, him again) leap highest.

Unlike so often during his Liverpool tenure, Hodgson responded immediately, replacing Milner – who conceded the free kick for the second goal and was otherwise typically Milnerrific – with Walcott. Three minutes after his introduction, England were level.

Terry nearly scored seconds earlier, his bullet header from Johnson's cross somehow saved by Isaksson. The resulting corner was initially cleared, but cleared straight to Walcott. Isaksson had to have been unsighted on the subsequent shot, straight down the center of the goal with the keeper stumbling, waving, and nowhere close to the strike.

Which set us up for a rollicking, straight-out-of-the-Premiership, end-to-end frenzy. Källström blazed over after an incisive slalom from Martin Olsson. Hart saved Ibrahimovic's swerving missile from the top of the box. Then came Danny Welbeck, with another sterling cameo from Walcott. A quick transition from attack to defense, shifting gears with Gerrard's pass to Johnson in space on the flanks. A lay-off to the Arsenal forward, a blistering run to the byline between Larsson and Jonas Olsson and a cross behind Welbeck, who somehow spun onto the ball, back-heeling a flick around Isaksson nestling into the far corner. Clever, impudent, audacious; choose your effusive adjective. I rarely link goals here, but this one's unavoidable.

From there, it was a matter of holding on – always a tougher challenge than it should be for England and for Hodgson's sides – but England had the best chance of the final minutes, with Gerrard unlucky not to get a goal of his own, denied by Isaksson on the break, sweetly hitting a volley but selfishly hitting that volley in front of a better-placed Oxlade-Chamberlain. No matter.

As FourFourTwo wrote after the game, England and Sweden were very similar in passes and shots. 50-50% possession, each with 13 shots, only eight fewer passes attempted by the Swedes.

The difference was in the finishing and the crucial substitution. And, for once, in England's mentality.

England had never beaten Sweden in a competitive fixture; a handful of friendly wins between 1923 and 1968, and the 1-0 Wembley win last November, but five draws and two losses when it actually mattered. And England are rarely known for storming comebacks, or tepid comebacks or comebacks in general. But here we are.

Walcott deserves man of the match and every one of the plaudits he'll receive – the difference-maker for England for the first time since his Croatia hat-trick almost four years ago. On the pitch for just over 30 minutes, in possession for just 17 seconds, five out of five passes successful, two out of two crosses successful, a goal and assist, and nearly a second assist on Gerrard's late chance. But I'd be remiss if I didn't also single out the captain, who put in a wonderfully diligent, disciplined display.

I've often questioned Gerrard's ability to play as an out-and-out central midfield in a 4-4-2 pairing. He's obviously done it before, and done it well, but he's failed to do it enough of the time during Liverpool's frequent struggles over the last few seasons to the point where it's become a contentious issue. It was not a contentious issue today, keeping his position and possession, limiting the maligned Hollywood passes, and making an impact on the few occasions where he bombed forward, which he did with increasing frequency as the game went on. And that was all while carrying Scott Parker on his back for 90 minutes.

Level on points with France, one behind on goal difference, England now just need a draw to advance to the knock-out rounds. But with second place in Group D likely to face Spain in the quarterfinals, I doubt England will play for the draw, even considering this team's strengths and this team's manager. Meanwhile, the French face the already-eliminated Swedes. And Ukraine, just one point behind England, assuredly won't go gentle into that good night.

I'm duty-bound to warn we've been burned in the past. Optimism is always, forever a dangerous thing for England fans to have.

14 June 2012

Spain 4-0 Ireland

Torres 4' 70'
Silva 49'
Fabregas 83'

It played out exactly as you expected it to play out.

Look, I don't mean this to be patronizing. But these two teams are in different classes, and we knew this before kickoff.

All the pre-match talk centered on Torres. Would his interminable profligacy cost the Spanish? Could Ireland keep it tight, frustrate Spain with 10 men behind the ball, and snatch an unlikely winner via route one or a set play? Nope.

Trapattoni's plan worked for the first three minutes. Ireland had the lone shot on target, from Keane, set-up by Cox after a quick free kick. Casillas saved it. But after four minutes, Spain had a lead they'd never looked like relinquishing, from that man Torres. Iniesta set up Silva at the top of the box, Dunne tackled but was slow to recover, and Torres raced on to the loose ball, easily sprinting past a static Ward, and rocketing a shot over Given's waving hands. While at Liverpool, Torres loved playing against Dunne, scoring four goals in five meetings against Dunne's club teams with Liverpool unbeaten in all five. He came quite close to replicating that era of good feelings today.

Spain couldn't extended their lead in the first half, despite near-constant possession, despite the hundreds of completed passes, despite eight other created chances, but weren't all that bothered. A 1-0 Spanish lead often feels like 3-0 leads for mere mortal sides. Sure, they've been punished before, as have Barcelona, who often play in a similar manner with the same players, but an equalizer still looks unlikely. Not that stats matter all that much when analyzing this match, but the passing chart explains an awful lot.

788 to 178 passes completed. That's more than quadruple Ireland's total. Out of 860 attempted, a 92% completion rate. I'm just going to let that soak in for a minute.

Spain's passes show up as a giant, all-consuming blue miasma in Ireland's half. Ireland's passes look to quickly transition from near-permanent defense to unlikely attack. Despite that overwhelming passing dominance, Ireland did out-pass the Spanish by one metric.

Hit it long, hope Robbie Keane could create something from less than nothing or, after half-time, Jon Walters could hold up play long enough to involve one, maybe even two runners. It obviously wasn't successful.

Ireland were able to keep the deficit at one through the first 45, as Given made seven saves while Ireland blocked three other shots and Spain put three good chances off target. But, as in the first half, Ireland sloppy conceded within four minutes of kickoff. Given made the first save, punching Iniesta's shot out of the goal mouth. Unfortunately, he punched it straight to David Silva near the penalty spot, who stayed calm, cleverly danced around three defenders, then slide-rule passed the ball into the net just out of Given's fingertip range. Game well and truly over.

Given wonderfully prevented a possible Spanish third five minutes later, somehow denying Xabi, and McGeady nearly created two unlikely openings soon after the hour – one self-inflicted by Arbeloa – but Spain defended well when Spain needed to defend well.

And then Torres struck again, one of those trademark goals which stopped being a trademark as soon as he left Liverpool. A scramble in midfield, another perfectly-weighted Silva throughball splitting the center-backs, Torres charging in on Given, stutter-stepping to see if Given would commit, and coolly finishing just above Given's rising arm. Maybe all he needs is to play in a red kit.

Del Bosque, rarely one for sentimentality, hauled Torres off soon after, denying him the chance at a hat-trick in order to get some of Spain's criminally-underused players on the pitch, bringing on Martinez, Fabregas, and Cazorla. Contributions from the latter two led to Spain's fourth. Cazorla's fierce shot won a corner, and, taken quickly with Irish minds already back in the dressing room, Fabregas picked up the short corner, sped around Paul Green, and hammered the shot in from no angle. Woof.

4-0 flatters Spain and doesn't flatter Spain. Yes, the margin of victory easily could have been more. But, and again no offense to Ireland – especially the brilliant, constantly singing fans – no other match will come so easily.

Spain face Croatia in the final group match. A 2-2 draw (or more) would see both teams qualify. A Spanish loss, however unlikely, would see them fail to advance if Italy beat Ireland. Still, Spain are odds-on favorites to come out of Group C. And then we'll see if Spain can overcome better defenses who will look to smother them as thoroughly as the Italians did in the first match.

13 June 2012

Netherlands 1-2 Germany

Gomez 24' 38'
van Persie 73'

Holland's last game against Denmark was arguably an aberration, down solely to poor, unfortunate finishing. The margin of defeat was the same today, but this was domination. Germany destroyed Holland in the first half and sucked the life out of them in the second, despite positive half-time changes from van Marwijk, despite van Persie's consolation which looked like reinvigorating the contest.

Holland had the better start, and looked likely to exorcise the post-Denmark demons almost immediately: a long van Bommel pass over the top, van Persie racing behind a static Hummels and Badstuber, but unable to get clean contact, softly poking straight to Neuer. It was the sort of chance he seized time and time again for Arsenal last season. And it set a poor precedent.

It didn't take long for Germany assert control. Both goals started down Holland's left, manned by an untested 18-year-old backup for his club. Both goals were from Schweinsteiger passes to Gomez, with the former routinely left unforgivably open by van Bommel while de Jong "tracked" Özil.

Both goals were things of beauty: excellent set-up play combined with flawless finishing. Gomez's turn to set up the first, running between the center-backs, will make highlight reels for years. The same player dragged Mathijsen out of position on the second, again played in by Schweinsteiger after Özil's lay-off, blasting past Stekelenburg, who arguably helped the finish by diving too early and too low. Van Bommel was so off the pace he was barely in the stadium, completely unable to keep up with Schweinsteiger; Germany won the midfield battle despite both sides deploying similar 4-2-3-1 formations because Germany dominated possession but Sneijder failed to track back to add support. Which, admittedly, isn't his job. You can't deploy two out-and-out defensive midfielders then have one go missing.

Van Marwijk made the necessary changes at half-time – as if he had a choice – removing the vastly terrible van Bommel and wholly ineffective Afellay, replaced with van der Vaart and Huntelaar, shifting to something like a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1. Unsurprisingly, this increased Holland's cohesion in attack while subtracting little from defense (as if it could get worse).

Robben, van Persie, and Sneijder (twice) had excellent chances – the latter's the best: one curler just wide from far out, one outstandingly, incredibly blocked by Boateng. Less than two minutes after Boateng's crucial block came van Persie, finally getting Holland off the mark in the Euros – the last team to score in this tournament. Sneijder passed inside from the left flank, van Persie spun the otherwise-excellent Hummels and raced towards goal, firing an unstoppable shot through the legs of Badstuber past Neuer from the top of the box. Amusingly, the goal came just seconds after Gomez was withdrawn in favor of Klose, protected with an obvious eye on Sunday's final group match as Germany sensed little danger. Game on.

Or not. Germany didn't just take the air out of the ball after Holland's goal, they stabbed the ball, burnt its remains, and made sure there were no others on premises. The Netherlands barely had sight of said ball, let alone Neuer's goal, not even after introducing Big Game Dirk Kuyt. So much for fairy tales. Sorry, Dirk.

Holland took exactly one shot after van Persie looked like making a game of it. Meanwhile, Germany won three free kicks, five corners, monopolized possession, and nearly added a third when Klose chased down Steklenburg in the goalmouth, only to see the ball trickle just wide of the post.

Toni Kroos had an awful lot to do with Germany's late ball retention, completing 16 of 17 passes in the 10 minutes he was on the pitch, more than 25% of the passes Germany attempted during that period.

Strangely, Germany – with six points from six – aren't assured of qualification, while Holland – with zero points from six – aren't eliminated. A Germany loss to Denmark coupled with a Portugal win against Holland could see the Portuguese and Danes through. A German win and a Dutch win could see Holland qualify if they make up a -2 goal difference. Given how enjoyably crazy this tournament has been, neither is totally out of question.

Denmark 2-3 Portugal

Pepe 24'
Postiga 36'
Bendtner 41' 81'
Varela 87'

It's fitting that an excellent, narrow match was decided by a singular late moment of brilliance. Despite Portugal going two up with ten minutes left in the first half, Denmark diligently fought back, only to go down to Varela's 87th minute strike, just two minutes after he entered the fray.

Denmark started well, with as many corners in the first seven minutes as they had all game against Holland, but were unable to carve out chances from the early pressure aside from Pepe's excellent block after a broken corner fell to Eriksen. That Niki Zimling went off injured after 15 minutes, replaced by Jakob Poulsen, assuredly contributed to Portugal's ascendancy, but Portugal did well to exploit gaps down Denmark's flanks.

It was a simple set play goal for Portugal's opener. Pepe used Simon Poulsen and Nani at the near post to set a pick, releasing him from Agger's close marking, and cannoned an unstoppable header just past Andersen's flailing hand.

Portugal's second was even more unforgivable. Coentrao, perpetually dangerous coming forward from defense, was given the freedom of Lviv with Rommedahl caught upfield and neither holding midfielder covering in time. His cross only found Simon Poulsen, but Portugal picked up possession from the clearing header with both Nani and Pereira in acres of space. Nani crossed, Agger left Postiga to Kjaer, and the often goal-shy forward made a great run to easily get in front of the center-back for another near post goal.

Denmark looked unlikely to pull one back, let alone two, but were back in the game five minutes later, and fairly impressively at that. Jakob Poulsen's chipped cross to the back post found Krohn-Dehli behind a negligent Joao Pereira, selflessly heading across goal to Bendtner, catching Pepe and Bruno Alves flat-footed and Rui Patricio wholly out-of-position for a headed tap-in.

Aside from the 20-minute stretch after Zimling's injury until Portugal's second goal, Denmark had more possession and played more 'comprehensive' football, but the final ball frequently eluded the Danes. And thanks to the lead, Portugal spent the second half defending deeper and deeper, content to counter, bypassing the midfield and looking for quick, direct passes to Nani and Ronaldo on the flanks.

Honestly, it should have worked, as Ronaldo should have iced the game earlier. Nani's long cross-field pass found CR7™® wide open five minutes after the restart, with Jacobsen caught upfield, but, racing in on goal, he shot tamely at Andersen. Nearly through in the 64th after easily turning Kjaer, Agger recovered for a crucial interception on Ronaldo's pass to Postiga. The most egregious was in the 78th, when Nani's first time throughball again found Ronaldo running behind Jacobsen and Kjaer, but he somehow shot wide from 12 yards out, dead center, when 1-on-1 with Andersen. It was karmic that Bendtner's equalizer came less than two minutes later.

Jacobsen, given space time and time again because of Ronaldo's unwillingness to track back, finally found a target with one of his cross, as Bendtner out-jumped Pepe to head past Rui Patricio. But Denmark couldn't hold on. Six minutes later, Coentrao spun Jacobsen and raced past Kvist to the byline. Varela, evading Simon Poulsen, mistimed his attempted volley, but was first to react, spun his hips brilliantly to get over the ball, then somehow shot around Poulsen past a diving Andersen. Denmark threw Agger forward, the tried-and-tested "chuck the center-back up front and hoof hoof hoof" tactic, but when Denmark's substitute had his chance in injury time – Schøne open from the right side of the box – he blazed his shot high and wide. Those are the margins which decide these games.

Like Sneijder for Holland in Denmark's last match, Daniel Agger did not deserve to be on the losing side, despite his role in Portugal's first two goals.

All six of his attempted tackles in the last two games have been successful. He saved Kjaer (who, in contrast to the last match, was terrible today) multiple times, made crucial tackles, interceptions and blocks, and fervently threw himself around in attack in the dying stages. On form, he remains without peer. But without heroics from Krohn-Dehli, Poulsen, and Kjaer, the other stars against Holland – and despite Bendtner's – it was without reward.

As with Group A, this group will go down to the last day. Portugal and Denmark both have three points, as do Germany – about to play the Netherlands. Both Portugal and Denmark have incredibly difficult matches to come on Sunday. I guess they don't call it the Group of Death for nothing.