In the first of a series of reviews of the 2012 football calendar, editor James Dutton looks back at that thrilling June in Poland and Ukraine and a tournament likely to be fondly remembered as the last of its kind…
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and so just as the British press had lavishly praised Spain’s aesthetically beautiful possession football in 2008 and 2010, it metamorphosed into a tirade at its apparently tiresome monotony and an inability to understand that teams can be attacking without playing a recognised striker. Given Spain’s stunning obliteration of the overawed Italians in Kiev, surely this embarrassing outlook will recede and we can celebrate the unquenchable hunger of the greatest international side since Brazil of the 1970s.
The loss of their all-time leading goal-scorer, and spearhead in both 2008 and 2010, David Villa, was compensated for by the breathtaking interplay between Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, whilst the seamless ability of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos to combine with Carlos Puyol in absentia has made this remarkable run of success even more impressive.
Their dominance is perhaps best embodied by captain and goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, who became the first footballer to win 100 international matches and has not conceded a goal in the knockout stages of an international tournament since the second round of the 2006 World Cup. For a side that is so universally praised for its attacking flair, this impressive defensive solidity often goes overlooked – the settled back five of Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos and Alba conceded just one goal in the entire tournament.
Most stunning of all has been the evolution since 2006, where the raw elements were in place – Xavi, Alonso, Villa, Torres – and have since been polished and refined into this tiki-taka system, first developed by Luis Aragones and now perfected by Vincent del Bosque. Their use of the ‘false 9’ system confounded a certain number of British pundits and critics but the final against Italy demonstrated its devastating unpredictability and effectiveness.
World champions just 6 years ago, Italian football has since been marred by various charges of corruption and intermittent bouts of hooliganism whilst their club sides have fallen from the high pedestal they previously occupied in European football. Defending their world crown in 2010 Italy were woeful, finishing bottom of their group and failing to defeat international novices New Zealand.
With a dearth of young talent emerging few predicted that Italy would reach the latter stages of the Euros or even progress from a group that included the vibrant Croatians. These predictions reckoned against the tactical astuteness of their coach, Cesare Prandelli, the magical Andrea Pirlo and the extraordinary Mario Balotelli, whilst the rather unheralded Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio likewise excelled.
As profligate as the Italians were against England, they were ruthless against Germany in the semi-final. Although their technical deficiencies were brutally exposed in the final there is now cause for optimism in Italian football for the first time in several years.
Same Old Roy Hodgson
The glowing praise offered toward Roy Hodgson and his patently unambitious England side during the Euros has been baffling in the extreme. Many observers praised Hodgson for restoring pride to the Three Lions, yet to suggest the England 2012 vintage played with more pride than those under Eriksson or even Capello is utterly unfounded and almost insulting. Indeed, if you consistently chase the ball in matches you will appear to tire more easily than if you dominate possession.
If Capello had overseen England’s lamentable surrender of possession in the quarter final clash with Italy he would have been pulverised in the media, instead Hodgson was lauded for bringing unity and so-called commitment back to the English cause – traits which should be expected rather than commended.
Hodgson shunned away from big decisions in matches, incredulously starting James Milner in each match, persisting with the erratic Ashley Young and gifting Andrea Pirlo the freedom of Kiev. There is little doubt that Capello, even Harry Redknapp, would have achieved more invention and ambition with this squad than Hodgson.
Poland v Russia – a stunning game of end-to-end open football, the outstanding highlight of Group A. Against a backdrop of political and national resentment, these two wonderful footballing sides played out a mini-classic in Gdansk, its crowning glory being the stunning counter-attacking equaliser crashed in by Polish captain, Jakub Blaszczykowski.
Sweden v England – with little expectation between two turgid footballing sides, 0-0 seemed the most likely outcome pre-match. Yet what developed was an absorbing, if technically deficient, encounter where momentum switched readily between the two; perfect Friday night viewing that captivated a nation.
Germany v Italy – a titanic struggle, reminiscent of their 2006 World Cup semi-final. Many expected the technical superiority of the Germans to wear out the Italians, but Germany’s usually reliable defence disappeared as Mario Balotelli captured the imagination and stole the headlines with a scorching brace.
Daniel Agger – enjoyed, by his standards, a relatively injury-free season on Merseyside, and took his burgeoning reputation as “the most under-rated centre-half in European football” onto the biggest stage with a man-of-the-match performance against the Dutch in an expert exhibition of defensive positioning.
Alan Dzagoev – arriving in Poland and Ukraine hailed as Russia’s new saviour, Dzagoev provided flashing glimpses of his great potential, emerging as the star of the group stages. Unfortunately with Russia crashing out early, Dzagoev will feel he departed from Eastern Europe with unfinished business, but can take pride in finishing as joint top-scorer, remarkably along with five others.
Jordi Alba – since Spain’s elevation to world-beaters in 2008 the left-back position occupied by Joan Capdevila was widely recognised as their one weak spot, perhaps an unfair slight on Capdevila for not possessing the reputation of his illustrious teammates. The emergence of Jordi Alba, another product of La Masia conveyer-belt, in the 2011-12 season was one of the more unnoticed subplots in La Liga, but his rampaging performances down the left-hand side have provided a new and dynamic output to this formidable Spain side; his goal against the Italians in Kiev was the coup de grace. Since his summer switch to the Nou Camp he has blossomed into one of the best left-backs in world football.
Andres Iniesta – Euro 2012 marked the tournament where Iniesta finally emerged from the shadow of his partner-in-crime and was rightly named as player of the tournament. With Xavi occupying a more defensive position than previously – a recognition of his advancing years – Iniesta was given the freedom to roam to devastating effect. Though universally recognised as a world-class talent the Catalan has surely now secured a plinth within the pantheon of great European trequartistas, alongside Cruyff, Platini, Baggio, and Zidane.
Andrea Pirlo – the journeyman of the Italian squad provided a mesmeric reminder throughout the tournament of his incredible touch and vision, surely now he will be remembered as one of the technically finest midfielders of his generation.
Arjen Robben’s post-Champions League Final hangover lingered in Poland and Ukraine. Though you could blame the entirety of the Dutch squad – with the exclusion of the peerless Wesley Sneijder – Robben’s toils seemed to epitomise Holland’s problems and provided a throwback to previous years of infighting.
Christian Eriksen – the messianic figure of Danish football was hailed as the eventual successor to Brian Laudrup’s mantle but underwhelmed during a tournament in which Denmark achieved moderate success. Narrow defeats to Portugal and Germany that consigned the Danes to an early exit could have been prevented had Eriksen exerted similar attacking influence as he has so regularly with Ajax.
Germany – rightly hailed amongst the pre-tournament favourites the Germans were ruthless and clinical throughout the group stage, merciless against the Greeks before once again falling at the latter stages. Since hosting the 2006 World Cup they have been eliminated at the semi final stage of an international tournament three times, including a runners-up place in Euro 2008, suggesting that the attacking flair this young crop of German talent has acquired has sacrificed the mental toughness that their predecessors possessed in abundance.
Russia – after their obliteration of the Czech Republic and a storming first-half performance against Poland it looked as though the Russians were to repeat their stunning progress in Euro 2008. Their electrifying forward play, led by Dzagoev, Arshavin and Kerzhakov, was initially incisive but ultimately profligate, which cost them dearly in their surprise defeat to the insipid Greeks.
Mario Balotelli’s thunderbolt against Germany in the semi finals. Never mind the horrific German defending, and the lackadaisical positioning of the previously imperious Mats Hummels, the Manchester City forward’s thunderbolt will live long in the memory, if not for its ruthlessness than surely for his bare-chested celebration, as he ripped off his shirt and stared down field defiantly.
Danny Welbeck v Sweden – not just noteworthy for the sheer audacity of a back heeled finish, but as the crowning culmination of a wonderful team move. For the first time in the match, and indeed the entire tournament, England played the ball out from the back with devastating effect; one of the finest team goals of the competition.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic v France – Claims that Zlatan’s spectacular improvised volley against the French had finally proved his worth on the big stage were painfully exaggerated but utterly predictable. He scored a magnificently impudent back heeled volley against Italy in Euro 2004 and a stunning pile driver against Greece in 2008; woefully ignorant and unfair criticism of a player who has won 9 league titles in 4 separate countries for 5 different clubs.
Jakub Blaszczykowski v Russia – the co-host’s finest moment of the tournament, with Russia countering Andrey Arshavin had only to find one of three team-mates in the Polish 18-yard box to put the tie beyond the Poles and secure almost certain progress for the Russians. Not for the first time Arshavin flattered to deceive and Poland countered to devastating effect down the left-hand side, before captain Kuba cut in and fired an unstoppable bullet into the top corner past a helpless Vyacheslav Malafeev.
Andriy Shevchenko v Sweden – two moments of brilliance from one of the greatest players of his generation, an exhibition of prolific movement and deadly finishing inside the 18-yard box. 35 years of age and Ukraine’s greatest sporting export had been saving himself for one final hurrah, which he duly delivered.
Team of the Tournament
Casillas (Spa); Gebre Selassie (Cze), Ramos (Spa), Agger (Den), Alba (Spa); Alonso (Spa), Pirlo (Ita), Moutinho (Por); Iniesta (Spa), Balotelli (Ita), Ronaldo (Por)
What now for the Euros?
Once again international European tournament football delivered. In the blink of an eye, in barely three and a half weeks and just 31 matches, Euro 2012 had been and gone; in essence, there lies its beauty. As much as we should celebrate the perfect football tournament, we should mourn the likelihood that we shall never see its like again due to the megalomaniacal ideals of Michel Platini.
Euro 2016 in France – coincidentally Platini’s country of birth – will host 24 nations, acting to dilute the quality that has transformed the European Championship into the premier international tournament. One can hardly criticise Platini’s lack of ambition, but rather abhor his questionable grip on reality. Modern football has countless drawbacks – avarice, arrogance and corruption – but it is the utopian ideas of Platini that threaten the future of the finest instalment of ‘the beautiful game’; it is a travesty that this footballing exhibition should be tainted by the greed of modern football.
Follow The False Nine on Twitter: @The_False_Nine