Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Final Eight: Euro 2012 Group Stage Round-Up

So now the competition starts to get exciting. But if the group stage completely passed you by (understandable: it takes commitment to stick out the whole of a mid-afternoon skirmish between Poland and the Czech Republic) and you don't want to wade through reams of technical analysis and triumphalist England rhetoric, you might fancy brushing up on HTO's version of the back story before the drama really begins to unfold.

Who's on form? Who could make a giantkilling sweep to victory? Who's hairier, the entire Czech Rep team or Franck Ribéry? All will be revealed in HTO's run-down of the final eight and their chances for the next stage. Oh, and here's a handy schedule from the BBC of all the upcoming fixtures.

Czech Republic
The Czechs had a shaky start, shall we say, by losing their first match to Russia 4-1. So it was a big surprise that they even made it to the quarter finals in the end, let alone that they did it in style to graduate top of the group, above the team that hammered them so comprehensively in the opening weekend. They're the hipster outsiders of the knockout stage, and will probably lose to Portugal, but what they lack in world-stage experience they make up for in pluck. An outside chance.

What to look out for: Fashion fans will enjoy Petr Cech's snazzy helmet and the chance to follow some high-testosterone hair growth from the whole team as the tournament progresses.

They've been a bit tetchy at the suggestion that their success so far has been down entirely to the inspirational double-goal-scoring force of Cristiano Ronaldo. Coach Paulo Bento is keen to remind everyone that there is more than just one man on the team, telling the BBC that "The individual effort of players is not important. We have an identity, we have certain ideas and then the players put that into practice." Yup, they're a team, doing lots of teamwork and focusing on working together as a team. Cristiano Ronaldo is just one cog in a complex and finely oiled machine of ensemble play, with no standout star but rather a carefully balanced formation using the strengths and weaknesses of a whole team. The team's team spirit is really inspiring, as a team.

What to look out for: Cristiano Ronaldo.

 Could Greece snatch a win from Germany?

World football's second 'Super Mario' (after Balotelli), Mario Gomez has helped Germany out a lot with their progression through to the knockout stage. He's an efficient striker, who makes a lot out of relatively few touches of the ball per game. He helped his country to win all three of their matches and nail Group B, and on that record alone they're already most pundits' favourites to make it to the final. Even Angela Merkel's going to take a quick break from counting all of her country's euros to turn up to the quarter final against Greece, apparently.

What to look out for: Relentless competence, with the odd flash of inspiration from Gomez. They've promised they'll try to show a bit more 'killer instinct' from here on out, though.

Despite winning this tournament in 2004, Greece arrived this year with low expectations. Their country is in an economic bog, morale is low and there have been plenty of snide jokes flying around about having to have a whip-round to pay the bus fare. But Greece have had, if not the last laugh, then at the very least the penultimate one, by somehow managing to scramble out of their group through one win, one loss and one draw to face Germany in the knockout stage. But Greece's captain, Karagounis, is banned from the next match because of diving offences (but the Mediterranean is beautiful at this time of - oh, sorry) and so, to be honest, that'll probably be the end of them.

What to look out for: They've gone from underdogs to, well, dogs, so cross your fingers for a Phoenix-style journey to glory. If they keep up the solid defence they brought out against Russia, who knows what could happen?

 England have luck on their side... for now

If any English newspaper is to be believed, England are the heroes of the hour, on a sunlit path to the final. If you ask anyone else in Europe, England have lucked out, and they're still the arrogant band of middling nightclub-botherers they always were. They're playing Italy next, and won't find it as easy as they think they will. A tip: if you're travelling to Ukraine this summer, don't mention that disallowed goal in the final match of Group D, or you may find yourself kicked into a large net, squealing "It was offside anywaaaay!"

What to look out for: In an increasingly hair-themed tournament, keep an eye on the medical marvel of Rooney's toupee transplant. There's some as do say it's enchanted.

To celebrate his team's win against Ireland and consequent progression to the knockout stage, coach Prandelli decided to take a moonlit walk to a Camaldolese monastery outside Krakow. If that's not romance, then you just tell me what is. They had a hesitant performance in their group, with a couple of tense draws before breaking through with a decisive victory over Ireland. But one of those draws was against world champions Spain, so if they can hold it together with the favourites then we could be in for some fireworks in their quarter final against England. In any case, the Azzurri are just beautiful all round. I am not biased.

What to look out for: A steady hand from Buffon, goalkeeper to the ancients, and hopefully a few more balletic goals up for grabs from Balotelli and Cassano.

 Some serious game-upping is needed from France

The reigning European and World Champions will be looking to continue their dominance, and they've mostly been playing well so far. Still, France could well be their kryptonite in the quarter final, as they were the last team to beat them in a major tournament (in the final 16 of the 2006 World Cup). Spain were certainly a bit all over the place in their 1-0 win over Croatia, only scoring right in the closing minutes, and enduring a tight draw with Italy, but they put Ireland firmly in their place with four goals to nil. Personally, like Germany, I don't find them particularly exciting to watch. Once you've got over the "Ooh, I'm watching the world champions" feeling, they're competent but not that inspiring, really.

What to look out for: Iniesta and Pique giving their masterclasses in technical football. Torres is also never one to ignore, and he should come into his own in the knockouts.

France are brilliant because they contain the scarred, sex-scandalled and hirsute Franck Ribéry (subject of an upcoming 'HTO's Favourite Footballers' post), who looks like he was found in a smoky corner of a provincial French bar, drinking wine and growling anecdotes about his army days, before being hauled over to Ukraine to play for his country. He's actually just consistently a very good footballer. As for the rest of the team, they've been unconvincing in their group, with a one-all draw with England not the worst moment of the stage - oh, no, that was their 2-0 defeat to Sweden, of all people. Sweden! Sweden had already been knocked out and hadn't beaten France in a competitive game since 1969. As far as form goes, that's not promising.

What to look out for: They should rise to the challenge of Spain, but with the kind of messy and defeatist playing we've seen from them so far, that may not happen. Probably their biggest worry is Ribéry getting distracted by a beautiful woman and wandering off the pitch.

See you in the knockouts!

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