Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Euro 2008: Day 11

Italy 2-0 France
Au revoir, mes enfants. You got the feeling it wasn't going to be France's day when Franck Ribery had to go off injured after just 8 minutes, having messed up his ankle in by getting tangled up with Gianluca Zambrotta. Ribery has been one of the few bright spots for France in this tournament, although I do think that Samir Nasri, who came on as his replacement, deserved more playing time as well.

And the poor kid was hauled off again 15 minutes later, after Eric Abidal was sent off for bringing down Luca Toni in the box. I've seen a few people arguing that Toni dived, and I think he may have gone down deliberately, judging from the way he trailed his leg back, but I also think that Abidal fouled him, because he was grappling with Toni from behind. So it was the right call by the referee. Andrea Pirlo buried the penalty for Italy, Jean-Alain Boumsong came on to replace Abidal for France (oh dear), and the game was virtually decided.

You really have to question Raymond Domenech's decision not to call up Philippe Mexes for France. Well, you have to question Domenech's decision-making for a lot of things, but especially that. Lilian Thuram and Willy Sagnol apparently asked to be dropped for this match based on their performance in previous games, which mean that Abidal had to be shifted to centre-back, where he looked distinctly out of place -- but when your only other option is Boumsong, what else can you do?

France have looked shaky defensively all along, and it was the same in this game -- which is particularly galling considering that they're playing with two defensive midfielders to shield the back line. Italy could have been up by two or three goals by halftime, if it hadn't been for some abysmal finishing by Luca Toni. What the hell have they done to him in Germany? It's bizarre.

The other big problem for France is that they've failed to rejuvenate the team after making it to the World Cup final in 2006. There are a lot of players for whom this was one tournament too far, but Domenech apparently doesn't have enough faith in the youngsters to bring them in yet. Italy have a lot of the same issues -- a weak defence and a manager who doesn't seem to know what his best team is -- but this was a classic Italian performance in that they did enough to win regardless.

It helps that they've got the best goalkeeper in the tournament by a mile. Gianluigi Buffon saved their ass against Romania and made one especially good save again here in the 73rd minute, tipping Karim Benzema's shot just wide. But it was already 2-0 to Italy by that point, after Daniel de Rossi's free kick was deflected into the net by Thierry Henry on the end of the wall, sending Gregory Coupet diving the wrong way. I feel a bit bad for Titi for that, but not that much, considering he spent most of the game flailing in disappointment at his teammates. Way to be captainly there.

After that save by Buffon, the game sort of petered out, with France subsiding into existential crisis and the Italians trying to ensure that nobody else would get booked -- Pirlo and (surprise, surprise) Gennaro Gattuso picked up second yellow cards and will be on the bench for the quarter-final. They do have a variety of options in midfield, but I think their main concern will be getting Toni's mojo working again so he can properly threaten the Spanish defence. Oh, and, you know, figuring out how the hell they're going to cope with Villa + Torres. Should be a hell of a game.

Netherlands 2-0 Romania
The Netherlands second string cruised into the quarter-finals with a win over a Romanian team that may be limited and yet had previously managed to foil both the World Cup finalists. I think this makes the Dutch B-team slightly better than the Croatian B-team, for those of you who care about such things. Then again, when your B-team has players like Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, that's kind of a misnomer.

The Netherlands dominated from the outset, but I don't think they were trying particularly hard. At least, it took them a while to find a way to cut through the Romanian defence, wasting several chances in the first half. They didn't take the lead until the 54th minute, from a right-wing cross that was flicked on by Orlando Engelaar for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to finish.

As for Romania, they just didn't look like they really wanted to win the game. Even after they went behind -- and knowing that Italy were leading against France -- they were still too defensively focussed, with not enough players pushing up to support Adrian Mutu in attack. (Poor Mutu, incidentally, must still be kicking himself for that penalty piss against Italy.) And their fate was sealed with a second goal for the Netherlands late on, Robin van Persie controlling a great diagonal ball from Demy de Zeeuw and slicing his shot past Bogdan Lobont at the near post.

This performance doesn't really tell us anything new about the Netherlands squad -- we already knew that they had an obscene number of gifted attacking players. But what I find interesting is that their supposedly shaky defence hasn't really put a foot wrong so far. I'm very curious to see what would happen if they come up against, say, Portugal, further along the line.

Next up: The Netherlands play the Group D runners-up (Russia or Sweden) on Saturday, and on Sunday, Italy will see if Spain choke yet again at the quarter-final stage

Bad hair of the day award: Fabio Grosso, for his white-boy fro. Fabio, Andrea Pirlo would like to teach you a few things about the proper use of conditioner.

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