Sunday, June 15, 2008

Euro 2008: Day 7

Italy 1-1 Romania
I know there were some people out there who picked Romania as the dark horse candidates for this tournament -- not me, sadly, but it looks like those people were pretty smart.

After the embarrassment of their defeat against the Netherlands, Roberto Donadoni made a number of changes to the Italian lineup, bringing Daniele de Rossi and Simone Perrotta into midfield alongside Andrea Pirlo, giving Alessandro del Piero a start and rejigging the back line with Fabio Grosso and Giorgio Chiellini. Another loss would have eliminated them from the tournament, so they desperately needed to pick up at least a point here.

It was a good open game in the early stages, with Romania not playing quite as ultra-defensively as they did against France. Italy looked better than they did in their first game and had a few decent chances, but they seemed to be lacking the belief that they could win -- that attitude from 2006 that said "We're going to win this thing, and everyone else can go fuck themselves." Romania had a few chances of their own, but I think they were a bit shaken up when Mirel Radoi had to go off partway through the first half with a broken nose and fractured cheekbone after a collision with a teammate.

Just before halftime, after a good spell of pressure from Italy, the first controversial incident: A corner for Italy, sent out to the edge of the box and chipped back in, where Luca Toni scored only to have it ruled out for offside. It was a very close call, but I'm pretty sure the linesman got that one wrong, and the Italians were justifiably aggrieved (cue much impassioned gesturing).

Things got worse for Italy early in the second half, when Romania took the lead. From a long free kick, Gianluca Zambrotta attempted to head the ball back to the goalkeeper, only for Adrian Mutu to pounce and slice his shot over Gianluigi Buffon and into the net. But the Italians responded almost immediately, with a corner that was headed back across the goal and turned in at the post by Christian Panucci.

Italy made a series of changes in the final half-hour of the game, trying to get that valuable winning goal, but were unable to break down the Romanian defence. Instead it was Romania with the chance to win the game, after they were awarded a penalty for a foul by Panucci on Daniel Niculae. (The Italians whined about this one too, but the referee got it right.) Adrian Mutu stepped up, but his shot was miraculously saved by Buffon -- although it was hit fairly close to the keeper, he still had to react brilliantly to stop it with first his trailing arm and then his leg. Mutu looked like he was about to cry, and had to be subbed off soon after to stop him having a tantrum on the pitch.

So it ended 1-1, which means both teams are still clinging to life. Romania, actually, are in a slightly better position, because they have one point more, although they'll have a few players suspended for their final game against an already-qualified Netherlands. Italy will survive if they can beat France, but they're going to need a much better performance from Toni -- it really wasn't his day -- and, of course, to sort out that defence.

Netherlands 4-1 France
The Netherlands, unlike Romania, don't get to be a dark horse team. When you've played two games and handily defeated both World Cup finalists in the process, I think you have to be labelled as one of the favourites. They've clinched top spot in the group with this win, which means they could rest some players and take it easy against Romania in the final game; my only concern would be that if they do lose, it could mess with their usually fragile mental balance.

Anyway, Marco van Basten stuck with his winning lineup for this game, while Raymond Domenech changed things up in an attempt to inject some attacking flair into his team, moving Franck Ribery to a more central position and demoting Nicolas Anelka and Karim Benzema to the bench in favour of Thierry Henry as the lone striker (that, right there, would be the flaw in the plan, yes?).

So, yeah, that didn't work too well for France. The Netherlands scored first in the 10th minute, with Dirk Kuyt's header from a corner. And even after taking the lead, rather than sitting back to defend, they were brave -- or wise -- enough to continue pressing forward. France were struggling to hold onto possession, or at least to do much with it, with the Dutch players hustling to close them down. The French got better after the first half-hour or so, with Ribery -- as expected -- the source of just about everything good, but the Netherlands just kept playing their pretty triangles. In fact, they got even more offensively focusses, bringing on both Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

It was Van Persie who scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the 59th minute, after a fantastic bit of team play. From a throw-in deep in the Dutch half, Ruud van Nistelrooy did a sort of Zidane turn around the defender (I swear, I don't remember him doing that sort of thing for United) and set Robben free down the left wing. He crossed the ball to Van Persie, who hit a great first-time volley. Beautiful football.

Thierry Henry scored for France 10 minutes later to bring it back to 2-1, connecting with a right-wing cross from Willy Sagnol. But Robben restored the Netherlands' two-goal lead almost immediately from the kickoff, finishing off another mesmerizing passing move with an amazing finish from an almost impossible angle. That was pretty much game over for France, and I think the players might have just given up. And the Dutch rubbed their noses in it, Wesley Sneijder adding a fourth goal in stoppage time with a fine shot from the edge of the box.

So, France versus Italy in their final group game is not only a World Cup final rematch but also a battle for survival. That result won't matter at all if Romania beat the Netherlands, but both teams have to go for the win (if Romania lose and the other two draw, then I think it's decided on goal difference). If I had to pick a winner in that game, I'd say Italy, because France looked apathetic once again, while Italy were mostly just unfortunate.

Next up in Group C: France v. Italy and Netherlands v. Romania, both at 2:30 pm on Tuesday. Set your VCRs, y'all.

Bad hair of the day award: Sebastien Frey, France's back-up keeper. No, he didn't actually play, but his double-decker sideburns are bad enough to deserve a mention.

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