Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Euro 2008: Quarter-final 4

Spain 0-0 Italy (Spain win 4-2 on penalties)
This was the only one of the quarter-finals where the team that had won their group didn't get knocked out -- but in its own way, the result was just as much of a surprise as the other games, because it was classic choke-monkeys Spain. Beating world champions Italy. On penalties. Shocking, really.

It's just too bad that it wasn't a better game. Spain at least were trying, but I think Italy were playing for penalties from about the 60th minute on -- if not before. And it didn't help the flow of the game that the referee was calling absolutely everything -- right up until they got into the box, when he would just decide that the Spanish player had dived.

But still, Spain kept coming forward, looking for a way through the Italians. I think at one point in the first half they were up to more than 70% of possession, with Xavi patiently pulling the strings in midfield. The problem was that as soon as they got to the edge of the 18-yard box, they'd be closed down by three or four defenders, making it almost impossible to get a clean shot off.

I do think that Italy's defence played well -- unlike some of their earlier games in the tournament -- but this match mostly just reminded me why people dislike them. They were so focussed on smothering Spain's attack that they couldn't be bothered to mount an attack of their own. In other circumstances they probably would've relied on a free kick from Andrea Pirlo to nick a 1-0 win, but with Pirlo suspended, they had to look elsewhere for goals.

And unfortuately for them, Luca Toni, should've been their main goalscoring threat, couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. The best moment was when he attempted an overhead kick and only connected with the ball enough to divert it out of the path of Fabio Grosso, who would've had a clear header on goal. Combined with Mario Gomez's awful performances for Germany, I have to wonder just what they do to strikers in the Bundesliga. And I'm a bit surprised that Roberto Donadoni didn't drop Toni and replace him with, say, Marco Boriello -- but on the other hand, Donadoni hasn't seemed to have a clue who he should be picking in his team.

I was almost pleasantly surprised, though, to see the substitutions that Luis Aragones made for Spain, bringing Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla on for Xavi and Andres Iniesta partway through the second half, in an attempt to change things up and make them play more direct football. I'm still disappointed that Xabi Alonso didn't get to play instead of one of their tiny interchangeable midfielders. But I can understand why they wouldn't want to drop Marcos Senna, because he had a very good game and even almost scored when Gianluigi Buffon fumbled his shot.

Spain continued to press throughout the second half and extra time, but they still couldn't find a goal. (They did get a whole bunch of corners, but that doesn't do much good when the other team are all about a foot taller than you.) And so we had a second quarter-final match being decided by a penalty shootout.

I can completely understand why Italy would feel that penalties were their best shot at winning, with the track record they've got -- plus supposedly the best goalkeeper in the world. But it backfired on them here. Iker Casillas -- who'd made a great reflex save on Mauro Camoranesi's shot late in the second half to keep his team in the game -- was absofuckinglutely awesome in the shootout, saving penalties from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale before Cesc Fabregas stepped up to score the decisive spot-kick.

As an aside, I think Iker is now cutting off not only the bottoms of his jerseys but also the sleeves. I am amused by the idea of him hacking at his uniform with a pair of scissors in the locker room before a game. I swear next week he's going to be out there in a crop top. (I'm not saying I would entirely disapprove. Um.)

Anyway, Spain have (hopefully) vanquished some of their demons, and now they face a rematch with Russia in the semi-finals. I know they beat them 4-1 in the opening match, but I can't help being worried because (1) although Spain forestalled the choking this time, that doesn't mean it won't happen down the road and (2) Russia have all of a sudden become good. They'll probably give Spain more space to play than Italy did, but on the other hand Russia could pick apart the Spanish defence like they did the Netherlands. Sergio Ramos will probably slip in a puddle of hair gel and gift them a goal.

Bad hair of the day award: Not Ramos but Luca Toni. Purely for the pornstache. I don't know, maybe he thought it would help him score, but no. Not in any sense of the word.