Euro 2012 knockout stage: Ronaldo chokes, Balotelli shines

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After several excellent goals, a few thrilling penalty kick endings and the toppling of another tournament favorite, Euro 2012 is nearing its finale.  With Italy and Spain on their way to the Euro Final, let’s look back at the defining moments of the knockout stage.

England stays true to its ways

After yet another valiant attempt to stave off elimination by hanging on to a tie game, England continued an age-old tradition of cracking under pressure as they fell on penalties to Italy.

How can we even be surprised at this point?  Of the eight most recent English appearances beyond the group stage in the World Cup or European Championships, they’ve lost six times on penalties, with the other two defeats coming by a combined 6-2 deficit in regular time.  And yet, they still try to play for penalties, like they expect the result to fall their way eventually.

Even with a top-six FIFA world ranking entering this tournament—compared to Italy’s No. 12 rank—nobody every seriously considered the English to be contenders in Euro 2012, and rightfully so.  Until we see a braver England team that actually tries to win in regulation, expect that penalty losing streak to continue.

Ronaldo’s brilliance runs out

As stellar as Cristiano Ronaldo was in Portugal’s 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, the semifinals showed us all once more that one great player can only take a team so far.  His performance against Spain was more reminiscent of the shot-spraying, frustration filled effort against Denmark—during which he failed to convert on two breakaway opportunities—than it was of the gems he offered against Holland and the Czechs, when he scored a combined three goals.

Even before Spain won without Ronaldo taking a penalty, the Portuguese star choked away several great chances, failing to truly threaten the net as he blasted shots well wide and comfortably over the bar.  Though the Spaniards couldn’t find the net either, no other Portuguese player could pick up the slack, with everyone seemingly resigned to their fate on Ronaldo’s shoulders.  Ultimately, the better TEAM won.  Just as it should have.

Balotelli, Italy cash in at the right moment

For all of Mario Balotelli’s antics and the Italians’ struggles to score—Italy entered Thursday’s semifinal with just four goals in five games and one goal from open play—the 21-year-old striker certainly came through on one of the world’s biggest stages.  Super Mario left no doubt on either of his early chances, making German keeper Manuel Neuer look helpless with two powerful finishes.

Though they had to endure a series of early threats from the talented German offense, the Italians made the most of their chances and turned their only real first-half opportunities into goals.  After peppering the English with 20 attempts on frame and not a single goal in the quarterfinals, the Azzurri’s drastic improvement in finishing quality couldn’t have come at a better time, as they toppled the Germans on their way to a rematch with Spain in the final.

German manager tinkers a little too much

Though its defense certainly proved to be suspect during the knockout stages, Germany might just owe its ousting to the tinkering ways of manager Joachim Loew.  With such a wealth of quality offensive players, it’s hard to fault him for wanting to play them all, but Loew’s constant changes in the starting lineup can’t have helped the Germans’ offensive chemistry, nor the confidence of his goal scorers.

After Loew dropped the squad’s top scorer, Mario Gomez, from the starting lineup in the quarterfinal against Greece, Gomez might as well have been invisible against Italy, tallying just one shot attempt that missed by a wide margin.  Even Germany’s regulars from the 2010 World Cup weren’t beyond benching, with Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller both out of the lineup against Greece and playing limited minutes against Italy.

Though they outscored the Greeks easily enough, Germany’s offense just couldn’t put a finishing touch on its chances against the Italians.  Whether Loew’s lineup tweaks were responsible or not, Germany will once again depart late in a major tournament with a disappointing result.

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