UEFA EURO 2012: Knockout stages preview

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Just 12 days removed from the opening match in Poland, Euro 2012 has been as good as advertised and more, with 60 goals scored and not a single 0-0 draw in 24 group stage matches.  Host countries Poland and Ukraine each treated their fans to close and controversial thrillers before narrowly missing the knockout stage, while four teams that won their opening match (including Ukraine) somehow failed to escape the group stage.  As the quarterfinals kick off this afternoon, here are some keys to look for throughout the knockout rounds.

How far can Cristiano Ronaldo carry Portugal?

After wasting two golden opportunities against Denmark, Cristiano Ronaldo came alive against the Dutch in his final group stage match, scoring the equalizer and game-winner to send Portugal through to the quarterfinals.  Though his teammates bailed him out with a late goal for a 3-2 victory against the Danes, Portugal will only go as far as Ronaldo can take them in the knockout stages.  After a probable victory against the Czech Republic, Portugal should draw Spain in a rematch of the 2010 World Cup’s round of 16, which Spain won 1-0 while dominating possession.  Still, if Ronaldo can work his magic and engineer a counter-attack goal, the Portuguese might just slip past their Iberian Peninsula big brother and into the Euro final.

Will anyone score in the Italy-England faceoff?

Despite pitting two traditional European powers against each other, this quarterfinal match could be the snoozer of the tournament, as both defensive minded teams might settle for an uneventful 120 minutes followed by penalty kicks.  Though England racked up three goals against a leaky Swedish defense, they were lucky to tally against Ukraine and should have lost—the ball clearly crossed the goal line before John Terry’s clearance (shown above)—which would have left them to play Spain in the quarterfinals.  Meanwhile, Italy needed Andrea Pirlo‘s brilliant free kick to score against Croatia, and two of its four total goals came against Ireland, who coughed up nine in three games.  Unless someone strikes with a first-half goal to open up the game, don’t expect many fireworks in this one.

 spain

How vulnerable is Spain?

Though they again won their group in a major tournament, la Furia Roja doesn’t quite seem the juggernaut it has been over the past four years.  Even with Fernando Torres scoring twice in a 4-0 drubbing of Ireland, a tight victory over Croatia was a reminder that the striker situation remains unsolved, with David Villa’s absence more glaring than ever.  Should a team like France or Portugal score early and then sit back and crowd the defensive box, Spain’s lack of a true finisher could make it difficult to equalize, while also leaving the Spaniards susceptible to a counterattack goal.  Sure, Spain may very well score in bunches and gallop to yet another major tournament final.  But don’t be shocked if they make an early exit.

 

Can anyone stop Germany?

Not only did the Germans storm through the Group of Death with three convincing victories, but they did it behind the finishing of previously unproven striker Mario Gomez, the team’s greatest question mark entering the tournament.  Despite missing a chance he should have buried early against Denmark, Gomez’s two goal performance versus Holland—highlighted by this terrific turn and finish—should be proof enough that the 26-year-old can carry the scoring load.

Even more frightening for potential opponents, some of Germany’s best players haven’t even gotten rolling yet (see Muller, Thomas and Ozil, Mesut).  If either of these stars starts making his own noise, no defense in the tournament will hold the Germans to a single goal, let alone keep a clean sheet.  With an overmatched Greek team next up and either England or Italy on the horizon, Germany should cruise into the final match for the second straight Euro, where Spain or Portugal will be waiting.  Whether they face Europe’s best player or the world’s top ranked team, it’s hard not to see the Germans walking away as the 2012 European Champions.

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