In case the end of the English Premier League season didn't make it clear enough, the Euro 2012 group stages have reaffirmed that anything can happen over the course of 3 games. And in doing so, has served this writer a large slice of humble pie. So, let's look at the results and the upcoming fixtures to see what the remaining teams did right, and what they have to change if they want to end up top of the heap.
Group A - 1st Czech Republic, 2nd Greece
What on earth happened to this group? Poland, as the co-host nation, should have been able to ride a tidal wave of support to the quarterfinals. Instead, they let the gravity of the moment get to them. A disappointing opening match draw against Greece was followed up by an encouraging result against then firing Russia. But in the must win situation against the Czechs, they could not find form. Robert Lewandowski did not provide the strikes they so desperately needed, leaving the country to look hopefully toward 2014 when, with any luck, he has matured a bit and can live up to his massive potential.
Russia fell into a classic trap, arrogance. After steamrolling the Czechs in their first match and impressing in the tie with Poland, one has to think they thought the Greeks outclassed. Unfortunate, as the tables were turned in the final game and Greece produce the classy show of fortitude while the Russians wasted 5 times the chances afforded to the eventual winners.
That being said, Greece should be commended for the herculean effort they put into the Russia game. Knowing they were outmatched on paper, they put on a spirited performance of teamwork and nerve. There defensive shortfalls were much less glaring and their attack had an energy to it that disputed the fact they ever deserved the title of "anemic". It would be a bit much to say they deserved advancement on the merits of that one game, but it does inspire some hope that they will me more than a doormat for their quarterfinal opponents, Germany.
Seeing the Czechs in the quarterfinals isn't as much a surprise as seeing them finish first in the group. Labeled the dark-horse of the group, they learned from their early drubbing by Russia and went on to beat Greece and co-host Poland. Most impressive was their energy. While they can be shaky in defense and Petr Cech is not equal to his Chelsea form when playing for country, their work ethic makes them dangerous. They could very well upset Portugal in the knockout fixture.
Group B - 1st Germany, 2nd Portugal
What the hell happened to the Netherlands? A team does not go from finishing second in the World Cup to failing to earn a point in the group stage of the European Championships two years later without a good reason. This collapse was likely due to a mix of 3 problems. First, the well-publicized infighting prevented the team from playing cohesively. Reports claim the Dutch camp was divided over an issue of playing style. One side wanted to flow forward and play the attacking football the nation is famous for; the other wanted to play more conservatively, emphasizing defense. Apparently they couldn't come to an agreement because they couldn't do either on the pitch. Their defense, however, was much worse than their offense, which leads to the second problem; not playing Mark van Bommel.
Van Bommel was a guiding light and defensive organizer during the World Cup. His absence from the defensive/holding midfielder role was most evident in the game against Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo's first goal was a direct effect of the Dutch giving the ball away cheaply, something they never did in South Africa when van Bommel and Giovanni van Bronckhorst ran the defense and over saw possession.
And with that lovely segue, the third problem that doomed Holland was the inability to replace van Bronckhorst, who retired after the 2010/11 season. His calming presence at the back and in game knowledge as well as his ability to strike from distance (Remember his goal against Uruguay? Click here if you don't. Heck, click if you do. It's that pretty) were invaluable. Replacement Jetro Willems did a fantastic job of reminding everyone just how big the hole left by van Bronckhorst really was.
Enough of that rant. With the Dutch collapse, the other three teams performed as expected. Portugal took their quarterfinal place and Germany went about winning the group with the efficiency that would make a BMW factory proud.
Group C - 1st Spain, 2nd Italy
The third group again decided to ignore the predictions of the Bracket Breakdown article. Yes, Ireland was predictably terrible and finished last and Spain first, but Italy snaked the second qualifying spot from Croatia. It's unfortunate because Croatia is much more deserving. They played a beautiful attacking style and were solid in the back. Their goalie, Stipe Pletikosa, was especially impressive. Watch for him to be on the wish list for some big clubs soon.
No matter how much Croatia deserves to the in the quarterfinals, it's Italy whose tournament dream continues. The Azzurri have distinguished themselves by playing with two true strikers and flooding the middle of the field with 5 middies. While Balotelli has looked dangerous around the box, he has only managed one goal and after that goal, appeared to throw a mini tantrum directed at the coach. Whether it was regarding his relegation to the substitutes bench the previous game or about something else entirely is unclear, but he needs to sort his temper before it begins to affect the team.
Spain earned the first spot in Group C, but in surprisingly unconvincing fashion. This strategy of no striker is interesting, but makes the absence of David Villa all the more apparent. The four goal effort against Ireland can be treated as an outlier in any analysis, as Ireland was the worst team in the tournament, leaving Spain with only 2 goals in 2 games. Fernando Llorente has been inexplicably left on the bench. Perhaps the rested strikers will be a huge force in the knockout stages and Vicente del Bosque's genius will be proven yet again.
Group D - 1st England, 2nd France
This group was the hardest of all to call. That may be difficult to believe as the historically better teams both advance, but nothing was certain. The press has constantly proclaimed a lack of expectations for England, weirdly still managing to put pressure on the players to perform. It's good for them they did manage to get results, but they must be careful of inflated talk. Their final game against the Ukraine showed them vulnerable to the counter attack and prone to standing flatfooted in their super organized banks of defenders. Wayne Rooney looked rusty in his first game and Ashley Young continues to go missing during key stretches in the game. He needs to sort out what his role is in the counter attack and learn to keep possession if he wishes to keep his spot.
In regards to the whole goal line scandal in the England - Ukraine game, it was a goal. The goal judge missed it. However, in the buildup, the line judge failed to call offside on the longball, so it evens out. All in all, England won, and that ref crew should never see another international game.
France advances not so much because they did everything right, as you would expect from their 23 game unbeaten streak entering into their final game with Sweden. Rather, they advance because the Ukraine couldn't capitalize on home field advantage. Consequently, they face Spain next. Samir Nasri will have to sort out his midfield if the French are to have any chance of progressing to the semis.
Let's see if more than 3 guesses can be correct this time:
Portugal will beat the Czech Republic as the Czechs are too shaky at the back. Their enthusiasm can't make up for that.
Germany will beat Greece. Greece is simply outclassed here. Germany may even take the opportunity to reach into its bench and rest some regulars.
Spain will beat France. France's formation is quite strange, creating some sort of V formation with the point toward their own goal. It provides way too much space for Xavi and Iniesta to work their magic, no matter how tired they are from a very long season with Barcelona.
Italy will beat England. As a descendant of Brits, it hurts to say such things and St. George's cross will be flying in the living room come Sunday, but unless Hodgson finds some way to limit Pirlo's options without forcing Rooney to drop into his own box, the England attack will be toothless.