After the drawn out process of the group stage, this first round of knockout games has flown by. It has also produced some of the best performances of the tournament. With just three games left before a champion is crowned, let's see what the past round has revealed about the remaining teams.
They certainly looked impressive in their quarterfinal against the Czech Republic. They had the lion's share of the possession and dictated the pace of play through effective use of the wings. The individual performances of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani were especially noteworthy. Ronaldo often started the counter moving forward with intelligent distribution and was a constant threat in and around the Czech penalty area, while Nani ran the defense ragged on the right wing and provided some great services.
Such play from those two does, however, bring up a worry. What happens when neither Ronaldo nor Nani and get the touches they need? If either are marked out of the game, Portugal doesn't have too many other weapons and Ronnie is likely to throw a fit. Hugo Almeida did a good job replacing Helder Postiga and as a big holding forward, he may be able to open up room for Ronaldo behind him. If Portugal can switch tactics in game and attack up the middle with Ronaldo and Almeida combining when the wings are closed off, they will be difficult to contain.
Defensively, the Portuguese are more organized in the back than they have ever been. Central defender Pepe has been outstanding in all aspects, especially in support of his wing backs who are sometimes left flat-footed. He will have to be at his organizational best if the patient Spanish attack is to be repelled.
So far, the Spanish have gone about their business in their typical calm, collected, patient fashion. They are certainly favored to make it to the final, but is this edition of La Roja as effective with their tiki taka style as the '08 Euro champions were? A little research and comparison of goal differences will tell you that this edition of the Spanish team is better than that of four years ago. However, closer inspection reveals that the '08 team a goal count equal to today's Spaniards before entering the quarter finals (the 2008 champions advanced to the semis via penalty shootout). A little more comparison reveals the '08 Spaniards had their best performances against the better teams, like 4-1 and 3-0 defeats of Russia in the group stage and semifinal respectively. This is not so for the current team, whose best game came against the worst team in the tournament, Ireland.
With those facts in mind, this Spain is not on the same level as their predecessors. Should Spanish fans be concerned? Yes. Spain looks tired. With so many Barcelona and Real Madrid players in the squad after a long, demanding season in La Liga, fatigue will be huge factor against Portugal as it will exacerbate shortcomings. Yes, the tiki taka style of Spain lets the ball do most of the work during buildup, but they still lack energy up front. To compound fatigue worries, Portugal has some speedsters on the roster, once again represented by Ronaldo and Nani. Spain will have to recover quickly when they lose possession, or risk easy counter goals.
On the bright side, it seems only "The Special One" Jose Mourinho has figured out how to repel the pass happy attack the Spanish employ, and he coaches at the club level. It will be interesting to see if the Portuguese leave their 4-3-3 formation in favor of a 4-2-3-1; a formation that Los Galaticos of Real Madrid used in successes over Barcelona in the early 2000s.
At this point, Germany has to be the favorite to win the tournament. The Mannschaft is firing on all cylinders. Not only are they yet to lose a game, but they are getting goals from a variety of athletes and lineups. After sticking with the same starting line-up throughout the group stages and being criticized for lack of attacking style, head coach Joachim Low decided to make a trio of changes to his forward line. Two of those three ended up scoring in a 4-2 rout of a resurgent Greek side.
Efficiency has been the theme of the tournament for the Germans, as evidenced by neat one goal victories that never seemed in doubt. The embodiment of this theme is striker Mario Gomez. Often criticized for being lazy and stagnant, he has responded by scoring when he does move to the ball. His two goals against the Dutch cumulatively required maybe 12 yards. Both goals were top class and he didn't have to make a Messi-esque effort starting from 25 yards out and going through 5 defenders.
The worry for Germany is that they have given up poor goals. Greece managed to open them up on the counter attack to level the score line for a brief time. A team of Germany's class, especially with defenders like Philipp Lahm and Jerome Boateng, should not be giving up counter attacks. It will also be interested to see how they handle Italy's midfield, which has seen a number of different formations over the course of the tournaments.
Italy has been all over the map this tournament. While they completely outplayed England in the semifinal, they were forced to go to a penalty shootout because they wasted over 30 scoring opportunities. What's worse is that their quarterfinal performance is likely not a good indicator of the team's form. England were at their most passive. It would not be a surprise should a story surface in the next few days that boss Roy Hodgson instructed the Three Lions to play for a shoot-out.
Italy's two biggest strengths are organization at the back and the element of surprise in the midfield. They have played two different formations; 4-4-2 and 3-5-2. They tend toward the latter when they feel outgunned (and no one would blame them for feeling that way against Germany). However, having the option of the 4-4-2 with a diamond in the midfield would be beneficial for the counter attack, which Greece showed to be an option against the Germans. They will be heavy underdogs, but if they can bog down the German move forward, they will stand a chance.
This past week (4 from 4) was much better than those of the group stages (3 from 8), but it is much easier to pick winner when you've seen them play just a few days prior.
Spain will defeat Portugal. Spanish possession will prove too much for Ronaldo and company. Admittedly, the final would be much more interesting with Portugal in it.
Germany will defeat Italy. Italy can't win if they continue their abysmal finishing; and even with 5 midfielders, they will be overrun with players like Lahm and Boateng constantly moving forward on overlapping runs.