We have seen the end of group play at the 2012 European Championships and most of the teams that remain are traditional powerhouses (or at least perceived powerhouses; looking at you, England): Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, England, and France. Joining them are the outsiders: the Czech Republic and Greece. It is worth noting here that although these two countries aren't put into the classic top tier of European soccer, Greece won this tournament in 2004 and the Czechs were knocked out by that Greek squad in the semifinals in 2004. While perhaps not perennial powerhouses, the teams from Group A are not brand new to this kind of prestige and pressure. That being said, they have a tall task ahead, matched up with the survivors of the Group of Death.
For my part, I have done awfully with predictions thus far, getting only three of eight quarterfinalists correct. I stand by my Group A picks as anything could easily have happened there, I regret switching off of Italy and Ukraine at the last minute, I'm not terribly surprised by England, and I still can't quite believe how fully the Dutch collapsed on me. Still, past failure has never kept anyone from offering new predictions, so here we are again.
Czech Republic vs Portugal
It should come as no surprise that I don't give the teams from Group A much of a chance against the teams from Group B, but I'm afraid I'm not willing to sacrifice predictability for being wrong. The Czech Republic was embarrassed against Russia, lucky and conservative against Greece, and passable against a Poland team that seemed to give up after 25 minutes. While it was good enough to win them Group A, I'm afraid it just won't be enough against Portugal. Both teams are conservative defensively and look to pounce on the break, but Portugal have more weapons, more players that can change a match. That list of course starts with Cristiano Ronaldo, but Nani or Raul Meireles can decide to step up for a match, and if the striker(s) get going then who knows? Despite my preference for Portugal, this will not be a walkover. Portugal have weapons but they also have weaknesses, including the Pepe/Bruno Alves combination in the center of defense. Both teams may be conservative, but they are far from airtight, so I believe this will be a one goal win for Portugal, but with both teams getting on the board.
Germany vs Greece
Disregard the Greeks at your own peril, I know, but I don't see them standing up to a team that is not only vastly superior to them on offense, but vastly superior to them on defense. Greece made it through Group A with a surprising win over Russia, but it was a Russia team that missed their chances more than had them stopped by a stout Greek defense. The Czechs put in two early goals on them and Poland scored as well, so even though three goals conceded through three games is impressive, it is also a bit misleading. Germany pulled out a 1-0 victory over a Portuguese team determined to park the bus, then flat out embarrassed an over-reaching Dutch team before putting the Danes to bed in the final match of the group. This sounds like a dangerous thing to say, but Germany is simply too good for Greece. Germany will dominate possession and if Greece scores, they will be lucky to. Germany should win this game comfortably with a goal in the first half hour and then another one to seal it in the second half.
Spain vs France
I want to believe that this match will be interesting. I really do. I just have a very hard time convincing myself. The logic behind this will is such: I like this French team. They have talent that I appreciate even if I don't particularly like (Samir Nasri, you know who you are) and I think that when they play their game they are an entertaining team. "Playing their game" consists of controlling the ball in midfield, looking to play Karim Benzema in behind the defense, and marauding down the flanks with Gael Clichey and Mathieu Debuchy. But this style of game requires having the ball at their feet, and the Spanish will simply not allow this to happen. You can grab some possession from Spain, but they will control it whether you like it or not. The only team in this tournament that can contend with them on that front is Germany, and even then I think Germany would allow them to have their possession, then press and hope to make something on the transition. France doesn't have the technical ability to keep up with Spain in the midfield and their group games have proven that they don't quite have elite level finishing to score the kind of goals against the run of play that they will need. Don't get me wrong, Benzema is an excellent striker and everyone from Nasri to Franck Ribery to Yohan Cabaye can score. But they cannot dependably score and that is why I cannot pick the French to win. I believe that they have enough ability to scrape one back when Spain has already won the match, but though it wouldn't floor me if they won, it would still certainly surprise me.
England vs Italy
This match will either be the best or the worst of the bunch. Italy proved that they can break down a defense against both Spain and Croatia, but they also conceded in those games, leaving them with only draws to show for it. This is a different type of defense they're dealing with, however, one that will sit back deep and try to eliminate the inventiveness of Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale simply by not caring what they do from 25 yards or more out. England has a chance to counter well in this game as well as use smart holdup play from Wayne Rooney or whichever big bodied striker that they use to complement him. If we get a good game, it will be because Italy get an early goal and force England to use some aggression, make some positive subs, and actually look to get up the field. We will see a bad game if Italy fails to score and especially if England manages to pull one themselves. Both teams managed to score in each of their group stage matches so the timing of those goals will prove to be the most important factor. I say we make it all the way to penalties, but at 1-1 apiece instead of scoreless. In the shootout? Italy, of course.
Italy 1-1 (penalties)
I made predictions at the beginning of the bracket and those have gone horribly wrong (Germany over France, Netherlands over Spain, Germany over Netherlands), so here are the quick shots now that we have the elimination round actually determined.:
Spain over Portugal
Germany over Italy
Germany over Spain
That would be the final we all thought we would get, so something tells me that it will elude us somehow, but I can't find the way in which it happens. Still, this should be a highly entertaining single elimination tournament from here on out and I am definitely looking forward to it. Hope all of you are as well.