OK, so I wanted Engerland to beat Italy in their quarter-final match, but not for the reason you would think. I am not afraid of facing Italy – it’s not going to be a walk in the park, mind you - but I have many, many English friends, and I just like to twist the knife a little bit. My Twitter quote said something like, "I hope England wins... so we can batter 'em on Thursday." Sigh! 'Twas not to be. But, at least I don't have to endure some muppet singing "Two World Wars" at me on Thursday now.
With the Azzurri's endurance of 120 minutes-plus-penalties over the Three Lions, an old/new foe rears its head. And Deutschland have a shot at making up for that agonizing 2006 World Cup semi-final loss. I use the slash between old and new for a reason: While yes, this is the Italy that have beaten us in all competitive matches, this is also not the Italy you're used to seeing. Gone is the (yawn! watching paint dry...) Catenaccio style, and in its place coach Cesar Prandelli has ushered in a - dare we say - new Italy that - dare we say - attacks. Notably, 20 shots on target against an England squad whose best tournament players were all defensive.
But really, the question here is what is Taktik-Fuchs (as Jogi Low has been called here in Germany) gonna do about it? WWJD? I've been lamenting about trying to delve in to his mind, and picking a Startelf that I might actually get right. But, hell... here goes anyway.
Germany: Neuer - Boateng, Hummels, Badstuber, Lahm - Khedira, Schweinsteiger - Mueller, Ozil, Podolski - Klose.
Well, at least the back four plus Neuer are a given: I'm almost guaranteed to have that part right. Moving up to the holding midfield is where the problems begin. There's been a lot of chatter of Toni Kroos starting ahead of Bastian Schweinsteiger, but I don't think it happens here. Even though Bastian says he's not fully fit, and even though I named him one of the weakest players in the match against Greece (I stated sloppy passing as the reason, even though he completed 92%), he is the Tiger. He doesn't wear the captain's armband, but he is the emotional leader of this team (as he is for Bayern Munich). And with his ankle problems (evident?), and Sami Khedira's prominence in to a more offensive role, he will be called upon to rein in the cheeky Pirlo in front of our back line. Bundestrainer Low says you can't man-mark Pirlo, but the England match proved that you also can not afford to leave him too much room to roam.
Reverting back to group stage, I feel Low will choose to use his trusted wings in Lukas Podolski and Thomas Mueller. Schuerrle had his chance to impress against Greece in Poldi's slot, and while he wasn't horrible, he came up lacking. The Reus / Mueller conundrum is a tricky one. And, I definitely sat on the fence a few days about it. But, the Italian defence is an organized one (unlike a direct Greek wall), and perhaps Mueller (who is better off the ball than Reus) would be a bit more patient in that regard. Also noting that this pair of wingers are more likely not to get caught up in the moment of "Oh, crap! I'm in a semi-final!" and track back to defend.
Gomez or Klose is the huge question here, and points could be made for either. Obviously, I think Jogi will go with Klose. (It says so a few paragraphs up.) While Gomez would definitely have a height advantage- Deutschland averages three inches north of the Italians, which is fantastic for poaching goals- Klose is a better ball handler. And Klose has the advantage of playing for Lazio in Serie A. To people who say that Gomez needs to start every match, I say, he came off the bench in these ten qualifying matches a few times and did well. Klose ended up qualifying with nine goals and Gomez with six. (Gomez playing for Bayern Munich is an entirely different matter.) In the end, it's kind of a push for me. If one doesn't get on the board, the other will be subbed in.
Cesare Prandelli has his own decisions to make. Unfortunately for him, the Azzurri had to slog it out in the hot, hot heat of Kiev against England; and have had two less days to get his players fit. (To which I say, shoulda won your group, Cesare.) Daniele De Rossi is suffering from sciatica, Antonio Cassano from fatigue, Christian Maggio is suspended, while Giorgio Chiellini and Ignazio Abate both have knocks (although both will feature).
Italy: Buffon - Abate, Barzagli , Bonucci, Chiellini - Pirlo, De Rossi - Marchisio, Montolivo - Balotelli, Cassano
The diamond-midfield- with De Rossi playing ahead of Pirlo and Montolivio playing ahead of Marchisio- leaves Italy susceptible on their flanks. And with defensive wingers Abate and Chiellini with the aforementioned knocks, die Mannschaft should have a ton of space to operate down those very flanks, and may be able to catch some Azzurri with their pants down. But, the battle will be won in the central midfield. If we are allowed to assert ourselves, we can wrangle control from Pirlo - Italy's answer to Bastian Schweinsteiger.
After watching the snoozefest (or laughfest, depending) that was the Spain / Portugal match, this promises to be a good one. I mean, really... It can't be any worse! With neither coach ready to relinquish their philosophies or style of play, it's shaping up to be an open, entertaining game.
We won't know whether I picked right or wrong until after Germany's team meeting at 17:30. Jogi Low has insisted he won't give his starting XI until then. And, while I want to get it right, a small part of me wants to get it wrong, muse on it for a while...
...And then watch the magic happen. Auf gehts, 'Schland!
My original intention was to go to Gdansk for the Greece match, but a Bergfest and my family, coupled with train schedules and the like, meant I got stuck in Berlin. So, I braved the Fan Mile. You would think, when you see it on television, that it is an absolute crush. But, it's not. Five hundred thousand German fans and I all had breathing room, except when Germany scored. Any beer you had in your hand was knocked upwards and onwards; showering a delirious crowd. I consider it €20 very well spent, and would gladly pay any amount to see the almost total domination put forth by die Mannschaft.
Hours before the match Sport Bild somehow got a hold of Jogi Loew's line-up. Instead of the attacking formation of Mueller, Oezil, Podolski and Klose, the Bundestrainer had switched out Reus for Mueller, Schuerrle for Podolski and Klose on top for Gomez. And while I'd expected Lukas to eventually be replaced by Andre, the other two gave me a bit of pause. But, apparently again, this is why I'm not Jogi Loew.
The attacking changes gave Germany a bit of get-up-and-go that was missing in the previous group stage matches, and with it, unleashed the invigorated midfield duo of Sami Khedira and Mesut Oezil. Jogi's trust in Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose was rewarded by a goal from each. Sami Khedira, with a bullet, and Philipp Lahm, with the opener from distance, also added to the tally.
What Went Right?
Even Ethniki trainer Fernando Santos gave Loew props for strategy, stating, "We weren’t expecting so many changes to Germany’s lineup. Their coach wanted to change to freshen things up, and for me it was the right move on his part." Right move, indeed. With a bench as deep as Deutschland's, it is gratifying to know that Jogi can start whatever XI he sees fit. And, that alone is a huge thorn in the side of opposing coaches, as they'll never know what they're gonna get. (I might as well stop trying to predict line-ups now.)
While UEFA gave Oezil the MOTM award- and with two assists and a 93% pass-completion ratio, it's hard to argue it- I would still tip Sami Khedira over him. Khedira, playing more upfield than Schweinsteiger, absolutely marauded through midfield. And while he didn't get on the assists sheet, his build-up in play lead to all four goals.
What Went Wrong?
Jerome Boateng was excellent in the group stage matches, but something got away from him here. His two mistakes both resulted in Greek goals. On the first he let Samaras get away from him, and the second was a converted penalty after he was deemed to handle the ball. I would consider this a one-off for now.
Andre Schuerrle, while having three excellent chances before the half, was guilty of sloppy passing. He'll need to tighten up a bit if he wants to start the semi-final match. And it pains me to say that Bastian Schweinsteiger was guilty of the same. He's been nursing an ankle injury for quite some time now, and will doubtfully be 100% during this tournament. He told Welt, "Honestly, my ankle has been causing me trouble. I have been carrying it since February and it did not heal properly." Whatever he lacks in fitness is made up for in presence, and I sincerely hope he can will himself for these next two matches.
While the final score said 4-2, this match was nothing nearly close to that scoreline. While it was a brave performance by Greece, Germany simply had too much... everything. Herr Loew continues to be a tactical master- a marionette pulling on so many strings. This was Deutschland's 15th competitive win in a row; now holding a world record for that mark. If we can get to 17, we get a big, shiny trophy!
Italy or England loom next. I'll be supporting the Three Lions, 'cos it's not really a tournament unless Germany play England, now is it?
I was extremely fortunate to watch the Denmark match with Uli Hesse, German football writer extraordinaire. As we sat in the Prater Biergarten in Berlin, I was able to pick his footballing brain a bit as I regaled him with my stupid travel stories. As we discussed the first two matches, he gave a special mention – which is noteworthy in its timing – to Jogi Low's tactics. When he asked me about who my starting XI would be, I left out Lukas Podolski (of course) for Andre Schurrle, and instead of Lars Bender starting in place of suspended Jerome Boateng, I had Philipp Lahm moving over with Marcel Schmelzer opposite.
And this is why I'm not Jogi Low.
His tactical decisions have seen Germany escape the Group of Death with all nine points. Replacing Per Mertesacker with Mats Hummels has seen the Borussia Dortmund defender become the revelation of the tournament. His faith in Mario Gomez paid off as the Bayern Munich striker leads the goal-scoring tally with three in three matches. Keeping Podolski on the field culminated in the Arsenal attacker scoring the opener against Denmark, and starting Bender in defence, where he has never played, saw him score the match winner against that same side.
We controlled the match for 70 or so minutes against Portugal, looked to be in the driving seat for much of the Netherlands match except a bit towards the end and I thought was never really in danger of losing to Denmark, despite the questionable defensive side that they put on the field. Low stated: "We knew Denmark would do this. They didn't seem to care about the result."
Astonishingly, we are the only team thus far that has not dropped points. And are sure to face another ultra-defensive Greek side in the quarter-finals on Friday. Low has been up to the task in sorting out opponents who "park the bus" against us. The only knock against the Startelf, I would think, is that we don't defend set-pieces well, using a zonal-marking system on corners. And it continues to be a problem in this tournament, as it was during the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps it's a small price to pay for a team that looks, right now, very complete (and with a deep, deep bench where the likes of Mario Gotze and Marco Reus are failing to get any minutes on the pitch).
Also, there are fitness questions for Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose, which may have cost them their starting places. And Bastian Schweinsteiger laboured through the Portugal and Denmark matches. (He was fabulous against old foes Netherlands, though.)
And a quick note on the supporters. While the charge levelled against the DFB for the fans throwing paper balls on to the field during Portugal set-pieces was funny (I got a good giggle out of that one and feel the €10,000 was a small price to pay), there was more serious charge being levelled against us: the Denmark match saw a German supporter holding up a Neo Nazi banner. Come on, seriously? There are so many generalisations about Germany that to perpetuate that side of history is truly a shame. Respect and tolerance must be the rule of the day.
But, all in all, it's been an enjoyable tournament with Low leading the German charge. I'm confident that his tactics will sort out a Greece side that managed to keep the Russians, the best side in Group A, from progressing. Three matches until we're champions of Europe. That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
I've just landed in Munich, after a furious round of packing, flying and birthday celebrations, and I've had a chance to mull over our not-quite emphatic 1-2 victory over the Oranje. I only say "not quite" because I'll admit to being a little worried the last 20 minutes or so of the match- when Robin van Persie moved to the wing, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was brought on. But I use the word "emphatic" because, while it was only a one-goal win, the difference in class between the two sides was marked.
Bert van Marwijk only made one change to the line-up that went down against Denmark- a defensive one- as Joris Mathijsen was fit to start. Many had expected the Holland skipper to replace van Persie with Huntelaar from the opening whistle. Perhaps his reasoning to keep the Hunter on the bench was due to the knowledge his ex-teammate, Manuel Neuer, has on him?
Meanwhile, Jogi Loew ran out the same starting XI that defeated Portugal on Saturday. Despite Mario Gomez being roundly criticized- after scoring the match winner against the Selaccao, for Pete's sake- Loew gave the Bayern Munich striker another starting chance. And it paid off in spades. Two goals in the first half ought to silence all the detractors, don't you think?
What went right?
I could make this paragraph short and say the first 70 minutes, but there are a few special mentions. Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm did a number on Afellay and Robben, respectively. Mats Hummels has been a revelation in these first two German matches, getting a piece of everything thrown his way. But, this battle was won in the midfield by the wonderful play of Mesut Oezil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira. Basti's only two passes to Mario Gomez in the first half resulted in goals.
What went wrong?
Lukas Podolski continues to be a non-entity. When I think about the match, I can not recall anything positive in his play. It makes we wonder how long Herr Loew will continue to give him respect, as for me, he hasn't done anything in the first two games. Andre Schuerrle is knocking at the door.
When Bert van Marwijk switched up Robin van Persie, making him a ten, things started to go wrong for Germany. But, the Dutch lacked cohesion, despite several good scoring opportunities, and the DFB was able to hang on for a win.
I would have liked to see Jogi make substitutions earlier, and was perplexed by team's evident exhaustion towards the end of the match. Fitness, in the strange Ukrainian weather, continues to be an issue.
Holland is not out. Germany is not in. One of my Dutch friends told me that they have a 12% chance of progressing to the next round. I think the math comes down to Denmark would have to beat us by more than one, and Portugal would have to lose by two. I think.
Although we were a bit shaky defensively towards the end, this was a complete performance by a complete team. And the Oranje seem to have gone back to being, well... Dutch. Gone is their camaraderie that brought them to the World Cup Final in 2010. And, as a German (American), I'm happy to see it go.
But, for now... WE BEAT HOLLAND! And that is (almost) enough for me. The chanting starts directly after the Denmark match.
My original trip to Germany was supposed to start on June 7th. And with that date, I had purchased Holland / Germany tickets because... well, really... why wouldn't you?
Undoubtedly the glamour match of the group stage, and my team involved? Yes, I'll have two tickets, please.
And then I tried to get to Kharkiv.
And then I tried some more. Flights and hotels had been so incredibly price-gouged that it was nearly impossible. At one point, I was considering a flight to Zuerich, then over night to Istanbul (not Constantinople), next day landing in Lviv. And still faced with a long train ride. All for nearly 800 Euro. And that's before lodging.
But, my life got in the way here, and I had to delay my trip for a week (I now leave Thursday). However, I'll make the Denmark match in Berlin, and get to the quarterfinal. I definitely feel like I'm coming out a winner. But, oh! To actually be there in Kharkiv?! It's gonna be fantastic!
I don't think it's necessary to comment on the contentious history- football and otherwise- between these two squads. Frank Rijkaard and Rudy Voeller? Berti Vogts and Johan Cruyff? But, with both teams being ranked top five in all the land? And, a Germany that's playing pretty similar to the Dutch "Total Voetbal" way? It's destined to be a classic.
I think I might be the only person in the world that suggested that Denmark would nick off Holland in their opener. (I will graciously accept my "genius" status for as long as I can.) I don't know why I thought so, but I did. And Denmark did. Group B got a lot more interesting.
Now, Denmark didn't throw ten men in front of goal in the first half, they tried to play football with varying degrees of success. Only after they scored did they start to pull, en masse, in front of goal. And got exceeding lucky that Robin van Persie lacked a final touch. Really, the only guy that was effective offensively for the Dutch was Wesley Sneijder, who could not be stopped by any Dane.
Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands plays in the same 4-2-3-1 formation as the Germans. The coach seems likely to retain the two defensive midfielders, captain Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong in the starting XI even though the pundits have been clamouring for Rafael van der Vaart to start there, in more of an offensive role. First choice centre-back Joris Mathijsen was back in training and is expected to get the starting nod over Ron Vlaar. And up front, the coach is expected to start Klaas-Jan Huntelaar over Robin Van Persie, who Bert would move out to a wide position opposite Arjen Robben.
Netherlands Projecting Starting XI: Stekelenburg - Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Willems - N. De Jong, Van Bommel - Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie - Huntelaar
On Jogi Loew's side of things, even though he stated that he could make changes, I don't think it's likely here. Lukas Podolski will get about 45 minutes to show what faith the coach has in him, but I think it's likely he's the first to be subbed out for Andre Schuerrle.
Say what you want about Mario Gomez, but he's earned his right to stay up front. While his chances were few in the Portugal match, he did score the winner and had a goal disallowed. However, if he doesn't get on the scoresheet, you will see Miroslav Klose.
Germany Projected Starting XI: Neuer - Boateng , Hummels , Badstuber , Lahm - Khedira , Schweinsteiger - Mueller , Oezil , Podolski – Gomez
The best possible thing to happen before this match is the Dutch have started their famous infighting already. Factions for Huntelaar, factions for Van Persie... And a crybaby Van der Vaart who inexplicably gave an interview stating that Germany only had three "world class" players- Oezil, Schweinsteiger and Goetze. Silly Rafael, you're not making it any easier for your wife to work in Germany, now are you? I think I can safely say that his statements were completely disregarded, but I hope it gives all of our world class players on the pitch a little impetus to prove him wrong.
This is a must-win for the Netherlands. And we can play the spoilers and send our arch-rivals home early. I am salivating at the prospect! However, with that being said, we may face a Dutch side like the 2010 World Cup- a slashing, destructive side playing with their backs against a wall.
Swedish millionaire referee, Jonas Eriksson, hands out an average of four yellows a match. I would think the total will be higher here. Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber will have to be careful as their bookings would cause them both to miss the Denmark match on Sunday.
The final before the final? Deutschland, are you ready to rumble?
The inflatable kiddie pools- I mean "stadiums", and the hats with streamers have left the pitch, Lewandowski just scored the goal of the tournament - so far, and I'm finding it incredibly difficult to concentrate on writing this preview. Thank Kahn! I have my lucky German football floppy hat to get me through!
I thought I'd catch a lot of flak for saying that Portugal may only get a couple of points out of Group B - at best, but I'm not sure anyone actually read my introductory blog. Certainly not any Portuguese. My heart is broken. Germany's opening match against a Seleccao is tricky. He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is almost certain to get on the scoresheet, I'd be surprised if he didn't. But, I'd be absolutely shocked if die Mannschaft didn't come away with three points.
Portugal have improved since Paulo Bento's takeover from Carlos Queiroz. But, with the upturn in form has also come some rather unsavoury behind-the-scenes dust-ups; notably defenders Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho being left out of the squad. That being said, it's still a rather formidable back-four with Joao Pereira, Bruno Alves, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao; adding Rui Patricio in goal.
Sitting in front of the backline is Miguel Veloso who distributes the ball to Raul Meireles on the right and Jose Moutinho on the left. Meireles on the right- Portugal's weaker side due to the left-side pairing of Coentrao and Cristiano Ronaldo- moves more freely in attack than Moutinho; and the closest thing Portugal's got to a playmaker.
The attack will either feature Helder Postiga or Hugo Almeida up-front, with Nani on the right and Ronaldo on the left. Obviously, like I said before, the left is the stronger side going forward, but can also be caught out of position on the fast break. Thomas Mueller, with his good positional sense, should be able to exploit that...
...Which brings us to Germany. Manuel Neuer is, obviously, between the sticks for Deutschland, and it will be up to him to manage/cover mistakes in communication that are sure to happen between the back four. He'll have to be at his sharpest, especially in set-pieces, as Ronaldo is ever a threat.
Jerome Boateng may not feature on the right, after Jogi Loew busted him being out in the early morning hours before they left for Poland. And, here's where I say, "Jogi, Jerome doesn't even drink. Who cares about a lack of Zzzzz's?!" Herr Loew has been practicing with Lars Bender at right-back, although I think that's hardly wise, considering he'll be facing Ronaldo. Per Mertesacker, recently fit, and Holger Badstuber will be holding down the middle, with captain Philipp Lahm on the left.
Sami Khedira plays a bit behind, fit again, Bastian Schweinsteiger, although both are free to run box-to-box. While Germany is lately a pressing / possession squad, these two will have to be mindful of quick counters by Portugal- closing down space in front of our backline quickly.
A pre-and probably post-tournament favourite for Best Player, Mesut Oezil as playmaker has zero down-side. Positionally aware, with wonderful ball distribution and completely unselfish inside the box. On the right side, Thomas Mueller will be ready to pounce on any defensive errors by Coentrao. And on the left, Lukas Podolski will start, although he's been often replaced by Andre Schuerrle- whose offensive presence is almost immediately felt whenever he's subbed in. Lukas needs to jump on to the scoreboard early to retain his starting position.
Conundrum of the Startelf? Who will start up front? My bet is that Jogi will start Miroslav Klose and use Mario Gomez as a second-half substitution. Depending on the form of either, this is subject to change throughout the tournament. That being said, Klose / Podolski have a great understanding, and Gomez / Schuerrle have worked well as second-half subs. And yeah, Oezil plays well with everyone.
Nani, with some misplaced sense of bravado, recently remarked, "If we are feeling anxiety, they will feel it too, because they will be playing against Portugal, they know who they will be playing against and what Portugal have. I have been hearing a lot of things about Germany, Netherlands and Denmark, but they must have heard about Portugal, too."
Well, suuuuuuuuure... We've heard of Portugal, no doubt. But with an 8-5-3 record against you? And a 2008 quarterfinal win? Nani, you'd better hope your foot is totally healed. 'Cos we'll be coming at you.
Auf gehts, 'Schland!