Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Upsets unlikely in Under-21 semi-finals
Michael Huguenin, Aarhus
Each of the semi-finals at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Denmark will pit a serious challenger for the title against a team that possibly shouldn't be there.
Switzerland and Spain went through their groups undefeated and are widely expected to progress to the final in Aarhus on June 25. The other two, Czech Republic and Belarus, however, are in patchy form at best.
Czech Republic coach Jakub Dovalil has admitted his side are lucky to still be involved. The Czechs left it late on Sunday to beat England and clinch a place in the knockout stages and it may have been their second win, but they were far from convincing against Stuart Pearce's charges. After defending for most of the second half, Dovalil brought on strikers Jan Chramosta and Tomas Pekhart in the 83rd minute and both substitutes scored to beat England 2-1.
"We brought in Chramosta for the first time in the championship and he decided the game," Dovalil explained after his side's win over the Young Lions. "So it was very important for us, when we were behind 1-0 that we didn't panic. Then we were very lucky in the last few minutes."
Chramosta was the fourth of six strikers in Dovalil's squad to get time on the pitch in Denmark. Both Pekhart and Libor Kozak have started as the lead striker in Dovalil's regular 4-1-4-1 system but neither of the tall forwards has particularly impressed when receiving aerial passes.
The Czech midfield's excellent short passing and Chramosta's impressive ten-minute cameo against England are both good reasons for Dovalil to consider a switch in Herning on Wednesday night. The Swiss defence are yet to be beaten and simply hitting the ball long won't cut it.
A front two of Chramosta, who also set up Pekhart on Sunday night, and 19-year-old Vaclav Kadlec, could try and break down the compact Swiss system with speed and guile. Kadlec is the youngest ever scorer for the senior national team and has been rated the most talented Czech player to emerge since Tomas Rosicky. But the Sparta Prague starlet has yet to play in Denmark.
Dovalil's Swiss counterpart, Pierluigi Tami has made few changes to his starting line up at the finals so far but will be without key midfielder Granit Xhaka against the Czechs. Xhaka picked up a one-match suspension in Switzerland's 3-0 win over Belarus on Saturday after his second yellow card of the tournament.
Xhaka, an 18-year-old with Kosovo Albanian heritage, is part of the multicultural phenomenon taking hold of the Swiss football system. Apart from Xhaka, Innocent Emeghara, Xherdan Shaqiri and Admir Mehmedi are just a few examples in the squad of the new face of Switzerland. Xhaka impressed on his senior debut against England just before the Under-21 finals and the box-to-box midfielder has continued that form in Denmark.
But with five different goal scorers so far in the tournament and impressive substitute performances from the likes of Frank Feltscher and Amir Abrashi against Belarus, Tami seemingly has plenty of options that all fit into his system without a problem. After three wins from three matches, Switzerland head into their semi-final against Czech Republic as firm favourites and have a big chance to go all the way.
The clear tournament favourites, though, are Spain. The two-time champions at this level take on Belarus in Viborg.
The Spanish have averaged 63% possession in their three group matches and it is expected that will continue against a Belarusian side that prefers to counter attack. Despite the impressive possession stats, Spain have often dropped into second gear after half-time and seemingly switched off mentally.
The negative aspect of that was seen in Spain's opening match against England when Danny Welbeck was allowed to score a late equaliser, but a positive view says this Spanish side can still improve; a scary concept for their Under-21 rivals.
While Thiago Alcantra took the plaudits in Spain's opener, Juan Mata has grown as the tournament has progressed and has established himself as the real key of the Spanish side. The Valencia winger showed his creative capabilities against Czech Republic, setting up Adrian's two goals in the 2-0 victory. Then against Ukraine on Sunday, Mata proved he also knows how to hit the back of the net himself as he scored a double in the 3-0 triumph.
Belarus will certainly be under pressure. The Eastern Europeans have never played in the semi-finals after two previous appearances at the tournament, while Spain have 12 different players who have already won a European youth title at Under-17 or Under-19 level.
Belarus only won one match in the group stage, a 2-1 victory over Iceland. In that match goalkeeper Aleksandr Gutor was brilliant between the posts and coach Georgi Kondratyev will no doubt be hoping the 22-year-old is back to that form against Spain's plethora of attacking options.
Gutor was beaten at his near post in Belarus' final group match against the Swiss but pulled off a number of great stops against Iceland and senior national team coach Bernd Stange has nominated the BATE Borisov 'keeper as one he wants involved in his squads in the future. If Belarus have any hopes of causing a massive upset, one feels that Gutor will have to have the game of his life.