And so, just like that, Euro 2008 is a new tournament. Eight teams. Single elimination. Let’s play ball.
Twenty-four opening-round games have given us the match-ups for four quarterfinals in the next four days:
Thursday: Portugal vs. Germany (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Friday: Croatia vs. Turkey (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Saturday: Netherlands vs. Russia (2:45 p.m. ET, ABC).
Sunday: Spain vs. Italy (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Portugal vs. Germany. Thanks to Germany’s stumble against Croatia, these two pre-tournament favorites have an earlier-than-expected date in the quarters. There’s no denying that the Portuguese first-string has performed better than Germany’s, and you’d think that Portugal’s ability to rest its stars for the last group game gives it another advantage over the Germans, who are still dealing with aches and pains from their game against Austria just three days ago (including Törsten Frings’s broken rib and Lukas Podolski’s bruised calf).
But this German team will be ready and adrenalized, not least because it appears that Bastian Schweinsteiger will finally get to start at left midfield, moving Podolski up front (in place of the hugely disappointing Mario Gómez) alongside Miroslav Klose. As for Portugal, I’m not expecting any changes in their first unit, even though I wouldn’t mind seeing Nani or Ricardo Quaresma in place of Simão on the wing.
Bottom line is this: if Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player in the world, it’s go-time to show it. Whether Ronaldo is attacking down the left side (against probable German right back Arne Friedrich) or in the center (against Frings, Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker), he’s going to have to continue working effective combinations with Deco and Nuno Gomes and being a lethal finisher.
As for Germany, Michael Ballack improved from his Croatia nightmare against Austria, but he’ll have a harder road today against the underrated spine of the Portuguese defense (holding-mid Petit and defenders Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho). If Portugal can limit the number of set-pieces it gives up in its own end it will have a huge impact on the game. Germany’s masterful set-piece execution makes up for deficiencies in other areas, and if you’re Portugal you don’t want to see goalkeeper Ricardo flailing around on corner-kicks and free-kicks into the box.
When it comes down to it, I think we’ll see some more Ronaldo magic (with a big assist from Deco), and the Portuguese defense will come up big without giving up too many dangerous German set-pieces. Portugal 2, Germany 0.
CHECKING BACK ON OUR PRE-TOURNAMENT PICKS
There’s a long way to go yet, but if you take a look back at my pre-tournament predictions I’m not doing badly at all. The Blog nailed seven of the eight quarterfinalists, hitting on Russia, Croatia and the Netherlands and Italy from the Group of Death while missing only on Switzerland (instead of Turkey) from Group A.
I also have Portugal and the Netherlands in the final with the Portuguese taking the whole thing. Anything can happen in the knockout rounds, of course, but you could argue that Portugal and the Netherlands have been the two most impressive teams of the tournament at full strength, which not many folks would have expected beforehand (especially from the Dutch).
Anyway, I’m sure all this strenuous back-patting will come back to haunt me, but here’s my favorite reader comment from that column. We’d love to hear what “SanguineTeddy” has to say about this now:
I think even predicting that Holland will make it out of the group stage is incredibly ridiculous. There are literally advertisements in Europe for Fiat cars, advertising their speed, saying, “be home quicker than the Dutch team.” If the Dutch make it to the quarterfinals, I will legitimately worship SI and never question them again. However, as it stands, I think that not being in Europe has addled SI's understanding of European soccer.
Can any of you come up with suggestions on good ways for SanguineTeddy to “legitimately worship SI”? Who do you like in today’s game? And was anyone else a little disappointed by Argentina and Brazil’s 0-0 last night? (I still can’t for the life of me understand the appeal of Julio Cruz.)
Please post your comments below and check back after the game for reaction to Portugal-Germany ...