The best and worst of Euro 2012 (cont.)
Most Dysfunctional Team: Holland
Dishonorable mention: France
This is a tough one. France at least managed to win one game, which is more than can be said for the Dutch. The Netherlands was unlucky against Denmark, sloppy against Germany and downright awful against Portugal. By the time the third game was under way, the division in the camp was plain to see. The Dutch press had a field day after the team's elimination, alleging the squad was split into camps supporting either Wesley Sneijder or Robin van Persie, while Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar moaned from the sidelines about a lack of chances. When those chances came against Portugal, it only vindicated coach Bert van Marwijk's decision to leave them out in the first place.
Van Marwijk resigned shortly after the Dutch returned home.
Biggest disappointment, individual: Robin van Persie, Netherlands
Honorable mentions: Wojciech Szczesny, Poland; Wayne Rooney, England.
OK, so Van Persie did score in Holland's loss to Germany, a decent goal but it was no more than a consolation that briefly lifted the gloom of this Dutch campaign. But it was what preceded that was the problem.
Van Persie fluffed a handful of chances against Denmark, the missed two chances to score in the first 15 minutes in the second crucial group against Germany. The first was a volley he scuffed straight at Manuel Neuer, the kind of chance he would have buried for Arsenal last season, when he won the Premier League's Golden Boot.
His relationship with Wesley Sneijder was once again put under the spotlight by the Dutch press after Holland's exit. Arsenal fans, meanwhile, worried about his contract situation, jokily hoped that his performances would put off clubs wanting to sign him this summer.
Most surprising former player to be invoked in the knock-out stages: Antonin Panenka
Panenka never gets mentioned until a player attempts a slow-chipped penalty down the middle of the goal, something that the Czech international did for the first time to beat West Germany in a shootout in the Euro 1976 final.
In successive knockout matches, though, two players pulled off Panenka penalties and both succeeded. First, Italy's Andrea Pirlo felt that Joe Hart was an intimidating stopper in the England goal in its quarterfinal, so his 'cucchiaio' was intended to lessen his presence, but it had a knock-on effect -- it rattled the next England taker, Ashley Young, whose shot hit the bar.
The next match to be played, Spain's semifinal against Portugal, also went to penalties: Sergio Ramos scored his 'Panenka' and the next up, Bruno Alves, also hit the bar. What did we learn from that? That the risky strategy, when it pays off, can be very useful: not just bringing your team back into the shootout (both Italy and Spain had missed their spot-kicks first) but to destabilize the opposition as well.
Most surprising disappearing act: Russia
Dishonorable mentions: Germany, France
Russia lit up day one of the tournament with a 4-1 thumping of Czech Republic, and there were hopes that this Andrei Arshavin- and Alan Dzagoev-inspired team might repeat its achievement of reaching the Euro 2008 semifinal.
It proved to be short-lived. Russia could not beat Poland, then crashed and burned in a shock 1-0 loss to Greece to fall from the top of Group A to third.
The fallout continues: Coach Dick Advocaat was at the end of his contract; FA president Sergei Fursenko also resigned in disgrace after a meeting with president Vladimir Putin. Fabio Capello is reportedly a candidate to replace Advocaat, but no appointment will be made until Fursenko's successor is in place.
Most likely to be overpaid in the transfer market: Mario Mandzukic, Croatia
Croatian striker Mandzukic signed with Bayern Munich last week, but until he scored three goals in Croatia's first two group games, the Bavarian giant had not shown interest. In fact, Mandzukic thought he was heading to Everton in the summer, to join up with international teammate Nikica Jelavic; a fee of €7M had already been agreed with his club Wolfsburg, according to the Croatian press.
Three goals later (one of which, against Ireland, actually came off the post and the back of Shay Given's head before going in) and Wolfsburg suddenly raised its asking-price to €15M. That ended Everton's interest, and Bayern swooped in. The fee remains "undisclosed" but you can be sure it is more than the initial fee quoted.
Most Dramatic Substitution: Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine vs. Sweden
Honorable mention: Przemyslaw Tyton, Poland vs. Greece
In the end, the match mattered little, but for those present at Ukraine's opening game in Donetsk, it was a moment of pure emotion.
No one expected Shevchenko to start against Sweden, but the captain did more than that: He scored two second-half goals to lead the co-hosts past Sweden, and also secured his place in Ukraine's record books as the only man to be the team's youngest and oldest scorer. When Shevchenko was replaced by Artem Milevskiy after 81 minutes, the stadium rose to his feet and gave praise not just for those two goals, but for his whole career.
Polish keeper Tyton deserves mention for the penalty save against the Greeks with his first touch, which helped him keep his place for the rest of the tournament.
Best Display of Emotion: Giorgios Karagounis, Greece vs. Russia
Honorable mentions: Mario Balotelli kissing adoptive mother Silvia; Slaven Bilic kissing a pitch invader; Gigi Buffon singing the national anthem
The Greek captain only played three matches but what an impact he had. Karagounis missed a penalty in the opening-game draw with Poland, and was booked in the same game; in the group decider, he scored what proved to be Greece's winning goal against Russia, and soon after was tripped in the area by Ignashevich and demanded a penalty. When he didn't get it, and was booked for diving, he couldn't believe it. The tantrum that followed was amazing to watch, especially from a 35-year-old with 120 caps to his name. Karagounis was subbed off before the yellow became a red, and, just like he was suspended from the Euro 2004 final, he missed the quarterfinal loss to Germany.
Best Quote: Sweden manager Erik Hamren
"The operation went well, but the patient died." That was Hamren's reaction to Sweden's 3-2 defeat to England and elimination after match two. Sweden had played well and were briefly ahead in the game, hence the coach's positive slant. Sweden captain Ibrahimovic was more succinct: "I don't give a sh*t who wins this tournament now, I'm going on holiday," he said.
Notable mentions also go to Russian captain Arshavin, who told fans on arriving back in Moscow after a group-stage elimination: "If we did not fulfill your expectations, that's your problem, not ours." Former Ireland captain Roy Keane had an enjoyable spat with coach Giovanni Trapattoni. When Keane said after Ireland's second defeat in two matches, "No player has come out of the two games with any credit. That's why there should be 11 changes against Italy," Trapattoni responded: "[Keane] was a great player. Now, he's a coach, he should focus on getting results."
Most Blatant Display of Nudity: England fan Tim O'Leary, England vs. Italy
Honorable mention: Sweden reserve goalkeeper Johan Wiland.
Wiland must have thought he had this in the bag when he dropped his shorts and bared his backside for Sweden's players to take pot-shots at before it played England in Group D. Wiland had lost a training-ground bet and this was his punishment, though it caused a scandal back home -- with anti-bullying groups protesting and the Prime Minister stepping in.
But the award goes to O'Leary, a 35-year-old England fan standing directly behind the goal who dropped his shorts, baring himself full-frontal, just as Alessandro Diamanti stepped up to take Italy's decisive penalty in its shootout victory. O'Leary was wearing a full England kit -- including boots and shin-pads, for some reason -- and later told The Sun newspaper: "I would do anything to see England win."
Team of the Tournament:
I like a challenge and have limited myself to only one player per team. That means I can't include Andrea Pirlo and Balotelli, for example, or Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta. The formation is 4-2-3-1, as that's what most of the teams in Poland and Ukraine are playing. Feel free to disagree!
GK: Przemyslaw Tyton, Poland: The Poland reserve keeper was an unlikely hero when he saved Karagounis's spot-kick with his first touch. He then did so well against Russia that he kept out Wojciech Szczesny for the final group game. And this was meant to be Szczesny's big moment.
Right Back: Theodor Gebre Selassie, Czech Republic: There was a buzz about the Czech fullback before the tournament, and he was one of Euro 2012's breakout stars. Excellent going forward, solid in defense, he tied up a €2M move to Werder Bremen last week, which looks like very good business by the German side.
Center Back: Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Greece: Not even a starter entering the tournament, the Schalke youngster came on after Avraam Papadopoulos was injured and impressed throughout. He's only 20 but with a debt Champions League campaign behind him, he's going to be a star of the future.
Center Back: Laurent Koscielny, France: He only got his chance in France's quarterfinal against Spain, but played so well that we were left questioning Laurent Blanc's wisdom in sticking with his Philippe Mexès-Adil Rami partnership, which looked shaky on occasion. Koscielny proved he is now ready to be France's first-choice center back.
Left Back: Simon Poulsen, Denmark: The attacking fullback caused Holland and Portugal all sorts of problems going forward, and with the canny Michael Kroen-Dehli finding space ahead of him, it was no surprise that most of Denmark's danger came down the left.
Midfield: Sami Khedira, Germany: There were some excellent performers in the Germany side but Khedira stood out, perhaps because Bastian Schweinsteiger was subpar (and carrying an injury). Khedira developed under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid and was an attacking threat as well as a brilliant defensive holder. His volley against Greece was dramatic, and crucial, too.
Midfield: Steven Gerrard, England: No player came out of England's fairly tame tournament with more credit than its captain. His right-foot delivery set up goals of each England's group games -- the crossing was reminiscent of David Beckham at his best -- but his discipline, leadership and all-around game were there to see. A shame his teammates couldn't meet the same standard.
Attacking midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal: The Portugal captain threatened to make this competition his own by destroying Holland and Czech Republic to reach the semifinal. But Ronaldo fell just short against Spain; for all his shots on goal, he failed to hit the target and test Iker Casillas. The same was true, bafflingly, in the shootout, as Portugal exited without a Ronaldo moment.
Attacking midfield: Luka Modric, Croatia: The pre-tournament knock on Modric was that he never turns up for international football but even the craziest Croatian would have revised that opinion. Modric ran the game against Ireland and was a danger to Italy. Against Spain, he nearly kept Croatia alive with one of the best crosses of the tournament; alas Ivan Rakitic could only head it straight at Casillas, sealing Croatia's early exit.
Attacking midfield: Andres Iniesta, Spain: On a team that has battled with the unfair label of being boring ('dominant' would be a better word), Iniesta has provided the moments of levity, of relief, of brilliance. France picked two right backs to stop him but he still found a way to split them to set up the first goal; he then moved over to the right to have more fun. Iniesta, more than Xavi and David Silva, provided the creative spark that kept Spain going.
Forward: Mario Balotelli, Italy: Why Always Me? Because, Mario, you have been brilliant, even before the momentous double strike against Germany in the semifinal. Dangerous, if profligate, against Spain and England, Balotelli has been the standout forward when it has mattered -- yes, Mario Gomez, Dzagoev, Ronaldo and Torres also scored goals -- and at just 21, it is scary to think what Balotelli can achieve. If he avoids those unnecessary yellow cards every time he scores, that is. He is my Italian pick ahead of Pirlo because the other centre-forwards fall so short in comparison.