We’re two-thirds of the way through the group stage of Euro 2012 and if you listen hard, you can hear the rumbling fury of the knockouts coming. Soon, there will be no playoff math, no depending on other games going your way. There will only be winning and going home. For now, though, only one team is guaranteed one of the eight spots in the next round - Germany - and only two teams are statistically eliminated - Ireland and Sweden. Here’s a look at how the second round of group games went.
Game of the Round: Sweden vs. England
This was always going to be a good one, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Swedes needing a result to stay alive and the English, as always, struggling to translate great individual talents into a great team performance. But with Wayne Rooney still out for suspension, and Sweden having been held to a single goal against Ukraine, I don’t think anyone expected such a wild high-scoring game as the one we got. There were five goals (3-2 to England), three lead changes, two of the saves of the tournament from the overworked Swedish keeper - in short, there was everything you’d want in a game. The bar for attractive football is set pretty high now.
Best Team of the Round: Germany
Yes, Spain is an immensely talented team, and yes, they did win 4-0, but they did it over an Irish side that only really played one half of football. Germany own the only perfect record in the tournament and the only guaranteed knockout spot despite playing against two of the ten best teams in the world, Portugal and the Netherlands. This time out, Bastian Schweinsteiger reminded us just how good he still is, running the German attack without seeming to move himself. He was a true midfield conductor, and that is a rare thing even in today’s skill-soaked game.
Worst Team (again): Ireland. The fans are having a great time, but the team just isn’t good enough to compete at this level. The Irish will be back, but the last stand of the old guard of Robbie Keane and Shay Given has been a pretty poor one.
Biggest Statement Win: France 2-0 Ukraine
After Laurent Blanc took over and cleaned up the mess that Raymond Domenech had left him in the French national side, we have seen a return to glory for Les Bleus. This week, they passed a major milestone for the team, the first win in a major tournament for them since the 2006 World Cup. They did it over a Ukraine side that was playing at home, a team that had already beaten Sweden, and they did it with a clean sheet. The French are back, and with a 23-game undefeated streak running back to late 2010, they will be afraid of no one at this tournament.
My Starting Eleven:
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Defenders: Pepe (Portugal), Richard Dunne (Ireland), Olof Mellberg (Sweden), Gael Clichy (France)
Midfield: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Thomas Hubschmann (Czech Republic), Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
Forwards: Nicklas Bendtner (Denmark), Mario Gomez (Germany), Fernando Torres (Spain)
Neuer has been solid in his opening two games, and the fact that he has very few highlight-reel saves says more about his fantastic positioning than any lack of athleticism. It’s strange to put two defenders on this list that conceded a total of 7 goals between them, but Dunne for Ireland and Mellberg for Sweden were bright spots in otherwise very shaky defenses. Without Dunne in particular, Spain might have set some scoring records, and Mellberg created both of Sweden’s goals. Gael Clichy was a revelation for France, and every time he pushed forward, he pushed the entire French side in front of him. Schweinsteiger and Pirlo were masters in the central midfield, and Pirlo turned back the clock to show us one of his classic free kick goals. Hubschmann likewise was the start of every move forward for the Czechs. Bendtner, Gomez and Torres scored twice each, with Torres looking confident for the first time in maybe two years. If he stays that way, with the Spanish midfield behind him, beware.