My gut tells me this is the match Spain will lose. Portugal is primed for the upset. Portugal has the offensive and defensive stars and a competent midfield. Unlike Spain, they have come through a very tough group stage. Ronaldo is in form. Spain, regardless of what Silva says, is not as good as the prior versions. I really am hoping Spain go a goal down so we can see what they are really made of. Who will be Spain’s Messi/Ronaldo/Villa if they have to claw their way back?
Why Portugal will win
- Portugal’s midfield is well balanced with a holding midfielder in Veloso, the box-to-box work rate of Meireles and the creativity of Moutinho – all played a part in setting up Ronaldo’s winning goal against the Czechs. They can keep possession well enough against Spain’s midfield press. Hopefully Bento doesn’t try to change the lineup and remove the striker for an extra midfielder.
- Ronaldo is due to have a big game against Real Barspana. He buried his Barca demons during his last match at the Nou Camp and you know he wants to pay Spain back for World Cup 2010. He will dominate Arbeloa. Yes, Arbeloa knows Ronaldo from practicing every day at Real Madrid – as do Sergio Ramos and Xabi who will help Arbeloa out on Spain’s right side. However, Ronaldo knows those three and Iker Casillas also. He will relish going against them …and Pique. Why? Because this time, Spain doesn’t have Puyol to bail them out. The added benefit of having Coentrao behind Ronaldo is that Busquets will have to shade more to the right, leaving Alba one on one with Nani. Alba has shown good speed, but Nani’s trickery is cause for concern. The big questions for Portugal are which of Almeida or Oliveira start up front, and can either take advantage of the service from the wing? My money would be on the bigger and more experienced Almeida who can give Ramos and Pique fits in the air.
- Pepe and Alves have been solid on the ground. In the air is where Portugal has had problems against Mario Gomez and Bendtner. Spain doesn’t have an aerial threat, notwithstanding Xabi’s standing header.
- I will repeat what I wrote from the France match – Spain is not the usual Spain. Puyol and Villa’s absence has hurt them at critical positions and Xavi is not playing at his normal high level. Everything is just a little off for the Spaniards and there is unease about how well Ramos and Pique will perform together in the middle if they are put under real pressure. Their dislike of each other is common knowledge and the last thing Spain needs at the knockout stage. Yes, they dominated France, but that was a function of the lineup France put out there. However, who, besides Ireland, has Spain blown away in this tournament? No one. If you sit back, play defensively and Spain will wear you down. Portugal will not make that mistake. The only team that has kept Portugal off the board in this tournament is Germany – and that took major heroics at the end of the game to do so. Portugal will show Spain the toughest test to date and if it stays close late the pressure, and two fewer days of rest, will tell on Spain.
Why Spain will win
- Spain seemed a lot more assured against France. They were never really threatened and adequately defended the threat of Ronaldo Light – Ribery. If Spain dominates the ball, and more importantly eliminate any real pressure on Casillas, Ronaldo will get frustrated, drop deeper and into the middle to get the ball, which means he then has a longer way to go to score. That will play into Spain’s hands. It has been the traditional way Barca have stopped Ronaldo.
- Ramos and Pique haven’t really been tested and haven’t really missed having Puyol. The midfield’s possession game has alleviated any real pressure and if Portugal plays three in midfield (while Portugal might get more of the ball than most), they will not be able to keep sustained pressure with two offensive minded wings who need good, wide service to inflict any real damage on Spain.
- Ronaldo hasn’t played as well as everybody thinks he has. Trust me. I’ve seen enough of Ronaldo over the last eight years. He really had one very dominating game – against the Czechs who gave him too much space and time. His first finish against Holland wasn’t clean – and he missed another sitter very similar to the one he put away for the second. He will not get that much time and space against Spain, who have enough bodies to send at him to neutralize his open field speed advantage. Slow Ronaldo down and where is the goal going to come from? Portugal will have to rely on a dead ball to get a score.
- Iniesta. Pereira has had a good tournament, but he is going to struggle against Iniesta. That pulls Pepe out of position to help. Can Xavi and Cesc make them pay?
Pre-match prediction: Spain 1 Portugal 0
My gut is one thing – and I hope it’s right because Germany vs Portugal would be a much better final than a repeat of Euro 2008. That said, my head says the Spanish midfield will be a bit too much and will wear Portugal down. If Portugal doesn’t get a goal from open play, Spain will win this match. Coentrao’s matchup against Silva and/or Cesc will determine the outcome of this game. David Silva to score.
Prevailing logic says that France’s loss to Sweden and their ensuing internal arguments will result in the usual result – France getting summarily eliminated from a major tournament. Normally I’d subscribe to that notion. However, Spain hasn’t been special and France made lineup changes that didn’t work out, so look for Blance to go back to a more familiar lineup when the game kicks off tomorrow. Spain should be slightly favored but a French upset, while not probable, would be only a mild surprise. Spain be hoping this match doesn’t go to extra time – that will hurt them against the well rested Portugese. France will be hoping for penalties.
Why France will win
- Menez and Cabaye will re-enter the lineup replacing Ben Arfa and possibly M’Vila or Diarra. That will provide more offense for France, especially from Menez who was very lively against Ukraine in the group stage. If he has a good game, it will force Jordi Alba to stay back and help even out the imbalance in midfield that any team playing Spain has to face.
- Ribery will dominate Arbeloa. Puyol’s absence has moved Ramos to central defense from the right back slot and his replacement, Alvaro Arbeloa, is competent but slow. Ribery has to have a big game for France to have a chance and he is likely to enjoy going against Arbeloa. Just like Menez, if Ribery has a good game, it will force Silva to drop back to help on defense, thus evening numbers in midfield.
- Benzema has assisted on the majority of the French goals, but has yet to get on the scoresheet. It bodes well for France as he goes against a familiar defense in his club teammates Arbeloa, Ramos and Casillas. The Benz is due.
- Spain is not the usual Spain. Puyol and Villa’s absence has hurt them at critical positions and Xavi is not playing at his normal high level. Everything is just a little off for the Spaniards and there is unease about how well Ramos and Pique will perform together in the middle if they are put under real pressure. Their dislike of each other is common knowledge and the last thing Spain needs at the knockout stage.
Why Spain will win
- France’s undefeated run is over, there is infighting and neither Ribery nor Benzema have scored at Euro 2012. That is a not a great recipe for success at this stage. Spain is seasoned, used to winning and the manner in which they ground out their World Cup win will help them as they get to the business end of this tournament.
- Mexes is suspended which probably means that Koscielny gets the start. While Mexes didn’t cover himself with glory against Sweden, and Koscielny does have more pace and has played well against Messi and Barcelona the last few times they have met in the Champions League, starting at center back in a tournament for the first time in a quarterfinal match against the defending World and European champions is a daunting task for Koscielny. He is prone to making errors and there is a high likelihood that happens again today.
- Spain’s midfield domination will result in France struggling to score. Cabaye or M’Vila have to have huge games in order for Nasri, Ribery, Benzema and Menez to get enough touches to score. That will be tough. Add in the fact that France doesn’t really have aerial threats to score off of dead balls and it just means they will have to have a lot of luck to beat Spain.
- Iniesta. And Cesc. Iniesta has been in great form and Debuchy will struggle to stay with him. Cesc continues to do what he has done so well for Barcelona this past season – score off of well timed late runs into space behind the defense. That should be enough to Spain to win this match.
Pre-match prediction: Spain 1 France 0
Spain will score a goal in the second half and hold France off. Iniesta or Cesc to score for Spain.
Both teams will feel like they have to win. Denmark doesn’t want to have to go into the last game against Germany on four points – defeat to Germany and a win by Portugal against Netherlands could put Denmark potentially out on goal difference. Portugal has got to want to go into the last game knowing that a draw would put them through instead of having to win. A loss will probably end Portugal’s tournament.
Why Denmark will win
- They’ve beaten Portugal in qualifying after having finished ahead of Portugal and qualified directly from their group. They were also in the same group during World Cup 2010 qualifying – their record over these last four matches is 2-1-1. Denmark know they can win.
- In Silberbauer they have someone capable of competing defensively with Cristiano Ronaldo. He did so adequately in the group stage and will have help from Agger, Kjaer and the midfield so he’s not on an island against the best winger in the world. It will be interesting to see if Silberbauer or Poulsen start at left back. They may deal with Nani instead as Ronaldo usually plays on the left with Nani on the right.
- Denmark beat a loaded Dutch team in the first group match and controlled the second half of the game.
- Agger and Kjaer have looked good in the central defense. That gives them enough confidence to deal with Portugal and their still unsolved striker position.
Why Portugal will win
- Denmark did give up a number of chances to Robben and van Persie. While Robben is one of the best right wingers in the world, so is Nani. The difference is you also have Ronaldo to deal with on the weak side when Nani has the ball – will Jacobsen at right back be able to handle Ronaldo? Nani has scored three times against Denmark so the wing position is going to give Denmark trouble.
- They have to in order to have a chance at qualifying.
- Pepe and Bruno Alves did stifle Gomez for the most part and Bendtner shouldn’t be any different. While Eriksen should have more space and time in the middle of the park, he will find it hard to work his magic against the work rate of Meireles and Veloso. Chances will be few for Denmark.
- Ronaldo had a decent game against Germany. However, he didn’t receive the support required to open up more space for him to operate as Portugal played defensively against Germany. That will change against Denmark – expect Ronaldo to be unleashed and move to the middle a lot more. He should have switched flanks with Nani in the last game and gone against the much shorter Lahm. I believe they will be more flexible on the wings this time.
Pre-game prediction: Portugal 1 Denmark 0
Nani scores one for Portugal in a tense but offensive minded match.
Home field advantage is really all Ukraine has going for it and that could be a big factor in an opening game. This is probably the least anticipated game of the first round of games in group stage but it could provide for a fun game as Sweden’s offensive minded scheme comes up against the counter attack tactics that Ukraine will probably deploy.
Why Ukraine will win
- Their wily coach and ex-Russia superstar, Oleg Blokhin, inspires his team to perform way above their capabilities and will employ tactics that keep Ukraine solid defensively and wait for the right opportunity to break against a suspect Swedish defense.
- Home field advantage. You saw the Polish crowd on opening day. This will be as loud and proud.
- Tymoshchuk, Gusev and Voronin are all talented players who can turn a game on their day.
Why Sweden will win
- The offensive talents of Elm, Elmander and Ibrahimovic will be too much for Ukraine
- Ukraine has a big question mark in goal and their best defender and former Barca man, Dmytro Chygrynskiy, is going to miss the tournament due to injury.
- Sebastian Larsson and Ibra are among the best short and long distance free kick specialists, respectively, in the world. Dead ball situations usually decide games in big tournaments such as these.
Pre-match prediction: Sweden 2 Ukraine 1
Sweden will win and this could be a shutout but I believe Voronin can sneak one. Ibra and Elmander to score for Sweden.
Arsenal has a hatful of goals coming. I said it before their last two games and they have scored a bunch of goals in them.
Keys: No De Rossi. Yes, Totti is back, but without De Rossi in midfield, Roma is going to be turned over. Their only chance is if Vucinic has a big game. He is a brilliant and underrated striker. On the other hand, Arsenal is starting to fire on some of their cylinders. It is tough for them not to have the cup tied Arshavin out there for them, but they have more than enough.
Potential surprise game winner: Bendtner or Doni. I just don’t think Mexes and company can handle Arsenal in defense.
Prediction: Arsenal 3 Roma 1
Bayern are going through after their hammering of Sporting Lisbon in the first leg in Lisbon. Only question will be if Ribery starts and if he adds to his tally.
The Villareal game is a bit more tricky. Pana is very tough at home as most Greek teams are and will be even tougher to break down given their two away goals from the first leg. Gilberto and Karagounis are European veterans.
Key: Villareal keeping Pana off the scoreboard. Play like you played at Manchester and keep it tight and hope for Rossi or Pires or Nihat to nick one.
Potential surprise matchwinner: Marcos Senna off a free kick.
Observation: ex-Man United strikers do really well at Villareal – see Forlan and Rossi.
Prediction: I’m changing my mind. 1-1 with Pana going through on away goals.
No Pirlo. Much as I like Aquilani, he’s a different kind of player. Maybe the way to make up for Pirlo is to start the entire Roma midfield and have De Rossi and Perrotta along with Aquilani to support a threesome of Toni, Del Piero/Cassano (I prefer Del Piero in this game) and Camoranesi. That should give Italy enough bodies in midfield and a set of younger, more dynamic midfielders who have had a good season in Serie A. All this to say that that is the only way Italy are going to be able to beat Spain. Jam up the middle of the park, play Italian catenaccio football and hope for Toni to convert a header off a deadball situation. The weakness of the Spanish team is the center of defense where Marchena and Puyol (or Albiol if Puyol is still out injured) cannot match up with Toni. I give the Italians a 30% chance of winning – and given my predictive powers in the quarters, that would guarantee them a spot in the semi final.
Spain should just continue doing what they have been doing. Dominate ball possession and rely on Torres and Villa to score goals. Italy’s defense is uncharacteristically weak – Panucci (the usual right back) is the leader in the middle and plays with Chiellini, the lowest ranked central defender in the squad (Materazzi, Cannavaro and Barzagli are all injured). Grosso is good at left back, but more known for going forward, and Zambrotta has had an average tournament. Unfortunately, for Spain, they are backed up by Buffon. If I were Arragones, I would not start Xavi and Iniesta together. I would have Senna, Cesc, Xabi Alonso and Xavi to go with Torres and Villa up front. Drop Silva and Iniesta. Xabi and Senna are good holding midfielders and will counter the Italian midfield, while Cesc is a very tough two way player and will support them at the defensive end. Cesc, Xavi and Xabi are all great passers and you are going to need all of them so the Italians can’t focus on shutting Xavi down. Silva hasn’t done much in this tournament. If you are behind, then bring on Iniesta and Silva, but otherwise, go with this lineup.
Pre-game prediction: Spain 2 Italy 1
It’s time for Torres to show the world what he has learned in England and impose himself physically on the Italian defense…