Sunday, June 22, 2008

Follow the Leader

Germany 3, Portugal 2.

Turkey 3, Croatia 1 on penalty kicks.

Russia 3, Netherlands 1 in added extra time.

Oh how the mighty have fallen!


In all these examples, the teams that finished top of their respective groups at the Euro 2008 soccer championship - Group A winners Portugal, Group B winners Croatia, Group C winners Netherlands - were soundly beaten (and one could easily say "upset" in the cases of Croatia and The Netherlands) by the second-place qualifiers from the other groups. The lesson is clear: play "Follow the Leader" and your team will do OK in the knock-out stages.

It's the first time since the European Championships switched to this format in 1996 that three Group Leaders were toppled in the knock-out round, and a fourth team could have been added to the list on Sunday, June 22, as Group D leaders Spain - a perfect and impressive 3 for 3 in their opening round of play - met just-barely-qualified Group C runnerups Italy in a match that went to penalty picks after a scoreless first 120 minutes.

Spain Avoids the Swoon-in-June

Oh Fab, I'm Glad: Cesc Fabregas' kick puts Spain through

For Spain, June 22 is a day that had lived in infamy - until now. Before this past Sunday, Spain had suffered three soul-sapping penalty shooutout losses in the quarter-finals of a major tournament. The June 22 jinx covered a 22-year period, including a 1986 World Cup loss to Belgium, a Euro 96 defeat against England, and a 2002 World Cup ouster at the hands (well, feet) of South Korea following a scoreless draw after 120 minutes.

And now at Euro 2008, it looked like this year's stylish and talent-overstocked Spanish squad would suffer the nightmare again against a cynical and defensive Italian team that - minus its A.C. Milan midfield stars Gennaro Gattuso (the defensive bulldog whose roughneck style reminds me of a cross between John Belushi in Animal House and The Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brothers cartoons) and Andrea Pirlo (creative midfield general and "Bend-it-like-Beckham-only-better" free-kick specialist who bears an uncanny resemblance to The Fonz) - played for penalty kicks right from the start until the final whistle blew. It was 0-0 and the Italians, who won the 2006 World Cup after a penalty shootout with France (in another cynical display of play - I still think they only won the Cup because Zidane was sent off for his infamous head-butt), had what they wanted and the Spanish had exactly what they didn't want. After all, the Spaniards are small and play with flair, while the Italians are big and methodical. And their height presented tactical and strategic problems for the Spaniards. Every time a long ball went to Luca Toni, he towered over Puyol or Sergio Ramos. Likewise, Fabio Grosso looked like a hawk swarming down on a worm whenever he draped himself over David Villa.

But the Italians lost it - and rightly so - on the penalty kicks they held out for from the opening whistle. The Azzuri missed two and Arsenal star Cesc Fabregas stepped up to hammer home the decider past the formidable Gianluigi Buffon. Spain 4-2. The soccer Gods let justice prevail. Even with an inept ref, Simon Cowell-lookalike Herbert Fandel, doing his best to let the Italians get away with their bullying beat-down on David Villa, Fernando Torres and David Silva any time they got close to the penalty box.

Simon Says "This guy makes ME look bad!"

Any ref not sufferering from vision impairment would have awarded at least one, possibly two, penalty kicks, as David Silva had a defender stomp on his foot inside the penalty box and David Villa was pulled to the ground by a jersey-tugging Grosso on another challenge. Yet the ref administered yellow cards to David Villa for diving and to Iniesta for a harmless challenge. As ESPN commentator Andy Gray remarked, "Hopefully FIFA won't let this ref work any more games."


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