Even Spain, the holders and overall favourites, have steadily run out of steam, looking increasingly weary and laborious in their wholly undeserved win against Croatia. There was substantial doubt about their very late winning goal against an unlucky Croatia who, in fact, had the best two strikes of the game, each time to be thwarted by fine saves from Iker Casillas, as good a goalkeeper as ever.
And was there a better player on the field than the supremely talented Luka Modric, a coruscating playmaker at a time when, Spain fact apart, and Italy’s Pirlo perhaps another (general), creative inside forwards are so few. Simply to call a player like Modric a midfielder is wholly imprecise. Remember that when the Brazilians brought 4-2-4 to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden they carefully differentiated between the two men in the middle; one a half back, the other (Didi) a “schemer.”
The Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque was the first to admit that his heroes were tired. It remains to be seen whether he will persist with Fernando Torres as an orthodox centre forward. Torres had an abysmal game as substitute against Italy, missing two excellent chances, rose from the ashes against Ireland, scoring two good goals, while he was hardly worse than anybody else in his side against Croatia.
Greece’s astonishing victory against the much-fancied Russians, whom even the resuscitated Andrei Arshavin (will Arsenal take him back from loan to Zenit?) unable to save the game, was blemished by a wretched refereeing decision. Giorgos Karagounis, veteran survivor of the remarkable Greek team which won in Portugal eight years ago, the scorer of the winning goal, quite out of the blue, against Russia, was most unjustly penalised with a yellow card by an inept referee in the Swede, Eriksson, when it should have been plain enough that it was Karagounis who was fouled and deserved to be given a penalty. So Karagounis was ruled out of the difficult match against Germany.
A team which had anything but an easy passage in their last group game against Denmark, after taking the lead. But significantly poor German defending at a corner allowed that lively opportunist, Michael Krohn-Dehli, to equalise. And there was reason to think that the Danes should have been given a penalty, just before the Germans surged to the other end to score the winner through the young right back, Lars Bender. Germany look better attacking than defending.
The Dutch, beaten 2010 World Cup finalists, didn’t look too good in either department, and seem to have passed their meridian. At 35-years-old it might have been expected that Mark van Bommel would fade as he did, but the relative ineffectuality of Robin Van Persie, even if he scored that very late and irrelevant goal against Portugal with his weaker right foot, was a negative factor. By contrast, the Portuguese, who are perhaps favourites now to beat the Czechs, have steadily improved, in the image of Cristiano Ronaldo. Having inexplicably missed that simple, unmarked, point blank, chance in the previous game against the Danes. He was in supreme form against Holland, scoring twice in inimitable style and hitting the woodwork, into the bargain.
Italy’s manager, Cesare Prandelli, has successfully gambled where Marcello Lippi feared to tread in the 2010 World Cup, choosing both those mavericks, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, with success. Both fine scorers versus Ireland.