Quarter finals. Whatever happens in the group stage flies out the window. From now on, it’s just about the performances and effort put in within a 90 minutes window. Failing that, an extra 30 minutes and so on. You catch my drift. Anyway, back to what I was trying to say, it comes down to being to lift your game for a singular match without worrying about how other result can affect you. That is the essence of the knockout stage.
The two teams that faced off tonight bears some semblance in the way they advance to this stage of the championship. Both lost their first match at Ukraine/Poland before recovering to win 2 subsequent fixtures on the bounce. The only difference was that one came out top of the weaker group (as is generally accepted since the draw was made) and one came out runners-up in the strongest group (as is generally accepted since the draw was made). The latter, Portugal will be the favourites and justifiably so.
For a team that was supposedly only the third fancied team to go through from Group B, Portugal more than held their own against the championship favourite, Germany, in their first game. Only an excellent Mario Gomez header separated them but their quality shined in the next two game. A hard-fought match against Denmark saw Varela clinching a later winner and completely outclassing Netherlands in the final game to seal qualification.
Paulo Bento has managed to get his team to gel together nicely. There’s a good work ethics in his team epitomised no clearer than their working midfield. Mereiles, Veloso and Moutinho sharing the job and being the perfect link from defence to attack. Two components which I think are the best portions of this Portuguese side. Two components that could very well inch them ever closer to the trohpy.
The defence hinged on the partnership of Pepe and Bruno Alves. Both, athletes of remarkable build and strength. Seeing his performances for Real Madrid, it surprises me that Pepe still have not picked up a single yellow card. One would surely expect that at this stage of the championship, he would at least have serve one suspension already. They are ably supported by the fabulous Fabio Coentrao on the left hand side who offers a truly rounded game, given his penchant for bombing forward to support the attack as well.
Then there’s the attacking threat up front. With a proper striker, Portugal would surely be higher placed / lower return to win the trophy. Helder Postiga, who flattered to deceive even at such a poor club in Tottenham is still the leading man up front and thus becoming a real problem. The strength of Portugal in attack lies in on the flank. Ronaldo and Nani are the dangermen with their trickery and seemingly lightning quick pace. The one time team mates at Manchester United have combined well in previous games and Bento will surely look to place his faith on them again.
As for Czech Republic, their run is made far more commendable seeing as no one gave them a ghost of a chance after that roasting by Russia on the opening day of the championship. But Michal Bilek rallied the troops and the did what was necessary to progress. Two quick fire goals got them past a stubborn Greek side while showing the defensive resilience themselves to win against co-host Poland in the final game. 135 minutes of those two wins done without their captain.
The focus is very much on that, the recovery of Tomas Rosicky. The Arsenal man who seemed rejuvenated in the closing months of the Premier League season is their talisman and inspiration. With him, there’s a little bit more creativity in the middle of the park. Though, like I said earlier, they haven’t done too shabbily without him either. He’s not the only one whom Portugal will have to keep an eye on.
Selassie, Pilar and Jiracek have all shone so far for the Czechs. Names unknown to many before the championship, me included. In some ways, it is similar to their progress during Euro’96. A team of unknowns who put up a fight and earned themselves big money moves to top European clubs. The class of ’96 is better than ’12, which is why they will go into this game as underdogs.
Bilek relies on a balanced approach. Not the most wonderful team going forward not the hardest to break in defence. They try to play football on the ground but do sometimes attempt those long balls for Baros (who? a one-time Kop favourite I tell ya) to run onto. Their tactic could possibly be to stay as tight as possible and look to hit Portugal on the break. Pilar could go right and look to exploit the space that will surely be left behind by Coentrao when he bombs forward.
That said, I don’t see anything but a Portuguese win here. Czech has rode on their luck but this should be as far as they can go in the championship. Should they not be able to nullify Bento’s side on the flanks, in all likelihood, they will conceded goals. After the matches that they’ve gone through in the group stage, Portugal might relish at the chance of being firm favourites for a match, for once. Surely this can not be tougher than what they’ve played thus far.
Or is there no easy game?