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Headers, dangerous underdogs shaping course of Euro 2012

Five thoughts to ponder as Euro 2012 takes a breather before the quarterfinals kickoff Thursday.

This may be the best European Championships ever. Ever since Robert Lewandowski headed Poland ahead of Greece 12 days ago, this year's tournament has seen an abundance of splendid games, a few shocks, plenty of drama and, in the last few days, some controversial moments (Denmark's claims for a penalty against Germany, Croatia's for the same against Spain; and then Ukraine's Goal That Never Was against England).

After two rounds of matches, 14 of the 16 sides were still in play to qualify for the quarterfinals. All four teams in Groups A and B could have progressed, and in each of the final round of matches, played simultaneously (with the exception of Group D's second half) one goal either way could have changed everything.

This just highlights UEFA's folly in extending the format to 24 teams for France 2016. Fewer teams means better quality, tighter matches and more drama. So enjoy it while you can. All we need now is that one iconic knockout game that will live for ages, and Euro 2012's mythology will be complete.

What's with all the headers? The glut has slowed down a little, but for the first week there were more headed goals than ever before at a major tournament: eight of the first 20 goals (40 percent) came off headers, and 17 of 60 overall. Some have been spectacular,­ like Lewandowski's against Greece; ­ others unlikely,­ like Antonio Cassano, one of the shortest on the pitch, heading in a corner against Ireland. Three players -- Nicklas Bendtner, Mario Mandzukic and Andrei Shevchenko, scored two headers in a single game.

Part of the reason may be strategic. Italy (Cassano-Balotelli), Croatia (Jelavic-Mandzukic) and England, once (Welbeck-Carroll) are the only three teams to have started with two up front, while Spain, famously, are close to eschewing the concept of strikers entirely. It may be too early to spot a trend here, but I'm reminded of a story by tactics guru Michael Cox explains why traditional center-forwards have fallen out of favor in club football. He adds: "For one reason or another, utterly basic center-forwards thrive at international level." That has certainly been the case at Euro 2012.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. With every team that leaves the tournament, the post-mortem begins. Ireland was first to be eliminated, at which point former captain Roy Keane demanded all 11 players be dropped for its final group game while fans remain undecided about whether they want coach Giovanni Trapattoni to stay on. Soon after came Poland, whose coach, Franciszek Smuda, was criticized for his timid substitutions. Russia, who went from top to third and an early trip home, blamed fans' expectations for its defeat to Greece, with Andrei Arshavin telling fans at the airport upon arriving back in Moscow: "It's not our problem we didn't meet your expectations. It's your problem." (As one fan brilliantly wrote to a Russian newspaper in response, "Andrei, you did fully meet my expectations.")

On the other hand, Croatia and Denmark exited with dignity, perhaps wondering what might have been. But the bigger the team, the more dramatic the fallout: and this is where the Dutch, who lost all three matches (and has now lost four competitive games in a row), have excelled.

Stories are still emerging about the rifts behind the scenes, with players allegedly divided into camps supporting either Wesley Sneijder or Robin van Persie. For all the drama and excitement of the buildup to these tournaments, I end up enjoying the aftermath just as much.

The Germany/Spain rivalry could run. Of the eight teams still left in the competition, six can justifiably admit that they are just happy to be there. That shows the gap between the two favorites, Germany and Spain, and everyone else. No one expected Czech Republic and Greece to qualify,­ least of all themselves, judging by the Greek celebrations. Portugal did well to recover from losing its first game, being pegged back to 2-2 by Denmark and conceding first to Holland. Italy and France are still healing their wounds from the 2010 World Cup. And England arrived with lowered expectations after sacking its coach three months before the tournament while having its best player suspended for the first two games. That makes six dangerous teams that have little to lose. That also makes for some potentially risky matches for Germany and Spain. Both came within a goal of being eliminated in tense final group matches, but remain on course to meet in the final. It would be a repeat of Euro 2008's final, and the World Cup semifinal. FIFA has the two ranked among the best three in the world (Uruguay is second), and it would be a fitting end to the tournament to see them battle it out.

I know Grant Wahl has offered his picks for the best players of the group stage, but I decided to give myself a challenge and limit myself to only one player from every team. That means I can't include Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta, for example, or Mats Hummels and Mario Gomez. Which is a pity. Formation is 4-2-3-1, as that's what most of the teams in Poland and Ukraine are playing:

Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas -- Iniesta has been Spain's outstanding outfield player, but Casillas is the reason it's conceded only one goal in three games. His five saves against Italy and then, against Croatia, the save from Ivan Rakitic's header that kept Spain level and, possibly, in the competition, are more than enough to earn him the spot.

Right-back: Mathieu Debuchy -- This was the hardest selection, as Czech Republic's Theodore Gebre Selassie has been outstanding, but so has the underrated Lille right-back, whose attacking posture could make it hard for Bacary Sagna to win back his place when fit.

Center-back: Mats Hummels -- The best defender in the competition so far, Hummels has shown us a bit of everything: he blocked some crucial efforts against Holland, went on a few nice forward runs against Portugal, and has been imperious in the air, at both ends, throughout.

Center-back: Kyriakos Papadopoulos -- The young Greek did not even start the opening game against Poland, but after Avraam Papadopoulos was injured and Sokratis Papastathopolos sent off, he became its only center-back. He was outstanding.

Left-back: David Limbersky -- This is my default Czech pick, as Debuchy has Selassie's place and I prefer Daniele De Rossi to Thomas Hubschmann as holding midfielder. The Czechs struggled when Michal Kadlec played left-back against Russia, but have improved since Limbersky has started and Kadlec moved across. Without my one-player-one-team limit, I'd go for Fabio Coentrao or Ashley Cole.

Midfielder: Daniele de Rossi -- He's played twice as libero and once in midfield, and on each occasion has been excellent for Italy. I prefer him in midfield as he takes pressure off Andrea Pirlo, and against Ireland he made some well-timed runs into the box, too. It will be interesting to see where he starts against England.

Midfielder: Steven Gerrard -- England's captain has stood out for his tactical discipline alongside Scott Parker in midfield, but also his crossing from the right, which has produced goals in each of England's games. Whether it's the armband, the deeper position, no Frank Lampard or a new coach, this is Gerrard's best form at a tournament.

Attacking trio: Luka Modric, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo

Modric -- Croatia's playmaker played the pass of the tournament, his outside of the right foot leading to Casillas' "miracle save," according to the Spanish press. He was also at the center of all Croatia's best moves.

Ibrahimovic -- At last Sweden's captain stepped up on the big stage. With goals against Ukraine and France, the latter a scissor-kick volley, he was superb in all three matches and has become the first player to score two goals or more at three different Euro tournaments.

Ronaldo -- Portugal's captain took the flak after a wasteful performance against Denmark (although he didn't play that badly, said SI.com's Raphael Honigstein), but he responded with the best individual performance of the group stage: OK, it was against a ragged Holland side but he scored twice, hit the post twice and looked like the Real Madrid Ronaldo at last.

Center-forward: Nicklas Bendtner -- Ideally, I would have Mario Gomez here but the Hummels pick has stymied me. In a tournament of headers (see above) Bendtner has been consistently outstanding in the air and the Great Dane just gets the nod over Mario Mandzukic and Andriy Shevchenko to lead the line.

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