KRAKOW, Poland -- The four semifinalists of Euro 2012 are the four best teams in the tournament, the four that deserve to be here and the four that all played positive, attacking soccer against opponents that (in one way or another) all tried to park the bus in the quarterfinals.
How often does that happen in a major tournament? Very rarely. So let's hear it for Spain, Germany, Italy and Portugal, a final four that couldn't be finer. And let's hear it for the sport itself, which too often rewards teams that play anti-soccer in the tournaments that matter most. When the Euro 2012 semifinals take place on Wednesday (Spain-Portugal, ESPN/3/Deportes, 2:45 p.m. ET) and Thursday (Germany-Italy, ESPN/3/Deportes, 2:45 p.m. ET), there will be two winners on the field -- and millions of neutral soccer fans watching at home.
"They are watching great football games, great football teams," said Spain's Xabi Alonso when I asked him about it. "That's great not just for the present but for the future of this tournament. Most of the teams, we are trying to keep the ball, to have control of the games, and trying to look for the attacking game. That's the best way to look for victory. As we have seen, the teams that are there are because we deserve it. No one takes anything for granted, and you have to play each game as a final, as we will do on Wednesday."
If you follow soccer, you'll hear talk of teams "deserving" victories and success more frequently than in other sports. Part of soccer's charm is that anyone can beat anyone, even if you don't necessarily play better over 90 minutes. But that is also sometimes its curse, one reason that the sport has struggled at times to gain a bigger foothold in the United States.
There are no undeserved semifinalists here, and every team has something at stake. Spain is trying to become the first team in the sport's history to win three straight tournaments of the European Championship and World Cup. Germany is seeking to recapture its old glory with a young, dynamic, multiethnic team that reflects the New Germany of the 21st century.
If Portugal wins, the trophy will be a validation of Cristiano Ronaldo's transcendence, to say nothing of the finest individual performance at a major tournament since Argentina's Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup. And if Italy triumphs, the talk will center on the career renaissance of the inimitable Andrea Pirlo, and of the Azzurri's transformation into a more attack-minded team under coach Cesare Prandelli.
Along with my fellow Fox Soccer guys,
Let's dive into the semifinal matchups:
Also known as the Iberian Grudgefest. In truth, there's a lot of familiarity between these two teams. Three Portuguese starters play for Real Madrid -- Ronaldo, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão -- and the teams have met twice in the last two years, Spain's 1-0 second-round win at World Cup 2010 and Portugal's 4-0 friendly win in Lisbon in November 2010 (which, while admittedly a friendly, was Spain's worst loss since 1963).
To some degree, we'll see a clash of styles that's reminiscent of a Barcelona-Real Madrid game, with Spain mimicking Barça's ball-control game (no surprise when you have Xavi and Andrés Iniesta) and Portugal providing a good impression of Real Madrid's speed-heavy transition game (no surprise when you have Ronaldo). This won't be a carbon copy of El Clásico -- the lack of Lionel Messi and Mesut Özil will ensure that -- but as a facsimile it brings plenty to the table.
Why do I like Spain here? Well, I just don't see Portugal's central midfield threat causing problems in the way that Pirlo did in the tournament opener. João Moutinho has been decent but nothing special, and Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso won't stir fear in the Spanish. Nor should forward Hugo Almeida, who is expected to start in place of the injured Hélder Postiga. The threat of Ronaldo and Nani on the wings may pin back Spain's fullbacks a bit, but if we're being honest, the way Portugal could win this game is by having Ronaldo put them on his back again.
As for the Spanish, they'll do what they always do: Punish you with the drip-drip-drip water torture of their passing game. One slight difference lately is that Alonso has been doing more of it in relation to Xavi than he's used to, but this is the Spain that we've come to know. Iniesta is having a blinder of a Euro, and he can be counted on to unsettle a Portuguese defense that has been better and less thuggish (no Pepe yellow cards?) than originally expected.
Even if Portugal creates chances, the Spanish defense has been rock solid, with Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos teaming up well in the center and Iker Casillas saving them on the few occasions he's been tested. There's a reason Spain has posted clean sheets in each of their last eight knockout games in major tournaments. One wrinkle in this game: Might we see at least a sub's appearance from Fernando Llorente? The Athletic Bilbao striker hasn't been on the field for a minute thus far, but the one game he made an impact on at World Cup 2010 was against Portugal.
Those still referring to Italy as a "Catenaccio" team hellbent on defending at all costs really haven't watched this version of Italy very much. As the refreshing Prandelli said this week, "I would prefer to concede a goal on the counterattack than suffer in defense for 90 minutes." Granted, that approach will be put to the test against a German attack that has been fantastic to watch. Özil is always moving, always thinking, and while the semi-hobbled Bastian Schweinsteiger has been up and down, Sami Khedira has made up the difference.
German coach Jogi Löw's three lineup changes in the quarterfinals make you wonder what surprises he'll have up his sleeve next, and the best intel I'm getting is that Miroslav Klose will likely start once again in place of Mario Gómez, while Marco Reus might stay in the lineup ahead of Lukas Podolski or Thomas Müller. Löw really has been the manager of the tournament, keeping us guessing, demanding the best from his players and generally looking unruffled and in charge, without straining to do so. I find him fascinating (even if he looks just like the actor Kyle MacLachlan).
If Germany has a weakness, though, it's a sometimes shaky defense. It seems likely that Italy will score in this game, not least because Pirlo has been so good at probing defenses with his passing and Italy's rare two-forward strike force has had some good moments against quality opposition (including Spain).
One thing I don't put much stock into is the talk that Germany has never beaten Italy in a competitive game. That's fair enough, but there have only been seven competitive games all time between the two sides, and the players involved this semifinal have little to no connection to the players in previous matches. (In case you're wondering about the meaninglessness of this discussion, consider that Spain had never beaten France in a competitive game until last Sunday.)
For all the attacking that these semifinalists do, keep in mind that we're also seeing the three best goalkeepers in the world (in my book): Spain's Casillas, Germany's Manuel Neuer and Italy's Gianluigi Buffon. Buffon may be my favorite player in this tournament if you combine his on-field performance with the remarkable enthusiasm he shows, whether it's during the national anthem or after Italy's qualification for the knockout stage. Buffon has won a World Cup, after all, and yet his joy has been genuine and infectious.
A couple other things to think about: Six of Italy's last seven goals at the Euros have come from set pieces, while 11 of Germany's last 12 have come from open play. I think this is going to be an open game with more goals than the other semifinal, but the winner is going to set up the final a lot of us have been eagerly awaiting.
• Let's come out and say it: The refereeing in this tournament has been excellent overall. Yes, there was plenty of discussion about the Ukraine ball that crossed the goal line without being called a goal, but otherwise we've had remarkably little talk of officiating after games at Euro 2012. You really do notice a difference when the officiating crews are from countries with big-time soccer leagues and cultures, as opposed to the World Cup, where the referees from far-flung countries (Mali! Tahiti!) are often a joke.
• The last four days have involved crazy driving around Poland, but on Monday night, we did have time for a pit stop in Warsaw, where I joined a great group for
• Getting jazzed for a change of pace by traveling to Kiev on Friday for the final. Poland has been great, but I'm looking forward to seeing what Ukraine's all about.
• Was sort of hoping UEFA would give us an official patch or something once we arrived in Krakow today to check out the Italian camp. Who else here has visited all four semifinalists in four days?