On Sunday the "Group of Death" finally dispatched its reaper, and it was Denmark and Netherlands who felt an icy tap on the shoulder. In truth the Dutch, without a point from the first two matches, had long since felt a chill in the air, but for Denmark there will be a slight nagging sense that it might just have hurdled the scythe. What if Jakob Poulsen's second-half shot, which caught the outside of the post, had been a few inches to the right? What if the officials had spotted Holger Badstuber with a fistful of Nicklas Bendtner's shirt as the forward tried to shoot at 1-1? What if we'd
This is the first time that the Netherlands has gone out of the competition at this stage since 1980, when West Germany and Czechoslovakia took the Group A qualification spots, and represents a significant come-down having reached the World Cup final two years ago. This was to be the year for a squad filled with players in their peak years, 11 of them between 27 and 29 and looking to make their mark on the competition before age catches up with them at France 2016. Instead they were steadily overpowered and then rampantly overrun by Portugal.
If this was Holland's moment slipping by, it was -- at last -- the day that Cristiano Ronaldo was as devastatingly effective for Portugal as he has been for several years at club level (goals last season: 60). But for a couple of testers from distance, he barely featured in Portugal's defeat to Germany, and was more visible against Denmark only for fluffing a series of chances (including one so hard to miss that
In that kind of form, he -- Portugal, whose team cohesion stood out not only in contrast to the Dutch, in fact -- will worry the Czech Republic, their opponent in the quarterfinal on Thursday. Germany, lucky to get away without conceding that Badstuber penalty (which would, incredibly, have been only the second of the tournament, the first being the one that Poland's Przemyslaw Tyton saved on the opening day) but impressively consistent and consistently impressive, will always have worried Greece, its quarterfinal opposition on Friday.
There was something compelling about Michael Krohn-Dehli's goal against Germany, an aerial corner routine that first required Bendtner's springiness then his precision, but do you want to tell Ronaldo that he didn't score the best goal of the day? No, exactly. His second was superb, in any case. With Rafael van der Vaart dispossessed not far out of Rui Patricio's penalty area, Ronaldo played the ball to Joao Moutinho and sprinted goalward. Moutinho went wide to Nani, who gained ground and then played a perfectly weighted pass across Maarten Stekelenburg's area. Ronaldo took control of the ball, took control of Gregory van der Wiel, and
Robbie Keane and Damien Duff posing with the captain's armband. Republic of Ireland's match against Italy won't count for anything for the already eliminated Irish, but it's Duff's 100th cap, so Keane asked the manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, if he could relinquish the captaincy for the match to mark the occasion.
It's the Group C climax on Monday, with Italy, Croatia and Spain all still able to go through. Croatia and Spain meet in Gdansk, where a (high-scoring) draw would see both teams through irrespective of Italy's results against Ireland. The Croatian coach Slaven Bilic has called aiming for a draw "stupid", however, and wants his team to play to beat Spain by keeping the ball and dictating the running. Neither he nor his Spanish counterpart, Vicente del Bosque, has any injury concerns hanging over the squad, which leaves questions over Spain's forward line -- Fernando Torres or Cesc Fabregas?
Italy, meanwhile, will be without Mario Balotelli, who has injured his knee, but Cesare Prandelli will be confident that he still has the firepower in his squad to see off Ireland and put pressure on the result in Gdansk. Trapattoni has indicated that he will start an unchanged XI; neither of his starting line-ups at these finals have held out for longer than four minutes without conceding.