Once this tournament is set down in the history books, one of the statistics that will not so much leap off the page as run screaming out, waving its flame-licked limbs about all over the place is that by Day 11 just one penalty had been awarded. And even that was saved, Poland substitute goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton stopping Giorgos Karagounis' effort on Day 1.
But it is a record that has been artificially preserved, and at some cost. On Monday, Denmark should have been awarded a penalty for Holger Badstuber's foul on Nicklas Bendtner. Instead, the officials missed it, and Denmark lost 2-1 to Germany and was eliminated from Group B. On Tuesday, with the Group C standings similarly in the balance, Croatia ought to have had a spot kick as a result of Sergio Busquets' wrestling move on Vedran Corluka -- moments before Spain scored its winning goal (
The Croatians will feel doubly let down by the manner in which Spain secured the win -- and not just because it was one of the few times that the Spanish attack carved through their back line so easily. When Cesc Fabregas chipped a pass over the defenders for Andres Iniesta, Jesus Navas was clearly offside, but not deemed to be "interfering with play" until Iniesta pulled the ball back to him a second later -- by which time Stipe Pletikosa had moved toward Iniesta, and Navas had several yards on the defense and an empty net to shoot at.
Slaven Bilic's side was worth at least a point against a distinctly unambitious Spain -- "We suffered like never before," ran
The game did not produce vintage Italy, even if Mario Balotelli applied some fizz late on; Ireland played with the disinhibition of the already ruined. Italy manager Cesare Prandelli will care not one jot about that, mind you. His side has shrugged off all the doom mongering, succeeded using two different formations (beating Ireland with a flat back four, rather than the three-man defense he began the tournament with), and set up a quarterfinal date two years on from the ignominious exit from the World Cup group stages overseen by his predecessor. "If we play well we can take on anyone," said Prandelli.
It will be a while before we tire of Balotelli's goal against Ireland. Keeping John O'Shea at arm's length as Alessandro Diamanti's corner comes in, there's a visible split-second in which he decides what he's going to do and adjusts his footing very slightly before leaning back and hooking the ball overhead and into the net. The sight of Leonardo Bonucci clasping his hand over Balotelli's mouth to stop him from saying something he might regret to Prandelli, who waited until the 75th minute to introduce the Manchester City forward, is one we won't forget in a hurry, either.
On June 18, 1994, Ray Houghton
Tuesday brings to a close the group stage, with the final games from Group D kicking off at 2:45 ET. In Donetsk, England takes on Ukraine with Wayne Rooney almost certain to make his first appearance at the tournament after serving a suspension. Currently top of the group on four points, England needs only a draw to make it in to the quarterfinals -- but if it loses, it will be depending on France, also on four points, to lose, too (and by enough to make the goal-difference and goals-scored columns tot up in its favor). Ukraine, which may be without Andriy Shevchenko (knee), must win to stay in the competition, and did beat England 1-0 a few years back; Ukraine midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk has promised a Greece-inspired effort at the Donbass Arena.
In the day's other game, Sweden can do nothing but make mischief, having lost to Ukraine and England in its first two games, but coach Erik Hamren has promised a competitive showing against "the best team in the group." He will have to make do without Johan Elmander, who is struggling with a foot injury. France needs just a draw, but manager Laurent Blanc -- linked on Monday with the vacant post at Tottenham Hotspur -- says he will name his strongest team, which means another start for Jeremy Menez and, injury-permitting, Yohan Cabaye.