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After a slow start, Euro 2008 has started to provide the sort of drama that we all hoped for. The hosts and holders have made an early exit, but the tragedy and elation will heighten for the remaining players as we reach the higher climbs of the tournament. With the Group Stages consigned to the history books, Soccer365’s Martin North takes stock of the storylines so far.

On The Up

Holding midfielders

The “Makelele” role is more important than ever. The tournament’s most compelling attacking units have employed a pivot-player to liberate their more creative weapons.

Orlando Engelaar and Nigel de Jong provided the platform for Wesley Sneijder’s heroics against Italy and France.

Brazilian-born Marcos Senna is preferred to Cesc Fabregas by Luis Aragones. Fabregas’s talent lights up the Premier League, but for Spain he is reduced to an impact sub in favor of Senna’s darker arts.

Dean Gaffney look-alike Petit patrols the trenches for Portugal, allowing Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo to make their forward forays.

The tournament’s surprise package so far, Turkey has employed Mehmet Aurelio – yet another Brazilian convert – as the defensive rock in tandem with the energetic Arda Turan.

Marco van Basten

Compared to some of his counterparts at Euro 2008, the 43 year-old Van Basten is still in his managerial infancy. After taking the Holland job in 2004, he was quick to establish his authority and put faith in youth by dropping veterans like Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Mark van Bommel. His feud with Ruud van Nistelrooy came to an end last year but the Oranje flattered to deceive during qualification for Austria and Switzerland. In 12 games they scored only 15 goals, finishing second in Group G to Romania. Their punishment was a draw that paired them not only with the Romanians, but also the 2006 World Cup Finalists Italy and France. Extraordinary victories over the two group favorites have silenced the critics and the manner of success can be credited in no small part to Van Basten. His decision to leave Clarence Seedorf at home has been vindicated as Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van der Vaart, Orlando Engelaar, Nigel de Jong and Dirk Kuyt have combined to form the tournament’s most exciting midfield. At the beginning of the second half against Italy, Van Basten stemmed the Azzurri tide with the introduction of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, both scoring to put the win beyond doubt.

Flying full-backs

With counter-attacking sides in the ascendancy, the benefit of athletic full-backs who can stretch the field is clear.

The galloping Danijel Pranjic has starred for Croatia on their left flank. On the right, Vedran Corluka is fast becoming one of the best young defenders in Europe.

33 year-old Giovanni van Bronkhorst has reeled back the years and contributed as much as anyone to Holland’s early success. His goal against Italy was just reward for a swashbuckling performance.

Italian fortunes have improved with Fabio Grosso back in the side. The left-back was one of Italy’s most consistent performer’s at the last World Cup. Gianluca Zambrotta has begun to find some form after a poor start against Holland in the first game. The more he and Grosso figure, the better the Azzurri’s chances in the knockout rounds.

Guus Hiddink knows the value of a good full-back and he has an excellent one in Alexander Anyukov for Russia. The pacy right-back was instrumental in Russia’s victory over Sweden.

Goalkeeping

If you find yourself on the ropes in international football, it helps to have a world class goalkeeper behind you. Petr Cech’s tragic mistake against Turkey aside, the standard of goalkeeping in the tournament thus far has been excellent.

The usual suspects have performed as expected. Italy would be on their way back home if it weren’t for Gigi Buffon. His penalty save against Romania is par for the course for the world’s best keeper.

Holland’s win over Italy would have been by a finer margin had Edwin van der Sar not brilliantly saved Andrea Pirlo’s free kick. Instead of their lead dwindling to one goal, the Dutch then proceeded to sweep downfield and add a third.

Less experienced keepers have also shined. Volkan Demirel has been vital to Turkey’s dramatic run to the quarter-finals. His two-game ban for a tame push on Jan Koller deprives the Turks of a wonderful shot-stopper. Croatia will severely test his replacement.

Even one of the worst teams boasted a first-rate goalkeeper. While his teammates managed only one goal in three games, Artur Boruc ensured Poland were not completely embarrassed. His “thou shalt not pass” defiance was impressive in the face of repeated attacks.

Lagging Behind

Spectacular goals

Goals in the group stage are down from Euro 2004 – 57 this year compared to 64 in Portugal. The high standard of goalkeeping may be one reason for the drop. Certainly, concerns over this year’s match ball seem to be ill-founded. Several goalkeepers, including Jens Lehmann and Petr Cech, complained that the “Europass” ball deviated wildly in flight. Cech said that he expected to see “lots of goals from 30 meters out.” That hasn’t happened.

The last World Cup kicked off with two stunning goals from Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings that set the tone for a month of spectacular net-bursting efforts.

To date, Euro 2008 has seen very few long range shots find their target. Michael Ballack’s arrowed goal against Austria was the first and only score of the group stage from a direct free kick, not counting Daniele De Rossi’s deflected strike against France.

Instead, the trend has been toward razor-sharp finishes from sweeping counter-attacks; Russia’s two goals against Sweden are perfect examples. The majority of Holland and Spain’s 17 goals so far have come on the break.

Don’t bet against seeing some fireworks as the competition heats up. With the likes of Ballack, Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres still involved, breathtaking, bending shots could be just around the corner.

Refereeing

Manuel Mehuto Gomez’s farcical dismissal of Joachim Low and Josef Hickersberger was symptomatic of the refereeing in the tournament so far. Too often, officials and their decisions have become the story.

But the major problem remains consistency. How can Marcin Wasilewsk’s challenge on Sebastian Prödl be penalized yet Johan Elmander escapes after flattening David Silva in the box? A foul should be a foul, no mater where it occurs.

Referees clearly need help but they have received scarce assistance from their linesmen. Bad offside calls have peppered the tournament so far. It seems like every game has seen at least two or three obvious errors by flag-happy assistants; Perhaps another reason for fewer goals.

Czech Rep/France/Greece

Ranked 6th, 7th and 8th in the world respectively, Euro 2008 has been a massive disappointment for the Czechs, French and Greeks.

Karel Brückner’s men started slowly against Switzerland. Lucky to escape with a win, there was no improvement against Portugal and the capitulation to Turkey was a major step backward for one of Europe’s most consistent teams of the last 15 years.

Although not as embarrassing as their exit from the 2002 World Cup, France’s dismal showing appears to have sounder the death knell for the illustrious generation that won World and European glory. Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram have already announced their international retirements. The likes of Coupet, Vieira and Henry may follow suit or find themselves phased out.

The Greeks were nowhere near being the “new Greece,” and that’s a good thing for football. The class of 2004 showed what can be accomplished with organization, drive and togetherness, but their success came at the expense of flair and creativity. Without the inspirational ability of a Zidane or Cruyff, football becomes mundane. Greece was the Cinderella of European football but what did they give us? What game-changing moments of skill or breathtaking play did they offer us? That Ex-Leicester City midfielder Theo Zagorakis won Player of the Tournament in Portugal speaks volumes.

Zero wins this summer may be bad for Greece, but thankfully it shows that football has moved on.


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