Quarterfinal #3 (June 21, 2:45 PM; St. Jakob-Park, Basel):
This would be a sneakier game for Italy then many people would think, especially if they just looked at the two names and knew that Italy is the current world champion.
The loss of captain Fabio Cannavaro, who is the rock in the Italian back line, is going to come back and bite Italy against a team like Russia that has nothing to lose, everything to gain, and will go for it all. Italy will be able to get by in the group stage (they’re in Group C, the “Group of Death”) because their opposition has high expectations and will play cautiously so as to make sure they don’t get beat. In his place, Andrea Barzagli will likely start alongside Marco Materazzi, from whom you never know what you’ll get, and that leaves the center of the Italian defense fairly vulnerable to quality attackers, which Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko both are.
In the midfield and up front, Italy is still strong. They are by no means quick, however, which plays into the hands of an experienced Russian team that does have some speed on the flanks. With that said, Luca Toni would be the best player on the field, bar none, and would cause a lot of problems for the Russian defense, as would Andrea Pirlo’s pinpoint passing.
The key matchup of this game would be between Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko from Russia and Gennaro Gattuso and Daniele De Rossi from Italy. Controlling the center of the field is going to be a must for both nations because Russia has the advantage on the wings and Italy can’t let Russia also have the middle. If Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko were able to get their way, and I already mentioned how the center of the Italian back line is susceptible to quality, the Russians could pull off the upset.
Italy would need to fire shots from everywhere at Russia’s goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev. As I said in my preview of Russia, he is a very talented youngster and is the present and future in goal for his country, but he’s only going to be 23 years old at the start of the tournament and this is really his first time in the spotlight. You never know how he’ll react under pressure, and Italy has the experience and know-how to exploit this potential chink in the Russian armor.
The coaching battle between Russia’s Guus Hiddink and Italy’s Roberto Donadoni can’t be understated. It’s simple, really — Hiddink has done it before at the international level and Donadoni hasn’t. Hiddink has shown his flexibility and willingness to make tactical and structural changes on the fly, and Donadoni is the prototypical Italian coach who, although he changed formations successfully from game to game in the qualifiers, hasn’t shown the versatility to change much during the course of one match. He is cautious first and second, adventurous third. Donadoni has more talent at his disposal, but he’ll need to find a way to outmanuever his opposite number on the chess board.
Prediction: Italy-2, Russia-1 (after extra time)
Quarterfinal #4 (June 22, 2:45 PM; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna):
In terms of pure talent and quality, these two teams are probably the best in the tournament. As we’ve seen all season in the Premiership when “Big Four” teams go at it, however, top-notch, world-class players competing against each other rarely makes for a compelling match.
Having made it out of Group C, France would have played two games just like this one against Spain and their other game, against Romania, wouldn’t have been a cakewalk either. They’d be battle-tested, whereas Spain can overmatch everyone in their group.
Looking at it from the other side of that coin, though, France would have played three draining, grueling games and don’t exactly have a roster full of spring chickens anymore; I’m not sure how much guys like Lilian Thuram, Claude Makélélé, Patrick Vieira (who will miss the first group game due to injury and will be racing the clock to be fit for the second match and beyond), and even Thierry Henry would have left in the tank going into the knockout rounds. Five of France’s players play for Manchester United and Chelsea, who are just coming off the longest seasons in European club soccer, and all five will see significant playing time in this tournament. Three others play for Barcelona, who went to the Champions League semifinals before bowing out.
Spain, on the other hand, should clinch a place in the last eight after their second group game (and if not, they’ll trounce Greece in the final fixture), and that would enable their stars to get that extra bit of rest. As it is, they’re already a much-younger team at the core positions than France, and should be able to dictate the tempo at which they want this game to be played.
Simplified, it comes down to this: France is older and has more experience, Spain has the weight of past disappointments on their shoulders but are a younger, and presumably hungrier, team. It’s tough to pick any one matchup that would decide this match; as I said, both teams are full of quality and their weaknesses cancel each other out. Spain is more dangerous up front with Fernando Torres and David Silva, but France has a much more solid back line. Spain has creative central midfielders in Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas who are great passers, but France has a defensive midfielder who is so good that he has a position named after him (Makélélé), and one who has won just about everything there is to win in soccer, both at the international and club levels (Vieira). France has more explosiveness on their wings, but Spain’s formation gives their opposition the wings and makes them beat you down the middle.
Prediction: It’s a game that has extra time or extra time and PK’s written all over it. France-1, Spain-1 (France wins 4-3 in PK’s)
I know that all of this is just guesswork, of course, as the first kick of the ball hasn’t even been made yet, but that’s what the beauty of this game is. It provides us a chance to imagine and dream, and hey, we’ve got to find a way to make this week of anticipation go faster.
With that in mind, I’ll have my semifinal predictions/previews on Wednesday.