The countdown to Euro 2008 is now on in earnest as we’re less than three days away from kickoff in the opener, Switzerland-Czech Republic. Along with my final prediction on Friday, I’ll post the complete TV schedule for the group stage for everyone’s convenience. I can’t wait for this thing to get started.
Onto my predictions for the semifinals.
Semifinal #1 (June 25, 2:45 PM; St. Jakob-Park, Basel):
I’ll be honest — this semifinal probably would not be the most exciting game to watch.
Portugal is the more dynamic of the two nations as far as comparing the individual players, but their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, isn’t known for playing a high-octane, up-and-down system. They also employ only one natural striker at a time and when you look at the options (Helder Postiga, Nuno Gomes, Hugo Almeida), none really have the capability of even coming close to setting the world alight. The lack of talent in that role will be a problem for Portugal against Germany, whose center backs can be exploited in their matchup against strikers who are quick and can beat you one-on-one for pace. Portugal doesn’t have anyone up front who can do that, so I’d expect Cristiano Ronaldo to occupy a position right behind whoever the starting striker is and just constantly run at and terrorize the tall, slow pair of Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker.
Germany has a terrific center forward in Miroslav Klose, but it’s unclear who will be playing alongside him. The team is loaded in the midfield and will rely on Michael Ballack for inspiration and goal-scoring, to a lesser extent. It is a team that doesn’t have the firepower to outscore Portugal, so they’ll need to shut down the midfield and Ballack will play in a more subdued role to help Torsten Frings.
While Portugal has a clear advantage over Germany in the center back position, Germany possesses better, more dangerous full-backs in Philipp Lahm and either Marcell Jansen or Arne Friedrich. They’ll need to go forward and provide good aerial service for Klose and Ballack, both of whom are terrific headers of the ball. However, they’ll also need to their pick their spots when doing so because Portugal can counter-attack with the best of them and are incredibly speedy on the wings with Ronaldo and Simão.
I just can’t see where the goals are going to come from for Germany aside from either Klose or Ballack. As alluded to earlier, the center of the Portuguese back line and their defensive midfield play is very solid. If those players do their jobs, which they should, Ballack and Klose will both be negated. Portugal has the best player in the world on their side in Cristiano Ronaldo, and he’s capable of scoring in a vast multitude of ways. Also, Jens Lehmann is always capable of giving up a bad goal, so that combination looks promising for Portugal.
Prediction: Portugal-1, Germany-0
Semifinal #2 (June 26, 2:45 PM; Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna):
These two nations would be well and truly sick of each other if this matchup was to occur. France and Italy played in the World Cup final in 2006, won by Italy in PK’s. They were in the same qualifying group for this tournament and played twice there, with France taking four of the six possible points. They’re in Group C, the “Group of Death”, together this summer and will play each other on June 17, just 9 days before this game would occur.
Just like the case would be in a France-Spain quarterfinal, there isn’t much to separate between France and Italy. The major difference in the first matchup is the age gap; Spain is a much younger team at the core positions than France. In this matchup, both teams are relatively equal in that regard and their players have a lot of experience at the highest level, both internationally and domestically.
If there was one key factor to look at, it’s the disparity in quality between the two goalkeepers. Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon is amongst the top two or three at his position in the world, whereas France’s Grégory Coupet was the long-serving backup to Fabien Barthez. To be fair, Coupet is not a slouch between the sticks by any means; in fact, he’s very good and has played in a number of big games in the Champions League at Lyon. I’m just unsure as to how he’ll perform in the second-largest tournament in the world after never having done it before.
Everywhere else on the field seems to be a wash. Both teams are solid up front, with Thierry Henry and either Nicholas Anelka or Karim Benzema for France and Luca Toni and either Marco Borriello or Antonio Di Natale for Italy. France prefers to use out-and-out wingers in Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery, both great internationally, and use two holding midfield players at the same time (Makélélé and Vieira/Toulalan), whereas Italy will completely clog the center of the field with Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, and Daniele De Rossi, who is an absolutely fantastic player. France does have a better back line, especially with the devastating injury to Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro, but they’re also a little older and perhaps a bit more error-prone.
Prediction: Despite the fact that both teams have an abundance of attacking talent, goals will be at a premium in this game as it’ll be played with a tight-to-the-vest, cautious style. It’ll be an absolute bloodbath in the center of the park, and France’s superior wing play will be the deciding factor. If Malouda and Ribery show up, France will win, if not, they’ll go home. Italy-1, France-0