The Key Battles of the Semis
So, two days without a feast of football from Poland and/or Ukraine. Everyone’s spent time getting over something we all could’ve guessed if we put our minds to it.
After all, England have never gone out in a quarter-final, let alone on penalties.
But to business. We’re getting to the semi-finals, where the great and the good of Europe will compete for our entertainment to be crowned the best in this mighty continent. And though it may be a team game, a lot comes down to those individual battles between direct opponents, the players that could make a difference and those who could stop them.
Moutinho vs. Xavi
Joao Moutinho has been impervious since second game of Group B. He dominated the Dutch, was the leading passer against the Czechs, and is really showing his capabilities at the highest level, despite other teammates taking the plaudits.
Xavi is… well, Xavi.
Having done it against Sneijder and Van der Vaart, this is Moutinho’s reward. On the so-called carousel that is the Spanish Possession Machine, the Porto player finds his biggest test yet: shining against one of the greatest central midfielders ever seen.
No pressure, Joao.
Gomez vs. Barzagli
Barzagli is a core part of the Italian “Invincibles”; the Juventus side that went unbeaten for an entire Serie A season. However, with his partner and captain at club level, Giorgio Chiellini, a doubt for Thursday, he will probably deputise in defence to face possibly his greatest test so far.
In the other corner, a man who has scored 44 goals this season. A man who has had possession for something ridiculous like five minutes in the entirety of this tournament, and has still scored three goals. Barzagli is going to have to use all of his physical and mental capabilities to stop Mr Gomez, a man in supreme form.
Balotelli vs. Badstuber
At the other side of the pitch will be a battle of wills dependant on who shows up: Super Mario or Stupid Mario.
It was certainly the latter who turned up until his cameo against Ireland, a stunning volley his outstanding contribution of this tournament thus far.
And against England, he was unlucky; his pace and movement too much for an ageing John Terry.
Compared to a young German defender who probably won’t be trying to catch him offside at every opportunity, this may not seem like that big a deal. But when said German defender found Nicklas Bendtner a handful (of all people), it becomes a much more interesting prospect.
Added to Badstuber’s penchant for getting banned before big occasions? Hilarity is likely to ensue.
Pirlo vs. Khedira
Both impervious in their games against their quarter-final opposition, the two dominated their games with differing philosophies: one forcefully driving the rest of his side forward with boundless energy, and the other calmly dictating play with a passing performance par excellence.
However, this semi-final is a different proposition for both players, mostly because of the other’s presence.
Pirlo would pray to have the space he’d had against England, but he’ll be mostly closed down by Khedira. While Khedira will have nowhere near the freedom he had against the Greeks, mostly because Pirlo will ensure more possession for his country.
While there is more to both Italy and Germany, this will be a fascinating contest to observe.
Ronaldo vs. Arbeloa
The one thing the Spanish camp has been pretty vocal about has been how to stop the force of nature that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Here is everyone’s favourite player ever on the topic.
“He will mostly be in the zone defended by Alvaro, and Alvaro knows him better than anyone,” Sergio Busquets said. “But to stop a player of this kind, you need the whole team to work.”
Aside from stating the obvious (a right-back having to mark a left winger? That’s crazy talk!) you can read a lot into that statement. Namely that Spain will attempt to collectively stop him. And what do Spain do fantastically as a group?
Why, keep possession, of course.
That said, Ronaldo can punish a team with a full-back out of position. Considering Spain’s dependence on overlapping for width, Arbeloa is going to have to be on his game to keep his Real Madrid teammate quiet.
Easier said than done.