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Euro 2012 Day 3: Enthralling Match In Gdansk, End To End In Poznan

Two very contrasting matches at the European Championships yesterday, both enjoyable for very different reasons. Spain and Italy played out a high quality cat-and-mouse game in Gdansk while Croatia and Ireland went end to end for 90 minutes in their match in Poznan. No current Gunners were involved.

Spain named six midfielders in their starting eleven while Cesare Prandelli fielded a brave 3-5-2. As expected, Spain played their passing game while the Italians closed them down from the front and in midfield. Early on, Spain tried to bypass the Italian pressing with balls over the top but these were not very successful.

Once the Spaniards settled down, they played their tiki-taka and with Xavi coordinating things behind the front three, the quick short sharp interchanges between Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva were a joy to watch. All three have fantastic close control and constantly probed away, often getting in between the channels. They say Italian defenses are not what they used to be, but yesterday Chiellini, De Rossi and Bonucci tackled and intercepted brilliantly throughout the match.

Shots – First half

The Italians always looked dangerous when they had the ball. Their tactic was to get the ball quickly to the front two, who would then either run down the flank if they had space or hold the ball up for the breaking runs of their midfielders. Pirlo made Italy’s transitions quick by spraying the ball towards the flanks in search of Cassano or Balotelli. In fact in the first half, the Italians had the better chances and more shots on target.

The goals were exquisite too. The deep-lying Pirlo stepped up quickly after winning the ball in midfield and found the run of Di Natale, who waited and waited until Casillas was down on his knees and then finished calmly with his right foot.

Spain’s equalizer was equally pleasing to watch with Fabregas making a well-timed run that caught the wing-back Giaccherini napping. It was a cool confident finish from the ex-Gunner. A draw was the right result in the end.

In Poznan, it was a completely different game with both sides opting to play the more traditional 4-4-2, although Slaven Bilic’s four in the middle had one slightly deeper midfielder and three playing ahead of him. Whenever one team got possession of the ball, they ran at the opponent’s defense and crossed or passed to a teammate or took a shot themselves. When the other team broke up play and had the ball, they did exactly the same at the other end of the pitch. The cycle repeated constantly for 90 minutes.

While you can argue that that’s what all football teams try to do, the difference in the second game was that neither team worried too much about losing the ball. The following stat I tweeted earlier today illustrates this point.

It’s a bit uncontrolled and while 4-4-2 is a good against lesser opposition (no disrespect to Ireland or Croatia), you have to worry about how both these teams, especially Ireland will fare against the more technical ball-dominating Spaniards. It’s almost inevitable that they’ll chase shadows for much of that match.

Roy Hodgson’s 4-4-2 could also force England into chasing shadows against a technical France today. Of course, England have far better quality as compared to Ireland. Still, with Diarra, Cabaye and maybe Valbuena or Malouda controlling possession in the French midfield, it will be difficult for Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard to keep the ball for long periods. Like the Italians, England will also try to launch quick attacks with direct balls to the wings or Welback at the front.

However, unlike the Italians whose five-man midfield pressed to win the ball back higher up the pitch, Parker and Gerrard will retreat deep along with the two wingers and England will defend in two banks of four to frustrate the French. When the ball is nicked off them, England will go direct and cross or pass or shoot. Then France will come again and the cycle will repeat for 90 minutes.

It is a more reactive approach from England and may seem too defensive but it can be effective if they take their chances. Theo Walcott will be key to Roy’s counter attacking strategy and the threat of his pace should keep Evra from venturing too far forward down France’s left. Alex Oxlade is likely to be used as a sub later in the game. If England are level when he comes on, he can make a crucial contribution with his direct running against tiring France.

For France, Laurent Koscielny should be handed a start ahead of either Mexes or Rami. Laurent Blanc will consider not only Koscielny’s good form but also his better knowledge of English players.

My prediction is a 1-1 draw. Enjoy the game.

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