Euro 2012: Top 15 Moments of the Tournament so Far
Euro 2012 has blessed us with an incredible exhibition of football during these past couple of weeks, and both the emotionally invested and the neutrals have been enthralled by the consistently excellent level of play.
We've seen wonderful goals, shots that should have been wonderful goals, outstanding defensive play and the sort of rousing nationalism that only comes out during big tournaments like these.
Each team now has only 180 minutes left until they are crowned champions of Europe, and given the amount of football that we have already had the privilege of seeing, it's hard to believe that we're so close to the end.
Let's look back at some of the moments that have made this great tournament historic.
2 Red Cards in the Opener
The grand opening of Euro 2012 in Warsaw was probably the craziest game of the tournament, as both Poland and Greece finished with 10 men and bitten nails.
The Poles took the lead through a great headed goal from Robert Lewandowski, but then all hell broke loose.
Greece's Sokratis Papastathopoulos was shown a second yellow for a challenge on which he did not make contact at the end of the first half. Later, Wojciech Szczesny got sent off for a rash challenge inside the penalty area, but backup Przemyslaw Tyton saved the resulting penalty straight off the bench.
In a final twist, Greece would pull back a crucial goal to save a point and both sides shared the spoils.
Alan Dzagoev Hits a Brace as Russia Crush Czechs
Alan Dzagoev was mentioned before the tournament as one of Russia's key players, even overshadowing the talent of stars such as Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko.
So it wasn't out of absolutely nowhere that we got the first brilliant individual performance of the tournament, but not many saw in advance what Dzagoev would do.
His two superb goals and consistently intelligent link-up play set the tempo for Russia and distinguished him as the best player that they have.
The Netherlands' Goose Egg
One of the three teams headlining the "Group of Death" was the Netherlands, World Cup finalists two years ago and supposedly purveyors of beautiful football. Logically, it should have been the Oranje and Germany making it to the quarterfinals.
The combination of massive egos within the squad and surprisingly negative and unimaginative play from the Dutch (with the exception of Wesley Sneijder) saw the proud footballing nation finish with a whopping zero points out of nine, even losing to supposed whipping boys Denmark.
As the team is now, there is little chance of the Netherlands finally winning a World Cup in two years' time.
Germany's Perfect First Round
Group B might have lived up to its billing for the Netherlands, but Germany showed why they are arguably the best team in the world by brushing aside all opposition en route to a perfect nine points out of nine.
The only side to accomplish the feat this year, the Germans combined extremely slick interplay with deadly finishing from the in-form Mario Gomez to stomp whatever team was forced to cross their path.
At times it was not pretty, but truly good teams know when to turn on the style, and it appears that Joachim Low has found the right blend of grit and guile in his team with the embarrassment of riches at his disposal.
Portugal Beats Denmark in a Thriller
After beating the Netherlands in their opening game, Denmark was essentially playing with house money. And for a while, they were beating it.
2-0 down against Portugal, Nicklas Bendtner struck twice to incredibly put the Danes on even terms and push the Portuguese to the brink of elimination after an opening-game loss to Germany.
Silvestre Varela was having none of that, though. Only a few minutes from full time, the substitute struck to give Portugal a thrilling and much-needed victory to put them back in business in the Group of Death.
Cristiano Ronaldo Gets the Monkey off His Back
Always a lightning rod for criticism, Cristiano Ronaldo was getting lambasted by the media and taunted with chants of "Messi, Messi" by his rivals for his seeming inability to perform on the big stage again.
The best players respond to and silence their critics in decisive fashion, and it was impossible to miss the look of vindication on Ronaldo's face as he struck a brace against the Netherlands to seal Portugal's passage to the quarterfinals.
Not delivering in the clutch for his country has always been a common criticism of the forward, and now that he finally has delivered, the floodgates seem to be opening, much to the fear of the rest of the world.
A Stunner from Cesc Fabregas Against Italy
With Italy surprisingly 1-0 up on the dominant Spaniards and Vicente del Bosque's 4-6-0 formation being seriously questioned, if not decried, Spain needed one moment to save the day.
Of course, it could not come from a great piece of individual skill or a spectacular solo goal. That's just not the way they play.
No, the equalizer had to come from a typically intricate, beautiful team move, and it was fitting that David Silva picked the perfect pass to release Cesc Fabregas, who finished with aplomb.
Sheva at the Double
Andriy Shevchenko wanted to make the most out of his last international tournament in front of his own adoring fans, and he made a triumphant return to the international limelight against Sweden.
His legs might have lost some of their luster, but Shevchenko showed that his football brain had not deteriorated at all as he single-handedly brought his nation back from a 1-0 deficit to snatch a 2-1 victory.
For a nation that does not get a whole lot of footballing glory, to see its hero and national icon announce himself in such an emphatic fashion was surreal and truly a moment to savor.
Welbeck's Backheel Beats Sweden
Down and out again. England, which always has the worst luck in major international tournaments, was on the brink of a devastating defeat to Sweden that would have majorly compromised their hopes of progressing to the knockout stage.
Enter Theo Walcott.
After he scored a remarkable goal from outside the box, the English might have been content with their draw after coming from behind. But Danny Welbeck provided that one moment of magic that is often necessary to win tight games.
He turned Walcott's cross into the far post with a wonderful flick of the heel to give England a massive three points and an injection of confidence.
The Goal That Never Was
UEFA president Michel Platini's inexplicable refusal to get calls right cost co-hosts Ukraine dearly, as an equalizer would have turned the tide of the match and gotten the fans in Donetsk into full voice.
What the Frenchman said would not happen with the use of a fifth official came to pass, and we have to contemplate yet another scenario of "what-ifs" and "maybes."
It's hard to imagine someone being more resistant to change than Sepp Blatter, but Platini somehow has managed to be.
The only way to reconcile with the decision is to perceive one awful refereeing decision as nullifying another, as the move was advanced from an offside position. Nevertheless, teams and fans should never have to be put into this situation.
Two Circus Goals One Day Apart
Goals like these need little explanation to convey their brilliance.
Take a look at Italian Mario Balotelli's overhead kick while being pulled to the ground against Ireland and then have a gander at an arguably even better twisting volley from Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic against France.
Then gawk, let your jaw drop a bit and shake your fist at whatever God would not let you have the ability to do that.
Germany Outclass Greece in Political Battle
The match was billed as a showdown between the most economically depressed nation in Europe and the country that is propping it up.
As expected, all the political hype went away when the match started and the better team dominated from start to finish.
Evoking the fuzzy memories of Greece's Euro 2004 triumph to make spectators doubt Germany's dominance even slightly was a completely misguided effort.
Greece might have squeaked through a soft group, but there was no getting past the Germans.
Laurent Blanc Picks His Lineup Against Spain
France is certainly not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination. On their best day, they are capable of taking down a side as good as Spain.
But the moment when Laurent Blanc handed in his lineup on the day of the match, the French were doomed.
Gone was the fluid, technical, attacking style that had worked well enough for Les Blues to get out of the group stage. If you're going to go down against the best team in the world, stick to your philosophy and principles in so doing.
Blanc tried to change a mostly winning formula, and it predictably backfired terribly.
Ronaldo Heads Portugal into the Semis
Cristiano Ronaldo exorcised some demons against the Netherlands, and now that he has done the most difficult part of breaking his streak of futility, he goals are rolling in.
Once again, CR7 was the star performer for his country, and once again he provided the crucial finish at the moment of truth.
When Portugal know that they need a single moment of inspiration to carry them over the hump, they can reliably and securely turn to Ronaldo to deliver.
Everyone watching Portugal play the Czechs saw a goal coming, but seeing such a thumping, convincing header was a great moment.
Diamanti Sends England Crashing out Yet Again
I really do feel bad for the English at this point. When losing on penalties at this stage of major tournaments becomes something of a national tradition, it's tough to get out of that rut.
Before their match against Italy, I had a feeling that the game would be a very defensive affair, and I was mostly correct—or about the Three Lions, at least.
They defended for almost 120 straight minutes, and while it was a testament to their resolve that they did not concede, their lack of inventiveness late in the match was shameful at times.
And so we ended up with yet another penalty shootout.
A toss-up on paper, sure, but not when the English are involved. Andrea Pirlo's cheeky chip and Alessandro Diamanti's cool strike to finish the job will live long in the memory of both sets of fans, and are two of the highlights of the tournament thus far.