The Biggest X Factors at Euro 2012

Charlie MelmanCorrespondent IIJune 28, 2012

DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 27:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal looks dejected after losing a penalty shoot out during the UEFA EURO 2012 semi final match between Portugal and Spain at Donbass Arena on June 27, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
Martin Rose/Getty Images

When you play football at the highest level, pedestrian play will not win any games, nor will it save a result from a match that looks to be beyond recovery.

Perhaps the sorts of utilitarian players that operate this way can make a good living in the lower leagues of the world, but you won't see any of those guys at a tournament as prestigious as Euro 2012.

Okay, maybe you can, but teams that don't have that dynamic, unpredictable element to their game are reliably group stage elimination fodder.

To succeed in major tournaments and to have any chance of beating your opponent on any given night, a top team must have an "X Factor."

It's hard to exactly describe it when you see it, but you know that when even a mediocre team has one of those sorts of extraordinary players, it can threaten an upset every time it steps on the pitch.

Andres Iniesta, for example, is Spain's main weapon in midfield and on the wings, and he often slices through opponents like a hot knife through butter to drive La Roja forward and wreak havoc in the opposition's defence.

Iniesta is so versatile and skillful, you never know exactly what you're going to see from him as a defender, which makes his so frightening.

His passing range and vision are among the best in the entire world.

Place him in the center of the pitch, and forwards will find themselves peppered with more precise long balls and through balls than they can handle.

But in his role as a makeshift winger for Spain, Iniesta has had the opportunity to display his marvelous close control and dribbling ability. Weaving through hapless defenders, it has been common to see him create for himself or others when he inevitably finds the couple feet of space he needs to work.

Mesut Ozil fills a similar role for Germany, though he operates mostly in the center of the park. He is the linchpin of his side, and fills the creative midfielder role in much the same way that Zinedine Zidane did with such class for Real Madrid and France.

But Germany's main X Factor is a not-so-secret weapon that Joachim Low only has to call upon when he needs him.

I speak of Miroslav Klose, the ageless striker who rarely fails to find the back of the net when he is on the pitch and adds an air of invincibility to the German attack when he is introduced.

With a more predatory style than Low's other option, Mario Gomez, defenders have to know how to alter their tactics on the fly when the strikers are switched. Often, by the time they start to get to grips with Klose, he's somehow found a way to put the ball in the back of the net again.

Usually, the X Factor is the conductor of the proverbial orchestra—after all, the most influential player on the team often deserves to be its hub.

When you watch Italy play, you can never be quite sure what Andrea Pirlo will do when he has possession, and it is obvious that his teammates want to funnel the ball to the best among them.

Pirlo's silky smooth technique never deserts him, and fans know that their hearts will begin to beat a bit faster when the maestro swivels his head and prepares to uncork a perfect 40-yard ball.

POZNAN, POLAND - JUNE 14:  Andrea Pirlo of Italy on the ball during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C match between Italy and Croatia at The Municipal Stadium on June 14, 2012 in Poznan, Poland.  (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)
Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

Defensive teams like England try to slow him down, but Pirlo's artistry cannot be unseen for an entire game unless he never touches his canvas.

And it is only someone with his confidence, which comes from knowing that you're the best player on the team, that attempts something as audacious as a chipped, "Panenka" penalty during the penalty shootout of the European Championships.

Of course, the biggest and most important X Factor at Euro 2012 is a Portuguese fellow named Cristiano Ronaldo who is about to go on a rather bitter vacation.

Ronaldo is the focal point for nearly everything that Portugal produce in attack. He is the reason why they play a counterattacking style of football, and it is he that made it work well enough that Portugal almost made it to the final.

The captain and leader by example, other teams worry more about stopping him than they do the rest of his teammates, and rightly so. It is rare that an entire team is the manifestation of one player and his extraordinary talents, but Ronaldo is truly that good.

The thing about being such an incredibly important part of your team is that you must demand the ball in clutch situations, for no one can decide your own fate but yourself.

That means that you do not let an entire penalty shootout pass you by without taking part and merely standing on the halfway line as a spectator as helpless as the millions watching at home.

If the decision to go last in the penalty order was not Ronaldo's, it should have been.

When Paulo Bento decided before the match that he would have his best player go fifth in a shootout, the right thing for Ronaldo to do would have been to politely explain to his manager why he, of all people, should have a say in his team's fate.

When all the aforementioned players were needed by their teams, they duly stepped up and showed that they have what it takes to win major championships.

But, after making so much progress in recent games, Ronaldo somehow contrived to come up empty again.