Euro 2012: The Top 10 Players of the Tournament Thus Far
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Soccer is a game played by two teams, but more often than not, it is individuals that make the difference. A player cannot win a game by himself, but he certainly can have a tremendous impact with a few key plays.
In order to be remembered in history, these plays must be made on the great stage that is international soccer. Euro 2012 has indeed provided a great stage with close games, lopsided wins, amazing plays and horrifying mistakes.
At this high level, several players have performed extraordinarily and brought success to their respective nations. Here are the 10 best of these superstars thus far.
10. Mathieu Debuchy
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Mathieu Debuchy started all four games for France, and was so effective on both ends of the ball that Laurent Blanc decided to alter his formation against Spain in order to allow him more space offensively.
Debuchy was very solid defensively and made several key stops to help France through the first round. What makes him different from other defenders is the offensive dimension he brings. He played superbly on the right flank and was dangerous on his crosses.
Although France was ultimately stopped by Spain, ESPN has reported that Debuchy was impressive enough to attract the attention of Newcastle.
9. Alan Dzagoev
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Alan Dzagoev took the Euro 2012 by storm on the first day by scoring twice, leading Russia to a 4-1 win over the Czech Republic. He then continued his fine form by flicking a header in, as Russia gained a 1-1 tie against host Poland.
While Russia disappointed by not making it through, their young star certainly made an impact. At the tender age of 22, Dzagoev showed the world what he could do. He is still tied for most goals in the tournament.
According to ESPN, his capacity to find space and use creativity to finish even impressed Arsenal and should lead to a bright future for the Russian.
8. Iker Casillas
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Iker Casillas is widely considered to be the best goalkeeper in the world, and he has lived up to those expectations at Euro 2012.
He has the good fortune of playing for Spain, so he often plays under little pressure. But the great thing about Casillas is that he makes the saves when he needs to. This fact was most evident against Croatia and Portugal.
Against Croatia, Casillas saved Spain from elimination by making a superb save in front of Ivan Rakitic. On an even bigger stage, Casillas saved a penalty shot by Joao Moutinho to keep Spain in the penalty shootout and eventually send La Roja to the final.
Casillas may not face as much pressure as other keepers, but he makes great saves when his team needs him most. He has played a major part in Spain's run.
7. Mario Balotelli
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There may not be a more polarizing figure in world soccer than Mario Balotelli. Just before the tournament started, Fox Sports reported Balotelli as threatening to kill any racists that he may come across.
The controversy didn't end once play started either, as Balotelli flubbed a huge chance against Spain, which had some questioning whether he should start or not.
Super Mario put those questions to bed by scoring a brilliant goal in the closing minutes of Italy's game with Ireland. Balotelli then did even better by scoring two perfect finishes against Germany to lead La Squadra Azzura to the final.
He would be even higher on this list had he been able to finish chances early in the tournament.
Some may dislike Balotelli's attitude, but none can deny the impact his superb skill has had on Euro 2012.
6. David Silva
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Were it not for the performance of David Silva, Spain may have been watching Sunday's final at home. However, La Roja do have the offensive midfielder, and they are grateful.
Spain play a very possession-oriented game and have an unfortunate tendency to be too patient with the ball. Silva does well to interrupt this rhythm with great runs and creative control of the ball. He is instrumental in keeping Spain hungry and pushing their game forward.
Silva has had an obvious impact—he scored against Ireland and has three assists already.
If Silva can continue to use his outstanding touch the way he has, Spain may very well become the first nation ever to win three consecutive major tournaments.
5. Luka Modric
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Croatia came awfully close to making it through ahead of finalist Italy, and that great run is due in part to the terrific play of Luka Modric.
Modric was perfect in his distribution, creativity and movement forward. He led the Croatian offense in spreading the field well and keeping defenders confused by taking several great shots from outside the box.
Modric was unable to play in the second round, but he left his mark on the tournament by having his way with defenses in the three games he played. He has even played well enough to attract the attention of Real Madrid and Manchester United according to the Sun.
4. Andres Iniesta
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Andres Iniesta will play in his third consecutive final of a major tournament on Sunday. Not only will he be playing in the decisive game, but he very well may decide who wins.
Iniesta dominates the midfield, and his great touches are crucial to running Spain's possession offense. He also has the capacity to beat defenders one on one and create chances for himself.
The Barcelona midfielder scored the game-winning goal against Holland in the 2010 World Cup, and his clutch performances have not stopped since. He will need to come up huge to lead La Roja to a third consecutive title, and if his play thus far is any indication, you can count on him.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
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Perhaps the best player in all of Europe, Cristiano Ronaldo entered Euro 2012 under a tremendous amount of pressure. This pressure may have gotten to the Real Madrid forward early, as he missed several easy chances in his first two games.
With those two games behind him, Ronaldo came out and played like the superstar that he is. He scored two important goals against Holland to send his team through. He then headed home the winning goal in Portugal's quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic.
Portugal ultimately lost in the semifinal, but Cristiano Ronaldo was one of the most dangerous players of the tournament in leading his team to an unexpected semifinal berth.
Many have criticized Ronaldo for not shooting a penalty against Spain, but the team would never have been there without his great play on the right flank.
2. Mesut Ozil
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It wasn't supposed to end this way for Mesut Ozil. The Germany midfielder suffered defeat at the hands of Spain in the final of Euro 2008 and in the semifinal of the 2010 World Cup.
In top shape at this tournament, Ozil hoped to lead Germany to his first major title. Instead, the Real Madrid midfielder fell short of the overall win once more.
That does not, however, mean that he underperformed.
Ozil was superb in distributing the ball and leading the German offense forward. He scored a meaningless late penalty against Italy in the semifinal, but he also created endless chances throughout the tournament.
Ozil will look back at this competition with regret, but he did his nation proud.
1. Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo chipping his penalty over Joe Hart
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Not enough can be said about the performance of Andrea Pirlo.
Coming into the competition, Pirlo was deemed to be a midfielder past his prime on a team past their prime and in the middle of a scandal. Right before the start of the tournament, The New York Times reported on a match-fixing scandal in Italy that was projected to rattle the team.
However, Pirlo has left all of that behind and has led his team to the championship game.
He has been simply perfect in distributing the ball and executing when he is most needed. He led the counterattacks perfectly against Spain, scored a beautiful free kick to give his team the win against Croatia and showed tremendous guts in lightly chipping a crucial penalty over Joe Hart in the quarterfinals.
Pirlo has done everything Italy has needed and has been the best player at the tournament. Willing his team along a magical run to the final lands him at the top of this list.
Pirlo has proven once again that he has the capacity to lead Italy to a surprise victory on Sunday.