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Admittedly this is the first time I've really paid attention to the European Championships and rightfully so. Soccer has been a foreign concept to me up until the last few years, and it was the desire to begin to like soccer that led me to pay attention to the last few EPL seasons as well as the 06 World Cup. The natural progression then, at least for me, would be to watch Euro 2008 with a great fervor.
As is the norm for an American watching Euro unfold I've been rooting with a dogged interest for the country of my ancestral heritage. However, with Sweden being bounced by a ravenous Russian side, and England failing to qualify (yes, I'm quite lacking in skin pigment) I've turned my attention towards just rooting for the classic soccer match. Today's quarterfinal between Portugal and Germany, although far from perfect, was an exciting match that had me rooting for Portugal simply because they were behind. Ultimately though, Germany prevailed and rightfully so. Portugal had no answer for Germany's set pieces and even though they only lost by one goal were only the aggressive team for little more than 30 minutes in the entire match. So Germany move on to get what could be the easiest of semi-final draws in the winner of Turkey v. Croatia. Although Croatia have already defeated the Germans if they play as they did today then they'll be giving Croatia fits for an entire 90 minutes.
With one quarterfinal out of the way I'll lay down some albeit amateurish thoughts on what could transpire the rest of the way.
Quarterfinal 2: Croatia v. Turkey
Turkey, the winners of the most thrilling of the group stage games as they scored a late equaliser then winner against a stunned and suddenly over matched Czech team, will be tested by an underrated, but surely up to the task Croatian side. Croatia had the easiest run through their group, and advanced with relative ease against a superiorly talented German squad and a desperate Polish side. The Turks have their emotions running high, but have several key cogs in the machine suspended for their quarterfinal bout. The most important of these being goaltender Volkan Demirel, who was given a deserved 2 match ban after knocking Jan Koller to the ground in the waning minutes of their victory over the Czechs. Their captain Emre Belozoglu is also out, only his exit is of the injury type, not for mass stupidity on the grandest of stages.
The Croatians aren't without their bandages though as striker Igor Budan will be forced to miss the rest of the tournament with an injury of his own. His injury will place an extra emphasis on the remainder of the Croatian side to create and score in his absence. Regardless of this the Croatians are a much better side, and should make quick work of an out-manned, outclassed, and out gunned Turkish side.
Prediction: 2 - 1 Croatia, but it won't be that close.
Quarterfinal 3: Netherlands v. Russia
The Dutch are on the biggest roll of anyone in the tournament and going into the knock-out stages are easy favorites of continuing onwards in the tourney. However, they come into fierce contact with a Russian side that is coming off of one of the more dominant performances in the tournament as they dominated and swept aside my favorite, and a very talented Swedish club. The Dutch are an absolutely loaded team, maybe even more so than any other club in Europe. With Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dirk Kuyt, and Robin Van Persie up front they have as competent a attacking front as any. They are complemented confidently by Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben who form a vicious midfield duo. On paper the Dutch have more talent up front and more world class players spread about the pitch than the Russians and should be a supremely over-powering force.
But the Russkies will not back down. It was apparent in their win against Sweden that they are hell bent on causing as much pain and suffering for other clubs as their potent attack was supplanted with the return of the sensational striker Andrei Arshavin to their lineup. Arshavin looked absolutely unmatched on the field against Sweden and he'll look to test the talented defense of La Oranje. He'll be helped on the pitch by fellow striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, as well as midfielder Yuri Zhirkov.
With an all-out offensive planned don't be surprised to see this match come down to goalkeeping, and Manchester United and Dutch netminder Edwin Van der Sar is one of the best left in the tourney. With that being said a few lucky bounces for the Russians could leave the relatively untested Dutch on their heels, but I wouldn't expect them to be tested this early in the tournament. A possible semi with either Spain or Italy could prove to be a much more trying test for a flying Dutch squad.
Prediction: 3 - 1 Netherlands
Quarterfinal 4: Spain v. Italy
The Spanish have looked at times more impressive than even the Dutch as they too blistered through their Group stage opponents. Italy on the other hand have limped into the knock out stages after scraping together a draw against Romania and flat-ironing an old and toasted French squad. Italy will also be without two of their more essential players in Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso in the middle, both of whom have been suspended for this match.
On paper the Italians are just as talented as the Spanish, and should prove to be a strength on strength fight. Even though they are one of the more disgusting teams in all of sports (nobody flops harder or more often than the Italians) when they focus on their craft they are an intimidating presence on the pitch. Look for Luca Toni and Antonio Cassano to have big matches if the Italians want to move on versus a stout Spanish club.
Spain have the most to lose here as they play probably the second best of the second place teams (Germany being the first). David Villa has been scintillating and Fernando Torres is primed to take his first steps towards proving he is Spain's greatest striker, continuing the success he had at the club level with Liverpool this season. Although don't be surprised if someone like Sergio Ramos comes through with a clutch goal for a team that is big on clutch goals. Although they seem to have fallen well short of expectations in the past, Spain has a lot of talent at its disposal, and if it wants it, the game is theirs for the taking.
Prediction: 2 - 1 Italy on penalties. If it comes to penalties no goaltender has been sharper than Gianluigi Buffon thus far, and Iker Casillas has looked rather pedestrian.
That will leave Semifinal match-ups of Germany v. Croatia and Netherlands v. Italy. I'd say don't be surprised by a Dutch v. German final, but that is something to be visited upon later.