Czech follies, French snails and long balls

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Oh Karel. A place in the last eight was just 15 minutes away for the Czech Republic and their respected coach Karel Bruckner before Turkey staged the mother of all comebacks.

There was nothing remarkable about the way the Czechs wilted and retreated under pressure, it is a trait that can be found in every team from the lowest rung of the non-league ladder to the highest level of international football. Eriksson’s England hankered after the security of their own penalty area, refining this form of professional suicide against France and Portugal at Euro 2004.

The last 15 minutes of the Turkey game were an object lesson in how difficult it can be, once you’ve lost control – or even parity – of possession, to regain the initiative. It was also a reminder of what stupid organisms teams can be.

Nihat curls home the winner as the Czechs self-destruct 

Turkey have twice shown their own blind spots, wilfully ignoring Arda’s threat on the flanks for much of the game against Switzerland and, against the Czechs, playing the first half as if the flanks didn’t exist. Luckily Fatih Terim had half-time to change that. Bruckner could only look on as the Czechs, as he put it, “wilted” and, for the first time ever, lost a competitive match in which Jan Koller had scored.

It’s easy to blame Petr Cech but I don’t understand why Bruckner - shrewd enough to pore over the ruins of the Czech 2006 World Cup campaign and recognise a fading, ageing side - didn’t replenish it with more youth, especially by making use of Martin Fenin, the 21-year-old striker who was a sensation in the Bundesliga and scored three goals in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup last summer in Canada.

Five of the 11 that started against Turkey were over 30. Libor Sionko, the most energetic of the thirtysomethings, was the one Bruckner took off. And the Czechs looked so tired as the pressure mounted, their fatigue must have spurred the Turkish on.

Ultimately, Bruckner did the safe, professional thing – tried to tighten things up with a substitution when his side had their noses in front – but he might have been better to emulate Van Basten against France and choose to twist rather than stick.

French snails vindicate Wenger

The travails of France and Italy do suggest that Arsene Wenger’s emphasis on pace is not a ridiculous obsession.

The counter-attack has long been one of the most prolific sources of goals but what has changed, in this tournament, is the speed of those counter-attacks. The archetypal goal of Euro 2008 has come from a precise long ball struck over a defence for a striker to run onto.

The Dutch have this down to a fine art, recognising that this offers their best hope of threatening before their opponents can block the way with two walls of four, or even a wall of four behind a screen of five.

Counter-attacking football reigns supreme at Euro 2008 

The Italians and the French have attacked with a more measured, intricate passing style that hasn’t paid off. The Azzurri may not have much choice: they don’t have much pace in the squad. France do but, against Holland, Raymond Domenech kept much of it on the bench. Maybe the stars weren’t propitious for Benzema, a Sagittarian who did - to be fair - look a bit off the pace in his first game.

The hopeless hoof

One of the more irritating aspects of David Beckham’s legacy is the tendency for players with far less class on the ball to emulate Goldenballs’ knack for hitting crosses in front of the penalty area.

Struck with Beckhamesque precision, these crosses can catch defences out. But too many players - finding themselves the right yardage in front of the penalty area - stop, look around and hit an aimless cross which, though it may look vaguely constructive, is just a poorly disguised way of giving the ball away.

And the winner is…

José Mourinho, whose preference for Khalid Boulahrouz over Alex (as recommended by Frank Arnesen) becomes more understandable with every Dutch game. It’s hard to believe this is the same player who was baffled by Aaron Lennon although, to be fair, the Dutchman - briefed on the quality of Lennon’s end product - may just have fancied taking a breather.

There is no clear favourite to win the tournament. The Dutch are the closest to it. Portugal, Spain, Germany all have glaring defensive deficiencies. Italy and France are on the ropes. Croatia won’t fancy Turkey in the quarter-finals. This is the most wide open Euros since…. Ah, that’ll be the last one. When Greece won. A result which, after their lacklustre showing in 2008, seems more than ever like a mass hallucination.

Boulahrouz: A shadow of his former (average) Chelsea self