Back in the mists of time (well, early June) I just about managed to control my pre-tournament giddiness for long enough to compose a post on the eleven players I was most looking forward to seeing in Poland and Ukraine.
A month on, and the tournament has surpassed expectations; a brilliant group stage followed by a decent collection of knockout ties. Fittingly the stage is set for an intriguing final as the pre-tournament favourites face the form side.
As you’d expect, the performances of my chosen eleven varied greatly; some threatened to explode before departing with a whimper (Shirokov, Leandowski), a couple seemed intent on playing me for a fool (Afellay, Benzema), whilst one regrettably has yet to make it off the bench at the time of writing (Cazorla). I’m pleased to say though that two repaid my faith to such an extent that they have made my team of the tournament.
Why do a team of the tournament before it has finished? A fair and merited question. As I regularly lecture the kids during my day job (teacher), History is written by the winners. If Balotelli gets sent off tonight he will be condemned as a failure, if Xavi controls the game he will be lauded as the King of the Championships. By choosing my team before the final I am avoiding being influenced by outcome over process. The chosen eleven is the players I have been most impressed by over the course of the tournament.
So here it is, my team of the tournament. (The eagle-eyed twitter followers amongst you will notice a change from the team I tweeted earlier.) They will line up in a Christmas tree formation in homage to Terry ‘the money was only resting in my account’ Venables.
Joe Hart (England)
Not an easy decision. Euro 2012 hasn’t thrown up a truly great goalkeeping display as yet. Casillas has been faultless without having much to do. Buffon, Stekelenburg and Cech have all peppered largely impressive displays with moments of vulnerability. No stand-out candidate exists. So why Hart? England based their entire strategy on being difficult to breach. A risky but understandable approach for a team low on confidence, short on preparation and missing several superior performers to those in the squad for various reasons.
No doubt buoyed by a triumphant season at club level, on the pitch Hart looked the rock on which the team could rely upon. Sure he made errors; but crucially they did not usher in the shaky periods of shattered confidence that we have seen so often from English custodians. His distribution was consistently crap but the same could be said about most of his team-mates. Most impressive of all he managed to still impress despite looking like a Thundercat badly mis-cast in a 1970s sitcom.
Theodor Gebre Selassie (Czech Republic)
The first of my chosen ones before the tournament who have made this illustrious team. Prior to the tournament I was excited about seeing Gebre Selassie charging up the right flank; and we saw a lot of this. However question marks existed over his defensive awareness. He certainly looked a far cry from this team when he was bamboozled by Arshavin’s clever movement in the opening night drubbing.
To his credit though, he learned from the experience – and at lightning speed. It was a different player who took to the field against Greece – the attacking verve continued but rather than leave gaps to be exploited, decision-making of when to advance seemed much improved. His display in the victory over Poland was his best of the tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo may have proved a change too far but that should not detract from an excellent debut tournament and Werder Bremen fans can look forward to welcoming an accomplished young defender.
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Greece)
Back in November a clearly disgruntled man with a strong resemblance to Per Mertesacker could be found running the line on a misty pitch in Enfield. He was disgruntled because after missing the previous weekend’s game he had not been reinstated to the starting line up. He was me. Fifteen minutes into the game, an injury meant an enforced substitution and a reshuffle. In what seemed like the blink of an eye I found myself lining up back in the centre of defence. For the next ten minutes I was an absolute car crash, the nadir being a clumsy challenge that should have seen me go in the book. It came not from malice, but total disorientation at being thrust into the action at short notice. After ten minutes I had adjusted to the reality and put in a decent display but failing to adjust could and should have cost my team. In early June I saw a similar situation unfold; except rather than the Orc Sports Waltham League this was the European Championships. At just twenty years of age, Papadopoulos came off the bench, tasked with keeping quiet the potentially rampant Lewandowski. Not only did he keep him quiet, he excelled. Positioning and anticipation that belied his lack of experience. This was followed up by three performances that marked him out as the most exciting young centre back in the tournament.
Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
A handsome, rugged, Italian central defender? It’s enough to make this happily married blogger question his ‘leanings.’ Arriving in the tournament in a storm of controversy, Bonucci succeeded in seeing off the challenge of a striker-less Spain, filling the void of the absent defensive leader, and dominating one of the deadliest strikers in Europe to such an extent that he was hauled off at half time in a semi final. Perhaps wisely seeking to keep a low profile, he has quietly gone about his business – getting the basics right whilst making some crucial interventions. Well played Leo, you beautiful man.
Federico Balzaretti (Italy)
The Azzurri have a fine tradition in full backs blossoming at international tournaments and this time it was a thirty year old from Palermo. Early in the tournament, Balzaretti could legitimately have wondered if he would feature; Criscito was the main in possession, when his place was revoked a switch to three at the back left Balzaretti kicking his heels. However like Grosso, et al before him when opportunity knocked he took full advantage. His selfless running has provided the width so crucial to Italy’s success and his contribution to what is likely to be his only European Championship deserves recognition. The positive attitude he displays on the field is emblematic of the spirit Prandelli has instilled in a national side that looked wretched in South Africa.
Sami Khedira (Germany)
The player I most often list when asked for my dream signing for United is Bastian Schweinsteiger, yet at this tournament he was conclusively outperformed by his less heralded partner. Khedira is hardly an unknown quantity; his displays in South Africa earned him a move to Real Madrid where he enjoys the trust of Jose Mourinho. Yet I have been genuinely surprised by his development into an all-round central midfielder. He has been as likely to be seen surging late into the box as breaking up oppositions attacks. The box-to-box midfielder looked a dieing breed a few years ago yet this tournament has restated its value. I just hope Alex Ferguson has reached the same conclusion.
Daniele De Rossi (Italy)
Like Khedira, De Rossi has restated the case for the all action midfielder as a component of a successful team. Claudio Marchisio has impressed with his diligence and well-timed arrivals in the final third, yet for me De Rossi has been the glue that holds the Azzurri together. Performing a similar role to that of Vidal at club level, he has provided the platform for Pirlo to replicate his club form on the international stage. Technically gifted, tenacious in the tackle and uniquely wearing different length sleeves; there is much to admire about De Rossi. All of this comes in addition to a polished performance in the centre of a back three in the opening game, underlining just why Roberto Mancini considers the Romanista to be ‘the one who got away’ at Eastlands.
Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
Writers far more accomplished than I have written rainforests of prose about Pirlo this week so I will keep my plaudits brief. Great sports people can be marked out by how much more time they appear to have than those around them; think Michael Jordan taking a jump shot, or Andre Agassi returning a serve. It’s why we United fans love Paul Scholes, and it’s why Andrea Pirlo has been the outstanding performer in this tournament.
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
It might seem ludicrous given his achievements, but Iniesta had a poor season for Barcelona. Seemingly asked to fulfil an ever-changing positional brief, he failed to find the answers when impenetrable defences lined up against him. The same challenge faces him when representing Spain, yet this summer he has rediscovered some of his magic. In a side routinely criticised for lacking excitement, Iniesta has at times seemed to be the chief source of inspiration. His ability to find space where there seemed to be none continues to be a joy to behold.
Mesut Ozil (Germany)
When a team fails to scale the heights expected of them it is tempting to turn to revisionism. Judging by my twitter timeline this has already been adopted by some when reflecting on Ozil’s tournament. Such conclusions are understandable if, in my view, short-sighted. To take the semi-final for example, whereas several heralded members of ‘Die Mannschaft’ froze in the biggest game (yes I mean you Mats Hummels), Ozil continued to look the man most likely. In the final ten minutes he alone looked to be Germany’s route back into the game. Lighting up a tournament as he did in South Africa incurs an unavoidable burden of expectation yet in each game Ozil’s clever movement, creating space for others and decision-making was consistently brilliant.
Mario Balotelli (Italy)
Casinos. Fireworks. Bibs. Ferraris. All reasons why watching the story of Super Mario unfold is a global obsession. On Friday morning, not for the first or last time all the headlines were about Balotelli yet none of the aforementioned ‘lolz’ moments featured. The press who wrote off the young man as a liability just a few months ago collectively ate humble pie as Balotelli demonstrated just why he has been persevered with. The highlight was clearly the visceral power of his decisive goal yet it was the all round performance that so impressed. Buying time for his team by turning outnumbered situations into free kicks, intelligent movement to open opportunities for others and dominating two physically imposing teutonic central defenders. Balotelli hasn’t looked back since taking the field as a sub against Ireland and sadly for us United fans, it seems the limitless potential might just be turning into performance.
So that’s your lot. I’m sure you don’t agree with all (maybe any!) of my choices so please leave a comment letting me know who I missed and why they should have made the cut.
Comments are welcomed below and if you’d like to engage me directly then get in touch on twitter.
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Tom is a southern dwelling Kendalian who is one of our editors and a weekly guest on the podcast. He has an unhealthy obsession with Jaap Stam and despite 20 years of success never expects United to win.