The round-robin matches in the group stage of UEFA European Football Championship 2012 have offered some memorable moments and stirring images.
There have been spectacular goals — Danny Welbeck’s back heel, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s thunderous in-the-air side volley and Mario Balotelli’s over-the-shoulder flick — and thrilling examples of free-flowing, end-to-end matches, particularly for Sweden, which fell to England (3-2) and host Ukraine (2-1) in what proved to be a very difficult Group D.
There have also been incredible displays of passion. Last Thursday, some 20,000 Republic of Ireland fans inside Arena Gdansk redefined national team fandom by collectively singing “The Fields of Athenry” in the final minutes of a 4-0 loss to Spain despite their team being knocked out of the tournament.
As the UEFA EURO 2012 elimination rounds start today with the first of four quarterfinal matches, Front Row asked studio analysts Alexi Lalas, Tommy Smyth and Taylor Twellman to recap the group stage and preview this next phase of the tournament.
What are the three biggest surprises of the tournament so far?
Lalas: Portugal finally playing up to their talent, England winning their group, and Russia not going through after the way they started the tournament.
Smyth: Greece, Czech Republic and England.
Twellman: Czech Republic advancing after losing its opening match 4-1 to Russia, the Netherlands, and Croatia.
What were the best three matches of the group stage?
Lalas: Ukraine def. Sweden (2-1), England def. Sweden (3-2), and Portugal def. Netherlands (2-1).
Smyth: England def. Sweden (3-2), Italy tie Spain (1-1), and Germany def. Portugal (1-0).
Twellman: Ukraine def. Sweden (2-1), England def. Sweden (3-2), and Italy tie Spain (1-1).
The three best players during the group stage?
Lalas: Mario Gomez (Germany), Mario Mandžukić (Croatia), and Bruno Alves (Portugal).
Smith: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), and Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
Twellman: Mario Gomez (Germany), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), and Steven Gerrard (England).
What should fans expect in the elimination rounds?
Smyth: Teams won’t be as free-flowing since the matches can go to extra time and shootouts. Players will be thinking if they make a mistake, it could send them and their teams home.
Twellman: Teams playing with reservation, timid and reluctant early on in games as they are in knockout stage. An early goal will help the games to be more exciting.
The underdog most likely to pull an upset in the quarterfinals?
Lalas: England over Italy. England is an underdog. England has punched above their weight. If they were to beat Italy, it would be an upset.
Twellman: France over Spain. They have three or four quality players who may give Spain problems.
Among players under the radar now, who is your pick to emerge in the elimination rounds?
Lalas: Gebre Selassie, the right back for the Czech Republic has had a wonderful tournament. His stock has really gone up.
Twellman: Theodor Gebre Selassie from the Czech Republic will see a move to a bigger club in Europe as he has been very impressive.
What quarterfinal matchup you are most looking forward to and why?
Lalas: Germany vs. Greece. It will be fun sitting next to Michael (Ballack) watching this match. Greece has nothing to lose. And Germany, if they don’t completely annihilate Greece, it will be looked at as a failure.
Smyth: England vs. Italy. Two teams who came in a little under the radar. They have both played good football. This one will be special.