Italy -vs- Romania
The Italians are coming off their worst loss in a major competition in my lifetime and now have to face a difficult Romanian squad today. Italy looked slow and old as the Dutch repeatedly ran past them on counter-attacks. What is even more shocking is how their vaunted midfield was torn apart by the lesser-known players for the Dutch. While Pirlo did have a good game, the three other midfielders were awful and allowed the Dutch the space to play their brand of soccer. One of the reasons for this midfield failure was the asisine decision making of coach Roberto Donadoni to play Ambrosini instead of Daniele De Rossi. Not only is De Rossi a much better player at this stage of his career, he would have been able to assert himself much better in an open game and help stave off the Netherlands attacking chances. As opposed to Italy's embarrasing defensive effort, the Romanians looked greatly composed and aware against France. And while the French looked highly confused most of the game offensively, some credit has to go to Romania for not giving them the opportunities to find that offense. Their organization on defense was excellent and Mutu and Nicolae up front still provide some chances. Romania may have been overlooked in the group before Monday, but its obvious now that they have the talent to advance.
Tactics Board: Italy needs to make two big changes in this game. The first is to insert Fabio Grosso at left back for the entire game. When him and Zambrotta are flying down the wings, Italy becomes a much different and more dangerous team (as evidenced by WC 2006). Second of all, they need to let De Rossi control things in the midfield. Without a Totti to link Pirlo with the forwards, the front line didn't recieve enough support. De Rossi would be perfect for this and will help open up a stout Romanian defensive line. For Romania, they will probably play very similar to how they did against France. The problem is that Italy is going to be much more agressive than the French out of necessity. For this reason Romania is going to have to try and control possession more and create more offense. If they try and play defense all game and rarely go forward, they are playing with fire because Italy will score today.
Prediction: This game may be the last stand for the old guard of Italian soccer. Thankfully for them, they still have a great chance to advance in the group. They must get a result today, and its not going to be easy against Romania. However, their defense will play much better today and if Donadoni makes the right decisions, Italy will win this game. An early goal from Luca Toni will hold up, and then a late goal by Acquilani gives the Italians a 2-0 win.
Netherlands -vs- France
Its hard not to be a fan of the Dutch when they play soccer the way they did on Monday. When the Dutch are right, only Brazil and Argentina can match the aesthetic quality of their play. On the other hand, I've never seen France look worse. Their was no sense of urgency in their play, and seemingly no understanding between any of their players. Maybe i'm just set in my ways, but its impossible for me to imagine them playing as badly as they did on Monday. Also, I find it very hard for the Dutch to play that well again. They have been a very schizophrenic national team throughout history, looking great one day and clueless the next. And for all that offensive firepower, they did give up quite a few chances to Italy that could go in on another day. If France can get Thierry Henry back in the lineup, and figure out how to properly use Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery it could be a very long day for the Dutch defense. With that being said, the coach of the French has the acumen of a walnut, so odds are that he probably still screws the whole thing up.
Tactics Board: The Dutch face a pretty interesting quandary. They played so well against Italy without two of their best players starting in Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben. Now they are healthy and available, but does Van Basten want to mess with the chemistry his squad showed on Monday. If I was the manager I would have no hesitations to re-insert those two. The Dutch will need their quality if they want to advance far in this tournament, and if those two are alongside Van Nistelrooy and Sneijder they could be an offensive juggernaut. For France, questions abound. Will Henry and Vieira be healthy enough to play? If they are, say goodbye to Anelka and Toulalan, who were awful last game. Domenech has to be thinking that he has to find more offense, which should mean that a more offensive midfield option such as Nasri could be inserted in the lineup at the expense of the overrated Malouda. Finally, I'd love to see Patrice Evra get a start at left back for Abidal. Evra was quietly one of the best players on Man United and would give France an attacking option they have never had from their back line. Domenech probably won't do that because he's an idiot, but at least I can dream.
Prediction: I'm going to expect another open game for the Dutch. Their defense is going to allow a lot of chances to France because they simply aren't that good, yet their offensive stars could run circles around the slower French defenders. The matchup to watch is Sneijder versus Makelele. If Sneijder can run the midfield for Holland and create chances for the front line, the Dutch are in great shape. If Makelele can thug it up and shut down the Dutch midfielder, France will have a huge advantage in this game. I have a feeling this is going to be the game of the tournament, with both teams slugging it out to a 2-2 tie. I'll say goals from RVN and Sneijder balance out efforts from Young Benzema and Ribery for France.