AS Euro 2012 prepares to move from all-you-can-eat buffet to its haute cuisine phase, the top table has a somewhat lopsided look about it.
A system which places host nations – two host nations – among the top seeds is always likely to skew proceedings, and so it has proved.
While Group A produced drama and entertainment, enlivening a tournament opening as good as any in recent memory, it was fundamentally weakened by Poland’s position in pot 1 of the draw.
That the Poles lived down to that billing will be of no concern to the Greeks or Czechs, third and fourth seeds who turned the system on its head.
Neither Poland nor Russia deserved to progress in any event, both having buckled under the slightest pressure to produce results.
In Group B, the Netherlands and Bert van Marwijk abandoned the pragmatism which made them World Cup finalists and Euro top seeds to embrace an almost wilful stupidity.
If ever a team deserved fewer than 0 points, it was the Dutch. To say they played like a team of strangers would be inaccurate, since most people don’t actively hate strangers. In fact they were more like a team of neighbours, nursing inchoate grudges and muttering darkly to one another about overgrown conifers and mishit crosses.
Meanwhile Denmark were disciplined and effective, with the endlessly classy Daniel Agger among the standout defenders in a group stage where granite-hewn centre-backs were the in thing. An uneven spread of quality throughout the side cost them in the end, but a third-place finish is more than creditable.
Ireland also appeared at the tournament.
Given I’m writing this before Hodgey has claimed credit/blamed others for England’s serene progress/catastrophic exit from the group stage, that just leaves Croatia.
If we’re looking for victims of the seeding system (and I very much am), look no further.
Based purely on coefficients, Croatia would have been comfortably inside Pot 2, with Italy and Spain in pot 1. The Croats could not have drawn both.
At the outset of the tournament this didn’t look like being an issue, with fans and the media agreeing the side lacked fluidity, quality in defence and pace throughout.
On picking them out for the Anfield Wrap Euro specials, it seemed they might even struggle to finish above the Irish. A dismally wooden display in their final friendly in Oslo did little to provide encouragement.
And then, seemingly from nowhere, they found their groove. Luka Modric shone as a genuine number 10 or in a deeper role. Ivan Strinić looked a left-back of substance. Mario Mandzukic, a man of prodigious gifts without the footballing intelligence to underpin them, seemed to understand his role perfectly.
Like 1970s-issue Rod Stewart, he’s a potentially ferocious talent in need of a tight rein and an insight into where his real strengths lie. Slaven Bilić, himself a difficult character at times, seemed to understand this innately.
Bilić also showed a flexibility few had expected, switching in the Italy game from his favoured midfield diamond to a lopsided 4-3-3 which dragged the side back in to a game that had threatened to slip away.
The same formation frustrated the world and European champions for 88 stomach-churning and ultimately fruitless minutes.
Since being gifted an early goal in the Ireland game Croatia had genuinely grown into the tournament, showing themselves adept at solving problems. A quiet confidence and belief throughout the squad was reflected both on and off the pitch.
Ultimately they found themselves on the wrong side of the mathematics, perhaps lacking a player or two but also able to rue some bad luck and a seeding system which sold both them and the competition short.
They are the ghosts at the feast of the latter stages of Euro 2012, which will be much the poorer without their verve and quality.
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