Poland, Jun26: As the four surviving teams gear up for their moment of truth at Euro 2012, the lesson from the losing quarterfinalists is clear: Don't “park the bus.”
The phrase, widely attributed to Jose Mourinho during the Portuguese coach's time at Chelsea, is a swipe at teams who play a defensive game by putting 10 or even all 11 players behind the ball. The image is of players arriving at the stadium on the team bus, and then leaving it parked in front of their goal.
It doesn't work. At least not at this year's European Championship.
“These types of games, in this type of competition, are always very tense,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said after his team's quarterfinal victory over France. “And you need to have the know-how to win them.”
One by one, the Czech Republic, Greece, France and England all made their exits at the quarterfinal stage after trying to “park the bus” in front of technically superior opponents—Portugal, Germany, Spain and Italy, respectively.
Admittedly, Italy needed a penalty shootout to dispatch England. But only after utterly dominating and somehow failing to convert a host of opportunities to score from close range.
England, for its part, looked threatening for the first five minutes. Timid for the next 115. And you can't expect to win matches with only 36 percent of the possession.
The Czechs took defensive football to its logical extreme, by not managing a single shot on target for the entire 90 minutes of their 1-0 loss to Portugal.
Greece's defensive fortress was only forced into a “Plan B” after “Plan A” was wrecked by Philipp Lahm's barreling shot into the Greek net shortly before halftime. Georgios Samaras briefly equalized after the break, but his team was simply overrun as the Greek defense finally crumbled in the face of Germany's attack.
France had probably the most difficult task against Spain, the world and European champion, and probably tried the hardest to come out of defense. But the French still found themselves on the back foot for most of the game, as Spain patiently worked the ball around in search of an opening.
Because that's the fatal flaw in parking the bus. What looks like a sensible strategy on the outside nearly always condemns the weaker team to defeat, especially at the very highest level of the game.
It starts out as a war of attrition. But eventually, the best teams will pull their opponents out of position just enough to squeeze in a killer pass—as Spain did against France. Or find the space to unleash a shot from nowhere—as Germany managed against Greece.
Or it might be just a momentary lapse of concentration. Czech Republic right back Theodor Gebre Selassie had a fine tournament and kept his eyes on Cristiano Ronaldo for all but half a dozen of the 5,400 seconds of their match. The only problem was with the half dozen, when Ronaldo drifted in behind Gebre Selassie unseen before darting in front of him to head home the only goal of the game.
The irony for Wednesday's all-Iberian semifinal match between Spain and Portugal is that those roles could be reversed. Portugal could well be the team on the defensive, while Spain dictates the pace and control of the match.
Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas, asked about a comparison between club and national sides, is almost expecting as much from the contest at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine.
“Portugal uses a different system to Real Madrid, but it is true that one of its strongest points is the counterattack,” the Barcelona midfielder said Monday.
The one certainty is that his teammates will not be changing their system of play.
“We've got nothing planned,” said Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso, who scored both goals against France. “We'll play the same way regardless of the rival.”
It's a similar story for Germany, the team that many expect to reach a final with Spain on July 1.
Joachim Loew's brand of attacking football has been by far the most entertaining of the tournament, whatever striking option he has used. Loew dropped all three of his forwards from the group stage for the quarterfinals, bringing in Miroslav Klose, Andre Schuerrle and Marco Reus.
Yet Germany's ability to strike down the middle or from the flanks remained every bit as sharp. Klose and Reus both scored in the convincing 4-2 win over Greece.
And as he prepared for Thursday's game in Warsaw against Italy—the country that invented “catenaccio,” or lockdown defending—Loew made it clear that “our philosophy, our game will not change.”
Portugal and Italy both know they are taking on tournament favorites, and the temptation to put safety first will be understandable.
They just have to choose the right place to park the bus.