The first round of group matches at Euro 2012 have thrown up a number of great prospective games and some intriguing key battles within those matches. While it is still unclear exactly who will start and what role they might play, there are some players who are all but guaranteed to face off in the next few days, so WhoScored.com has taken a closer look at those key battles and the involved players’ vital statistics.
Spain vs Italy - Match Preview
Quite possibly the biggest game of the first round of matches pits Spain against Italy and brings together two of the best passers in the modern game. Andrea Pirlo (2778) and Xavi (2688) completed the most and second most passes, respectively, in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season and will thus undoubtedly be at the heart of every attacking move either team builds. However, given their deep-lying roles, they may not come into contact all too often, and will conduct their operations from comfortable and spacious positions.
Meanwhile, Antonio Cassano, back to full fitness after a troubling time with his health earlier in the season, will play more advanced for Italy, in behind Mario Balotelli up front. Cassano only made 11 Serie A starts for Milan this season, appearing from the bench 5 more times, yet still led the assists charts for the top-scoring side in the Italian league, with 10. Only Pirlo (13), Miccoli (12) and Giovinco (11) picked up more assists in Serie A, but each did so in significantly more appearances, making Cassano’s rate of 100.5 minutes per assist by far the best in the league for players to have got more than one assist. That rate was also only behind Angel Di Maria (89.8) in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season.
The player charged with subduing Cassano is likely to be Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, who will aim to protect his back four by breaking up Italian attacks. He made 84 interceptions and 77 tackles in La Liga this season – his total of 161 was only bettered by Javier Mascherano for the Catalans and made up nearly 11% of his side’s total for the season. As dribbling is not Cassano’s style (he only completed 14 successful dribbles all season), Busquets’ main job will be intercepting passes, especially given Cassano’s pass success rate of just 79.6%.
Meanwhile, due to Spain’s passing game, Busquests is likely to get on the ball with some regularity as well, which will see the roles reverse for the aforementioned duo. Cassano makes very little in the way of a defensive contribution, making only 4 tackles and 4 interceptions in his 16 Serie A games last season, so Spain may well look to build their attacking moves through Busquets.
France vs England - Match Preview
England have had plenty of troubles on the road to Euro 2012, none more so than injury worries in recent weeks. One player who was always likely to be named and did not suffer a tournament ending injury was right-back Glen Johnson. The Liverpool defender is rarely praised for his defensive abilities, but he will have to be at his very best for England’s opening game against France, when he will come face-to-face with one of the world’s most dangerous wingers, Franck Ribery.
In Europe’s top 5 leagues this season, only Lionel Messi successfully dribbled past opposing players more times than Ribery, who did so 129 times. He also created the most clear cut goalscoring chances than any other player (16) and got the most assists (12) in the Bundesliga this season, and it is thus no secret that he will provide a serious threat to England’s chances when the sides face up in Donetsk.
However, the Frenchman also failed with the most attempted dribbles in the Bundesliga this season, being stopped in his tracks on 123 occasions, meaning he completes just over half of his attempted dribbles past opponents. Furthermore, Johnson was only dribbled past 11 times in 23 Premier League appearances this season – certainly an impressive stat for a player considered defensively weak. 29 players that have featured at right-back in the English top flight this season have been dribbled past more times, while 41 have been dribbled past more times on average per game than Johnson (0.48), including Englishmen Kyle Walker (0.57) and Phil Jones (0.52). Johnson has also made 43 tackles this season, meaning he is only beaten by his opponent roughly once in every five attempts. What will come of the battle with Ribery will be interesting to see.
Germany vs Portugal - Match Preview
Mesut Ozil sprang onto the international scene at the last World Cup with a string of outstanding performances in an impressive German side. He could well be the key to creating chances for Germany once again here, after a good season at Real Madrid where he picked up 17 assists – more than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. He also made the most key passes in La Liga, with 103, which was only topped by Pirlo (125), Valbuena (105) and Silva (104) across the top 5 leagues.
Up against Ozil is likely to be Genoa’s Miguel Veloso in the deep-lying midfield role for Portugal. Although he is not solely a defensive player, he will have to contribute in that sense for his country given that the front three are likely to provide very little cover. Veloso’s season has been somewhat unspectacular, with just 2 goals and no assists to his name. Meanwhile, 5 players at Genoa averaged more tackles per game than him (2.5), while 12 made more interceptions per game (1.7). He did, though, stand out for his passing abilities, averaging more passes per game (53.1) than any other player in the squad, and he made the most accurate long balls per game (5.5). He will need to make sure he can get on the ball in order to showcase his skills, but his main worry might well be quashing the threat of Ozil before thinking about his own game.