The dramatics of the group stage have given way to the banality of the quarterfinals. A week of Portugal outclassing the Netherlands, Russia falling apart, Croatia hanging with Spain and France fizzling against Sweden was followed by one of the most dull and predictable weekends that a major championship has ever seen.
This edition of the European Championships does not have anything like the Russia and Turkey teams of 2008. Instead, it has four predictable semifinalists who have advanced in predictable fashion. Euro 2012 appeared to be high on intrigue in the tournament's first three days when Russia destroyed the Czech Republic, Denmark exposed all of the Netherlands' flaws and Italy drew Spain, but that intrigue has faded. The tournament has turned into something considerably less surprising.
The Czech Republic kicked things off by disappointing the hell out of anyone who thought they might try something remotely ambitious. They were bound to play a defensive game even if the injured Tomas Rosicky was able to play, but the sheer magnitude of their negativity was equally surprising and off-putting. It was the the most surprising thing that came out of the quarterfinals.
Generally, this is a very bad sign. Those who managed to miss all four games will be happy to hear that the Czech Republic playing an overly negative style of football against Portugal was the most surprising thing that happened in any of them, because it means that they missed absolutely nothing.
Eventually, after 79 minutes of struggling to test Petr Cech and the Czech Republic defense, Cristiano Ronaldo came up with a magnificent header to fire his team to a 1-0 win. Their prize for their efforts is a matchup against Spain, a team who do not lose the ball. They will have to play this team without a true ball winner, target man or speedy poacher. They have not conceded a goal in the knockout stages of a major final since 2006.
That shutout streak was suspended in an impossibly dull match against France. The first 19 minutes were somewhat fun, when there was the sneaking little possibility that Spain might nick a goal on a counter or a set piece, but the game ended when Xabi Alonso lost a statuesque Florent Malouda and headed in Spain's opening goal. Spain, because they're the best national team in the world, decided the game was over at this point and passed the ball in circles until stoppage time, when they decided to go win a penalty for good measure. All of this was them making decisions to do so, because they're so good that they can decide when they're going to simply keep the ball and when they're going to try to score. They're so incredible that their dominance is boring.
Germany's win looks considerably less convincing on paper, but that's simply because of Jerome Boateng's stunning absent-mindedness. He was at fault for both of Greece's goals in Germany's very comfortable and dominant 4-2 win, and he'll probably be replaced by Sven Bender in the upcoming match against Italy. Marco Reus missed a couple of clear chances in that game, but made up for it with a great goal, along with some fantastic movement and link-up play. The second most interesting thing to come out of these quarterfinals? That he might have killed off the national team career of Thomas Müller for the foreseeable future.
And Italy-England? Well, that was the most predictable game of them all. Italy controlled the match entirely, as Andrea Pirlo put together a stellar performance. Joe Hart and England's defenders were on top of their game and Italy couldn't turn their dominance into goals. The match went to penalties, and as is required by FIFA bylaws, England lost on penalties. Even by the standards of the most predictable major tournament quarterfinals in recent memory, this was almost too predictable.
Four unintriguing matches, four predictable outcomes.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? Probably, but there's certainly a case to be made that there's nothing wrong with this at all. Whether the predictability of the quarterfinals represents progression or regression is something that lies in the eye of the beholder. There's certainly some value in having four very predictable quarterfinal matches. The four teams remaining in the tournament are four of the six or seven strongest in Europe, and some would say that they are truly the four strongest. It's good that the best teams remain, but they haven't left much intrigue either. At this point, everyone is just waiting for the Spain-Germany rematch.
Not to be disrespectful to Portugal and Italy, who would have a good chance at beating any other teams in the world five times out of 10, but they've run into terrible semifinal matchups. Portugal are a lot like Spain, except that they're demonstrably worse in almost every way. Italy don't have any width, they struggle to score, and they'll be playing a Germany team that has an extra 48 hours of rest. Conventional wisdom coming into the tournament was that the best and second-best teams in Europe had opened up a big gap on everyone else, and nothing has happened to prove that conventional wisdom incorrect.
The final of Euro 2012 is probably going to be the world's best major final since the 2006 World Cup, but it would have been nice to see a great Cinderella story along the way, or to see a surprising young superstar emerge. Is that so much to ask?