Goalless semi highlights lack of striking talent
DONETSK (Reuters) - A disappointing semi-final between Spain and Portugal served again to highlight the dearth of quality strikers at Euro 2012, a failing that has been somewhat disguised by the debate over tactics.
Critics of Spain have questioned coach Vicente Del Bosque's decision to play, against Italy and France, without a recognised striker, worrying that it may mark a trend others will follow but perhaps a lack of outstanding forwards is the real worry.
Del Bosque did field a classic number nine against Portugal on Wednesday, in Alvaro Negredo who did not manage a single shot on target and made little contribution before being replaced by midfielder Cesc Fabregas in the 54th minute.
Fabregas grabbed the headlines by converting the winning penalty in Spain's 4-2 shootout success after a goalless 120 minutes but his introduction was another signal from Del Bosque that he has little faith in his main strikers Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente who watched the match from the bench.
Perhaps if David Villa had not been injured prior to the tournament, Del Bosque would have avoided the six-man midfield approach which has seen Spain, too often, run out of options when they arrive in the final third.
Torres, who scored the winning goal in the 2008 final win over Germany, has struggled at club level since his move to Chelsea in January 2011 and his drop in form left Del Bosque with a headache which he cured by playing without a striker.
Portugal, whose first choice centre forward Helder Postiga was injured for the semi-final, played Hugo Almeida up front with Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo out wide.
Almeida, who plays for Besiktas in Turkey, was at least a physical presence that gave Spain's all-too-often untroubled back line something to think about, but when he did break free his finishing lacked finesse.
If Portugal or Spain had a striker, or two, with the quality to match their accomplished midfields, it might have been a game where the memories were about a wonderful goal and not the unsatisfactory elimination process of the shootout.
While Germany's Mario Gomez has had an excellent tournament, and coach Joachim Loew has a quality alternative in Miroslav Klose, closing in on Gerd Mueller's all-time national scoring record, the knockout stage has missed the impact of great strikers.
Italy missed several chances to finish off England before extra time in the quarter-finals and, while Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano know where the net is, they must be more clinical against Germany later on Thursday if the Italians are to progress, although Cesare Prandelli has the option of a genuine 'poacher' in Antonio Di Natale.
England's Wayne Rooney was supposed to be the one player in Roy Hodgson's squad who could provide a moment of genius to turn a game but he hardly threatened Italy's defence playing alongside the promising but internationally inexperienced Danny Welbeck.
It could be argued that France played their quarter-final against Spain without a real striker given that the most advanced forward, Karim Benzema, like Rooney, enjoys drifting deep rather than leading the line.
Again, the case can be made that manager Laurent Blanc was merely making the best of the resources available with little quality striking power available to him on the bench.
It is a far cry from the days when the big debates around the top teams in major tournaments focused on which of the strikers would start for their country.
Apart from the Klose-Gomez choice for Germany, the only other team with real options up front seemed to be the Netherlands but Premier League top scorer Robin Van Persie and Bundesliga leading marksman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar managed just one goal between them in three games.
Indeed, it is hard not to believe Europe is suffering from a home grown striker shortage.
The two leagues with the money to attract the best talent - England's Premier League and Spain's La Liga - have plenty of scoring talent but a large proportion of it comes from outside the continent.
After Van Persie and Rooney at the top of England's scoring charts last season, the next leading scorers were Argentine Sergio Aguero, Nigerian Yakubu, American Clint Dempsey, Togolese Emmanuel Adebayor and Senegal's Demba Ba.
In Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo was the league's second-top scorer behind Argentine Lionel Messi, with the third top scorer, Colombian Radamel Falcao, and fourth-best, Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain.
It is probably a coincidence but the team with the most striking options - Germany - have a league where nine of the top 10 scorers are European.
It is too soon to talk of strikers being a dying breed at international level and trends and tactics change rapidly with the tone often set at tournament's like this.
But it will be interesting to see whether Sunday's final ends, as it did for Torres in 2008, with a striker as a hero.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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