High-quality Euro 2012 leaves lasting impression
With an average of 2.45 goals per game, Euro 2012 was the most low-scoring European Championship for 16 years, but what it lacked in rippling nets, it made up for in excitement and technical quality.
After a build-up dogged by concerns about infrastructural problems and the potential for fan violence, the competition caught the attention from the opening game.
Robert Lewandowski claimed the tournament's first goal for co-hosts Poland at Warsaw's National Stadium, but their opponents Greece secured a 1-1 draw in a breathless game that saw both sides finish with 10 men.
Poland were to entertain again, sharing a thrillingly open 1-1 draw with Russia in their second Group A game before falling to the Czech Republic and exiting the competition.
Fellow hosts Ukraine also bade their farewells in the group phase, but they could at least treasure the sight of 35-year-old national icon Andrei Shevchenko claiming a match-winning brace in the opening 2-1 defeat of Sweden.
By the mid-point of the group stage, journalists were already beginning to draw comparisons with the 2000 tournament in Belgium and Holland, widely seen as a high watermark in the recent history of European football.
Portugal let slip a two-goal lead over Denmark in Group B, only to prevail 3-2 through an 87th-minute strike from Silvestre Varela that provided the spark that would take them to the last four.
England also came from behind to beat Sweden 3-2 in Kiev, with substitute Theo Walcott lashing home an equaliser and then motoring down the right flank to tee up Danny Welbeck for a cunning improvised winner.
Penalty shoot-outs were required to separate England and Italy in the quarter-finals, and Spain and Portugal in the last four.
They made villains of Ashley Young, Ashley Cole and Bruno Alves, and heroes of Cesc Fabregas and Andrea Pirlo, who tipped the balance of the shoot-out against England in Italy's favour with an audacious chipped spot-kick.
Cristiano Ronaldo suddenly found form to score twice in Portugal's 2-1 win over Holland, before repeating the trick with the only goal against the Czechs in the last eight.
Pirlo and Spain's Andres Iniesta graced the turf wherever they trod, while Pirlo's 21-year-old team-mate Mario Balotelli came of age in stunning fashion with an emphatic brace against Germany in the semi-finals.
There were also several high-profile flops; most notably Holland's Robin van Persie and England's Wayne Rooney, who missed the first two games through suspension, scored against Ukraine, but then disappeared from sight.
Beaten finalists at the last World Cup, the Netherlands vanished amid a cloud of in-fighting and insinuation after three consecutive defeats, with Bert van Marwijk losing his job as coach shortly after.
France, meanwhile, failed to live up to expectations that they could prove to be the tournament's dark horses, with Laurent Blanc leaving his post as coach following a campaign marred by stories of off-pitch squabbles.
Les Bleus did at least end a six-year wait for a major tournament win by beating Ukraine 2-0 in a game held up for over an hour by a massive thunderstorm at Donetsk's Donbass Arena, but fell 2-0 to Spain in the last eight.
Germany also met a disappointing end, strolling through Group B and crushing Greece 4-2 in the last eight before wilting meekly against Cesare Prandelli's increasingly assured Italy.
In contrast to the Germans, Italy seemed to grow in strength with each match, before their legs and their luck deserted them in the final.
Spain found themselves unexpectedly assailed by complaints about the tediousness of their football, but there was nothing dreary about their record 4-0 demolition of the Azzurri at Kiev's Olympic Stadium on Sunday.
Despite a high-profile blunder in Ukraine's group game with England, when Marko Devic's goal was not awarded even though the ball clearly crossed the line, the trial of extra officials behind each goal-line was a success.
Their eagle-eyed presence seemed to afford greater freedom of movement to attackers, with only four penalties awarded over the duration of the tournament.
The Adidas Tango 12 match ball was a notable improvement on the unreliable Jabulani from the 2010 World Cup, with Balotelli's thumping second goal against Germany the pick of a collection of fine long-range strikes.
"Poland and Ukraine organised an exceptional tournament, that will stay in people's memories," said UEFA president Michel Platini.
"It was one of those unique moments that brings people together."
The Euro will expand to 24 teams in France in four years' time, but the 16-team format bows out having delivered a rich concentration of highly watchable matches that may prove impossible to repeat.
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