|Germany's Mesut Ozil and Marco Reus (Reuters)|
The return was muted, and so it should be. England did all right at Euro 2012, as well as could have been expected. It was thus appropriate that they came back home to a nod, a wave of acknowledgement and the odd camera flash rather than a fanfare or a lynch mob. Losing quarter-finalists is where England are likely to end up when, as Alan Shearer puts it with such characteristic punditry precision, they are the sixth- or seventh- or eighth-best team in the world. Or maybe in Europe. Whichever it is, Alan.
There were, even for the most inveterate pessimist, positives to be taken from their tournament. The defence was solid, Glen Johnson improved his standing, Joe Hart — his antics in the penalty shootout apart — cemented his reputation. And Roy Hodgson proved himself to be exactly the leader England needed: intelligent, capable, organised; the very definition of a safe pair of hands. His reaction to defeat was exemplary. He was dignified, reasonable, realistic; the perfect diplomat.
As a consequence, the atmosphere around the camp seemed far less charged than in the past, the paranoia dissipated, the fear reduced. Just shows what can happen with a grown-up in charge.
Now England have gone, too, we can look and learn at those who remain. Perhaps with the exception of France, the semi-finalists are the ones everyone predicted. A cagey Italy, the 10 men and one genius of Portugal, the tika taka masters of Spain. Plus, for me, the one outstanding team so far, the outfit who provide the most entertainment, value and excitement. The team surely likely to end up with the trophy - Germany.
I was lucky enough to catch all four of the semi-finalists in action during the competition. I saw Spain demolish Ireland, Italy too take the boys in green apart and Portugal ease past the Czechs. All had their strengths. The Spanish remain the masters of possession. Though how dull it can be. Sure, we can all ooze admiration for the technique required to play such a level of keep-ball. But is it really that entertaining? In truth it is sometimes to their own detriment as they sink into self-indulgence, moving sideways with all the penetration of a fresh water crab.
At times in the first half of that game with Ireland I felt like screaming at them: get on with it! It was like watching a matador, endlessly playing with his victim, waiting, waiting and waiting again to apply the coup de grace. Eventually, in the second half they opened up and it was joyful to witness. David Silva's goal in particular was a thing of real beauty. But since then, they have retreated into their shell, passing and passing until the crowd sink into a trance. Sure, winning 2-0 against France was a decent result. Yet how much more decent might it have been if they had released the shackles a bit. You know, like playing with a forward.
At times, too, the Spanish have looked as if they are tired. No wonder. Over the past three seasons their players have dominated international and club football, engaging in ferocious domestic competition deliberately stoked up by one of the leading participants. Xavi has played 60 games in each of the last four years, every one of them as exhausting mentally as physically. That he is still standing, never mind passing with wonderful, metronomic precision, is close to a medical miracle. But it makes me think Portugal have a real chance against them tonight. Sure, their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo has been as involved in the draining routine of La Liga, but at least he has been able to take a breather after his country have departed from international competition. He might just have sufficient superior resources of energy to give his side the edge.
As anyone who saw Italy against England will appreciate, once the Azzurri meet a team who have the nous to close down Andrea Pirlo, they will be on the first plane back to Rome. They are decent enough, but not good enough to beat limited if willing opponents across 120 minutes. And even if they manage to maintain parity right through another marathon match tomorrow, you can't imagine their opposition will prove as accommodating from the penalty spot as England were.
Which brings us to the tournament's one truly outstanding team. I saw the Germans against the Greeks and they were immense. Vulnerable at the back maybe, but any midfield consisting of Khedira, Ozil and the incomparable, magnificent Bastian Schweinsteiger is not going to wind up on the losing side.
What was so great about the Germans in their quarter-final was their urgency. They don't hang about. Those goals they scored against Greece took the breath away - and particularly that of the poor stand-in Greek keeper, who was like a three-year-old with a pint of milk, so often did he spill the ball.
The thing about these Germans is once they have created an opening, they batter it wide: they don't pass for the sake of it, they pass to forge a chance. As direct as they are subtle, as powerful as they are skilful, give them a couple of decent centre-backs and they might become one of the best teams ever assembled. Plus, they are great to watch.
Whisper it maybe, perhaps I should seek treatment before saying this, but would it not be good for football if Germany won this competition?