Two goals, two red cards, a saved penalty and beards. Lots of beards.
And that was just game one of day one, the opening fixture between Poland and Greece that served to dramatically usher in Euro 2012.
Finding themselves both a goal and a man up coming out of the halftime interval, co-host Poland could not close the deal, surrendering an equalizer and penalty to a galvanized Greek side. The match finished 1-1, with questions and bans to be sorted out by both squads.
In contrast to the twists and turns of Friday’s first match, the nightcap proved fairly straightforward.
Russia ripped the Czech Republic for two goals early and never really wavered from that pace for the remainder of the contest.
The Czechs took one back to make it 2-1 early in the second half, but two more Russian goals by Alan Dzagoev and Roman Pavlyuchenko put the game out of reach. The 4-1 result puts Russia firmly in control of Group A and leaves the Nároďák with a must-win showdown against Greece in Round 2.
After a day of exciting football, Group A looks as follows:
Here are five takeaways from an entertaining day one at Euro 2012.
Football is a game of two halves, an old truism that Poland proved once again in their opening fixture.
The positives taken from a first half filled with attacking verve were all but negated by a listless second half.
Up 1-0 against 10-man Greece, there was no excuse for the Poles to play as poorly as they did after halftime. If not for the penalty heroics of substitute keeper Przemyslaw Tyton, Poland would have been defeated, and perhaps rightfully so.
To build on this fortuitous result, Poland have to go back to what worked so well in the first half: the Borussia Dortmund connection between Lukasz Piszczek, Jakub Blaszczykowski and star man Robert Lewandowski.
Time after time in the opening half, Poland created chances from Blaszczykowski and Piszczek’s right side. They communicated well with Lewandowski and forged the tournament’s first goal. Poland were at their best when they attacked from the right flank, but failed to go back to that well in the second half.
Can the Poles exploit that club connection for more goals? Can Lewandowski, who all but disappeared in the second half, play more of an influential role for 90 minutes? Can the defense, which looked heavy-legged as the second half progressed, improve their poor man marking?
And what of the goal-keeping situation? Last time I checked, a straight red means a multi-game ban, meaning that Wojciech Szczesny will likely miss the rest of the group stage. Tyton came up trumps with his penalty save in response to captain Giorgos Karagounis' weak attempt, but how will he fare against the goal-happy Russians?
The Poles still have a decent chance of advancing, but they will need to tighten the screws defensively and consistently produce chances to do so. The question is, can they do it?
Only the pride of a nation rests in the balance.
Unquestionably the Man of the Opening Match, super-sub Dimitrios Salpingidis almost single-handedly changed the complexion of his Greek squad when he took the pitch after halftime.
Pacey, daring and inventive, the balding Salpingidis netted a poacher’s equalizer in the 51st minute, had a go-ahead goal taken back due to a raised flag and earned a penalty after darting through the Polish backline before being fouled by Wojciech Szczesny.
All in all, it was a fine day at the office.
Salpingidis’ entry made the Greeks look better with 10 men than 11, and Fernando Santos a genius (for a game, at least).
Incapable of doing anything well in the first half, the Greeks put it all together in the second and leave the Warsaw Stadia perhaps feeling hard done-by.
However, the Greeks cannot expect to advance from Group A if they play like they did in the first half again. Impotent, lackadaisical, imprecise, the Greeks were soft in defense and at sea in the Polish final third, when they got there at all.
A Czech Republic side playing for their tournament lives in Round 2 will tear that team apart.
Salpingidis should be immediately inserted into the starting lineup. No doubt, his play Friday earned him as much.
After Poland and Greece left control of Group A up for grabs, the Russians wasted no time in seizing the initiative. As mercurial as ever, Russia bookended their undressing of the Czech Republic with two pairs of goals, each as well-earned as they were taken.
Amidst a group filled with Eastern European countries, it’s ironic that Russia would be the team to dominate them. Apart from allowing Czech Vaclav Pilar to score via a busted offside trap, Russia were largely untroubled throughout the match and look very much the part of group favorites.
Much to North London chagrin, Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko turned in solid shifts. Arshavin looked constantly dangerous on the ball, and Pavlyuchenko finished his own difficult chance with aplomb.
Dick Advocaat should consider starting Pavlyuchenko up front against Poland over Aleksandr Kerzhakov, though Kerzhakov did get himself into fine scoring positions.
Kudos as well to keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev, who calmly ended almost every oncoming chance on his goal. He didn’t have to make many difficult saves, but the ones he did kept the Czechs out of the match. The Russian League’s Goalkeeper of the Year showed it would take something special to beat him.
Overall, should the Russians hold their form, they should qualify for the knockout stage, though it won’t be a cakewalk.
Don’t lose faith, Czech fans. Your team isn’t eliminated yet. Far from it, in fact.
Losing 4-1 is a tough pill to swallow, but luckily, goal differential doesn’t mean as much in these Euros as it has in the major tournaments past. Head-to-head results are the first tiebreaker over goal differential, meaning that wins, however close they may be, over Poland and Greece could catapult the Czech Republic into the quarterfinals.
And honestly, after witnessing what the Czechs have brought to the Euro 2012 table, it’s not inconceivable for them to advance.
Tomas Rosicky communicated decently with his fellow midfielders and was able to hold up play to create chances.
At times, the Czechs showed creativity in the build-up, incisive through balls and heady positioning, but overall, lacked a finishing touch for most of the match. Vaclav Pilar’s goal was a brief example of what could have been if the side had been more clinical in the final third.
Rosicky cannot both create and score all by himself, meaning players like Milan Baros will have to step up in the attack.
Likewise, Petr Cech cannot be expected to play outfield defense for his country and guard his goal as well.
The Czech defense was nothing short of shambolic, allowing acres of space on the flanks for the Russians to make them pay. Cech had very little chance on any of Russia’s four goals, with poor marking and closing down clearly at fault.
The Czech Republic will have to solve their defensive issues if they intend to escape group play. They’ll play Greece next, a team that has just hit its attacking stride, Georgios Samaras excluded.
Should they win and Russia defeat or draw with Poland, the Czechs would be in second place and in control of their own fate going into Round 3.
It wouldn’t be a day of football without officiating controversy, and Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo was kind enough to oblige us. His double booking of unfortunate Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos were two of the harshest calls I have ever seen and deprived Greece of a key defender against the Czech Republic.
Less objectionable was Carballo’s send-off of Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who knew the red was coming as soon as he rose from the turf. That one was textbook, and at least the Spaniard got that right.
But for those of you who believe it was just a bad game for Carballo, consider this:
In the 32 matches Carballo officiated as the center referee last season, across La Liga, Copa del Rey, Europa League and Champions League play, he handed out 200 yellow cards and 19 red cards.
Two hundred yellow cards and 19 red cards. That’s an average of about six yellows per game. How the Spanish Federation saw these numbers and said, “That’s our man!” is beyond me.
In fairness, perhaps Carballo had the bad luck of officiating a number of physical matches. Or maybe the cards just itch in his pocket, begging to be shown to a suddenly contrite offender. Who knows?
Whatever the case, teams that draw Carballo as their center ref should be on their best behavior. Chances are, his cards won’t stay sheathed for long.