With each team in this year’s Euro 2012 having a game in the bag, what better time to do a short little retrospective summary on the very best and worst heading into the second round.
Some teams have positioned themselves exactly where they would like a top of the table and poised to go through to the knockout stages. Others are looking at all the prep beforehand coming down to how they perform in their next 90 minutes of football.
Here is a look at the biggest winners and losers of the first round of matches.
It seems to happen every major tournament that a Russian player residing in the dark hollows of the Russian Premier League shows their skill and worth on the international stage. Dzagoev’s two goals helped the Russians to a 4-1 dismantling of the Czech Republic and already has the transfer wire buzzing with rumors.
At only 21 years old there is a huge amount of potential to invest some cache into this kid, but the knee-jerk reactions of a single game could come back to bite an overambitious club in the butt (see: Andrei Arshavin).
But for Russia it makes them clear favorites to advance out of Group A first and for Dzagoev himself, keeping up this form will lead to a massive payday.
I keep hearing that Arjen Robben is one of the best wingers in the world, but if that is so then he is more in the guise of LeBron James; he will do all season long until it matters most.
Robben’s past two competitive games (one with Bayern Munich in the Champions League final) were at the highest level of pressure and both times he failed to come up big when his team needed him most. He did not have exactly a poor game against Denmark, but you would expect someone of his level to be able to get one goal against an inferior side on paper.
The road does not get any easier for Robben or the Dutch as the Danes are the weakest side in Group B. With Germany and Portugal waiting, he has a chance to overturn this choking dog stigma, but it will not come easy.
Gomez was very close to being lumped into that same category as Robben if it were not for one well placed header. He too had his fair share of chances and it took 72 minutes for him to prove he was the right choice to start over Miroslav Klose.
For much of the match, Gomez was not providing that much of a threat. He was obsolete enough that just before his goal, Joachim Low had summoned Klose to get ready to come on and change up the game. But in the fashion of what the very best strikers do, Gomez was able to make one touch count and give the Germans a crucial 1-0 win over Portugal.
After seeing your club restore some sort of glory this past EPL season, the Arsenal players representing their national sides struggled to continue that form.
The Gunners are one of the most represented clubs in Poland/Ukraine with ten players sporting the colors of their country. But of those ten only three got wins, Germans Per Mertesacker who did not play and Lukas Podolski who has not played for Arsenal yet and the Danes Nicolas Bendtner who was on loan all last season.
Robin van Persie came up with a big goose egg for the Dutch. Tomas Rosicky got throttled by Russia. Wojchiech Szczensy was red carded for a poorly timed tackle. And the young English studs Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin combined to do nothing short of nothing.
To add insult to injury, the best performances by Gunners were players who no longer where the shirt in Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin (still technically part of the team, but likely to leave this summer).
Looks like everything is returning back to the status quo at the Emirates.
Some may see this as better served on the losing side of things, but there was some good solid defense played throughout the first matches and it should be noted. Out of the eight games played only three featured teams that scored more than one goal and each beat a team that scored only one.
I think this leads more to the idea of a systematic sway in the game back away from the overly possessive indirect style of play made popular by Spain and back to a foundation of defensive fortitude.
This is not an uncommon thing to happen. For four years now Spain has dominated international football with this style of play and teams are looking to counter it while others are trying to adopt it. It is what made sides like Germany, the Dutch and France favorites to win. But it is also the way Portugal, Denmark and England were able to keep them quiet for the most part.
If you are expecting an explosion of goals from here on out, don’t hold your breath. As the stakes become higher the amount a team is willing to gamble will steadily decrease.
The nice thing about having a World Cup under your belt and going into a tournament as the favorites is that you can make absolutely stupid tactical decisions and not get harped on too much for it. It’s the myth of the manager created when you win a title, something that alludes to the fact that you are much better than anyone else who would be deemed idiotic for being so bold.
So when Del Bosque put out a side without a forward for Spain’s match against Italy, it left people scratching their heads, but few wavered on faith. That is until Spain stunk it up in the first half.
The odds on favorite to retain the European title often had a midfield who possessed the ball well, but found themselves looking into an empty box when attempting to go for goals. It took 64 minutes for Spain to really conjure up a decent chance and Cesc Fabregas put it away to save Spain from an embarrassing opening loss.
Del Bosque’s bravado moved more toward stupidity when he brought on Fernando Torres, whose introduction immediately made the Spain we all know come alive. If it were not for the fact that Torres is well, still Torres, it would have been a multi-goal victory.
It was a Hollywood movie. Ukraine in their first ever European Championship were down 1-0 to a tough Swedish side. Then came alive their hero and captain Andriy Schevchenko whose two scores not only made him the oldest player to net two in this tournament, but gave the nation its biggest win in its short history.
The fans in Olympic Stadium in Kiev exploded so abundantly that you would have thought they had just won the finals. The players on the field knew the impact of such a result and celebrated just as enthusiastically.
With England and France drawing 1-1 earlier in the day, the hosts Ukraine sit atop Group D and look like a favorite to go through. It would be an incredible feat for a nation who looked like they could have faced an embarrassing early exit.
Mario Balotelli has not been the subject of racial prejudices yet, but his reputation has certainly earned him a not so keen eye with the officials. His aggressive pressing against the defense, a trait that many forwards are commended for, was seen as malicious and indignant in his first round game against Spain.
A yellow card in the 37th minute for a harmless kick at the legs on a defender, kept the Italian fan base on edge more wondering when the second would come rather than if. It put Balotelli under an immense amount of pressure knowing that any kind of move that can even suggest intent against the flopping Spanish would kill Italy’s chances of holding on to a point.
He was by far their biggest attacking threat, but he was forced off in the 56th minute to ensure he can “do no harm”. It’s a terrible thing when officials cannot separate reputation from the game, but it seems that no matter what he does he will always be held in the eye of contempt.
It was not pretty. It was not very much fun to watch. It was not the ideal result. England’s 1-1 draw to France pretty much mirrors everything that has been said about Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions.
He defensive effort was good and if it were not for a well placed shot by Samir Nasri and questionable goalkeeping by Joe Hart, England could have gotten all three points. But the plan was to soak up the attack and try to spring on the counter with those fast forwards they have.
This kind of performance is not going to win Hodgson over supporters on the fence and it certainly will not inspire converts. But it also will not alienate the ones that think he is a fine choice to lead. It keeps both sides right in the thick of things and their easiest games before them.
It is doubtful that the same tactics will be used against Sweden or Ukraine as neither side posts as much talent on the field, so a more balanced game plan may be had. With Wayne Rooney set to return for the final match, Hodgson is not a dead man walking yet, and for someone in charge of England, that is as good as it gets.
It was a relatively dull opening set of games. The best matches were between sides that most of the footballing world does not concern themselves too much with, while powerhouses struggled to give us entertaining football.
This could very well have something to do with the fact that the there were three matchups that pitted group favorites against one another. Neither side is willing to drop to the bottom of the table after the first match day so caution was favored over boldness. But we have to hope that tings pick up this week.
I really think they will as Spain, Italy, France and England are now on their own paths to winning their respective groups and the Dutch are going to have to turn it on against much stronger opponents if they do not want an early exit.
The game will really open up this week as the second match is the pivotal one of group play. It is the moment where you either die or live on to fight at least one more day.
The second round of games gets underway today as Group A starts up at 12 EDT. For some they are in must win situations, needing to turn around their first game follies. For others, they will be looking to keep the good times rolling and hopefully secure a knockout round berth early.
So what were your winners and losers from the first matches?
As always, please leave your comments below and thanks for reading!
For all my articles, follow me on Twitter: @thecriterionman