(Todays article is dedicated to the memory of Manuel Preciado, former Sporting Gijon and Villarreal boss, who died this week aged 54 from a heart attack. Much loved in Spain, and seemingly about to gain more followers in the Yellow Submarine job, condolences and best wishes at this time extend from all of us to his friends, family and fans.)
“Nice touch having a Chopin prelude during the Prelude!”
The man they call WSK
Michael: The opening ceremony is a weird affliction of tournaments. A stadium full of people watching painted dancers on trampolines thinking: “Hurry up and bring on the football!” Perhaps heeding this, the Polish kept their opening ceremony short and sweet. It even had a glimpse of Chopin, to make it easily the classiest one in a while. And almost certainly the classiest this year, if rumours of James Bond saving the Olympic Torch in London are true! No exploding vegetables or grasshoppers on stilts this year (fourteen years on, I still haven’t a clue what they were meant to symbolise). Just some nice choreography, nice music, and then all over for the football before people get tense. A success, I say!
Jon: If there was ever an argument against clichéd thinking it’s the opening day of the 2012 Euros. Those old communist countries are bound to be dull, grey settings for dull, grey football. And that opening match? According to the FIFA rankings the worst side in the tournament against a side not exactly renowned for embracing the beautiful game. Nailed on 0-0, both sides too nervous to lose their first game to go forward. Or would the Greeks set the tone for the tournament as they had in Euro 2004 by flattening the atmosphere by beating the hosts?
Poland v Greece
“Tell them to delay kick off, I’m still out!”
Gav, the man who ‘brings the style like Huggy Bear’.
“Ah, sweet sweet football.”
Michael: Ah, the opening match. I’ll be honest, we’ve been half dreading this one as much as looking forward to it. Opening matches are a mixed affair on the whole. For every Germany/Costa Rica goalfest or Argentina/France losing to Cameroon/Senegal shocker, there’s a Germany/Bolivia or Switzerland/Czech Republic. Tense, rather dull chess games, with two sides overcome by the occasion. Add to that a Polish side who had never won a European Championship finals match in their history, and a Greek side renowned for their defensive abilities over their striking capabilities, and we seemed set for another typical opening contest. A bore draw. We did get the draw.
Boring was another matter though. Poland attacked from the off, and the Greeks struggled to contain a hurricane of pressure in their goal area. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, and Poland could have had three chances before Lewandowski scored the opening goal. Poland continued to dominate, with Polanski missing a good chance, Perquis another. His scuffed shot seemed like a pivotal moment, but before the wheels turned, they nearly fell off completely for the Greeks.
First, Avraam Papadopoulos went down with an injury and had to be taken off. He has since been diagnosed with torn knee ligaments and could be out for well over seven months, a harsh blow for any footballer. It was a massive blow for Greece too, especially with what was to follow. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, much loved on Gallifrey Base due to having the Greekest sounding name around (if you’ve allow the knowing glance of ethnocentricism rearing its ugly head) was a bit of a silly boy. The referee was harsh too, to show both yellow cards in quick succession. Sokratis ought to have known that if a referee will give a soft yellow a few minutes earlier, the last thing you want to do is to make a daft foul in front of him while it is still in his mind. Marco Materazzi made the same error a number of years ago in a Champions League match against Liverpool. Papastathopoulos also seemed a bit edgy, having earlier not gotten close enough to block Lewandowski for his goal. Whatever his reasons, and the referees, Greece had suddenly lost both their strongest defenders.
It seemed Poland were destined to make history, and Match of the Day pundits even pointed it out. It must have been a jinx, as one team came out firing in the second half, and it wasn’t the hosts.
“We wanted the win and went into the game determined to fight for it. But at the beginning we failed to find the answers for Polands questions.” Fernando Santos, Greece manager
“I want to congratulate Mr Santos, who gathered the players at the interval and presented a different team at the second half.” Sofoklis Pilavios, Greek Football Association President
Michael: The different team came out all guns blazing, and it was Dimitris Salpingidis who was the pivotal man. Alongside Georgiadis, he had torn Tottenham to bits at White Hart Lane in the Europa League in November, and had scored in the World Cup. Here, less than five minutes after coming on, he rifled an equaliser past the hapless Wojciech Szczesny, who was culpable for the goal. The talented goalkeeper had come out too far and was helpless as the Greeks slotted the ball past him. Moments like that test the mettle of young players, and sadly it seemed to unsettle the Pole, for his second error was even more ghastly. Salpingidis, a whirling dervish against the Polish defence, was clean through in the box when Szczesny took him down. A straight red card for the Arsenal goalkeeper.
“Trust my favourite player in the entire tournament to get sent off in the first game” mourned Brentford Chris, and I could have offered sympathy, but instead laughed. Tyton, the second Polish goalkeeper had to come on, and his first act was to face down a Karagounis penalty. Not many tougher auditions! Thankfully for the Poles, they had a Titan in goal, as his first act was to save the penalty of the Greek captain! It was too low, but the keeper went the right way. That seemed to bouy the Poles, and from then on, both sides went tooth and nail for the late winner, but it was never to arrive.
Red cards, goals, missed penalty, missed chances, refereeing issues, super substitutions. I asked before the tie if this would be our Switzerland/Ukraine. It was on a completely different planet to that tie, and I humble apologise for the slander to the Polish and Greek teams.
The Greeks had a verve to their side I hadn’t seen since 2004, and the Poles a fighting spirit, both of which could be crucial in this group. It’s not over by a long run.
“We had good chances in the first half but we could not score the important second goal – there was a lack of concentration and coolness. We must show the performance from the first half in the whole game against Russia.” Lewandowski
“In the second half we wanted to keep the ball longer, which ended in us losing it.” Jakub Blaszczykowski, Polish captain
This was a great start to the tournament. I was very heartened to see that my “player to watch” scored for Poland within the first 15 minutes. I thought that Poland were beginning to live up to my expectations when Greece were reduced to 10 men. The refereeing seemed somewhat harsh, but then if you really want an example of harsh refereeing then look no further than the history of a Mr Viktor Kassai.
After Pastapapolis got sent off I thought it would be a bit of a rout, after all Lewandowski had already scored one, surely another 2 were on the cards? Turns out it wasn’t to be. Greece managed to get back into the game and even scored while they were a man down. Eventually The One and Only Wojciech Chesney gave away a penalty and got sent off for going for a player when the ball would have sufficed.
Amazingly Greece failed to score and ended the game 1 goal each and 10 players each. Fantastic start to the tournament! Certainly no Switzerland Ukraine.
“It felt like a dream. Thank God I saved the penalty!”
Przemyslaw Tyton, Polish hero
“We managed to turn the game around after we had our backs to the wall.”
Dimitris Salpingidis, Greek super sub
Jon: Both sides will be disappointed and yet relieved with a point from the opening game. Poland will be ruing their missed chances in a dominant first half, Piszczeck and Blaszczycowski tormenting the Greek left back Holebas like two school bullies picking on a lonely outsider, and not taking advantage of Papastathopoulos' red card. Greece will he happy that they escaped that first half where they were on the verge of falling apart and regrouped to earn a point with a textbook example of how to play with ten men. Yet they'll regret missing their own chances in the second half, including Karagounis being denied by the Polish sub keeper Tyton.
Poland's Dortmund trio lived up to their billing and are surely vital if they are to progress from the group, Lewandowski looking dangerous and clever about drawing fouls. For the Greeks the promising Ninis disappointed, being hauled off at halftime having seen nothing of the ball. Neither keeper impressed and both defences looked vulnerable (though having lost one first choice centre half to a red and the other to injury before halftime the Greeks can be excused). On this showing neither side look a tournament winning side but Poland promise to entertain and the Greeks will fancy their chances of progressing to the knockout stages after their being in the ropes and the Czech showing against Russia.
Carlos Velasco Carballo's two yellows to Papastathoulos might have seemed harsh but were only consistent with his card happy approach in La Liga.
Managerially Bentos impressed by not panicking at halftime, setting Greece up to be solid after a poor first half and making an inspired sub in brining Salpigidis on, who turned the game. Smuda might be disappointed in himself after blowing a situation of being both a goal and a man up.
“I’ts not a small thing to come to Poland, with a good home crowd and to get this result after losing a man. The goal gave us a lot of confidence and I think what happened tonight will help us in the next matches.”
Giorgos Karagounis, Greek captain
“I believe in this team.”
Smuda, Polish manager
“Two more goals than I expected from these teams. And by that, I mean ‘in the tournament.’”
Pawel: I am quite exhausted after the yesterday's Polish performance. They were good in the first half. They should have scored at least one goal more (Polanski had a clear opportunity to do so). As they didn't, they failed to win. The second half was a disaster and we were really very lucky to get one point.
Russia has made a great impression by humiliating the Czechs. However, it is not my type for a champion. Russia can be stopped by a clever team with a good defence. It seems that allowing Russians to counter attack is suicide! I liked the match - both teams played quick football and it was nice to watch. Dzagoev is a rising star - I expected him to be an outstanding player in this tournament. He is very dangerous.
It seems that Poland has no chance against so Russians playing so well. However, I believe Poland will play better (even in the second half) than yesterday and who knows? The hope dies as the last.
The positive thing is that we didn't lose our first game, which we had done in 2002, 2006 and 2008. And we hadn't scored a single goal in an opener since 1974! Until yesterday.
When I was a lad, Poland was really good in football. I was too young in 1974, so it was in 1978 when I watched my first world cup. And in 1982 I was completely crazy when we finished third. And then a long time of misery started.
Michael’s Note – While changing the tenses (there are only three in Polish, I’ve learnt), I kept the phrase “The hope dies as the last”, as I felt that was a wonderful way of expressing something in the heart of all football fans.
‘Well, if this is how the poorer teams play’
“If you think about it, Chesney is a hero as he saved his country. If he hadn’t made that foul, Salpingidis would have scored!”
Brentford Chris, thinking on the bright side of the street.
“The Polish lad was slipping but [foolish] to help him down. BBC punditry is shite, denouncing not analysing.”
Michael: The talking point in the opening match was the performance of the referee in two crucial moments, those being the two red cards handed out to Sokratis and ‘Chesney’. The second was a red naturally, and the keeper had no complaints. The first was more contentious. More lenient referees would have let it go, a foolish fumble rather than any malicious attempt at a foul, but the referee Carballo has a reputation for red cards in La Liga, so it was daft to give him the chance to dish them out, especially on a bigger stage.
Gav picked two red cards for the whole tournament, both Balotelli, so he’s already ahead of schedule here!
Gav: I'm glad to see that I was right about there being 2 red cards in this years tournament.
“We have to move on though. Whatever happened, happened. We can’t change anything now.”
Michael: Two goals, terrorised the Czech defence all day. The lad picked to be Russias man to match by several of our correspondents did well here!
As did Arshavin, free from the Arsenal Virus, and FK Zenit in general!
Russia v Czech Republic
“Czechs need Pekhart”
Michae: Russia were picked by some as darkhorses for this tournament. They started against a Czech side who were a shadow of their former glories, but who, in such a weak group on paper, had every chance of success. What followed was lambs to the slaughter. Russia scored four times, sandwiching a lowly Pilar goal for the Czechs, and it could have been more if the Russians had stayed focused in the second half. Instead they let the Czechs back into the game for long periods, and that, coupled with lousy finishing from Kerzakhov, kept the score at 2-1 till late on. But when they did score, it felt like the Russians were fed up and swatted the pests, basically. Russia looked good, but did they look like Champions? It’ll be hard to tell till they meet a better side in the Quarters.
“They poked the Russian bear once too often, now they are getting mauled.”
“The trophies will be given out at the end of the tournament. We played well but not for the whole game. So I saw enough things we can do better. We’re happy, but we’ll be really happy when we reach the next round.”
Dick Advocaat, Russian manager, urging caution.
Jon: Trumpet blowing time - the player I picked as the one to watch for Russia came up trumps with a couple of goals. Dzagoev has so much experience and quality at such an early age he's got every opportunity of becoming Russia's first real footballing superstar since the days of Lobanovskyi. An absolutely dominant performance from Russia, largely nullifying what looks like a blunt Czech attack. If Kerzhakov had been on form it could have been so much worse for the Czechs as he sprayed some very good chances in every direction but goalwards. Advocaat's Russia produced the first great team performance of this championship with a combination of intelligent passing and movement, Arshavin and Shirokov too clever for the bemused Czech defensive unit. As for the Czechs, some god build up play was betrayed by a lack of invention in the final third. Highlight of the game had to be Shirokov's goal, Russia's second. A pass with the accuracy and incisiveness of a laser combined with a finish as cool as The Siberian winter.
In summary, Russia look the class of the group with Greece's having rescued a point from a dire situation giving them a slight advantage in the short qualification sprint.
“Being two-nil down at half time we couldn't cope with counter attacks for the rest of the game. In our next matches we will show how good we are.”
Where do I begin? Firstly it’s pretty damn obvious that Czech manager Michal Bílek does not read Michael’s blog. Had he read the blog he would know that Pekhart should have started alongside Baros. This didn’t happen, and so Russia won 4-1.
Russia were bloody good. They played some really exciting football, let’s hope they keep it up. If they play like that all the way through to the end I wouldn’t mind them lifting the trophy.
“We wanted to get back into the game but as soon as we lost our breath they scored two more. They hit us.”
Pilar, the Czech goalscorer
“If there is a penalty [against Germany] I will take it.”
Go on, miss.
“I am confident we will have a good game.”
Go on, miss.
“Coach Paulo Bento has arguably one of the weakest sides in this tournament. Ronaldo is the only actual threat. If the Germans can stop Ronaldo, marking him with two or three players, they can also stop Portugal's only offensive threat.”
Go on, Cristiano, miss!
(UPDATE – There was no penalties. He didn’t score anyway.)
(SECOND UPDATE - He also claims it was unfair for Portugal to lose. Hehehe.)
Jon: So, the Group of Death, every side here in the world’s top ten. And the Danes aren’t officially the worst side here…
"I'm standing here a little bit speechless, because these three points were very important. It's not over, though, there are two more matches to come."
Mark Van Bommel
Michael: It was brilliant. It needed to be with all the chances Holland were getting in the match, around thirty or so. Daniel Agger showed glimpses of Maldini at his peak, easily dispossessing the Dutch attack in the box without tackling. That large cheer you heard at that one was Jon marking out! Jacobsen was equally brilliant, and was rightfully cheered loudly for keeping the ball in play late on. The Dutch defence in contrast was weak. Time and time again, Krohn Dehli made them look ordinary as he out thought them. Only Danish profligacy denied them a bigger margin of victory, though not a patch on the same of the Dutch at the other end.
As for the Dutch, well, if you don’t get the ball on target that often in thirty shots, you get all you deserve.
Jon: There are those of us who like to believe in the rule of karma, reaping what you sow. Karma gets you sooner or later, and this looks like the Dutch punishment for their surly display in the last World Cup final.
Michael: I certainly do. Football karma rules the world. It’s just that people believe things level themselves out over the course of a season. I don’t. I believe things equal themselves over the course of a century. So countries go through long periods of success than low periods and vice versa. A disputed call against a country always comes back to haunt a team at a later point. (Case in point, “goals” in England/Germany matches!) Every thing reverts at some point, even Jimmy Calderwood’s Dunfermline side managed to beat Rangers eventually.
Jon: The Danes hadn’t beaten the Netherlands since Cruyff and Michaels revolutionised Dutch football. They picked a pretty damn good time to break that run with what’s almost a classic underdog victory. I mentioned that the Dutch has an embarrassment of riches up front and the thing about being rich and not knowing quite what to do with it is that it often induces what, to mere mortals, looks like profligacy. The Dutch dominated in terms of possession and chances, particularly in the first twenty minutes or so of either half but kept carelessly spurning them. By contrast Krohn Dehli’s assured finish, dummying Heitinga before calmly sliding the ball through Steklenberg’s legs showed them how it was done. They may bemoan a late penalty shout being turned down but fortune favours those who help themselves. Van Persie in particular failed to carry his club form through. That said, full credit should also be given to the Danish defensive unit, Qvist, Agger and Jacobsen all outstanding in denying Holland any real sustained pressure as the game wore on. Agger demonstrated why Liverpool fans reckon him to be one of the world’s best centre halves, authoritative and unruffled and including one beautiful dispossession in a Maldini/Bobby Moore style that Michael will no doubt be raving about at length.
Michael: It was so great no one else is raving about it! I don’t even have it on YouTube to show folk. Instead, here is another lovely dispossession in the 2005 Champions League final.
Jon: As for my other men to watch – Eriksen’s youth showed here with him being muscled out of the game and Afellay was part of an effective looking Dutch attack that lacked only a finishing touch.
Gav: Michael said: “So, this group is a banker Danish victory, isn't it?”
And I, tongue firmly in cheek, said “You said it...”
Well... I’m currently doing this write-up while the Germany vs Portugal game is heading into the 65th minute. At 0-0. Which means, by my rough calculations, that Denmark are currently leading the group. Which brings me onto the next game.
GERMANY V PORTUGAL
Gav: God this is boring. I can see what Germany are trying to do but Portugal obviously don’t want them to do it. The bored me wants some goals in the last 25 minutes of this game, but the bigger-picture me is toying with the idea of Denmark still being leaders of the group by the end of the night. This would be good!
Michael: A chess match. Germany huffed and puffed, but couldn’t break down the Portuguese house till late in the game. It reminded me of Spain/Portugal from the last world cup, with a similar outcome. I want to bring one moment in particular, and contrast it to an earlier one. When Rommedahl was taken off for Denmark, he acted like a petulant child. Often time and time again, we see players act badly when things don’t go their way. Last night, Miroslav Klose, on his birthday, was about to be sent on as the hero to replace Gomez when Gomez scored the goal, and so got to stay on the pitch for five more minutes. What did Klose do when told to sit down again? Cheer on his team mates and shout encouragement to Mario Gomez. He is what we would call a class act.
Jon: Is there a more heartwarming sight in football than Cristiano Ronaldo sulking his way off the pitch? I think not.
Younger fans will recall Germany as a thrilling attacking team. This was more like the Germany so many of us recall from the 80s and 90s – not particularly pretty, knocked out of their preferred shape but still finding a way to win. That knack’s something they’ve lost over the last sixteen years, the ten since Kahn and Ballack dragged them to a World Cup final if you’re generous. For much of the game this was like a chess match, Germany probing intelligently but rarely particularly threateningly against a well organised Portugese defence. But when their chance came they were ruthless, Gomez redeeming a so-so display with a fine header from a deflected cross and keeping himself on the field a few minutes longer in the process. The reaction of Klose, who was about to come on before the goal, shows a good team spirit in the German camp. Ronaldo’s typically showy leaving of the pitch at the end showed his frustration, understandable when the coach’s system doesn’t bring the best out of him but it’s hardly what his team needs after a defeat. As I feared in the previews, the Portugese seemed content to play for a draw and it nearly worked. Shame they didn’t open up earlier as their best passages of play came when trying to force the equaliser. They lack a striker and adventure and unless they can show a little bit more creativity look like they’re going home early. Their defenders were their best players (particularly the much justly maligned Pepe).
Oh, and in the best player in the world debate that little fella who’s not done badly for Barca this season was busy scoring a hat trick against Brazil. Ronaldo’s had better nights…
Three exciting games so far then and one tactical chess match. It’s all shaping up rather nicely and we’re yet to see the obvious pick of the first round matches.
Gav: p.s. Just as I'm sending this Germany have scored. I'm glad, they've deserved it, but meh, I was really starting to like the idea of Denmark being clear group toppers! :)
"We lacked pretty much everything in the first half, there was no general direction, as if no player wanted the ball. The build-up play was way too slow.
"There were none of the things we saw from this team in the past which led to Germany being hailed as a favourite in this competition."
ROY ON RIO
So Roy Hodgson tells the BBC Rio Ferdinand missed Euro 2012 as he’d “not have been in the first team, so it would be a wasted pick, and better used on a younger player for the experience.” Which, even if doubtful it was carried out in practice, as his official reason is exactly the type of thing people were calling for.
“England can do what Chelsea have done. There are a lot of similarities after all — new manager and key players missing through injury and suspension.”
“"Even in England teams try to play good passing football now. Norwich and Swansea have shown that mentalities are changing everywhere." Laurent Blanc
“"I think it will be a beautiful victory for les Bleus. I see a double from Benzema or, at least, I’m hoping for that."
The mind games have started...
"I would have taken it, but I was never approached. I love club football. I was relieved I didn't get offered it."
Harry Redknapp honestly didn’t want the England job, he tells us with his face falling faster than Droopy.
GERMANS IN WAITING
Holland losing their first game, next up for them is Germany. There may be trouble ahead.
“The Dutch may kick off against Germany knowing that only a win will keep them in the tournament – a match that needs no more spice now promises to be hotter than a vindaloo on Mercury.”
We are ahead of schedule when it comes to the last two Euros also. In 2004, seven goals were scored in four games. In 2008, six. In 2012, we have nine!
Greece 1-1 Spain, England 1-2 France, Croatia 2-2 France, Croatia 2-4 England, Sweden 1-1 Italy, Denmark 2-2 Denmark, Bulgaria 1-2 Italy, Latvia 1-2 Czech, Holland 1-1 Germany, Czech 3-2 Holland, Czech 2-1 Germany, Portugal 2-2 England.
Switzerland 1-2 Turkey, Turkey 3-2 Czech, Poland 1-1 Austria, Romania 1-1 Italy, Greece 1-2 Spain, Croatia 1-1 Turkey, Turkey 2-3 Germany.
Why am I listing random Euro results? Because all of the matches above are the only times in the last two Championships when the team who scored first didn’t win the match. And of those, only ten in sixty-two games led to points dropped (though of the 3 knockout ties, the team who made the comeback won the tie each time). What this means is that for all we love stirring comebacks and talk fondly of them, they are very much the exception to the rule.
It is massively important to score first in the tournament, unless you become a “comeback” team like Turkey or have exceptional attacking quality like the Czechs in 2004. Both exceptions to the rule which artificially extend those 10 in 62.
The point is that it wont only be me who notices this. Managers certainly will. So when you wonder why so many games become chess matches at the Euros and World Cup, look above. The first goals a killer.
And no one wants to wind up in Check Mate.
With those cheery words, as your friendly asthmatic enjoys his latest doze of hayfever as much as a shark enjoys a septic tank, have fun with Ireland/Croatia, Spain/Italy, Ukraine/Sweden. And that other match. I hear it's a dull one between no hopers. Heh.
(All football people quotes sourced from Goal.com)
(All football people quotes sourced from Goal.com)