Before the European Championships started, I was most pessimistic about Group A. The "big dog" of the group was Poland due to being one of the home countries and the biggest dog by virtue of pedigree was a Russian team that could not realistically be considered among the top squads in Europe. Throw in a relatively bland, defensive team in Greece and a declining Czech Republic and you had not just a group of average talent, but a group that carried with it a high potential to be boring. Well, I'm sorry Group A. I misjudged you. Truth be told, I've had more fun watching Group A matches than any other group thus far (though to be fair, Group C hasn't played yet and England has put it to a vote as to whether or not they'll continue being the dullest team in the tournament, so that might turn around). It sounds crazy to say, especially considering all the talent in The Group of Death, but each Group A match has had a highly entertaining element to it. Greece vs Poland was inexplicable because each team decided to show up in their own chosen half and both were exciting when they were on point; Czech Republic vs Russia was dynamic because Russia decided to be dynamic; and yesterday, Czech Republic vs Greece was entertaining due to the early excitement while Poland vs Russia was enthralling because it was a fantastic all around match. It's hard to make a neutral care sometimes, even a neutral with solid soccer knowledge, because he or she lacks a familiarity with the players as well as any real rooting interest. I was there, but Group A has made me care because all the countries have been so enjoyable to watch, and I truly thank them for it.
Czech Republic vs Greece
This game started out with an absolute bang as the Czech Republic scored two goals within the first six minutes. Petr Jiracek ran onto a through ball and shot left of Greek keeper Kostas Chalkias (who did not have a fantastic match in the whole 21 minutes he played before being swapped out due to injury). The crowd immediately came to life because this was what the Czech Republic needed, not only for this game but to stay in the tournament as well. Things only got better because three minutes later Chalkias made a mess of a cross and Vaclav Pilar did just enough to get some part of his body on the ball so that it wound up in the back of the net. Full disclosure: I went to a book signing immediately after work and then a concert after the book signing, so I didn't start watching this match on DVR until 11:45pm or so and I was worried sick. Not because of the time exactly or because I was nervous of the result. I was scared that I was going to fall asleep because before the entire tournament started, this was the match I had pegged to be the most boring. And you know what... it kind of was after that first flurry. The two goals to start the match kept me awake and in it, but then the Greeks started to take the air out of the ball a bit, play it around, and slowly work their way into the game. Even exerting a modicum of control wouldn't have mattered as the Czechs played soundly, not letting Greece see much in the way of chances. Thankfully Petr Cech gifted Theofanis Gekas a goal as the start of the second so that the game always had a bit of an edge to it, but it also still didn't. The Czech Republic got the win and put themselves firmly back into the Group A competition.
Poland vs Russia.
I feel bad for talking about how much I love Group A now and then dogging the first of Tuesday's matches, so I'll make the following bold declaration: Poland vs Russia has been my favorite match of the tournament thus far. Now, I don't necessarily mean that it was the most skilled match. Thus far that has to go to Spain vs Italy. And it didn't quite have the "holy shit, what?" factor that Sweden vs Ukraine did. Instead, this match was simply fun. Fun to watch for a neutral because it's Poland vs Russia. This might surprise you, but there's just a little bit of history there. The crowd was phenomenal for both sides and that made for a great atmosphere. Also fun because the style of play was great. I understand that Poland played back a bit for the first half to try to stop Russia's speed on the counter, but Russia still tried and Poland didn't play negatively in my book, just more cautiously than they might have in other cases. The Russian goal by Alan Dzagoev (third in the tournament already) was incredibly helpful though as it forced Poland to be more aggressive in the second half. That was when the game truly came to life. Poland pressed forward, Russia countered once they won the ball, Poland stole possession and countered the counter, and it was just so much fun to watch. Everyone was making runs, everyone was sliding in on tackles, everyone was a danger to score, and then holy shit did Jakub Blaszczykowski score. Kuba cut in from the right side of the box and unleashed a furious drive with his left foot, curling in the back post past the keeper's outstretched arms. The Silva-to-Fabregas goal might have been the prettiest so far, but this is my pick for individual effort as of this moment. The equalizer came just shy of the hour mark and the frenetic pace continued gamely for another 20 minutes or so before both teams started to get tired and realized that perhaps a point wasn't the worst thing in the world. Still, hats off to both teams for an entertaining game, one that has me a believer in Group A again... at least for now.
With two rounds of games in the books, here's how things stand in the group:
Russia - 4 Points
Czech Republic - 3 Points
Poland - 2 Points
Greece - 1 Point
Russia is pretty much through unless they get blown out by Greece so all eyes are on Czech Republic vs Poland where whoever wins goes on to the next round. A draw opens things up for Greece though, so Russia can't just sit back and ease into the quarterfinals. As far as predictions go, I would think Russia plays conservatively to do no worse than tie and succeeds while the Polish speed down the right flank overwhelms an inconsistent Czech defense to take the win, and the quarterfinal spot, in front of their home fans. It all happens on Saturday so stay tuned. I'll see everyone tomorrow with a Group B breakdown.