Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Toss-Up That is Group A

When I wrote my predictions piece for Euro 2012, I claimed that Russia were the odds on favorite to win the group while second place was one of the most perplexing guesses to make. After watching the opening day of the tournament, I can't say that much has changed in my mind. Poland and Greece played a bizarre match which made me think, depending on the half, that both teams would make it through to the elimination round and both teams were some of the worst in the entire competition. Then Russia came through and calmly handled the Czech Republic in a 4-1 win that showed the individual ability of some of their players. It was par for the course as far as what I was expecting, but it doesn't help us in figuring out who will step up and take that second place.

The Predictable

Perhaps it's just me, but I thought Russia would have a fairly easy time with this group. Not that every match will be a three goal win like today and they'll finish with nine points and huge goal differential, but I assumed they would be in the driver's seat for making it into the quarterfinals. Versus the Czech Republic, they showed why I had that feeling coming in. Russia wasn't dominant in the sense that they controlled everything about the game and toyed with an obviously inferior foe, but whenever they came forward on the counter after the Czechs gave up possession (which happened quite a bit), it always seemed like they could score. Though they were often on defense, as the possession stats were hovering right around 50/50, there were no true quality chances for the Czech Republic, save the one that almost brought them back into the match. It didn't feel like Russia were suddenly world beaters, but it did feel rather inevitable as time went on. Even when Vaclav Pilar scored to tighten the game up at 2-1, Russia still were in control and weren't about to let another goal go in. Andrei Arshavin had a good match as did Alan Dzagoev, the striker who recorded a brace, and the whole defensive unit, leaving keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev with not much to do. All in all it was an excellent first game performance, and one that has put Russia in the driver's seat for the group, especially considering what happened in the first match of the day.

The Unpredictable

Where to begin? I hate to use sports cliches when writing these posts, but the Greece vs Poland match truly was a tale of two halves. Poland started out brilliantly. They were menacing down the right flank from the first whistle and looked dynamic and lively, a team that was out to prove something on their home turf. After Robert Lewandowski (stock rising among the powerhouse European teams as we speak) headed home the opening goal, I texted my friend to say "I wish I had taken Poland to win [the whole tournament] with my 'longshot to win' bet." The way they came out was incredibly impressive and after Greece's center back Sokratis Papastathopoulos was sent off with two very harsh yellow cards, this seemed destined to be a 3-0 romp for Poland in front of a jubilant home crowd.

Then the second half started and everything changed. First there was an early goal from Greece. Wojiech Szczesny made a bad mistake to come out for a cross he couldn't get to, so there was no one in goal for when the ball fell to Dimitrios Salpingidis. 1-1 early on was unfortunate for Poland, but surely they would get right back on the horse and continue to dominate the game like they did in the first half. Surprisingly, no. Even with 10 men, Greece always were more likely to score. It was as if Poland thought they proved all they needed to prove in the first half and there was no reason to play the second. The big moment of this match came in the 68th minute when Szczesny blatantly took out Salpingidis in the box, receiving a red card and giving a golden opportunity to Greece in the form of a penalty kick. But backup keeper Pryzemyslaw Tyton made a fine save on an average penalty and Poland stayed in the game. This was the end of most of the play as both sides were very tentative 10 vs 10, tacitly acknowledging that they were lucky to be where they were and a point would do just fine. It was a shame because Greece showed real creativity in the second half and Lewandowski's work rate and talent was wasted when Poland reeled themselves in. 

A quick note on Lewandowski: I can easily see why Borussia Dortmund rate him so highly and why he is on the radar of many of the big club teams. He is a pest up front as he is always a danger to settle any ball that comes his way, he's great in the air, and he has that striker sense of where to be to poach goals. Very impressed watching him.

While so much confusion comes from the Greece vs Poland match (which half was the "real" one for each team, will either learn from what happened, etc.), some of it does come from Czech Republic vs Russia. The Czechs were not good, let that be said right away. But they weren't appallingly bad either and it will be curious to see if Russia was just that picture perfect in their execution, or if the Czechs are that bad of a team after all. Russia won the game 4-1, controlled it all the way through, and were the better team on the day. But that 4-1 margin comes from two fantastic individual efforts to salt the game away, first Dzagoev on a blast of a shot over a sliding Petr Cech, then Roman Pavlyuchenko with a rocket of his own that left Cech no chance at the near post. While these were incredible efforts to see, that is what gave Russia the blow out. You could see those chances going to waste (as they often were when Alexander Kerzhakov was on the ball) so maybe this is a closer game another time and the Czech Republic snakes a goal. Maybe that's what happens when Russia plays Greece or Poland and then we're having a whole different conversation about the state of Group A.

I'm still of course looking to Russia to lead this group and be the driving force from here on out, but there is at least enough to suggest that they haven't punched their ticket yet. It may not have been the most technically proficient day of soccer, but with the host nation playing and the talented display by Russia, it was a welcome first day of Euro 2012 with all the drama you would hope to see. Here's hoping it continues as well.

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