Group A has led a charmed life so far and tonight promised to be no different: Poland could exit the tournament despite being unbeaten, Russia could fail to progress if Greece dished out a sizable hammering, but unique to the group was the fact that no team had yet been eliminated from the Euros and any one of the four teams could still go through in first place.
Co-hosts Poland faced the Czech Republic knowing that only a win was enough to progress and if they did so, providing Russia avoided defeat to one-goal specialists Greece, their likely pairing in the quarter-final would be Germany, who look destined to win Group B. It would be a clash of historic foes if they did meet, but Czech Republic and Russia could quite as easily end up facing the ever improving, youthful Germans. For the Czechs a point would be enough to go through if Russia avoided defeat to Greece, but all three points would make their qualification certain.
Russia, arguably, had the easiest chance to advance in the top spot tonight, coming up against a Greek side that still hadn’t won a European Championship game since the final of Euro 2004, yet finished top of their qualifying group, ahead of Croatia, to make it to Euro 2012. Going into their opening game with Poland, which finished a 1-1 draw marred by controversial refereeing decisions, Greece’s formidable ten-game unbeaten run had seen them concede just 5 in the last 10 games, scoring 14 in the process. However, a quickfire early double from Czech Republic in their second game saw the Greeks with too big a deficit to turn around and lost that encounter 2-1. It’s funny how football can reflect wider society like that.
Russia in training, Andrei Arshavin
Dick Advocaat’s only concern going into tonight’s contest would be whether to drop misfiring Alexander Kerzhakov, who has now had 11 shots in Euro 2012 without hitting the target. His replacement would be Roman Pavlyuchenko, who potentially had done enough in his cameo appearance against Czech Republic, assisting and scoring within the space of ten minutes, to earn a starting role against Poland, but Advocaat stuck with Kerzhakov. Whichever striker started, they’d be safe in the knowledge that joint-leading scorer Alan Dzagoev and joint-top assister Andrei Arshavin would be in the midfield ranks behind them.
MayCauseOffence chose to watch the Poland versus Czech Republic game, for the first half at least. Early play looked indicative of a decision well-taken, with much of the attacking possession falling to the co-hosts. Again, Ludovic Obraniak looked constantly devilish in front of the Czech defence, tempting them to step forward when he found himself with the ball at his feet and space to exploit. When Michal Kadlec or Tomas Sivok did leave the back line to break Polish play, Obraniak looked to slot through Robert Lewandowski. The Dortmund striker had one glaring chance to take the lead for his side, but was already losing his footing as he struck the ball with his left foot.
As it was, Poland’s best efforts in the first half came from set-pieces, often from the right side. This highlighted one of two things: Jakub Blaszczykowski was Poland’s biggest threat, or David Limbersky was a weakness in the Czech armory. Conversely, it was the left flank that was the focal point of many Czech attacks. Vaclav Pilar was proving particularly troublesome for the Polish defence, taking four shots in the first forty-five.
If Poland had a weakness it was the defensive side of Sebastian Boenisch’s game. Going forward he was one of White Eagles’ better players, adding another dimension to their left side, pairing up with Obraniak or Rafal Murawski. Yet, with Theodore Gebre Selassie and Petr Jiracek marauding down the right side, the lumbering left-back didn’t have the pace nor the poise to defend his area sufficiently, with Gebre Selassie, the Czech right-back enjoying particular success behind the left-back. His cross midway through the first half should have been better struck by Pilar, but it was to be his only mistake so far, mishitting the shot.
At half-time the score remained 0-0 and Czech Republic had achieved their aim of getting through the 45-minutes avoiding being behind. However, shortly after the first-half finished in Wroclaw news filtered through that Greece had taken the lead against Russia, with captain Giorgos Karagounis finishing to the ‘keeper’s right. Suddenly both Poland and Czech Republic were heading out of the Euros. The second-half suddenly changed shape.
Czech Republic started the second half with much contrast to the first. It was almost as if they had purely done what was necessary in the first forty-five, conserving much energy and holding back on their full potential, for the restart marked a stark change in the approach of the Czechs. Pilar and Jiracek continued to provide with the width, with more than willing overlapping wing-backs, and Milan Baros became much more active in comparison to the first-half. Poland were seemingly helpless to the step-up in performance.
As the score remained Greece 1-0 Russia in the other Group A game both teams looked more and more restless, knowing they were heading home if they couldn’t score. Yet it was a paradox for both sides: both needed to score, neither wanted to concede. However, there was a marked difference between Poland and Czech Republic: Pilar was a star shining ever brighter as the game progressed – a Red Giant, whilst Blaszczykowski was a shrinking violet for Poland.
Eventually one gave in; or rather one broke the fastest first. With Poland saturating the Czech half, hoping to pressure them into submission, it only took one cleared Poland free-kick, conceded by Milan Baros, to see them on the back foot themselves. Baros, the criminal one minute earlier, was on the ball and advancing on the Poland goal. As he arrived on the edge of the box, he shifted the ball right to Jiracek, who cut inside with one touch and finished coolly, slotting the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, under the sliding challenge of one last chance desperate defender. Czech Republic had scored first and the way the game had gone one would think the first goal would be the winner. Czech slipped back into the mold of their first-half ego, with 20 minutes to see out.
Russia were now staring elimination in the face, despite beating Czech Republic 4-1 in their opening game and drawing to co-hosts Poland 1-1. As it stood Czech Republic were going through in 1st place with six points and the Greeks were going through in second, joint on points with Russia, but going through on their currently playing head-to-head result.
As the clock ran down in Wroclaw, Poland were getting desperate and the rapidly growing card count was reflective of this; three Polish players were booked in the last three minutes of the ninety. Yet, with just 60 seconds left on the clock Poland had their chance: Jakub Blaszczykowski lost his marker on the turn on the edge of the box and unleashed a dipping shot over the head of Petr Cech and destined to be a last-gasp equaliser. It wouldn’t help Poland’s cause, for it was their last attack, but it would deny Czech Republic their place in the quarter final. As it was Michal Kadlec kept the Czechs in the tournament with a desperate goalline clearance, instantly winning his nation’s love. Russia were going home if they couldn’t find their own last minute divine intervention.
With just a minute left in their game the score was still 1-0 to the Greeks. The captain and goal scorer, Karagounis had been booked, meaning he would miss the quarter final, and subsequently substituted. He now patrolled the touchline, clenched fists and veins bulging. If only Russia had half the urgency to score that he did for the game to end. Andrei Arshavin hit an in-swinging corner with just over a minute left and having been initially blocked, the ball fell to the tournament’s joint-leading scorer Alan Dzagoev, who uncharacteristically swiped at his chance, seeing his attempt sail high over the goal. That would be the last chance for Russia and shortly after the pitch became a sea of Greek players and staff alike, celebrating the most unlikeliest of escapes from Group A.
They are now likely to face Germany if they win Group B as expected. As for Czech Republic, their opposition is far from confirmed, with all teams in the group able to finish second.
Dick Adovcaat may be wondering why he didn’t start Roman Pavlyuchenko today, as, again, Kerzhakov failed to register a shot on target, striking wide once and having two shots blocked.
Congratulations Czech Republic and Greece.