PolandThe Good The best fans at Euro 2012? Not filled with as much joie de vivre as the Irish, but certainly up there - it’s a shame, however, that their fans were rewarded with little substance. Should we have expected more (even though they were the lowest-ranked team – 62nd in the FIFA rankings - in the tournament)? As they were co-hosts, probably. Can we fault them for not trying? Absolutely not. Maybe they were simply not up to the standard, even with the feeble group they were in they were the lowest ranked team by some distance. Footballistically, few positives can be taken from the tournament for Poland, but Kuba Blaszczykowski’s flowing thunderbolt equaliser against Russia was one of the best moments of the tournament. The Bad The lack of a genuine playmaker or someone reasonably comfortable on the ball meant Poland struggled to control games even when they were in the ascendancy – this was particularly damning in the opening game, a game they should have won after Greece played the majority of it with 10 men. Due to the lack of an adequate playmaker, Poland were limited to sporadic attacks on the wings and once opposition centre-backs smothered Lewandowski, there was very little originality from midfield to conquer the opposition with guile.
The second half performance in the final group game against Czech Republic – when a win would have taken them through – was almost tragic as the stadium was rendered into silence, so domineering were the Czechs in possession that Poland were forced to sit back and hope to conjure something on the counter-attack. Moreover, the tactical acumen of coach Franciszek Smuda also has to be called into question (he has subsequently paid for his job in the aftermath). Poland’s approach was too reactive and even when they were in search of equalisers or winners, the system and cohesion just wasn’t there. This reticent approach seemed unnecessary considering in Greece and Czech Republic they were facing two of the weakest attacking units in the tournament.
Their failure to make it into the quarter finals. As lowly as they’re ranked, in Lewandowski, Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek they had a solid template for relative success. Taking into account that they were in the poorest group combined with the power of the home crowd, they should have made it to the knockout stages.
As the Greek adage goes: history is made by mates. And, like at Euro 2004, the Greek mates threatened to make history once again. The against-all-odds aura sprung into life again as they came from behind against co-hosts Poland in the opening game, despite playing most of the game with 10 men after the copy-and-paste-named Sokratis Papastathopoulous was given his marching orders – and they could have easily won it had Giorgios Karagounis converted his spot-kick.
A poor defeat against Czech Republic followed which meant Greece would, once again, have to defy expectations and beat the widely-fancied Russians. With a parked bus – camped in the immediate vicinity of their penalty area that would have made Stagecoach or Arriva contemplate investing in the Greece national team, they managed to typically overcome the odds. They may have been in the kindest group, but dealing with partisan Poland in the opening match was not an easily negotiable matter and, after the defeat against Czech Republic, they can be proud of how they fought back to confound the critics against Russia.
The lack of creativity and endeavour in the side. With Sotiris Ninis and Giannis Fetfatzidis at Fernando Santos’ disposal and a very good defensive unit as the foundations for the duo to flourish, not to mention the intelligence of Nikos Limberopoulos, one cannot help but wonder whether Greece could have been more attacking and allowed their promising wingers more freedom to release their pizzazz. Yet Ninis’ skill was stifled as he looked incompatible with the system , reducing him to being used sparingly as an impact sub, and Fetfatzidis didn’t see a solitary second of action. Greece could have given Germany a lot more to think about as when they broke forward haphazardly in the quarter-final there was plenty of room to exploit. The team in general doesn’t seem to have progressed tactically from the reign of Euro 2004-winning coach ‘King’ Otto Rehhagel, mainly due to the idiosyncratic similarities between the Rehhagel and Santos.
Some would say their mind-numbing style of play, but whatever the detractors think about it, it worked. The performances of Kostas Chalkias, however, were a far cry from the assured custodian and George Clooney doppelganger, Antonios Nikopolaidis, during the 2000s. Chalkias looked aerially suspect throughout the competition, the only major weakness in their usually resilient defence. The capitulation against Germany, which Chalkias contributed to, after equalising was very unlike Greece considering the intransigence modus operandi of their defence.
Progression. Coming into the tournament, the Czechs were dubbed by many as no hopers; a squad lacking quality with little chance of making it out of the easiest group. Their opening game, a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Russia, seemed to prove the doubters right and signal their first steps on the path to an early exit. However, conjuring the spirit of their extraordinary comeback against the Dutch in Euro 2004, they weren’t willing to give up without a fight. Hubschman’s dominant displays at the heart of the Czech midfield combined wonderfully with the enthusiasm of the attacking fullbacks Limbersky and Gebre Selassie, the tireless pace of Pilar and the unrelenting threat of Jiracek.
Having stunned the Greeks with 2 goals in the opening 6 minutes, the Czechs came back into contention and on a stormy night in Wroclaw, the roaring thunder did little to disguise the home crowd’s disappointment as they knocked out Poland. This Czech squad may not have reached the heights of the team that got to the final 16 years ago nor the one that made the semi’s in 2004, but their journey from hopeless also-rans to group toppers caught everyone by surprise and will be remembered fondly.
Central striking displays. Through their fullbacks and wingers, the Czechs constantly impressed with their attacks out wide but that quality was lacking in the centre. Rosicky’s fitness issues flared up in the first half of their second match and he wasn’t to feature again, his replacements Kolar and Darida gave valiant efforts but neither produced that same brilliance. Perhaps the biggest issue was that Milan Baros was preferred up front; he looked slow and unthreatening throughout, failing to score. Tomas Pekhart was given half an hour against Greece but was ineffectual as the rest of the team defended and David Lafata, whose domestic form over the last couple of years has been really rather special, was given all of 5 minutes to shine against Russia. With Baros’ announcement of international retirement, Bilek will be forced to explore different options in times to come, but may regret not doing so here.
Going out with a whimper. After fighting back in the group stage, the Czechs may have been expected to take a fearless ‘nothing to lose’ attitude into their quarter final match up with Portugal. Instead, in an attempt to opt for pragmatism – as they approached the game very defensively – they exited without forcing Portuguese keeper Patricio to make a single save. Perhaps the quality of the Portuguese dominance should be praised more than the Czechs’ inability to take the game to them should be faulted, perhaps the absence of Rosicky has to be considered, but stats of one attempt, none on target make for miserable reading however they’re looked at from a Czech viewpoint.
The Russians began their campaign by annihilating the Czech Republic 4-1. Out of all their players, the two that shone were young Alan Dzagoev and, Arsenal fans’ favourite, Andriy Arshavin. The latter was full of energy, creativity and leadership, something that Gunners fans may argue that he does not display when he is competing in club football. The former illustrated his attacking flair and knack for goal scoring when the rest of his team couldn’t, bagging three goals in the group stages and ending the tournament as joint top scorer (but not winning The Golden Boot, sadly). No doubt that we will be seeing more of this kid in the future.
Russia began to display laziness after their 4-1 opening win. Arshavin started to slow down which caused a chain reaction as the rest of the Russian team also began to underperform. They threw away a 1-0 lead against Poland through a Blaszczykowski equaliser. With 4 points and sitting on top of Group A after the 2nd round of games, Russia only needed a draw against Greece in order to progress into the next round. This situation did not transpire, as a very complacent Russia side lost their final game against Greece by 1-0 and were knocked out on the basis of head-to-head results, despite having a better goal difference than Greece.
There are two ugly points to mention about Russia. The first is the fact that Russian fans decided to cause chaos, brawling with Polish and Czech fans after both games. As always, not every fan was involved, but the minority ruined it all for the majority. Racist abuse was also directed towards Czech left-back Selassie, tainting the reputation of Russia (even further, in some cases).
The second point is Kerzhakov. 14 shots, zero on target. If that’s not ugly fora striker, then I don’t know what is.