As Euro 2012 continues at breakneck pace, with no let-up in sight, it has been tough to even draw breath, never mind to actually sit back and take stock of what we’ve seen and discuss it in some kind of mildly analytical manner, at least for me anyway. Right from the opening encounter between co-hosts Poland and Greece, a match which featured two red cards (one for each side), a come-back, a penalty miss/save, and two goals (again one for each side), the pace and excitement of the football has been relentless, bar a couple of fairly pedestrian opening matches in Group B and, even one of those produced something of an upset.
So, eight days later and the competition has rattled through the first two rounds of group matches. The sixteen games have produced no fewer than 46 goals, more than at the same stage of any previous European Championships and, perhaps even more startlingly, not one 0-0 draw. On the disciplinary side of things, whilst referees have produced numerous yellow cards, 58 so far an average of nearly four per match, just the two red cards have been flashed by the officials.
As mentioned above, both of these sendings off came in the first match of the tournament and, whilst the dismissal of Papastathopoulos for two yellow cards, was harsh to say the least, Szczesny’s red was deserved. The officiating has, for the most part been good, however, France can count themselves lucky that Menez did not receive a second yellow card for a poor challenge against Ukraine, a decision which directly impacted the result of the game as Menez went on to score France’s opener in a 2-0 win.
In the build-up to the tournament there was a lot of press, including an article penned by myself, about the potential for crowd trouble during the competition. Unfortunately, as was to be expected, some incidents have occurred, both inside and outside the stadia. Notable clashes between Russian and Polish fans occurred in Warsaw before the two sides met and Russia have been handed a suspended six point penalty by UEFA for the behaviour of their supporters, before and during their opening game against the Czech Republic in Wroclaw. Clashes between other fans have also been reported. On a darker note still, the spectre of racism, has raised its ugly head. A spokesman for a Spanish supporters group admitted that some 200 members racially abused Mario Balotelli when the two sides met in Group C last Sunday. Meanwhile, UEFA have charged the Croatian FA after official observers reported hearing monkey chants directed at the same player, Mario Balotelli, during the 1-1 draw in Poznan on Thursday.
On the organisational side of things, on the face of it, the two countries have done a reasonably good job. The stadia are all excellent, the pitches in great condition, and even when the Gods did their best to flood the Group D match between France and Ukraine by unleashing a torrential thunderstorm of Biblical proportions, the ground-staff had the pitch playable within twenty minutes of the rain easing off. On a personal note, however, I attended the Group C match between Ireland and Croatia in Poznan and quite frankly the staff at the Stadium there were totally and utterly unprepared. As 2000 plus fans, mostly Irish, queued at the box office up to two and a half hours before kick-off, a total of three windows were in operation to serve them. The upshot was that hundreds of fans missed the first half queuing out in the open in sodden conditions causing no end of disbelief, frustration and, ultimately anger.
To add to the problems at the stadium in Poznan, the Polish rail network, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cancel two trains scheduled for the small hours of Monday morning, one carrying the returning Irish and others to Berlin, the other due to ferry those that were staying to Gdansk for the next match. The result, a six hour wait through the night for a morning train which left many sleeping on the freezing floor in soaking clothes. At 7.00 am last Monday morning, Poznan’s main station resembled a scene of a Dickensian London, only in this story the protagonists were all dressed in green.
Back to the football then, and tying nicely in to the last paragraph, we enter the final round of group matches with just two teams sure of their elimination. The first to go was Ireland, not much of a surprise given that a look at the squad on paper confirms what an extraordinary job Trap did to get them to Poland/Ukraine in the first place. The second team to head for the exit was Sweden, twice beaten by teams coming from behind, the Swedes will be ruing their inability to hold on to a lead. A hard one for Sweden to take, particularly for Zlatan, who presumably takes up three seats when he flies anywhere, one for him and a double for his enormous ego (Joe Hart had the last laugh!)
Those are the teams which are definitely out but, as yet, no team is assured of a place in the quarter finals. The crucial games get underway tonight, with Group A the first to be sorted out. All four teams in this group can still qualify, with Russia leading the way on four points, a draw against Greece will be enough to see them through, whilst a victory either way in the other match will send the winners of that game through. Equally however, a shock Greece win would put them through and, should the other game produce a winner, the Russians will go out. I tipped Russia and Poland to go through, in that order, before a ball was kicked and I am going to stick to my guns, but it really is still all to play for.
In Group B, the Dutch are in the extraordinary position of still having a good chance of getting out of the group, despite having lost both their games so far. Germany have six points, with Denmark and Portugal on three and Holland on zero. Should Germany beat Denmark, as expected, and Holland defeat Portugal then the two favourites will qualify in that order, however a reversal of those results would see these two juggernauts both jack-knife out of the competition. A draw between the Germans and the Danes and a win for the Dutch would send Holland and the Portuguese home, whilst two draws would see Portugal go through with Germany. As with Group A, all permutations are possible, but I’m going to stick with Germany and Holland to go through in that order.
With the Irish out, Group C is between Spain, Croatia and Italy. Spain and Croatia are tied on four points and face each other on Monday evening. A draw in this game, particularly a score draw would practically guarantee qualification for both countries as Italy, currently on two points, would need a three goal swing against the Irish. Whilst this is not out of the realms of possibility, the Irish have only pride left to play for and, believe me, they are at their most dangerous in that kind of situation. The Italians will not get an easy ride. Should Spain beat Croatia, however, or the other way around (however unlikely), and the Italians get a result against Ireland, which ultimately I think they will, then the Italians will progress at the expense of one of the others. Should Italy miss out, they will be sick at themselves for easing off in the second half against Croatia and allowing Mandzukic to snatch a point. Three teams still in with a good shout but I’m going to stick with my tip of Spain and Croatia to go through in that order.
Sweden and Zlatan are gone, as we know, so Group D comes down to three as well. France and England lead the way on four points, with co-hosts Ukraine snapping at their heels on three points. With England facing Ukraine in the last match, it becomes a straight shoot-out between the two. Ukraine must win on Tuesday evening or they are effectively out, a draw would be enough to guarantee England’s passage and France are, practically, assured of their place already. The only real circumstances that would see the French go out would be a thumping defeat by Sweden, 4-0 I believe, and a draw in the match between England and Ukraine. That said, I shall stick, once again, to my original forecast of France and England, in that order.
All that’s left to mention now are the players that have lit up the tournament so far. Some that have shone I picked out in advance and others have stepped forward who were perhaps overlooked before the tournament. For me, the player of the tournament so far is Dzagoev of Russia. His pace and trickery are a joy to watch, as are the Russian team as a whole, and with three goals in two games he is shaping up to become a true superstar. Mario Mandzukic of Croatia has proved, yet again, that you don’t have to play for the biggest clubs or be the most glamorous name to be a hit at international level. The powerful front-man has starred for the Croats and, again, with three goals in two games, suddenly people are taking notice.
Mario Gomez has had his critics in the past but, after a record breaking season, the Bayern Munich striker is proving his critics wrong. He was the difference in a scrappy opener against Portugal and his two goals against the Dutch prove that he has the class to shine at every level. Other players to have caught the eye are, Vaclav Pilar of the Czech Republic; two goals in two games, Gekas of Greece; two goals in two games, Andrei Arshavin of Russia, Andy Carroll and Steven Gerrard of England, Niklas Bendtner of Denmark and the whole Spanish team, in particular David Silva and Fernando Torres.
The three best moments of the tournament for me so far (and of course they differ for everybody), in no particular order, are as follows: 1)Andriy Shevchenko’s performance against Sweden. Rolling back the years, the former AC Milan striker showed he hasn’t lost his class and predatory instinct as he rescued his team from an opening match defeat with two brilliantly taken close range headers, securing a 2-1 victory for co-hosts Ukraine.2) Jakub Blaszczykowski’s goal against Russia. Going 1-0 down against a Russian side that had slaughtered the Czech Republic in their first game, Poland were up against it in their second fixture, however, “Kuba’s” control on the run to set up the chance, followed by his unstoppable left foot piledriver, sent the home crowd into ecstasy as the Poles proved they could mix it with their age old enemy. 3) Andy Carroll’s bullet against Sweden. After being slated all season by the English press and fans of other clubs the length and breadth of the country , the hard working Liverpool striker from Tyneside shut the mouths of those critics permanently by linking up with Steven Gerrard to power England ahead with a thunderous header from twelve yards, which gave Isaksson absolutely no chance. Carroll’s all round performance was fantastic and, for me, he was, hands down, England’s man of the match.
So that’s the story of Euro 2012 so far. We’ve reached the business end, to coin a footballing cliché, and teams are starting to drop out. So far the action on the pitch has been better than any of us could have hoped for and, with everything still up for grabs, let’s hope it stays that way or even, dare I say it, it gets even better. Magic moments we’ve had, but as the going starts to get really tough, which nations are tough enough to really get going? Keep your eyes firmly fixed to your TV screen and, within a fortnight, all will be revealed.
Logo image by DrabikPany. Stadium Image by magro_kr. Dzagoev image by Kate_Lokteva. Shevchenko image by CharlesFred aka Charles Roffey. Zlatan Image by Bengavoice aka Bengt Flemark.