Day eleven of Euro 2012 and only ten teams remain. Along with Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Poland, some names that many would have expected to fall at the first hurdle (no disrespect meant), the final two teams on the list of departures are altogether more surprising. Very few, if anyone, would have predicted the demise of Russia and Holland at such an early stage but out they have gone and tonight, Italy may well join them.
When Russia smashed four past the Czech Republic on the opening day, showing such pace, incisiveness and ruthless finishing, many people’s “dark horses” looked set to top their group in some style. With the Czech’s arguably their toughest opponents, at least on paper, the resounding victory seemed to confirm Russia’s superiority in the group, especially with games against Poland and Greece to come.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, as well as they played , the Russian’s flattered to deceive in that first game. The Czech Republic, perhaps a little naively, played perfectly into their opponents’ hands. Their desire to dominate possession and dictate the play, pushing midfielders forward to join up in attack whenever possible, was tailor-made for Russian counter-attacking football and counter-attack they did, to devastating effect.
When faced by Poland in the second game, Russia, after surviving a few early scares, regained their composure and, sure enough, took the lead, through another swift move. The second half, however, saw the Poles, roared on by the home support, seize the initiative through the goal of the tournament so far. Following that magnificent equaliser, Arshavin, Dzagoev and co. were unable to raise the level of what had been a lethargic, somewhat complacent second-half performance, and two points were tamely surrendered.
Fast-forward to the final game against Greece and once again, the Russians suffered from a lacklustre second-half effort and, ultimately, exited the competition with a whimper. After dominating the first-period, in which they suffered from an inability to hit the target despite fashioning several golden opportunities, Russia switched off from a throw in deep into first-half stoppage time and allowed Karagounis in to score the only goal of the game.
The Greeks reverted to type for the second-period but, despite defending deep, actually looked more dangerous on the few occasions that they came forward and Karagounis was booked for a dive when, clearly, the correct decision would have been to award a penalty to Greece. Greece held on and Russia were beaten, left to rue the hatful of chances that they’d spurned in the first-half and their inability to break down teams that stood off them and conceded possession.
Russia’s exit, whilst certainly a big surprise, particularly given their group, was not as big of a shock as Holland’s collective early bath. Arriving at the tournament having scored 38 goals in ten qualifying matches, with a front four who between them had bagged well over one hundred league goals for their clubs last season, the Dutch were many peoples’ favourites to win the tournament outright. The bookies were not quite so sure, offering odds of 7-1, however that still placed the World Cup finalists of 2010 at third favourites behind Spain and Germany.
Almost the instant that the Dutch arrived in Ukraine, things began to go wrong. Rumours emerging from the camp told of the same old story for Holland, big egos and infighting causing splits within the set-up, a lack of togetherness and team spirit was spoken of and, in their first game, it showed. A complacent performance against Denmark could have been rescued had hit-men, van Persie and Huntelaar, the subjects of much of the squabbling, been able to take their chances.
The opportunities, of which there were many, mostly fell to the Arsenal man as the starter, however, he was having an off-day, to put it mildly. When Huntelaar came on in the second-half, he didn’t fare much better, missing several chances, including a gilt-edged one on one. A solitary goal for the Danes, around the half hour mark, exposed Holland’s defensive deficiencies and their inability to find the back of the net, so unusual for them, cost them the match.
Bruised by the opening defeat against Denmark, on paper the weakest team in the group, Holland went into the next game, against group favourites Germany, desperate not to lose. Defeat, against their most detested of rivals, would almost certainly have spelt the end for the Dutch at Euro 2012 and, as such, humiliation. Van Persie, again, had a dream of a chance to put the Oranje ahead in the opening minutes, however, again, he fluffed his lines, shooting tamely into the arms of Neuer.
Wesley Sneijder hit a post for the Dutch at 0-0 but, fairly quickly, Germany assumed control of the game, with Oezil and Khedira running rings around the one-paced van Bommel and de Jong partnership in midfield. Schweinsteiger, looking back to his best following a lengthy injury lay-off earlier in the season, was a constant thorn in Dutch sides’ and before the break he had provided Mario Gomez with two incisive passes, both of which the Bayern striker finished with surety.
Van Bommel was replaced by van der Vaart at half-time as the Dutch looked to move the ball quicker and, although they improved a little, it wasn’t until van Persie pulled a goal back, fifteen minutes from time, that we began to see any real belief from Holland. That belief was short-lived as the Germans weathered the storm fairly comfortably and the only other action of note was Robben’s petulant reaction to his own substitution, proving two things in the process. Firstly, that Arjen Robben cares only about Arjen Robben and to hell with the team, secondly, that he most certainly is not a man with a big game temperament.
By a twist of fate, despite losing their first two games, Holland entered Sunday evening’s clash with Portugal still with a chance of going through to the knock-out stages. They required Germany to beat Denmark, which the Germans duly did but, in order to stay in, the Dutch would have to beat Portugal by two clear goals. Van Maarwijk altered his side, bringing in Huntelaar to play with van Persie and dropping van Bommel for van der Vaart, and for a while, it looked like the plan just might work. 1-0 up inside ten minutes, through van der Vaart, and Dutch fans were dreaming of an unlikely tournament comeback.
Unfortunately van der Vaart’s positional indiscipline left Holland’s shaky defence exposed and, with the Dutch desperately seeking a second goal, this played right into Portuguese hands with their counter-attacking style. Cristiano Ronaldo chose this game to announce his arrival at the tournament after a poor showing in his country’s opening two fixtures. Ronaldo picked his moment to shine perfectly and, like a true superstar, scored two cracking goals to send Portugal through, and Holland crashing out!
Whilst Russia scored five goals and only lost one game at Euro 2012, Holland managed just two goals and exited without picking up a single point, embarrassing for such a proud footballing nation. The Russian press have lambasted the national team on its return, with one paper running a single word headline which translates simply as “Bastards!”. They accuse the team of not trying and “thinking not of their Motherland but only of their bonuses”. Whilst this is undoubtedly harsh, sentiment amongst the fans was hardly improved by Arshavin’s comments to reporters and fans on his return to Russia.
“It is not our problem that we did not live up to your expectations of us. It is your problem, not ours”
What the Dutch press make of their team’s humbling experience, once fully digested, remains to be seen but it is unlikely that the players will be spared stinging criticism or that van Maarwijk will keep his job. He faced massive criticism from the likes of Johan Cruyff long before the tournament. The Dutch legend accused van Maarwijk side of playing “anti-football” at the World Cup in South Africa and their performances this time around are unlikely to have won the current boss any more fans.
So two big-guns fall silent and tonight, a third may well join the club. Italy face the prospect of being eliminated from Euro 2012 without losing a game, a situation which is bound to cause anger and consternation amongst players and fans alike. The Italians face former boss Giovanni Trapattoni tonight as he looks to deliver some pride back to the Irish nation, with at least a point for his adoptive nation against his native land.
Although Ireland have not acquitted themselves well in Poland and Ukraine, they were always going to be up against it in a tough group with what is, undoubtedly, on paper, the weakest squad in the competition. Trapattoni has faced Italy three times since taking over as Republic boss and his record reads well: P3 W1 D2 L0. The Irish will be desperate to give their massivetravelling support something real to cheer about and, with the pressure off, there is every reason to believe that they can get a point against a low scoring Italian outfit.
Italy played very well in their opening game against Spain. They were the more threatening side in the first-half and took the lead shortly after half-time. However, once the Spanish equalised and brought on Fernando Torres to play as an out and out striker, the game turned in Spain’s favour and Italy did well do hold on for a point. Against Croatia, the game was fairly even until Italy took the lead just before the break. In the second-half, Italy were in almost complete control and, had they shown more ambition, surely could have killed the game off.
Even in second gear, the Italian’s didn’t look like conceding. Croatia’s tactic, of getting high balls into the box, was generally being dealt with fairly comfortably and the Croats’ lack of pace was making it difficult for them to stretch the Italian back line. However, twenty minutes from time and a defensive lapse afforded Mandzukic the time to bring down one of the, afore-mentioned, high balls and lash it in off the post to even the score. The match played out to a 1-1 draw and Italy were left cursing themselves for not capitalising on their domination, plus ca change.
The one thing that none of us should be surprised about is the propensity for shock results at major tournaments. We all try to predict possible outcomes and, yet again, the majority of us up to this point have probably been mostly wrong in our forecasts (I know so far my strike rate is a measly 25%), but getting it wrong isn’t going to stop us trying. Many will expect Spain and Italy to win tonight, thereby sending Croatia home, with the already eliminated Irish. However, the cynic in me is telling me that Croatia and Spain will draw and the romantic in me is saying that Ireland will snatch a point off the Italians, thereby sending Spain and Croatia through and those two most devout of countries looking questioningly towards the heavens.
Russi image by Kate_Lokteva. Holland image by Yme Bosma
Italy image by Ozzy aka Osei Thompson