Hosts insipid in crunch moments; Greece get their Miracle
Poland 0 Czech Republic 1
Greece 1 Russia 0
G. Karagounis (1-0)
A group that was considered to be the weakest in terms of teams, probably produced the most shocking results on the final round, which made a complete mockery of the first two rounds. After the first 45 minutes on the opening day, if anyone was putting money on 2 teams to advance, it would have been the Russians and the Poles. Through contrasting fortunes, at the end of 3rd round, both these teams are out. A Czech Republic that had been decimated by Russia and a Greece that had only their spirit and fight in their 2 group games to show for, were in the quarter-finals. The hosts (only second one after Austria in 2008) and probably one of the most exciting teams of last two Euros had been packed off.
The scorelines were same but not how the action panned out in the two matches. At the beginning of the matches – Greece needed a win, Russia a draw, Poland a win, and the Czech had to react between draw or win depending on what happened in other match. It turned out that the 2 teams which lifted their game at the right moment carried the day.
The Polish team started their match on a fast pelt like they had done in all their matches. Though the Czechs had started the attacks, with an early overlap from the impressive Theodor Gebre Selassie, they were confined to their half for majority of the first half. Polish captain Jakub Blaszczykowski was ruling down the right and Robert Lewandowski had multiple chances to get them ahead. The Czechs were defending desperately and Petr Cech was called in to save multiple times. David Limbersky, saw yellow while trying to tackle the menace of Blaszczykowski and there was a real chance that the Czechs would go down to 10 men as Limbersky lived dangerously. Poland had dangerous freekicks which would just elude a white jersey. They had strikers one-on-one with goalkeeper, only to lose footing and miss the shot. The goal seemed a matter of patience than anything.
Back at the National Stadium, Warsaw, Russia were giving a masterclass in attack to the Greeks. They attacked in droves, created opportunities but failed to convert them. Stunning efforts went just off the goal or were stopped in a jungle of Greek defenders fighting to salvage something from the tournament. Russia needed a draw to advance but was playing to win. Greeks tried counters but were not successful in creating any clear cut chance. And then suddenly in the second added minute of the first half, Igor Denisov, lost concentration on a throw-in and weakly headed it in the path of Georgios Karagounis. The Greek skipper ran straight at the goal, and while Theofanis Gekas was available on the far post, he chose an angular shot which squirmed below Viatcheslav Malafeev. At this point, the table turned, decisively. The Greeks had come up top of the group and the Russians were still qualifying but would not, if there was a result in the other match between Poland and Czech Republic.
The Other match was now a staright shoot-out – win and go through to next round. Any other result and you are out. This desperation was shown only by the Czech team. In all three matches in the tournament, Poland has come out completely flat after the half time. Maybe the manager needs to take some blame for that. But it was the Czechs who were the dominant team creating chances aplenty. Poland hardly saw any ball in the final third and polish goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton had to pull off some blinders to keep the result goalless. He was however helpless when in a lightning counter, Czech Republic created a 3 vs 3 situaiton and scored from midfielder Petr Jiracek, who had timed his run to perfection. The goal, scored in the 72nd minute, did two things – threw out Poland completely from the match and gave Russia the ultimatum that they would go out too if they didn’t score.
Russia though had lost some of the zip in the second half. Greece had crowded the penalty box and the Russians were left to shoot from distance. Notable efforts came from Denisov and Arshavin but the Greek goal stayed invincible. On the other hand, from a Greece freekick, Karagounis hit the post. He also should have earned his team a penalty but strangely the referee failed to spot the trip from the Russian defender on a marauding run from Karagounis. Instead the Greek captain was booked for diving and meant that he would miss the quarter-final.
There was one final twist left in the matches. Poland threw strikers in the mix and should have scored in the 3rd minute of added time with a Blaszczykowski lob beating Cech hands down and going into an empty goal. But Michal Kadlec ran back to time a back header perfectly. It was a goal that would have sent the Russians through. But 2 teams, who were not probably the most talented, but were definitely the most mentally resolute advanced.
The group turned out to be more closely fought than it was imagined. In my match preview, I had mentioned that Greeks needed a miracle and they depended on their mental fortitude and indomitable attitude to win the most vital moment of the group. They had shown their mental strength in both their earlier matches, coming down from 1 goal and 1 man down to almost win the first match and coming down from 2 goals down to almost draw the second. They lost their first choice defensive pairing within half an hour of the opening match but have only let in 2 goals after that. They are the only team to earn a penalty kick and even though they squandered that one, should have got another against Russia. In the quarter finals though, they will be without their captain, to suspension and challenging the big guns from Group B without him, will be yet another challenge for this resolute team.
The Czech Republic, clearly are not a team in ascendancy, with many players who are in the wrong side of 30. However they showed they can take their chances and raise their game when required. There is a sneaking suspicion that they cannot do that against a team which is superior technically to them and would be quite a surprise if they get beyond the quarter-finals.
The Russians flattered to deceive and one really has nothing but admiration for their nature of play. But far more illustrious teams in the past have departed bigger stages, because they couldn’t raise their games when the situation demanded. They will prosper in future tournaments as the core of the squad is young. However a lot of the old guard will see this as a lost opportunity.
The Poles, leave their own tournament, without a single win against their name. And quite frankly, they seemed not a team of 90 minutes. The lack of quality, at crucial moments was evident. They almost lost a match, they had no business losing and then despite holding the Russians at bay, looked flat and listless when they needed to take the bull by the horns.
“We saw the score in the other match, and saw that Greece had scored. I told the players to be patient and be attentive at the back. There were some situations that weren’t 100% safe, but we could counterattack as they opened up. One of those breaks led to the goal. We knew that they were strong down the right-hand side, and we just closed them off.”
Czech manager Michal Bílek
” In the first half we had a great number of opportunities, so it would have been great if we had taken them…”
Przemysław Tytoń, Poland goalkeeper.
“They were leading at half-time and they are just masters at doing what they did today”
Dick Advocaat, Russian manager
“I have told the players that I completely trust them. Whenever Greece have been in a difficult position and needed a win, as against Croatia in qualifying, this is when the character of the team, of the players, emerges, and the response was fantastic.”
Fernando Santos, Greece coach