Four-day sprint sets wild Euro tone
The European Championship enters a four-day sprint with simultaneous games that will decide who moves on to the quarterfinals. It has been a surprisingly open tournament and only two teams — Ireland and Sweden — are officially eliminated. That means 14 teams are chasing eight spots as we go down to the wire.
Here’s a look at where the teams stand going into the final days, and what needs to happen for them to move on and prosper:
Russia leads this group on four points after downing the Czechs and drawing with co-host Poland. The Russians control their own fate and need but a single point from their match against Greece in Warsaw. Andrei Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev have been brilliant and the Russians have to now be considered serious title contenders.
Unfortunately, there are some serious problems. UEFA recently hit the country with a six-point penalty after the violence in Wroclaw that saw four stewards attacked. They are also being investigated for their role in Tuesday’s clashes in Warsaw, though Russia has since appealed the sanctions.
Poland must win against the Czechs to progress – a draw is simply not good enough. Though the Poles looked impressive against Russia, they are essentially a four-man team that expended a great deal of energy against a hated rival. A big question will be who starts in goal. Wojciech Szczesny returns from his suspension but Przemyslaw Tyton was superb in his absence. Robert Lewandowski must raise his game against Tomas Rosicky’s side.
The Czechs can go through with a draw and are likely to play conservatively. Finally, Greece are on the brink – they need an unlikely win, help on goal difference and a draw in the other game.
This group is wide open, and nothing can be decided until close of play. The Germans control their own fate, needing just a single point against Denmark. However, they can also qualify even if they lose. Go figure.
The Netherlands on the other hand, are in deep, deep trouble. Winless in two games, they must beat Portugal by at least two goals to erase their negative goal differential and hope the Germans beat Denmark. Aside from Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, there has been little to smile about for the Oranje. They are a feuding, fractious bunch that seems like a talented collection of individuals that is disinclined to play as a team. It’s a disaster.
Portugal qualifies with a win as long as Denmark does not take full points off Germany. Cristiano Ronaldo has so far failed to show up and sadly, this may be his last chance to make good. Did we mention Ronaldo mouthed off about Lionel Messi? The Argentine isn’t even playing and he’s still gotten under CR7’s thin skin.
What is true for Portugal is also true for Denmark, and one has to think the task is tougher for Danes. Simon Kjaer will have his hands full in the back and they will need another fine game from underwear flasher Nicklas Bendtner.
Goal difference could come into play in this group, and if everything is all square, the UEFA co-efficient and/or the Fair Play rankings can come into effect. Believe it or not, the last tiebreaker is a coin-flip – they draw lots.
Ireland are out and after that, everything is in play. Spain and Croatia lead the group and if they draw they both can go through. For Italy to progress, they must beat Ireland by at least three goals.
Given that very little was expected of them, Italy have been one of the disappointments of the tournament. They looked very good against Croatia for a half, then conceded a goal on a defensive mistake – a very uncharacteristic gaffe for the Italian side to make.
The team looks stretched between age and inexperience and the balance simply isn’t right. Mario Balotelli continues to make the headlines but hasn’t turned in a complete performance on the field. Had the Manchester City man sunk one of his chances in the opener against Spain, things would be very different.
Spain crushed the Irish but now face a trickier test against a Croatian side that can move the ball well. Vincent del Bosque’s tactics against Italy were downright weird, but he was rewarded Thursday for fielding Fernando Torres up top in their 4-0 thrashing of Ireland. When Spain start ticking, they can pass anyone to death. Croatia will have to guard against that and the match will be a big test for Luka Modric, Dario Srna and the red-hot Mario Mandzukic up top.
France and England seized control of its destiny Friday while Sweden became the second team to drop in this surprisingly tight Euros. Ukraine’s not out – they can go through with a win in their final game.
Ukraine’s match against France in Dontesk was hit by a long weather delay as lightning crashed down and the field flooded, but when play re-started, Les Bleus showed their quality. Two goals inside three minutes in the second half stunned the co-hosts and gave the French a share of the group lead on four points.
This is not a vintage Bleus side, but this is hardly a vintage group. Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri have done what has been asked of them and France’s shaky defense has yet to be really pushed. Hugo Lloris looks very uncomfortable in goal, but Phillipe Mexes has been better than anyone thought possible and Yohan Cabaye has been dynamite up front.
Ukraine may be out of juice: they got a huge win in the opener over Sweden thanks to talisman Andiry Shevchenko but looked exhausted after an hour tonight. They can qualify with a win over England but will need more bite and another yeoman performance from keeper Andriy Pyatov.
England was lucky tonight against Sweden, first tossing away a lead and then getting saved by Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. This is not the greatest England team ever but they have been playing adequate, if average soccer. Andy Carroll came good tonight with a goal and when Wayne Rooney is able to take the field in the final game, you do feel this side will get a lift.
Credit boss Roy Hodgson with making the key moves: he started Carroll as a traditional "England target man" and was rewarded with a goal. When his side fell behind he chose Walcott to inject speed and life into a floundering attack. That decision completely changed the match, knocked Sweden off stride, then right out of the competition. He may have to be just as accurate (or fortunate) against the home team on Tuesday night.