Greece pulled off the upset of the tournament, downing a profligate Russian side regarded as a Euro favorite on side Saturday night. Plus, the Czech Republic eliminated cohost Poland 1-0 in Wroclaw to finish atop the group.
Remarkably, Poland wasn’t expected to win Saturday – the Czechs have quality and the Poles are essentially a four-man team. But Russia’s reversal at the hands of an extraordinarily average Greek side stands as one of this year’s biggest shocks – even though we saw the Greeks do this is 2004, when they stunned the world by winning the European title in Portugal.
The Russians have only themselves to blame; they were lazy, they were wasteful, and they made a critical and costly mistake. After shoving the Greeks for much of the first half, an awful defensive mistake allowed a stoppage-time goal that changed the game.
For much if the match, Russia played like a side expecting a coronation. They were messy in midfield and frequently tried for the spectacular in front of net when the serviceable would have been preferable.
Needless to say, it was a bit delicious when the Greeks slapped the wasteful Russian at the end of the half. Sergei Ignashevich made a hash of a routine throw-in and headed the ball back behind his own defense, allowing Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis to skip on it with glee. Karagounis then powered it right to left across Vyacheslav Malafeev’s despairing mitts.
It was the first shot the Greeks had taken in the game. They were credited with a cross that was more statistical charity than a true attempt and had been thoroughly bottled in by the men in Red. The Greek central defense was also laughably poor in that first half but nowhere near as bad as Russia’s finishing, with Yuri Zhirkov, Alexandr Kerzhakov and Andrei Arshavin all spurning fine chances.
The second half saw the Greeks grow in stature, with even the judgmentally-challenged Giorgos Samaras coming good and forcing Malafeev to do some cleaning up. But even with a better wave of pressure, it’s hard to escape the idea that the Russians beat themselves. When they went down, so did their heads. For all the skill they had showed in the tournament, Russia showed very little heart to go along with it Saturday night.
For one player in particular – Arshavin – this will stand as a bitter coda. Arshavin impressed many in the first game, tired out in the second and was lost in the final outing. His career at Arsenal is ultimately in tatters now and remains in a loan limbo. It’s difficult to see how Arshavin can find his way back after this latest disappointment.
But for the Greeks – who arguably have nothing but soccer to cheer about right now – this is a triumph of the highest order. Their players mobbed the field in a state of shock and disbelief. After all, Greece came from last place to qualify.
Many of observers were rooting for Poland against the Czech Republic. The Poles have been extraordinarily gracious hosts and anything else would have been churlish. But there was no feel-good story in Wroclaw with the Czech Republic surviving the first 15 minutes of Polish pressure, then gradually strangling the match before Petr Jiracek’s 72nd minute goal gave them victory and the top spot.
The Czech comeback to finish top of the group after that opening 4-1 defeat against Russia may look amazing, but there was no doubt that they were far better than the cohosts. When they heard of Greece’s lead over Russia at halftime and knew that only a victory would ensure their qualification, the Czechs came out and dominated.
Poland did start well, forcing Petr Cech to be alert in the first half, but they never got control of midfield and saw their game drift as time elapsed. The Czechs, forced to play without injured star Tomas Rosicky, got storming performances from Tomas Hubschman, Daniel Kolar, Vaclav Pilar, David Limbersky and Jaroslav Plasil. Michal Bilek’s men never seemed to miss their inspirational leader. Rosicky does give the Czechs flair however, and Saturday night was a case of the Czechs grinding out the victory rather than putting together a pretty product.
The break of the match came off a Polish turnover near center field. Michal Kadlec began the raid down the inside left channel, the Czechs got numbers forward and Milan Baros perfectly-timed the last pass that let Jiracek in to finish the job. It was the one time that Polish keeper Przemyslaw Tyton could not produce a save on a night when he was pretty much all that kept the cohosts in the game.
The cohosts exit the Euros on Saturday failing to secure a victory in their world party. They only scored two goals in three games – and never really delivered on the promise that Robert Lewandowski seemed to bring. If we’re honest, the capacity crowds and the adrenalin fueled Poland’s play more than any true attacking quality.
There is a big downside to speak about, however. With Poland out, there is a legitimate fear this Euro will die out. The Poles have shown little inclination to support any team other than their own, and have avoided becoming fully involved in the tournament as a spectacle. That would be tragic. If anyone deserves to enjoy this show, it’s Poland. They have put on one heck of a festival.