Russia and Poland played to a thrilling 1-1 draw as Jakub Blaszcyzkowski scored one of goals of the year to ignite Group A play Tuesday night.
In Wroclaw, the Czech Republic pushed Greece to the brink of elimination with a 2-1 win that was made harder than it should have been by a rare goalkeeping gaffe from Chelsea’s Petr Cech.
But the real story was off the field. Hooligans clashed in Warsaw before Tuesday’s game at the Warsaw National Stadium, leaving dozens injured and the Euros with a major black eye. The trouble flared when Russian fans marched to the National Stadium before the match and were intercepted by organized gangs of Polish ultras. Water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas were used by police to control the crowds. Over one hundred people were arrested.
The violence was hardly a surprise. Warsaw had been tense in the days leading up to the match. Representatives from the ultra gangs confirmed to FOX Soccer that the actions had been long planned. Inside National Stadium, tensions were further stoked as Russian fans unveiled a huge banner that read: “This is Russia.” The meaning was clear to everyone. Poland was annexed by the former Soviet Union after the Second World War and did not break free until the fall of the USSR.
UEFA is expected to take stern action against both teams for the actions of their fans. Russia is already being investigated for incidents at their last match saw an assault on four game stewards and the display of fascist banners. As for Warsaw, the security operation continues Tuesday night with thousands of officers on the streets.
It’s a true pity. Had matters been left on the field, everyone would have come away happy with a dramatic, tense and attacking game that will go down as one of the most memorable ever.
Russia seized a deserved lead behind another emphatic performance by Andrei Arshavin, who seems determined to prove he’s not just an Arsenal reject. His incisive wide play paced the Russians and his free kick gave them the goal when it was headed on well by Alan Dzagoev.
The Group A leaders looked comfortable in possession, decisive up top and very stern in midfield. Yet, where they fell apart was in the back and Poland deservedly took advantage to strike.
Poland, looking far more confident and competent than they did in their opener against Greece, played a harrying game, getting fine work out of Robert Lewandowski up top and superb play from Ludovic Obraniak. Time and again, they tested Vyacheslav Malafeev’s net and when Blaszczykowski finally broke through, it was wholly deserved.
Ironically, it came off a foiled break by Arshavin; the ball was punted forward and “Kuba” pounced, firing right to left and hitting the top corner in immaculate fashion. Poland never stopped pressing and had they had more legs – or perhaps, more time – they might have won this one.
As it stands, the hosts can assure themselves of a slot in the quarters by beating the Czech Republic on June 16. Russia remains in the driver’s seat, as they can qualify with a draw against Greece on the same day.
Speaking of which, in Wroclaw, the Czechs looked great, scoring two goals in the first six minutes. Then, they were forced to survive a howler from Cech, to defeat Greece, 2-1 and keep their qualification hopes on the front burner.
The opening spell for the Czechs was blistering. Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar took advantage of a re-organized Greek central defense to make it 2-0 so quickly that it appeared a rout could be on.
Jiracek pounced after the Greeks lost possession 30 yards from their own goal, then Vilar managed to beat two defenders and keeper Kostas Chalkias to a cross which should have been cleared, bundling the ball over the goal line.
The Czechs dominated the remainder of the opening half — but when they took injured playmaker Tomas Rosicky off at the break their cohesion vanished.
That was obvious when Cech inexplicably fumbled a simple Giorgios Samaras’ shot in the 55th minute, gifting Theofanis Gekas with an open net goal. Suddenly, the Czechs were under some pressure. Cech was impeded by defender Tomas Sivok, in a moment that will remind Arsenal fans of the-now legendary Wojiech Szcznesy-Laurent Koscielny dance of death in the 2011 Carling Cup final.
The Czechs rode out the remainder of the match to secure the full three points but they may now have to face Poland without Rosicky. He is reported to have an Achilles problem.
Left with a single point, the 2004 champion Greeks will need to defeat Russia in their final match and also get some help in order to keep alive the chance of creating another surprise.