Group play produces mixed results

Group play produces mixed results

Published Jun. 12, 2012 4:03 a.m. ET

The first round of Euro 2012's group stage matches closed Monday night with a bang, as France drew with England before co-hosts Ukraine rode Andriy Shevchenko to a deserved 2-1 win over Sweden.

We’ve learned quite a few things here in just four days of play. The tournament itself is split – not only geographically, but in feel. Poland has staged games to packed houses, while Ukraine has struggled to fill their seats. On the other hand, Poland hasn’t seemed as interested in games that don’t feature their home team; Ukraine, in contrast, has seen decent attendance at the free Fan Festivals set up to take in the big show.

Safety fears have proven to be vastly overblown, but the pre-tourney line on Ukraine’s many, many issues has clearly eaten into their bottom line. In contrast, Poland has sfeen some truly remarkable scenes as fans from around the world have flooded their cities.

The big winners this week on the field are Ukraine. They did everything a host could, winning a great game against Sweden thanks to an ageless 35-year-old man known simply as “Sheva.”


He ripped Sweden apart and sparked real hope that a team that has been low-balled by everyone could make the quarterfinals. And that’s remarkable: Even Ukraine’s manager, Oleg Blokhin, mocked his own squad pre-game, saying, “our defenders do not even tackle properly.”

Poland, on the other hand, have shown how to host a tournament, but they haven’t been able to overcome their own jitters on the field. Poland tossed away two points in the opener, wilting in the close quarters of the National Stadium and clearly feeling the tremendous pressure. There is not a lot of sympathy for them. Former national team goalkeeper Jaroslaw Bako was withering in his assessment, saying that the team is fully professional and shouldn’t have let the circumstances lay them low.

But of course, circumstances do just that, as we saw in Poznan where even glorious support could not lift a very lackluster Irish side. Ireland deserves to be in the Euros, but their stay will not be long. They committed an error-strewn performance against a plausible Croatian team, and Stephen Ward and Shay Given have to improve dramatically before their run in with Spain.

Russia looked legit after blowing out a Czech side that isn’t exactly chopped liver. Andrey Arshavin seems to have something to prove after a dismal half-year at Arsenal and if he remains hot, they can win their group. They face a big match in Warsaw Tuesday night that is surrounded by all sorts of security concerns but if they can weather the hosts, they should have a cakewalk to the quarters.

The Dutch and the Portuguese aren’t as happy. The former stumbled and stuttered to a 1-0 loss to dark horses Denmark, while the latter showed that their well-known flaws may be insurmountable.

Against Denmark, Arjen Robben disappeared and Robin van Persie was never able to get going. Holland missed a host of chances against a smart Danish side that wore them out rather than sitting back. They have a massive game coming up against Germany Wednesday, and realistically, must win it.

Portugal are in the same boat. After holding off Germany for 70 minutes, Portugal cannot get past their lack of a central striker. Cristiano Ronaldo can sizzle on the wings, but the Portuguese denied him service much of the night and face a tough task against the Danish side. While this is a winnable match for Nani and his gang, it’s also a game they cannot afford to lose.

Heat has been a factor, but the surprise game of the round might have been the most torrid. The mercury was bursting in Donetsk but France and England played to a skilled and sweaty draw that seems to augur that both these teams are better than we had thought. Because the rest of the group is tepid at best, this was thought to be a game neither could afford to drop. Neither did.

But after Ukraine's performance in the second half Monday night, that opening draw did not look quite as good for the English and French, who may well need to get results in Kiev in order to progress.

Spain and Italy also drew but in a far less entertaining encounter that was notable for the strange formations the teams fielded. Credit Italy for not sitting back; they deployed a back three and went for it. Spain, deciding Fernando Torres was not the answer as a striker, simply started without one, playing a 4-6-0. Torres then promptly proved that manager Vicente del Bosque had probably gotten it right when clearly fluffed two clear chances to win the match in the second half.

Italy's Mario Balotelli remains magical and frustrating in equal measure. He was brilliant for spells but dithered on a sure scoring chance. He was then joined in the doghouse by Torres, the man who should have won it, but could not.

One issue that remains at the forefront is racism. Fans at Krakow taunted the Dutch team their training session and Legia Warsaw fans’ intolerance is not easy to avoid either. There have been other dustups; Russian fans attacked four stewards in Wroclaw; German fans were warned over missile-throwing at the field in Lviv; and some Irish fans seem to have got into their cups in Poznan, and subsequently got escorted to the pokey.

These incidents do seem to truly feel like the work of a minority. For what it’s worth, they are openly seen as an embarrassment to many here in Poland. As for Ukraine – well, opinion is mixed. But so far, from the fans’ point of view at least, Ukraine seems to be treating them just fine. Legions of English fans tonight got cooked to a crisp in the unusual summer heat in Dontesk– and loved every minute of it.