Story by Aaron Bliss
Greece 1-0 Russia
An incredible night in Warsaw saw the Group A table turned upside down, as those unlikely 2004 champions Greece once again upset the odds to progress at the expense of Poland, whilst Russia inconceivably went home following the Czech Republic’s victory. This tightest of groups went into the final round of games with the teams on 1, 2, 3 and 4 points, thus each team could still progress or be eliminated. The teams in pole position (if you forgive the pun) at the start of play were the Czechs and Russia, though the teams who had displayed the finest attributes during the group had been Russia and Poland. As Poland were playing the Czechs, most of the smart money was going on the hosts, as the Czechs had so far been demolished by Russia, and had a very fortunate victory against Greece, whilst Poland had the Bundesliga Champions’ star trio to bolster their chances. Greece were seen as the no-hopers once more, by virtue of the fact they had hitherto displayed little ambition beyond not conceding. Even hitting teams on the break proved mostly beyond them, as it would with any team relying on Giorgos Samaras. Russia meanwhile had the guile and finesse of Andrei Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov and find of the tournament Alan Dzagoev, as well as the finishing prowess of Roman Pavlyuchenko and Pavel Pogrebnyak to call on. Having said this, Dick Advocaat bafflingly persisted with Aleksandr Kerzhakov, despite the striker finishing the tournament with a quite staggering FOURTEEN shots, all of them off-target, while Pavlyuchenko had scored and assisted after coming on against the Czechs. To be fair to Kerzhakov, he did strike a beauty that narrowly missed the angle of post and bar early on, while Arshavin’s close-range poke was batted away by Michalis Sifakis. That said, Greecedefied their critics to press early on, and won a succession of early corners. The Greeks may be painful to watch at times, but they just do not have the players to play any other way. They needed a hero to stand strong and take the fight to the Russians, and that hero was the familiar Euro 2004 veteran Giorgos Karagounis, winning his 120th cap, who seized upon a ridiculous attempt at a clearing header by Ignashevich to advance into the box and belt the ball low across Malafeev for a priceless goal. There was no Russian siege in second half, withGreece bucking their own trend and attacking brilliantly. Karagounis was rightly aggrieved when his weaving run was abruptly terminated inside the box by a dangling leg, yet he was booked for simulation, ruling him out of the next match. Giorgos Tzavelas then rattled the angle with a rifle crack of a free-kick, before Denisov twice came close forRussia, and Dzagoev nodded an Arshavin cross agonisingly wide. Last Euros, Russia were thrashed 4-1 in their first game against Spain, before lighting up the tournament and only being stopped in the semi-finals, once again by the eventual winners. This time they began with a 4-1 victory, only to get progressively worse, and head home remembered most for the behaviour of a minority of their fans, whilst the indefatigable Greeks are dreaming of history repeating itself. And who would deprive a nation on their knees a little relief through sport?
Poland 0-1 Czech Republic
The host nation was left aghast, as they could not make history and win a match at a European Championships. Not even their own. Despite a glorious early chance spurned by Pilar for the Czechs, the match seemed to be boiling up nicely for the Poles, particularly when star striker Lewandowski rounded a defender brilliantly, only to slice horribly as he bore down on Cech’s goal. All of the most incisive first-half moves were created by Poland, yet they remained goalless. The impetus changed in the second half, with Tyton forced into an instinctive point-blank save from Sivok’s header, before Rafal Murawski surrendered possession fatally, leaving Poland exposed to the counter. As Hubschman advanced he fed Baros, who squared to the rampaging Jiracek, taking a deft turn inside with his left foot, before opening up and sliding the ball past Tyton expertly with his right foot in the same movement, leaving a stricken Murawski on the deck, contemplating what he had done. There was still time for a late siege, and the Poles in the crowd collectively gasped in the final knockings of the game, as Jakub Blaszczykowski lifted the ball over the goalkeeper, only for it to hang up and allow Kadlec to nod it off the line. Besides the devestation of the home fans, the Czech’s dramatic victory also knocked out the team that had thrashed them in the opening match. What a strange game it is.