Euro 2012 | Quarterfinal 1: Portugal 1-0 Czech Republic

Portugal 1-0 Czech Republic

Dominant.

11 corners for Portugal v 6 for Czech Republic
56% of possession for Portugal
Portugal 20 shots, 5 on goal v Czechs with 2 shots, 0 on goal

Portugal came out onto the pitch and absolutely owned Czech Republic, controlling the match from the first moments. And for all the credit due Cristiano Ronaldo for being a constant source of danger in the attack, there was one player who popped off the screen watching this game: Portugal’s midfield engine João Moutinho. As easy as it is to be drawn to the tricks and speed of Nani and Ronaldo on the wings, skimming past defenders, winning free kicks and corners, to my eyes, it was Moutinho who stole the show, not only assisting on the match winning goal, but (almost) more importantly taking the Czech midfield completely out of the match. His positional flexibility dragged the opposition all over the field and then he got the winner onto Ronaldo’s head…

That is some run onto the throw-in, one touch past the defender and a wicked cross that Ronaldo sprints toward and hammers into the ground and in. That’s how you do it. It’s not like Ronaldo was struggling; he put a wicked shot on frame that hammered off the post to end the first half. But having Moutinho in the team, allowing him to gather the ball deep, means that Nani, Postiga (now injured) and Ronaldo are able to sprint up and down the pitch putting pressure on defenses. Moutinho’s play has been a huge boon to Portugal; when you combine it with dangerous supporting runs from Pereira and Coentrão and outstanding defensive leadership from Pepe, it all seems to be coming together at the right time for Portugal. They look better with every game.


Fosse!

Except.

Portugal might be worried: Raul Meireles is not a ball winner and if Portugal are to win this championship, they are going to need to be more disruptive on defense, especially up the middle of the park. If there is one thing Nani and Ronaldo don’t care to do, it is get back and play solid defense. That is going to be okay in a Czech midfield that features Jiracek and Darida, but against Xavi/Busquets/Alonso/Iniesta? Not going to fly. Spain have been beaten on the counter before (see Italy), and it is not impossible that Ronaldo, Pepe and Coentrão, who see the Spanish players all of the time, will be able to lock them down with the great runs and fluent defense they use under their club manager José Mourinho at Real Madrid, but I’m getting ahead of myself*. Portugal have a lot to be proud of, but they also need to address how they will handle their next opponent.

For the Czechs? Petr Cech had a great match to keep them in it. Otherwise? They were overmatched and they knew it.

“It’s just that Ronaldo is better. He can play with his head, with both feet,” Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek said. “That decided the match. In the second half, we lost our strength and determination and they had one chance that decided the match.”

Have to agree with that. It’s on to the semi-finals for Portugal. Didn’t see it coming, but they look very good now. If Ronaldo can keep it going, look out world.

*Spain haven’t even beat the French yet!

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Euro 2012 | Match Day 9

Knockout time, and who expected this? Russia, the Group leaders who pounded the Czech Republic 4-1 on opening day? Out. Poland, the hosts, looking bright in their 1-1 draw against frontrunners Russia? Do widzenia. Group A turned my expectations upside down.

Poland v Czech Republic

Sorry, but when you can’t play through the middle of the park and your attack is as one sided and one dimensional as Poland’s, you have to expect trouble. And when the Czechs counter attacked right up the middle of the park in the 72nd minute as Poland went looking for a winner, Petr Jiracek stepped up and put the team on top of Group A. For good.


Group winner.

It was a deserved victory for a team that had been battered 4-1 on the opening day of the tournament, a team holding out hope that they could sneak into the knockout stages in second place. Poland, on the other hand, needed a win and played with increasing desperation, which only made them more predictable and open to the counter attack. Still, they had the chance to grab a draw and knock the Czechs out of the tournament in the dying moments which Michael Kadlec made an incredible clearance off the line to preserve the victory.




All hustle.

It was a strange tournament for Poland, who battled hard and played attractive football but who simply could not diversify their attack enough to unleash Lewandowski on opposing defenses. At Borussia Dortmund, Lewandowski received attacking support all over the pitch; Kagawa, Blaszczykowski, Göetze, etc. For Poland, he was completely isolated up top with Blaszczykowski and Piscek combining on the right to provide the main support. With Polanski and others finding no joy in the attack, the Euros ended early for Poland, who leave without a win as hosts. A shame.

Still, you have to look at the Czechs and marvel at their heart, coming back from massive disappointment to win the group. It gets much more difficult from here (more on that in my next post), but their defense has become more and more solid as the tournament has worn on, so you never know. No really, you NEVER KNOW. Just look at…

Greece v Russia

What. The. Fuck?


Shock the world.

Yes, Greece, who were bottom of the group heading into the final day of Group A, beat high-flying Russia 1-0 on a smash-and-grab goal in the dying moments of the first half to ruin my fantasy team win the match and advance into the knockout stages based on the first tie-breaker in the Euro Groups; head-to-head. Even though Greece had a 0 goal differential and Russia were +2 and both had 4 point sin the Group, Greece beat Russia, so on they go. Greece did a brilliant job in this match of watching Russia blow their chances playing group defense, echoing their incredible Euro 2004 win with full commitment to playing shut down, counter-attacking football. Well done to the Greeks, who continue to surprise as the world (myself included) continues to underestimate their football. The real shame is that captain Giorgos Karagounis was tripped in the box and picked up a yellow for “diving” instead of earning a legit penalty (UEFA should look at the tape and rescind the card), and now misses the quarterfinal. He was not happy.


No justice.

Meanwhile, Russia. What can you say? Theirs was a tournament cut in half; the first 135 minutes, when they scored five goals and conceded one, and the second 135 minutes, when Andrei Arshavin ran out of gas, Yuri Zhirkov forgot how to cross the ball, Roman Pavyluchenko and Aleksandr Kerzhakov couldn’t score in a brothel, and Russia ran out of ideas, conceding two goals and scoring NONE. If anyone would have told me heading into the Poland and Greece matches that Russia would score one goal and concede two in their final two games, I would have laughed in their face. And yet, out they go, the second biggest disappointment in the tournament.

What a huge opportunity lost, not just for the team and their supporters, but for the rest of us, who were really enjoying Russia’s positive approach to the game. But they, like so many other teams, suffered from fatigue and a lack of a plan when plan number one (in this case, Andrei Arshavin) didn’t work out. For all of their positivity, Russia were too dependent on Kerzhakov and Arshavin to create when, in fact, both players seemed to fade into poor form as the tournament wore on. Tapping the ball around outside of the box as the other team throws ten men behind the ball is not going to win matches; you have to invite them onto you a little bit, have some steel in the middle of the park and get some sort of advantage heading toward goal. The extreme example of this idea is Greece, who retreated so deep that Russia couldn’t help but come forward, only to exploit a opening on the counter for the win. Russia could not find the right mix, and when the Greeks and Poles camped out in their own ends and sucker punched them on the counter, they had no answer, no way to find a telling ball. It almost happened for Russia, when Arshavin looped a telling cross onto the head of the excellent Alan Dzagoev, but the youngster pushed the ball inches wide of the Greek post.

After that, a quick ball and a smart run, the clock ran down and Russia were gone. Shame, but it is the price you pay for tactical monotony. Should have known better. до свидания


Thrill of, agony of, etc.

Euro 2012 | Match Day 1

As they say in Brooklyn, not for nothing*, but this blog made a couple of rather tame predictions prior to Group A getting underway; one was that Robert Lewandowski and his Borussia Dortmund teammates would be the driving force for Poland and another was that Russia were the team to beat in the Group and that Aleksandr Kerzhakov was truly the player to watch in Group A. As far as I am concerned, both predictions came true, but not in the way I expected.

Poland vs Greece

A story of two halves, each alike in insanity, divided against themselves. Ha.

Poland came out flying, Greece looking like the underachievers I had expected them to be. The right hand flank of Greece’s defense was battered by the overlapping runs of Lukasz Piszczek and Kuba Blaszczykowski, who pwned the right wing and battered the Greeks with crosses and runs for most of the first half. It all came good when Blaszczykowski whipped in a cross for Lewandowski, unmarked on the far post, to hammer down into the ground, and bounce into the net. 1-0 to Poland and they were flying.


Keep Your Head Down and Keep Reaching For The Stars: Lewandowski Scores

Soon, Spainsh referee Carlos Velasco Carballo decided to try and ruin the game by handing out consecutive yellow cards to Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos on two calls that were not only never yellow cards, but likely were not even fouls. Off he went on a red card, the Greeks reduced to 10 men. A note here about the refs; I am going to do my best not to complain too much, but these men are under too much scrutiny from UEFA. They need to let the refs manage the game and not set down such rigid guidelines. Watching the loathsome Manchester United 12th man English ref Howard Webb do a great job in the Russia v Czech Republic, it is clearly impossible to set a single standard. So, Spanish refs and others like them, lighten up. The game is not about you.

Poland went on to miss several chances, with defender Damien Perquis missing a couple of sitters from close range. But Poland left the pitch at halftime looking good; up a man and a goal at home. Game over.

Hellas has no fury like a team scorned; down to 10 men, the Greek team galvanized into a far more cohesive unit escially after Carballo turned down a penalty shout for handball in the Polish box. After the half, Greek manager Fernando Santos took the team by the neck and turned the entire game with a couple of brilliant tactical choices for which Poland could not find an answer. The first was bringing on the talismanic Dimitris Salpingidis for an underachieving Sotiris Ninis. Salpingidis paid almost immediate dividends in turning the tide of the game.

How many Poles does it take to blow a one man, one goal advantage at home? One. Wojciech Szczesny.

When Vassilis Torossidis swung a ball into the Polish box, the Arsenal keeper Szczesny dove into the feet of his own defender (who had the cross covered) spilling the ball free and to the onrushing Salpingidis, who buried the ball in the net to make it 1-1.

Santos’ other great move was to push his defensive resources to the left, pinching his midfield into cutting off the supply line of Piszczek and Blaszczykowski, and forcing Poland into playing the ball through the middle, where the Greeks mopped up.

When Salpingidis made a brilliant run onto a looping ball into an empty Polish penalty area, Sczcesny ran onto him and stuck a leg in, tripping the Greek attacker, giving away a penlty and earning himself a red card.


Stop Tripppin’: Salpingidis wins the Greeks a penalty

It was the Poles worst nightmare, their goal and man advantage suddenly gone, back up keeper Przemyslaw Tyton brought on to defend the penalty. No keeper in Euro history had ever come on and saved a penalty before, but Tyton dove to his left and pushed away Karagounis’s effort, preserving the draw and adding incredible drama to the opening match. In the end, 1-1 was, shockingly, harsh to the Greeks, who showed an iron will and a real tactical nous in their ability to adapt to this match; they played better with 10 men than with 11. Their upcoming game against the Czech Republic is going to have a major impact on Poland’s chances; they have to hope the Czechs can earn a draw now.

Russia vs Czech Republic

Let’s get the match report out of the way quickly:

a) Russia absolutely battered the Czechs 4-1
b) Alan Dzagoev is a star in the making after two clincial finishes against Chelsea keeper Petr Cech
c) Roman Pavyluchenko scored a goal and set one up in about 8 minutes of time on the pitch
d) Andrei Arshavin was boss, playing fluid, attacking football the likes of which you rarely ever saw him play at Arsenal (his 4 goal performance against my Liverpool side being a rare exception)


Highlights… in Russian. To the winner, the spoils!

But the big debate coming out of the Russian camp will be about the play of Alexsandr Kerzhakov, the striker I targeted as theplayer to watch in this Group. To the naked, uniformed eye, Kerzhakov was an absolute waster, missing chance after chance in front of the goal; only his header off the post, which bounced to Dzagoev for his opening goal, could be seen as bad luck. Everything else in front of goal? Shocking. With Pavyluchenko coming on and bagging a goal and an assist in under ten minutes, surely he must be the choice for Russia, right?


Oops. Missed Again: Kerzhakov Can’t Score

No way.

Kerzhakov was outstanding in linking up play, coming deep and picking up the ball, holding it up and bringing the Russian attack together. His lack of a scoring touch doesn’t erase his qualities in leading the attack and serving as the glue for his entire team. If he had buried his chances, Kerzhakov would have had one of the all-time great matches in Euro history. Instead, his lack of scoring has some supporters calling for Pavyluchenko to get the start against Poland in the next match. Thankfully, Dick Advocaat knows what he has; look for Kerzhakov to shine again on Tuesday.

*I have lived here for 15 years and still have no idea what it means…

Euro 2012 | Preview: Group A

Euro 2012: GROUP A PREVIEW

Every international football tournament has its so-called GROUP OF DEATH, a gathering of four teams so alike in stature and potential that any one of them might go on to win the group or miss qualification for the knock out stages. These groups usually feature perennial powerhouses, each a favorite, each impossible to look beyond. The GROUP OF DEATH means thrills, uncertainty, triumph and heartbreak. You can’t look away, each match having the potential to be a classic.

At this year’s Euro 2012, Group A is not that group. On paper.

Instead, Group A features four teams of relatively equal quality but none of whom seem prepared to light it up. In fact, if anything, each of the teams, save one (Russia), are generally unsung, and none are tipped heavily to win it all. If you didn’t know any better, you might call Group A the GROUP OF MEH; looking up and down the group, looking at the player names and team expectations, you have all of the makings of a competitive group with none of the big time fireworks on the pitch.

It should be a different story in the stands, however. If you take geopolitical history into account, and it is hard not to with a tournament like Euros, you can expect the supporters to have another opinion altogether. Russia vs Poland? Russia vs Czech Republic? Russia vs Greece? Czech Republic vs Poland? Hello! Could you have drawn a group with more history? Add Poland’s hosting of the tournament (the atmosphere should be absolutely teeming with hostility during their matches) and suddenly, Group A becomes a must-see, even if the teams are not favorites.

That said, these are the Euros, the one tournament where underdogs have shown they can win it all. Think of Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004, teams that came from nowhere to put together a month of miracles and take home the most competitive trophy in international football*.

The Teams

Czech Republic

For me, Czech Republic are simply a high quality team without a focal point. Always organized and featuring recent Champions League Final hero Petr Cech in goal, the Czechs will always field a competitive team. But as the older generation of players (striker Milan Baroš, midfielders Jaroslav Plašil and Tomáš Rosický all in their 30’s) starts to make way, there is a sense that the side are missing a cutting edge creator. They will be bolstered by Rosický’s return to full fitness and left back Michal Kadlec is a star in the making**, but after squeaking their way into the Euros through a playoff with Montenegro, the Czechs are a team walking the line between surprise and disappointment. This Group helps them, no question; they will be looking at each match as one in which they can compete, but they are a longshot for me to make it out of the Group stage.


Envying goalie Petr Cech’s helmet, Czech defender Michal Kadlek gets fitted for a protective mask ahead of the Euro 2012

Greece

Greece won the 2004 Euros… let me type that again, because I still can’t believe it. Greece won the 2004 Euros with a style dependent on tough, organized defense and set piece driven, counter attacking football. They are the football equivalent of the rope-a-dope fighter, absorbing blow after blow, before delivering a knockout punch of their own. They are not pretty. They are not fun to watch (especially, I assume, if you are a Greek supporter), yet somehow, some way, they seem to grind out results. They won their qualifying Group with a series of gutsy performances, the most important of which was a 2-0 win over rival Croatia that featured fans throwing molotov cocktails, smoke bombs and flares at one another. Fun times. Their recent 1-0 win in a friendly against Armenia saw them miss two penalties; even when it should be easy, it’s not. Defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos has scored 3 goals in eight matches, with stalwarts Fanis Gekas, Giorgos Karagounis and Giorgos Samaras typically inconsistent in recent months. Expect grinding football. Rise and repeat.


Greek and Croatian supporters clash during Euro 2012 Qualifying

Poland

The hosts. Never discount the hosts. The hosts always do well, generally qualify for the knock out stages and, since every one of their matches is literally a home match, with swirling crowds and pure intimidation, they stand a better chance than most of qualifying from the Group. And yet… even without the automatic bid as hosts, Poland are a serious threat in the group. Most importantly, they feature of a trio of players who have worked wonders together at the club level; Robert Lewandowski, Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek all play together for German woinder club Borussia Dortmund, the back-to-back Bundesliga Champions and they, like their club, are having the time of their lives on the pitch. Lewandowski is on fire, scoring 22 for his club and banging them in for his country as well, with Blaszczykowski a constant threat in the midfield and Piszczek leading the defense. If the rest of the team can play at the level of Lewandowski and company, this seems to me to be Poland’s best chance to make a dent at the Euros in a long, long time and, with the support of the nation behind them, they have a real chance.


Lewandowski is on fire, but the soundtrack is not.

Russia

Russia are, for me, one of the dark horse teams of the tournament. They come into Euro 2012 looking sharp; having pounded Italy 3-0 in recent days and featuring a group of in-form players who are clicking under Dutch manager Dick Advocaat, Russia is certainly poised for a breakout. It may not be a surprise, since they were semi-finalists in Euro 2008, but there is something about them right now that has me thinking big. Still, if anything, the team are once again missing a dominant #10 as the disappointing Andrey Arshavin, whose performances at Arsenal have been lacking when they’ve happened at all, can often go missing; he scored no goals and only had two assists in qualifying. Still, football remains a team game and Advocaat has Russia ticking right now; if they can sustain their performance against Italy into the tournament, look for them to make some waves.


Russian manager Dick Advocaat. Clinical.

Must See Match
For me, it must be Russia vs Poland on Tuesday, June 12th. This match has all the making of a barnstormer, with lots of attacking play and plenty of historic vitriol to fuel the passions of supporters. It is, of all the games in the Group, the one match where I expect sparks to fly.

Players To Watch
Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is everything you want in an in-form striker; he has been scoring goals in bundles and with the chemistry he shares with his club mate “Kuba” Blaszczykowski, I am expecting him to lead the Group in goals. The other contender is Russian striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov who has followed a simple plan in the run-up to the Euros; when he’s on the pitch, he scores goals and sets them up. Simple as. The Zenit striker was not invited to Euro 2008, so my guess is that he is poised to do some damage this time around.


No shirt, but service: Russia’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov

Group Prediction
I like Russia to win the Group with Poland to qualify on a final day must-win against the Czechs.

*Sorry World Cup, but 32 teams makes for a diluted field. Team for team, group for group, the Euros are a tighter, tougher tournament.

** Kadlec likes to party; rival fans broke his nose in a nightclub last month. No, really.