Going into Euro 2012, Group A was easily the least discussed and least anticipated group of the tournament. No one expected much of the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland, and though everyone expected Russia to finish first, no one really had them going far in the tournament.
Fast-forward two games, and it seems that fans were right not to expect much from Group A. Play between the four teams in the group has not been lacking in action—in fact, Group A was the group with the most goals scored in round one of the competition—but only Russia has shown clear signs that they possess enough talent to cut it in the knockout rounds.
Before we write everyone but Russia off though, let’s look at what we’ve seen from each team and use that to predict how far they can go in the tournament. Even though Russia remains the clear favorite to top the group and progress the farthest out of Group A, Poland, the Czech Republic and even Greece have defied expectations at various moments in their first two games of Euro 2012.
Photo credit:: Zastavki.com
We’ll start with the Euro 2012 co-hosts. Going into the tournament, expectations were mixed for Poland. Some had the co-hosts ranked dead-last in their power rankings for the tournament, partially due to the fact that they hadn’t played a competitive match in almost two years prior to the tournament.
However, some did believe the co-hosts could exceed expectations, since they’d be playing all of their games at home, and would be able to call upon the services of Borussia Dortmund stars Jakub Blaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszczek, Robert Lewandowski.
So far, Poland have been okay; not good but not bad, still stuck somewhere in the middle. With two points from their first two games, their job for their final game against the Czech Republic is very clear: win and go on, lose and go home.
Poland’s biggest problem has been the one-dimensional nature of their offense. Poland’s players on both flanks are actually not bad; Ludovic Obraniak and Sebastian Boenisch are respectable players. But because Blaszczykowski and Piszczek are so much better in quality than Obraniak and Boenisch, or any of Poland’s central players for that matter, Poland have a tendancy to rely heavily on them for offense, and when that fails, Poland’s offense often stagnates.
It certainly doesn’t help that Poland’s back-up plan is to throw the ball up to Lewandowski and hope that he can create something. Lewandowski’s a terrific player, but if he’s made the only target of the team’s offense, he and the team won’t succeed, which is what we saw for large spells against Russia.
I think Poland will be able to muster enough to beat the Czech Republic in the final game of the group. From there though, I think the team will be emphatically beaten by the winner of Group B.
Prediction: 2nd place in Group A, Quarterfinals exit.
For both of Greece’s group games, it’s been a case of too little too late. Against Poland, Greece were unjustly punished when Sokratis Papastathopoulos was sent off for two weak yellow cards in the first half. However, their fightback in the second half, which saw them draw level through a goal from substitute Dimitris Salpigidis, had fans excited to see what the Greeks could do at full strength.
Their full strength was rather disappointing though. Against a Czech Republic team low on confidence and just recently battered 4-1 by Russia, Greece conceded two very early goals in the third and sixth minutes, becoming the first team in Euro history to concede twice before the 15 minute mark.
Greece came back in the game, regained control, and even scored through Theofanis Gekas, but they could not find an equalizer. It was a similar story to their first game; after a weak first half, Greece pushed hard and controlled the second half, but couldn’t get the goal or goals needed to win.
Now Greece head into their final game, vs group favorites Russia, with only the slimmest hope of making the knockout rounds. They need to beat Russia, and hope Poland beats the Czech Republic. It’s possible, but it’s not a scenario I’d expect at all given what I’ve seen from the Greeks and Russians in this tournament.
Prediction: 4th Place in Group A.
In early May, I was asked to do a comprehensive preview piece on the Czech Republic and what to expect from them in Euro 2012. When it came time to predict where they would finish, I was stumped for quite a while. There were so many different factors to consider in mapping out the Czech Republic’s success in the tournament, that it seemed any prediction I made was doomed for failure.
As expected, Milan Baros has started two games for the Czech Republic, and failed to produce a single goal or assist to aid the Czech cause. The players who’ve subbed in for his, David Lafata and Thomas Pekhart, have been similarly ineffective.
In their stead, the Czech Republic’s wingers have somewhat unexpectedly stepped up. Against Russia, Vaclav Pilar scored a consolation goal for the Czechs, and against Greece he scored the winning goal. He new Wolfsburg teammate, Petr Jiracek, has similarly impressed, opening the scoring against the Greeks in his first start of the tournament.
The play-making of Jaroslav Plasil and Thomas Hubschman should not be disregarded either. Both defensive midfielders have now unlocked their opponents’ defenses from deep, and have been positive presences in midfield for the Czechs.
In the end though, the Czech Republic’s big, experienced guns, Thomas Rosicky and Milan Baros, have failed to perform, and without them, the Czechs have little hope of qualifying from this group. They may sit in second place right now, but it’s unlikely they’ll catch the Poles off-guard the way they did the Greeks. I predicted they’d finish third back in May, and from what I’ve seen, I’m standing by that prediction.
Prediction: 3rd Place in Group A.
Since I have not yet predicted a team to finish first, you can logically deduce that I have Russia finishing top of their group. Of course, you could deduce that from reading the first paragraph of this article too. This prediction will be much less about Russia’s standing within their group, and much more about how far the team can go.
After opening the tournament with one of the most promising displays of any of the teams in the competition, Russia brought expectations back to earth with a rather dour, subdued performance vs Poland. Truth by told, Poland looked in control for big spells of their match with Russia, and their equalizing goal, though somewhat unexpected and rather brilliant, was fair on the balance of play.
Looking at Russia on paper, their team checks many of the boxes you need to check for a team that wants to go far in a competition like this. They have three strikers who are great on their day; the fact that Pavel Pogrebnyak can’t even get off the bench is a testament to their depth up front. Of course, Russia’s reliance on Kerzakhov hasn’t exactly paid off, but we’ll see if Advocaat decides to switch to Roman Pavlyuchenko in Russia’s final match of the tournament.
The team has a solid midfield; Igor Denisov is a good defensive midfielder, Roman Shirkov has already demonstrated his goal-scoring ability, and Konstantin Zyryanov, though aging and probably playing in the final international tournament of his career, is still a good passer of the ball. He’s not quite the elite play-maker he was a few years ago, but he gets the job done.
The team also has one of the better defenses of the competition. Yuri Zhirkov and Aleksandr Anyukov are in contention for the two best full-backs playing for any country in the competition, and in the center Aleksey Berezutski and Sergey Ignasevich are solid, dependable centre-backs. They won’t do anything amazing or consistently threaten from corners, but they’ll stand tall on defense and handle most threats comfortably.
Finally, in Alan Dzagoev and Andrei Arshavin, Russia have two creative danger-men; one an up-and-coming star, the other now an experienced veteran. Dzagoev has already grabbed all the headlines with his three goals so far in the tournament, and Arshavin’s three assists have him leading the tournament in his own category as well.
Of course, Russia’s opposition has not been the best, and even if they finish top of their group, they’ll have to face the runner-up of the Group of Death, who will likely be just as good if not better than Russia talent-wise.
In tournaments like these though, momentum and good organization counts for a lot, and I can see Russia making it into the semifinals of Euro 2012. From there though, they’ll likely have to face the winner of Group C, and that may be a bridge too far for the Russians.
Prediction: 1st Place in Group A, Semifinals exit.
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