While the knockout stages typically provide the most tension in a tournament, the final round of group-stage matches packs its own brand of drama. The various permutations as to who can progress can range from simple to requiring a Ph. D. in formal methodology, and with games taking place simultaneously, emotions can run the gamut.
When it comes to the Group A finale involving Poland the Czech Republic, the co-host nation will be desperate to gain the win that will see its advancement, and the intensity should be crackling when the two sides face off in Wroclaw.
What’s on the line?
Nothing short of advancement to the knockout stages is at stake, and both teams essentially control their own destiny. For Poland, only victory will do. Otherwise, the Poles will join the ignominious list of host countries that have failed to survive the group stage.
“We simply have this message in our heads,” said Poland midfielder Eugen Polanski. “We have to win. From the very first minute we have to kick their asses. Sorry for this expression, but this is how it works. And I think if we show this, as we played with Russia, we will have no problems.”
The scenario is a tad more complicated for the Czechs. Like Poland, they’ll advance with a win, but if they tie, they run the risk of being caught by the Greeks if they defeat Russia. That would result in a three-way tie for the top spot in the group, with the Czechs likely eliminated on goal differential in games involving the top three teams. But if form holds and Russia prevails, a draw will be good enough for the Czechs. Not that the team is thinking that way. Not that the team is thinking that way.
“We cannot start the match thinking that a draw is enough,” said Czech captain Tomas Rosicky. “We have to go into the match with victory in mind. Otherwise there will be lots of worries and concerns. We don’t want to just go in and defend a draw.”
Style and tactics
After getting overrun in transition during their first group match against Russia, the Czechs have stabilized themselves with a 4-2-3-1 formation that features Tomas Hubschman sitting deep. At his side is Jaroslav Plasil, who has more freedom to get forward. Both outside backs, Theodor Gebre Selassie and David Limbersky, look to join the attack, especially Selassie on the right side. Rosicky remains the attacking hub in midfield, with his mobility helping the Czech offense operate at a high tempo.
Poland operated out of a 4-1-4-1 during its draw against Russia in a bid to stifle its opponent in transition, with Dariusz Dudka sitting in front of the back four. But the Czech game could see Poland revert to the 4-2-3-1 it used against Greece. Much will depend on the availability of Polanski and Dudka, who are nursing knee and stomach injuries, respectively.
Regardless, Poland tends to emphasize the right side in attack through fullback Lukasz Piszczek and midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski.
“In the most difficult match against Russia, Poland showed their qualities,” said Czech manager Michal Bilek. “They are very good players, [with] very good clubs. They are on one of the best that I’ve seen in these matches. Blaszczykowski and [Robert] Lewandowski are extra class. They have other great players, and we will have to pay attention.”
Players to watch
For Poland: Lukasz Piszczek, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski
The Borussia Dortmund trio remains critical to Poland’s success. Piszczek’s ability to get forward and combine with Blaszczykowski is a huge part of the co-hosts’ attack, but the defender will need to remain wary of Czech left midfielder Vaclav Pilar, who has two goals in the tournament. Blaszczykowski’s impact has been huge in the tournament. He has been involved in both Polish goals, and his leadership will be needed to keep his team calm in what is sure to be an emotionally wrought encounter. Lewandowski has done a lot of unselfish work up top for Poland, but his goal-scoring touch is what will be needed to help his side progress.
For the Czech Republic: Petr Cech, Tomas Hubschman, Tomas Rosicky
Cech is rightly lauded as being one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but there is something about the Euros that brings out the worst in him. He made some critical errors at Euro 2008, and he was at it again in his most recent game against Greece, where his fumble of an innocuous-looking cross led to Fanis Gekas’ goal. Cech has been dealing with a shoulder injury, but Bilek indicated he expects him to play. Hubschman’s insertion at halftime of the Russia game brought much more defensive stability to the Czech midfield, and he has been tidy on the ball. The Czechs are holding their breath over the status of Rosicky, who is battling an Achilles injury. If he can’t go, that would amount to a huge blow, as replacement Daniel Kolar did not look sharp against Greece.
“It’s good enough if I miss today’s training and train only tomorrow because I have enough experience to do that,” Rosicky said. “The injury is getting better by itself, so we will see about any treatments, but there is still time.”
What we can expect?
There are lots of questions for Poland manager Franciszek Smuda. Does goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who was suspended for the second match, regain his place over the solid and occasionally brilliant Przemyslaw Tyton? What does he do with his midfield? And will the outburst from Ludovic Obraniak at the end of the Russia game cause him to lose his place?
Tough decisions all, but with a victory needed, look for Poland to try and take the initiative, albeit without taking crazy risks. If Rosicky is available, the Czechs will do what they can to control the tempo and take the crowd out of the game. Without him, look for a pure defend-and-counter strategy, as a draw will likely be enough.
Here is where the backing of the home crowd should push Poland over the group-stage finish line. The hosts showed plenty of character in coming back to tie Russia and now have a much more positive mindset than they did following the tournament-opening draw against Greece. This advantage can cut both ways, however, and the Czechs will hope to turn the expectations of the home crowd into a negative.
Smuda insists that his side has a handle on its emotions.
“Definitely, our team does not feel this high pressure,” he said. “Still, the pressure exists, but it’s not as high as before the Greece game.”
With Rosicky hobbled at best and unavailable at worst, this is Poland’s game to win. Look for the hosts to pull it out 2-1.