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Jun 16, 2012

Greece shows spirit of 2004

WARSAW -- Come on then, let’s have a show of hands. Who predicted the Czech Republic would top Group A and that the Greeks would follow them through to the quarterfinals? If you did so, then you, sir, or indeed madam, are a better man or woman than us.

In the center of Warsaw, fans had been queuing for the fan zone since 10 a.m., but the city’s secondary attraction supplied what has made Euro 2012 so fascinating. The Greeks embody the tournament’s spirit of surprise. Group A may have been considered to be a backwater of unfancied no-hopers, but it entertained right until the end. The placing of head-to-head as the deciding factor in qualification (instead of goal difference) has kept almost every team interested until the last round of matches.

For one night only, Wroclaw would be de facto capital of Poland. Warsaw's National Stadium certainly had a distracted air about it. Though the Russians were plentiful in the stadium, they could never match the fervor that the co-hosts brought to a magnificent arena. As Poland's anxiety quotient hit fresh new levels --- and it had been hugely high in both its opening two matches -- phones were repeatedly checked, radios were plugged into ears and fevered minds imagined the unseen. The home support went deathly quiet in the light of news of Czech dominance and Petr Jiracek’s goal.

And suddenly for Russia, events elsewhere were also determining its destiny. As the Czech Republic ended the Polish dream, it did just the same to the Russians. The Red Machine has come to a juddering halt, while the Greeks head to Gdansk for a quarterfinal. This seemed unthinkable in this tournament's opening minutes, as the Greeks were torn apart by the Poles. Similarly, the Czechs looked hopeless as they were thrashed by the Russians.

Before the final round, only Ireland and Sweden had perished, and we were left with that odd equation in Group B where the Netherlands are not yet out, and Germany may still not qualify. The permutations have fans and journalists counting on their hands, unable to work out which teams go through and which ones will go home. It all adds up to great fun.

The weather has been just as unpredictable as the tournament. There was rain in Wroclaw, but bright sunshine in Warsaw, on a beautifully bright summer's day. Most inside the ground would probably have preferred that the four big screens suspended above the pitch show footage from Lower Silesia rather than a delay of what was taking place on the turf below it. They would have to settle for brief halftime highlights. Images of a team clutching at chances and Petr Cech making saves did little to settle nerves. Yet it was not just the home supporters who affected an air of distraction.

It is often said that Russians do not travel well, and their journey is now at an end.  Russia's task had been about getting the job done – winning Group A so it could resume residency in Warsaw's Old Town,  Stare Miastro --  where its team bus has been conspicuous since before Euro 2012 began. But that was making too many assumptions. Russia’s exit resulted from plenty of chances being created, but too often missed. It played at a much too leisurely pace, seemingly unable to switch into a higher gear even though all was still in its hands. This Russian version of tiki taka is too deliberate and circumspect, and its own desire for the perfect goal cannot be achieved given the team’s current players.

When Aleksandr Kerzhakov is playing for Russia, perfection will always have to wait. As admirable as he might be in providing a focus for raiders from midfield, he is just too poor a finisher. Manager Dick Advocaat clearly shares that view, hooking at halftime his errant striker for Roman Pavlyuchenko, who was then equally as frustrating. 

It had all looked so easy in the first half. A couple of breaks from Yuri Zhirkov showed off a marauding full-back unrecognizable from his Chelsea days, and just like the player who had clubs drooling at his possibilities during Euro 2008, Andrei Arshavin was back to being the playmaker who inspired Zenit St Petersburg to the UEFA Cup in the same year. He had looked far more comfortable in this red shirt. The answer to his problems at his current club, Arsenal, may well have been that the Gunners played the game far too quickly for his liking.

But then we were sharply reminded of the ineffectual Arshavin as his prompting and probing disappeared from view. Russia had mirrored its captain's casual demeanor and allowed Giorgos Karagounis to sneak onto a poorly defended throw-in and score with the last kick of the second half. The Greece captain made amends for his penalty miss in the opener and turned Group A upside down.

Now, it is not just Euro 2004 where Greece has shocked a continent's assumed hierarchy. That it is accompanied by the Czechs into the last eight confirmed Group A as the place where  where the unexpected was delivered. Let’s hope for more of the same from this tournament.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Giorgos Karagounis

He does not look as if he should be as good as he is, but in reality he is a playmaker of genuine class, and a fine leader too. He was unlucky to be booked when Sergei Ignashevich brought him down, and he will be missed in Gdansk where he could have broken the Greek record for number of appearances.

GREECE VERDICT: For once, the defensive approach worked, though that was not totally down to the Greeks. They were pinned back for long periods but also enjoyed their own moments of threat. Such a quixotic nature makes them a danger for anyone.

RUSSIA VERDICT:  Too casual, too profligate, too lacking in the ability to change up its game as the Greeks and Czechs took their future participation away from them. An angry Dick Advocaat departs for PSV having failed once again to be as good a coach as Guus Hiddink.   

 

 

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