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Jun 16, 2012

Russia suffer Greek tragedy

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

In the centre of Warsaw, fans had been queuing for the "Fanzone" since 10am, 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 has caused plenty of scratching of heads but it has kept almost every team interested until the last round of matches.

For one night only, Wroclaw would be the 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 fervour that the hosts brought to a magnificent arena. As Poland's anxiety levels hit fresh new levels - and they had been hugely high in both their 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 their destiny. As Czech Republic ended the Polish dream, they did just the same to the Russians. The Red Machine has come to a juddering halt, while the Greeks head to Gdansk for a quarter-final. Such a likelihood seemed unthinkable in this tournament's opening minutes as they 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 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 who goes through and who will go where once they have qualified. It all adds up to great fun.

The weather has been just as unpredictable as the tournament. For rain in Wroclaw, read bright sunshine in Warsaw, on a beautifully bright summer's day. Most inside the ground would probably have preferred 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 half-time 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 support 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 they could resume residency in Warsaw's Old Town - Stare Miastro - where their 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. They played at a much too leisurely pace, seemingly unable to up a gear even though all was still in their hands. This Russian version of tiki taka is too deliberate and circumspect and their own desire for the perfect goal cannot be achieved via their available resources.

While Aleksandr Kerzhakov is in their team, 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. Dick Advocaat clearly shares that view, hooking at half-time his errant striker for Roman Pavlyuchenko, who was then equally frustrating.

It had all looked so easy in the first half. A couple of breaks from Yuri Zhirkov showed off a raiding full-back unrecognisable from the slowcoach of Chelsea, just like one who had clubs drooling at his possibilities during Euro 2008. Arshavin too looked 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 and the answer to his problems at Arsenal may well have been that they 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 their captain's casual demeanour and allowed Giorgos Karagounis to sneak onto a poorly defended - by Sergei Ignashevich - throw-in and score with the last kick of the second half. The captain made amends for his penalty miss in the opener and turned Group A upside down.

It is now not just Euro 2004 where Greece have shocked a continent's assumed hierarchy. That they are accompanied by the Czechs into the last eight confirmed this as a group 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 and it is often difficult to categorise him as a player, so varied is his pitch placing, but in reality he is a playmaker of genuine class, and a fine leader too. He was unlucky to be booked when 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 them. 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. ‘Writing off’ may mean something else in Greek life these days but it was certainly not applicable here.

RUSSIA VERDICT:  Too casual, too profligate, too lacking in the ability to change up their game as Greece and the Czechs took their future participation away from them. It was still in their hands, but they couldn’t produce. An angry Dick Advocaat departs for PSV having failed once again to be as good a coach as Guus Hiddink.

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