With Group A the first to be settled at this year’s tournament, one would be forgiven for falling foul of an assumption or two regarding the outcome of at least one of the ties tonight had in store. On the back of their respective opening two fixtures, Russia and Greece appeared binary opposites as they took to the field for their third and final group game tonight in Warsaw.
With Russia adopting a flowing, passing game, serving them well in their early 4-1 dismissal of a plucky Czech Republic outfit, and their admittedly less-glamorous, yet equally as useful in a tournament format point against co-hosts Poland on June 12, Greece didn’t appear to stand much of a chance. Propping up the group after a dull and uninspiring brand of football brought them a solitary point on the opening night, followed by defeat to the Czechs, Fernando Santos’ men had it all to do.
And they did just that. Sokratis Papastathopoulos returned to the starting line-up following his harsh dismissal against the Poles, and was put through his paces as the Russian attackers, supported by the dangerously attack-minded Yuri Zhirkov, subjected he and his defensive colleagues to a barrage of early pressure. Ironically however, it was Zhirkov’s habit of wandering forward that proved pivotal. With the full-back turned winger caught up-field, Giorgos Karagounis made no mistake in arrowing the ball beyond the hapless Vyacheslav Malafeev, the Zenit stopper beaten right on the stroke of half-time after some lapse Russian rearguard action.
Despite the setback, Russia’s 60% possession soon began to tell. Wave after wave of attacks rained down on Michalis Sifakis’ goal. Yet their profligacy throughout the tournament came back to haunt them. Having had 28 attempts on the night, Dzagoev, Kerzhakov and Pavlyuchenko to name but a few could find no remedy to Greece’s spirited, if at times unorthodox defensive set-up.
Giorgos Tzavellas whipped a superb left-footed free kick on to the post, but Greece’s chances were largely few and far between. Alas, eerily reminiscent of their remarkable run to glory in the 2004 Championships, Greece continued to refuse to let the Russians through. Arshavin and Dzagoev each spurned further half-chances as Greece looked to catch their increasingly adventurous opponents out on the counter attack, whilst Roman Shirokov was denied a penalty after claims of a push by captain Karagounis.
As the game wore on, the old cliché of it just not being Russia’s day looked all the more apt. Failing to turn their domination of possession and hoarding of the game’s more guilt-edge chances, Russia were the masters of their own downfall, a stubbornness to deviate from their tactics and a failure to convert a single opportunity providing the recipe for disappointment.
Having been one of the many onlookers looking forward to seeing the impressive Alan Dzagoev continue his development in the latter stages, against perhaps tougher opposition, fans must now turn their attentions elsewhere.
Greece will now, to the surprise of many, progress as runners-up of the group, and look likely to face the competition’s only 100%-record side in Germany. With the Czech Republic topping the group, their opponents in the last eight are far from decided, with Portugal, Denmark and even the struggling Netherlands still in with a chance of qualifying.
On an evening that transcended all expectations, and saw the now prematurely-branded dark-horses for the tournament home early, may the rest of Euro 2012 be as rich in entertainment and drama as tonight epitomised.
Tomorrow sees the conclusion of the aforementioned Group B, with Portugal facing Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands in Kharkiv, and Germany looking to make it three out of three as they take on Denmark in Lviv, both at 19:45 BST.