The European Championships have reached the half-way point of the group stage, with two of the groups having played twice and the others having their second round of fixtures in the next couple of days. Here’s a group-by-group update on how things have gone so far:
Co-hosts Poland started strongly in their opening match against Greece and went into half-time a goal and a man up. The home side’s star striker, Lewandowski, had found the back of the net inside the first 20 minutes and then the 2004 European Champions had Papastathopolous sent off for a highly questionable second bookable offence. However, the Greeks came roaring back after the interval and equalised through Salpingidis, who then earned a penalty when he was brought down in the area by Polish keeper, Szczesny, who was sent-off for the foul. The spot-kick was missed and the two sides each earned a point with a 1-1 draw, a result that Poland repeated in their second game against Russia.
That point kept the Russians at the top of Group A, after they had opened their campaign with a 4-1 thrashing of the Czech Republic. Their young midfielder Dzagoev notched two of the goals in that game, as well as the one against Poland, to put him joint top in the race for the tournament’s golden boot. The other match in the group saw the Czech Republic take a 2-0 lead over Greece within the first six minutes and, although they did pull one goal back in the second-half, the Greeks were unable to gain another draw and sit bottom of the group.
All of the countries can still qualify for the next round, though Greece face an uphill task as they will need to beat Russia in order to have any chance of progressing. Russia know that a draw will be enough for them to make the quarter-finals and the Czech Republic need only a point to make it at the expense of Poland, assuming the Greeks do not cause an upset.
This was the so-called “Group of Death” and it looks like being terminal for the Netherlands, who are yet to record a single point after two matches. They opened with a surprising 1-0 defeat to Denmark, a result that did not reflect the Dutch dominance of the game, but proved that the Danes – number 9 in the FIFA rankings – were not a team to be taken lightly this summer. Germany are all but into the quarters after beating Portugal 1-0, and the Netherlands – their old enemies – 2-1. All three German goals have been scored by Mario Gomez, the man who misfired so badly in the Champions League final, but now seems unable to put a foot wrong. The best game of the tournament so far was today’s match between Portugal and Denmark. The Portuguese took a two goal lead early on after goals by Pepe and Helder Postiga – who showed the kind of touch in front of goal he never displayed in his season with Tottenham – but a brace from Nicklas Bendtner got the Danes back level. Portugal were hampered by the poor form of their star man, Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed two one-on-one chances you would have bet your mortgage on him scoring (and indeed, UEFA’s stat man had assumed he scored the first one and updated the live twitter feed accordingly), but they were not to be denied their victory and substitute Silvestre Varela hit a great right-footed strike to give them the lead for good, with just three minutes remaining.
Nothing is yet decided in Group B: Germany could still be eliminated, despite having 6 points; Netherlands could still make the quarter-finals, even though they have lost both of their matches. The Netherlands need to beat Portugal and hope Denmark lose their match against the Germans, then it will come down to goal difference between the three sides. Germany win the group with a draw or win, a loss combined with a win for Portugal would drag them into a tie-breaker.
Italy have been Spain’s bogey team for a long time and even the status of being World and European Champions has not diminished the fear the Spaniards have against those particular opponents. This time around the honours ended even: Italy took the lead through Di Natale – shortly after the Udinese striker had replaced the ineffective Mario Balotelli – but Fabregas leveled for Spain less than 5 minutes later, when he was played through by a beautiful incisive pass by David Silva. In the other group game, Croatia benefitted from goalkeeping errors from Shay Given, as they defeated Ireland 3-1 and can secure qualification for the next round with a win over Italy in their next game. Spain will hope to strengthen their quest for their third consecutive international trophy with a win against the Irish on Thursday, but will need to be more aggressive in their team selection than in their opener, in which they did not have a recognised striker in their starting eleven.
England used the Chelsea defence to great effect against the French – having two banks of four players defending the penalty area and spoiling all of France’s attacks before they could close in on goal. When Joleon Lescott put Roy Hodgson’s side ahead by heading in a Steven Gerrard free-kick, it looked as though it might earn them a win, but a Samir Nasri shot – that beat his club teammate, Joe Hart, at his near post – ensured both sides started the tournament with a point. The other group game read like a fair-tale start for the co-hosts, Ukraine. In their first match at home in an international tournament, their most recognised player since they gained independence, Andriy Shevchenko, scored both goals in their come from behind 2-1 victory over Sweden. They had fallen 1-0 behind to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal early in the second-half, but two headers from the 35-year-old Shevchenko turned the game around and sent the home fans into delirium. A win against either England or France will earn the Ukraine a place in the quarter-finals, while the other three sides in the group will all be looking for their first wins of the competition on Friday.
There was one piece of domestic news in England that I cannot skip from commenting on – Harry Redknapp was sacked as manager of Tottenham after just under four years in charge at White Hart Lane. In recent weeks, Redknapp had been making overtures in the press about the need for the club to not only bring in new players during the summer, but also offer him a lengthy contract extension. This did little to appease Spurs Chairman, Daniel Levy, who was disappointed in the manner in which the team gave up the 10 point cushion they once held in third place, to ultimately miss out on Champions League qualification when Chelsea won in Munich.
I have never been a big fan of Redknapp and have written about his tactical failings on many occasions before. Nevertheless, he was the first manager to lead us to three consecutive top 6 finishes in 47 years, all the more impressive since Tottenham were bottom of the league when he took over in 2008. How I feel about his dismissal will depend on who takes over – the latest rumours have David Moyes, currently manager at Everton, as the favourite, but his style of football is not in keeping with the Spurs tradition of attacking and playing with flair. If it was down to me – which for some reason it is not – I would promote Clive Allen from within. He is a Tottenham man who is familiar with the squad and did a fantastic job when he was the reserve-team boss a few years ago. However, it is likely that Levy will look to bring a big name in and thus Moyes, Pardew and many others will be linked with the job over the coming weeks. If this results in another season of transition as a new man brings in his own players and transforms the playing staff to his liking, then getting rid of Redknapp will be a mistake. Should the right person be appointed, then it could be the push Spurs need to progress to the next level, and having a manager who focuses on tactics and countering the opposition will increase their chances of challenging for trophies.