After months of build up, the European Championships finally got underway on Friday evening.
On the pitch things have mainly gone to plan for the bigger nations however off the pitch reports of racism and crowd trouble will be worrying for organisers UEFA. Reports emerged last week that a number of Dutch players were the victims of racial abuse at an open training session in Poland. This was then followed by crowd trouble at a number of games, which has lead to both Germany and Russia being punished for the fans’ behavior.
In the other game in Group A it didn’t take long for Russia to impose their dominance upon the Czech Republic. A 2-0 lead after fifteen minutes meant the game was as good as over before it began. The most impressive performance of the first round ended in a convincing 4-1 win for the Russians. They now face Poland on Tuesday evening in a perfect position to progress from Group A.On the pitch co-hosts Poland got things underway by playing out a dramatic 1-1 draw with Greece. The game saw both teams finish with ten men and substitute Polish goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton emerge as the hero by saving a Greek penalty with his first action of the game ensuring the hosts took home a share of the spoils.
Group B was dubbed the Group of Death in the build up to the tournament, so it was hardly surprising when it threw up the first shock of the competition. A 1-0 win for Denmark over a Dutch side that were fancied by many to go a long way has turned Group B on its head. Holland’s array of world-class stars had no answer to a well-organized and determined Danish deference. The Danes had to defend their slender 1-0 lead earned though an early Michael Krohn-Dehli goal, for seventy-five minutes to deservedly claim all three points.
Elsewhere in Group B, tournament favorites Germany did what was required to see off Portugal in Lviv. In an unspectacular match, a second half Mario Gomez header was enough to secure all 3 points for the Germans to put themselves in a strong position to advance the next round.
Current World and European Champions Spain kicked off Group C against Italy. Their opponent’s preparations had been marred by match fixing allegations in the Italian league, culminating at one point in manager Cesare Prandelli suggesting Italy could withdraw from the entire competition. On the pitch however there was no sign of problems as they held Spain to a 1 -1 draw. Although they created numerous chances, Spain lacked the clinical edge they possessed during the World Cup. They won’t panic yet though and will see their meeting with Ireland on Thursday as a chance to properly settle in to the tournament.
Ireland’s campaign finally got underway in Poznan on Sunday night. The Irish team took to the pitch with the collective optimism of the nation resting on their shoulders. Unfortunately however, it only took 3 minutes for this optimism to be shattered. In truth they were outclassed for much of the ninety minutes. The ineptness of tactics, which worked so well during qualification, were exposed on the bigger stage. It’s up to Trappatoni now; Ireland’s chances of qualification are slim, but if the Italian is prepared to mix things up and take a chance on the likes of James McClean then maybe the dream isn’t over just yet.
The final two games of the first round got underway with Roy Hodgson taking charge of England for only the third time on Monday evening as they faced France. England took the lead through a Julian Lescott strike midway through the first half. Their lead lasted less than ten minutes however as Lescott’s club teammate Samir Nasri drew France level and this is how it remained at the final whistle. Both teams seemed more concerned with not losing in the second half, which meant the game, never really opened up as a spectacle.
Without doubt the story of the first round came in its final game. Thirty-five year old Andriy Shevchenko had been written off by most in the build up to the tournament as being past his best. Someone clearly forget to tell Andriy though as it was his two second half goals which allowed the co-hosts to claim all three points against Sweden and go top of Group D.
So where do we stand after the first round of games? With the exception of Holland most of the major nations will be relatively happy. From an Irish perspective a minor miracle is required if we are to advance. Although it is still mathematically possible, it will require two performances at level we haven’t seen under Trapatoni. UEFA will undoubtedly be hoping that the football takes centre stage from here on. By Friday evening we will have a much better idea of how things stand, but undoubtedly, as with any tournament, there are some twists and turns still to come.