Euro 2012: What have we learned?

by Ger McCarthy

Back Page Football’s Ger McCarthy offers a comprehensive review of the first four days of Euro 2012 looking at each country’s performance and picking out the stand-out players from the opening week’s action.

Each of the competing countries has now completed their first round of group fixtures and already Euro 2012 has the look of a tournament that will hopefully be remembered for its attacking football rather than any off-field issues. A plethora of goals and vibrant counter-attacking play has made for terrific viewing for neutral fans and supporters of countries lucky enough to be in either Poland or the Ukraine itself.

So what have we learned having watched each of the 16 countries first appearances? Who are the standout players that have already made an impact on the tournament and what are their prospects heading into the second round of Euro 2012 group fixtures?

Matchday 1 – Group A

The opening day set the tone for an intriguing first week of the tournament with Poland and Greece (unusually) producing an exciting opening match under a closed roof in Warsaw. The hosts were by far the more adventurous side in the opening 45 minutes with Manchester United target Robert Lewandowski expertly leading the Polish attack and heading home the opening goal just past the quarter hour mark. The co-host nation faded badly in the second period however and along with a resurgent Greek effort was lucky to come away with a draw in the end. Greece had a man sent off before the introduction of second half sub Dimitris Salpigidis changed the course of the game. Salpigidis’ energy began to ask questions of the Polish back four eventually resulting in a deserved leveller for the Greeks. Salpigidis was then brought down for a penalty which resulted in the sending off of Arsenals’ Wojciech Szczesny. Poland’s replacement goalkeeper Pzremyslaw Tyton saved Giorgios Karagounis effort and an exciting fixture concluded level at 1-1.

The evening Group A game turned out to be an even more entertaining affair with Russia announcing their Euro 2012 intentions with a comprehensive 4-1 defeat of the Czech Republic in Wroclaw. The standout element of Russia’s slick counter-attacking display was the performance of former gunner Andrey Arshavin who prompted a succession of attacks by drifting across midfield and releasing his strikers with some adroit through balls. Alan Dzagoev made a name for himself with two expertly taken goals but much more importantly for Dick Advocaat was the fact his side managed to withstand a Czech comeback at 2-1 before eventually moving up a gear to secure an eye-catching 4-1 victory. Question marks over Russia’s mental ability to raise their game against the stronger nations still persist even though Advocaat’s side already look a shoe-in for the knockout phase.

Group A (Russia, Czech Republic, Poland and Greece)

Russia

Standout Player: Andrey Arshavin

The former Arsenal maestro reminded Premier League fans of his devastating ability to unlock defences with his intelligent movement and distribution proving the catalyst for Alan Dzagoev’s goals and much of Russia’s best moments in defeating the Czech’s.

Qualification Prospects: Very Good

Victory over Poland on June 12th would see the Russians become the first country to qualify for the quarter-finals. Dick Advocaat will be anxious to cement his side’s progression so as to be able to rest key players for a meaningless final group match.

Poland

Standout Player: Robert Lewandowski

Lewandowski capped an eye-catching individual display with a well taken goal against Greece and linked up with the Polish midfield superbly in the opening half. Faded (like much of his team mates) after the break but will be a handful for any defence.

Qualification Prospects: Unsure

Poland simply must avoid defeat to the Russians on Tuesday to give themselves a chance of progressing in their final group game against the Czech Republic.

Greece

Standout Player: Dimitris Salpigidis

Rarely has a substitute made such an impact on a side down to 10 men but the arrival of Dimitris Salpigidis heralded a renaissance in the Greek ranks as the striker equalised and then won a penalty which Greece missed to win the game.

Qualification Prospects: Unsure

Similar to the Poles, Greece simply has to beat the Czech’s next time out otherwise they will need to defeat an impressive looking Russia to progress.

Czech Republic

Standout Player: Petr Jiracek

Jiracek stood out in the middle of the park on a difficult evening for the Czech’s. Setup Pilar’s goal with a slide-rule pass and will need to repeat his performance if the Czech Republic re to progress.

Qualification Prospects: Poor

Bad enough to lose your opening Euro 2012 group game but a -3 goal difference may prove the deciding factor in the Czech Republic being forced home early.

Matchday 2 – Group B

The second day of Euro 2012 centred on the ‘Group of Death’ with one of the pre-tournament favourites, the Netherlands, coming unstuck against Morten Olsen’s well organised Denmark. The big talking point ahead of kick-off was Bert van Marwijk’s decision to drop Klaas-Jan Huntelaar despite the young striker enjoying a magnificent season in the Bundesliga for Schalke 04. Denmark were under the cosh for much of a dominant Dutch opening spell until Michael Krohn-Dehli finished off a flowing move to push the Danes 1-0 in front. It was a lead Olsen’s side would never relinquish despite Holland having six forwards on the pitch in the closing stages. Van Persie, Huntelaar, Van der Vaart, Afellay, Sneijder and Robben all failed to find the net leaving the Netherlands facing into the prospect of a meeting with arch rivals Germany requiring at least a draw to maintain an interest in the competition. For Denmark, it proved a thoroughly merited victory and has also thrown the eventual outcome of Group B into doubt. Olsen’s side can clinch an unlikely place in the last eight with victory over Portugal in their next assignment and based on Saturday evening’s performance they have every reason to dream of progressing.

The second Group B encounter between Germany and Portugal turned out to be a hugely disappointing affair for much of the opening 55 minutes with only a Pepe effort that cannoned off the crossbar the only chance of note. Both defences dominated proceedings resulting in few clear-cut chances until Mario Gomez rose to thump home a terrific header after 72 minutes to win it for the Germans. Portugal produced some dazzling football in reply but Ronaldo, Nani and Silvestre Varela failed to find a way past Manuel Neuer and another of the pre-tournament favourites Germany began their campaign with a hard earned 3 points. Bastian Schweinsteiger produced a barn-storming display  in the centre of the park for the Germans and laid to rest the ghost of his heart-breaking Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.  There is plenty of incentive to defeat the Dutch in the Germans next outing as it would see Joachim Low’s side through to the quarter-finals and eliminate their great rivals.

Group B (Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark)

Germany

Standout Player: - Bastian Schweinsteiger

‘Schweini’ was back to his swashbuckling best against the Portuguese and formed a terrific midfield partnership with Sami Khedira. Schweinsteiger repeatedly stretched Portugal’s back four and helped create some of Germany’s best chances during a deserved 1-0 win.

Qualification Prospects: Very Good

Negotiating a tricky opening tie against a talented Portugal outfit was never going to be easy but Germany will be delighted to have grabbed all three points before facing the Netherlands and Denmark. Joachim Low will be happy to take a draw against the Dutch to set up a final group showdown with the Danes and probable qualification for phase two.

Portugal

Standout Player: Ronaldo

Even though the former Manchester United winger failed to sparkle like in previous matches he remains the Portuguese’s most potent attacking weapon and the key to qualifying for the knockout phase.

Qualification Prospects: Unsure

Nothing but a win will suffice against the Danes on June 13th in Liviv as a draw or a loss would mean Portugal would have to beat the Dutch in their final match. Won’t fear Denmark but will certainly need to be more clinical in front of goal to get a result.

The Netherlands

Standout Player: Wesley Sneijder

Dropped off the front superbly and produced a plethora of telling passes that had the Danish defence scrambling to clear. Despite a constant failure to convert their chances Sneijder was by far the Netherland’s best player and if he maintains his form can help guide the Dutch into the next phase.

Qualification Prospects: Unsure

The Netherlands simply must get a result against the Germans in Kharkiv on June 13th otherwise it could be a sensational early flight home. A draw in that game would setup a final group encounter with Portugal where the winners could secure a runners-up berth. All to play for.

Denmark

Standout Player: Daniel Agger

The Liverpool centre-back and Danish Captain produced a marvellous display to help the Danes keep a clean sheet despite the Dutch finishing the game with six attacking players on the pitch. Formed an excellent defensive partnership with Simon Kjaer to ensure Denamrk’s memorable win.

Qualification Prospects: Very Good

Even the most ardent Danish supporter couldn’t have expected a victory in their opening Group B match against the Dutch but a 1-0 win offers Morten Olsen’s side a fantastic chance of making the last eight if they can pick up points in either of their two final group games.

Matchday 3 – Group C

The opening Group C encounter between Spain and Italy proved to be the standout match of the opening phase with both sides producing spells of dazzling football. Spain began without an orthodox striker yet looked dangerous every time Iniesta or Xavi gained possession and looked to release Fabregas in behind the Italian defence. Cesare Prandelli’s Italian side created the better chances early on with the attacking tandem of Balotelli and Cassano dovetailing beautifully up front. Add in the midfield promptings of Juventus pair Pirlo and Marchiso and Spain had their hands full containing a lively Italian attack. Iker Cassilas came to his side’s rescue with a couple of stunning saves before Gigi Buffon was called into action at the other end of the pitch to keep the score at 0-0. A moment of magic from Pirlo eventually broke the deadlock when the Italian midfielder released substitute DiNatale with a slide-rule pass for the Udinese hit-man to curl beyond Cassilas. Spain rebounded positively and a typically adroit move involving Iniesta and Fabregas saw the former Arsenal midfielder spring Italy’s offside trap before tapping home to earn the Spaniards a point.

The evening Group C match proved a huge disappointment for the travelling hordes of Irish supporters. A rainy night in Poznan saw Croatia capitalise on three defensive mistakes to put the game out of Ireland’s reach and kick-start Slaven Bilic’s side’s European campaign with a 3-1 victory. Sean St. Ledger equalised Mario Mandzukic’s headed opener before Stephen Ward appeared to be fouled before screwing a clearance into the path of Everton’s Nikica Jelavić who beat Shay Given to send the Croats in 2-1 ahead at the interval. Mandzukic’s second headed goal shortly after the break ended Ireland’s faint hopes of a comeback before a plethora of substitutions failed to yield a consolation goal for Giovanni Trapattoni’s side. Ireland qualified for the Euros on the back of a rigid 4-42 formation and the fact their defensive solidity proved too much for most opponents’ en-route to Poland and the Ukraine. Sadly, the formation and defence were exposed by a far sharper Croatian side for whom Luka Modric excelled in the centre of the park. Next up for Ireland are Spain where a minimum requirement is a draw on the same evening Croatia can book their second round berth with a victory over Italy.

Group C (Spain, Italy, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland)

Spain

Standout Player: Andres Iniesta

Iniesta proved to be Spain’s most potent attacking weapon and at the hub of all his country’s best moves following their opening group game draw with Italy. The Barcelona midfielder’s quick-fire passing created Spain’s best opportunities and Iniesta looks set for an excellent Euro 2012 based on his terrific individual performance.

Qualification Prospects: Good

Vicente del Bosque’s decision to start without a recognised striker in a 4-6-0 formation which had Fabregas, Iniesta and Xavi alternating as striker earned the reigning European Champions a point having earlier fallen behind to the Italians. The introduction of Torres didn’t deliver a winning goal but with the Chelsea striker and Bilbao’s Llorentet to call upon in their next two games suggests the in-form Spaniards are in pole position to qualify from the group.

Italy

Standout Player: Andrea Pirlo

Pirlo underlined is silky skills and quality with the through ball to release DiNatale for Italy’s opening goal. The veteran Juventus central midfielder was by far Italy’s best player and setup a plethora of Italian counter-attacks with his inch-perfect passing.

Qualification Prospects: Good

A fantastic display as it was unexpected saw Italy deservedly grab a share of the spoils against Spain to give Cesare Prandelli’s side a decent chance of making the knockout stages. Balotelli and Cassano looked a handful up front while Udinese’s DiNatale came on and scored looking every inch the perfect impact sub. A positive result against Croatia leaves Italy with just Ireland to defeat in their final group game and safe passage to the quarter-finals.

Croatia

Standout Player: Mario Mandzukic

Mandzukic made an instant name for himself with two headed goals en route to helping Croatia ease past the Rep. of Ireland in their opening Group C fixture. The Wolfsburg striker proved a handful for the Irish back four throughout the evening and is player Italy and Spain will need to mark closely in the closing group fixtures.

Qualification Prospects: Very Good

The 3-1 defeat of Ireland was as positive a start as manager Slaven Bilic could have hoped for. A +2 goal difference could also prove crucial while the return to form of Luka Modric added to the attacking threat of Everton’s Jelavic suggests Croatia are capable of progressing from the group and reaching the semi-finals.

Republic of Ireland

Standout Player: Keith Andrews

The WBA midfielder’s performance proved one of the few bright spots of an otherwise forgettable evening for Giovanni Trapattoni’s men. Andrews proved a threat when he was able to get forward and came agonisingly close to scoring on one occasion. Needs to maintain his excellent start if Ireland are to have any chance of prolonging their Euro 2012 stay.

Qualification Prospects: Poor

The Croatian game was earmarked as a ‘must not lose’ fixture for Giovanni Trapattoni since the draw for Euro 2012 was made but an unusually flat defensive display in Poznan cost the Irish dearly. Three sloppy goals at inopportune times made it too steep a climb for Ireland who must now get a result in the their next assignment against Spain otherwise it will be an early flight home.

Matchday 4 – Group D

France and England served up a dull encounter in the Donbass Arena, Donetsk with both sides having to be content with a point from their Euro 2012 Group D opener. A scrappy beginning saw little in the way of creative football until Joleon Lescott headed home and inch-perfect free-kick from Steve Gerrard to the delight of the travelling English supporters. France were a constant threat on the break all evening and equalised within 10 minutes of falling behind. Samir Nasri continued the Manchester City theme by cancelling out fellow club mate Lescott’s opener and beating City’s goalkeeper Joe Hart with a thunderous low shot from the edge of the box. The pace of the second half dropped noticeably with France enjoying the lion’s share of possession but unable to break through England’s well organised back four. It ended 1-1 with Roy Hodgson the happier of the two managers as England move forward to face Sweden next while Laurent Blanc’s France take on co-hosts Ukraine.

The second Group D match played on Monday evening was all about one man; Andriy Shevchenko. Kiev’s hometown hero produced two moments of magic to belie the 35-year old’s age and recent criticism that he was over the hill with both of Ukraine’s goals in a famous 2-1 win. The first was a trademark diving header to cancel out Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s opener and Shevchenko’s second was a near-post header from a corner to ensure the home side began the tournament with a precious three points. The whole occasion went like a dream for the tournament organisers and UEFA who are desperate for one of the two co-hosts to qualify for the latter stages of the competition. If Ukraine avoid defeat to the French and English in their two remaining games they have every chance of extending their stay in the competition.

Group D (Ukraine, Sweden, France and England)

Ukraine

Standout Player: Andriy Shevchenko

Who else? ‘Sheva’ rolled back the years with a marvellous individual display to score two headed goals in his home town of Kiev to galvanise the Ukrainian nation behind their football team.

Qualification Prospects: Very Good

There is no telling how far Ukraine can go in the Euro 2012 tournament if they maintain their current performance levels and are supported by the hugely enthusiastic Ukrainian support. The result of what promises to be a tough match against the equally impressive French in Donetsk next Friday will dictate their chances of emerging from the group.

France

Standout Player: Mathieu Debuchy

The Lille right-back proved to be one of France’s most potent attacking weapons in the 1-1 draw with England on Monday evening. Debuchy’s marauding runs continually stretched the English defence and forced Ashley Cole on the back foot for much of the encounter. A target for several Premier League clubs, Debuchy looks like a star in the making should he secure a big money transfer before the start of the new English season.

Qualification Prospects: Very Good

The movement of Benzema, Ribery and Nasri against England suggests Laurent Blanc possesses one of the most potent attacks in the competition. All that was missing was some clinical finishing in front of goal but if France sort that issue out and tighten up at the back they are capable of reaching the semi-finals.

Sweden

Standout Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

The AC Milan striker remains an enigma at international level. Lazy and disinterested one minute before producing a clinical finish against Ukraine on Monday night. Ibrahimovic, when he is in the mood, can lift Sweden from being an ordinary side to a dangerous counter-attacking unit who are capable of breaching the best defences.

Qualification Prospects: Poor

The result of Sweden’s showdown with England in Kiev will decide whether or not Ibrahimovic’s team progress to the knockout phase. A draw is of little use to the Swedes with England having picked up a point and facing Ukraine in their final group match.

England

Standout Player: Steven Gerrard

In an English side including plenty of youthful players it was the guile and sensible passing of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard that steadied the ship when France threatened to score during one of their many purple patches. His delivery for Lescott’s headed opener was of the highest quality and Gerrard looks set to leave his mark on the Euro 2012 tournament.

Qualification Prospects: Unsure

Avoiding defeat to the Swedes would leave Roy Hodgson’s facing co-hosts Ukraine in their final group match needing a win to make it into the next round. England gave the ball away far too often against France but have enough pace in their attack plus the impending return of one W. Rooney that suggests they can make it through to the last eight.

Follow Ger on Twitter: @germccarthy74

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