There is a school of thought which suggests that part of the reason behind the global success of football lays in its occasionally ruthless depiction of the fallibility of humanity. We watch this game above all others for the brilliance and the horrendous, and all stops in between. The first match of the 2012 European Championships demonstrated this in spades. Both Poland and Greece were sporadically excellent and horrific, and the result was a match which surpassed the low expectations that most had for it before it started. Moreover, their draw meant that this evenings game between Russia and The Czech Republic kicked off with this most enigmatic of groups looking no more resolvable than it had a couple of hours earlier.
Within twenty-five minutes of kick-off in Wroclaw this evening, however, this fog had started to lift. Russia had intermittently sparkled at the last European Championships but had followed this up with a failure to qualify for the World Cup finals, while the Czechs have flattered to deceive since reaching the semi-finals of the competition eight years ago, only qualifying for this tournament thanks to a ropey last minute penalty kick against Scotland in their group and a play-off win against Montenegro. Having edged through the play-offs, there had been few signs of any improvement on their part in recent months and with some wondering whether Russia, with a little luck, might make the semi-finals at least, what might the prospects of the Czech team be?
For approximately nine and half minutes, the omens for the Czech Republic seemed pretty fair. They started with effervescence while Russia, usually so confident and fluid, looked as if their players had only recently been introduced in the tunnel before the match. Nine and a half minutes, however, is not very long and the Czechs didn’t take advantage of their brief spell in the ascendency. When the Russian team did wake up and wipe their eyes, they struck with such ferocity that the match took on the feel of a drag race between a Ferrari and a milk float. After fifteen minutes, Konstantin Zyranov swung a beautiful cross over for Alexandr Kerzahov, but his head back across goal bounced out off the post for Alan Dzagoev to drive in the rebound. Nine minutes later, a pass from Andrei Arshavin through the eye of a needle left a sluggish Czech defence looking flat-footed and Roman Shirokov lifted the ball over Petr Cech to double their advantage.
For twenty minutes, it looked as if Russia might be able to take their pick for the final score this evening. Arshavin’s low cross narrowly evaded Zyranov, and Arshavin, who was playing as if kept in storage for the last four years, followed this up by pulling the ball back for Kerzahov, who shot narrowly over. The Czech team stretched and strained, and as the Russian team slowed down in anticipation of half-time they even managed something approaching some coherent possession just before the interval, but half-time could only really be greeted by a string of superlatives for an intelligent, confident forty-five minutes of football – a half which gave root to the idea that this team is plenty capable of repeating the higher points of four summers ago.
And yet, and yet. Six minutes into the second half the Czechs were back in the match when Plasil threaded the ball through to Vaclav Pilar, who rolled the ball under the goalkeeper and reduce the deficit to one goal. For a short while, the Czech team looked invigorated, as if a Greece-style comeback could yet be on the cards, but Russia soon settled again and the story of the middle period of the second half became the story of the profligacy of Alexandr Kerzahov, flapped wildly at an Arshavin through-ball and sent it high into the stand behind the goal, wrapped his foot around a shot from eight yards out and dragged the ball wide when he should have scored and shot high, wide and handsome from the edge of the penalty area in the space of less than five minutes before being mercifully replaced by Roman Pavlyuchenko with sixteen minutes to play.
This shuffle of the pack was enough to re-open the gap between the two teams. Five minutes after coming on, Pavlyuchenko touched the ball to Dzagoev, who thrashed it past Cech from just inside the penalty area, and just three minutes after this, Pavlyuchenko contorted himself into a dozen shapes on the edge of the Czech penalty area before thundering a high shot past Cech and into the roof of the goal to put any remaining doubts over the destination of the three points – and quite possibly any further doubt over whether he or Kerzahov will start their next match – safely to bed. Russia, so much fun four years ago and so inexplicably pallid for much of the time since then, were worthy, worthy victors.
It isn’t over yet for the Czech team. The draw between Poland and Greece means that qualification from the group is far from out of their hands just yet. What psychological effect the manner of their defeat this evening might have on the team, however, is difficult quantify but it is difficult to think that anything positive could come from. Russia, on the other hand, wound the clock back to the summer of 2008 comprehensively this evening. They were thoroughly good value for their win, the margin of which means that they may even already be dipping half a toe in the waters of the quarter-finals. It’s early days yet, but if today is anything to go by, it looks like being Russia plus one from Group A at the 2012 European Championships.
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