Greece’s manager Fernando Santos knew what was coming – in the first half at least. He had his head down, his eyes shut and his hand wiping a furrowed brow (a neat facial trick if your eyes are closed). The speech bubble “oh no, here we go again” wrote itself. I’m sure it has been noted somewhere that Santos would be a shoo-in for any Greek remake of the Inspector Wexford Mysteries. Yet he must either be the answer, or have the answer, to one of this tournament’s biggest mysteries to date – why Greece have been so bad in first halves and so much less bad in the second halves. Their two matches at Euro 2012 have resembled most Everton seasons under David Moyes. Although Everton, of course, are a far better side (before anyone writes in).
Those finishing work at five o’clock and heading for the nearest pub to watch this game on the way home missed its decisive moments, which were replayed by ITV after the match to the sound of a Warsaw police siren, which added even more of a “Keystone cops” feel to the pictures. Yet despite being two down to a grateful Czech Republic after six minutes, Greece ended up being a little unlucky, as they were an errant arm away from a 2-1 half-time scoreline – one which all the money in Greece could scarcely have bought, even if their government had any. But Giorgos Fotakis headed home in the 40th minute to the accompaniment of the errant arm of the referee’s assistant, flagging him offside by an arm. And Greece were denied the chance to become the worst team to avoid defeat in their first two games at a major international tournament since the fun-packed Austrians at France ’98.
“What’s going on in Greece’s makeshift back four?” said commentator Jon Champion, answering his own question, as the Greeks “proper” back four had been such a shambles in the early stages of their draw with Poland. (As an aside, if a referee is going to book a player twice for absolutely nothing, as Carlos Velasco Carballo did in that game, why take a name like Sokratis Papastathopoulus?). Both Czech goals came from incisive passing, even though Vaclav Pilar’s goal, the Czech’s second, was every bit as ungainly as a five-yard finish off his inner-thigh suggests. As a result of those first six minutes, an entire footballing nation was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Ireland, that is, as to a fan they’ll have been thinking or saying “thank God we’re not the worst team in the tournament.”
And the Greeks were “already facing the prospect of deficit reduction,” according to Champion who, having got away with that economic gag, unwisely shoe-horned in a comment about Greeks and bouncing cheques over pictures of celebrating… Czechs (geddit?). The Czechs played some neat football (“they’ve been allowed to pick their own pockets,” claimed co-commentator Craig Burley. No, me neither). But the first worrying signs of a lack of drive came ten minutes before the break when a Tomas Rosicky free-kick started off an intricate four-pass move which ended up in the goalkeeper’s hands…Petr Cech’s hands, that is. This, of course, was more than could be said, for very long, of Georgios Samaras’s speculative low ball into the penalty area on 53 minutes. The Czech defender Tomas Civok should perhaps have done more to avoid Cech as the keeper stooped to take the ball. But the take was regulation, and although Cech was unlucky to see the ball spin off his gloves so directly into the path of Fanis Gekas, he immediately realised the enormity of his error.
All of a sudden, Greece discovered their midfield, got some bite in their tackles and alleviated the pressure on their makeshift defence to the extent that it didn’t matter quite how bad they remained at the back. Centre-half Kyriakos Papadopoulus had the profile of a ski-slope and the pace to match. Yet even he began to look a little imperious in the later stages, as the Czechs turned their noses up at the opportunity to make the game safe with a third goal – they were contemplating taking the ball to the corner flag from the 85th minute onwards and didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed about it. Their post-match celebrations betrayed a premature sense of qualification for the knock-out stages. They still need a draw against Poland in their final fixture and they won’t go into that game as favourites, especially after the Poles’ genuinely uplifting performance against Russia.
Greece, meanwhile, lack the drive for an equally uplifting performance against Russia in their final game. Champion described the tournament as a “last hurrah” for Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis. But that only had me wondering what the opposite of “hurrah” might be. Samaras looked a bit lively for a while after the break – maybe someone told him at half-time what had happened to Rangers. But that soon wore off. And substitute striker Kostas Mitroglu committed a foul every time he got near possession in the penalty area. Every time. Indeed, they were arguably as lamentable in their opponent’s box as their own. They are going home, unmissed, for the second consecutive European Championship, their win in 2004 further away than ever. The Czechs are going on to a crunch match against their Polish neighbours, which is one not to miss.
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