The bunting will be hanging limp in Warsaw and Wroclaw this afternoon. Poland, the co-hosts of the 2012 European Championships, have been eliminated from the competition at the end of an evening which also saw a Russian team which sparkled in its opening match last week against the Czech Republic eliminated. A group which had caused some to roll their eyes ended up providing absolute fascination, with the mathematical permutations of it all stretching to the dying seconds of the last match to finish last night. Going into yesterday evenings matches, any of the four teams could still qualify for a place in the quarter-finals of the competition and throughout the evening the “As It Stands” group table showed, at varying points, three of the teams as being in the top two spots. When the dust had settled, however, it was the team that arrived at half-time in their opening match a goal down and a man down, Greece, and a Czech Republic side that was beaten out of sight in its opening match that would occupy the much-coveted top two positions.
On a rainy night in Wroclaw, the task ahead of Poland was a reasonably simple one. A win against the Czech Republic would be enough to see them edge through to the quarter-finals, and they hared from the traps with six attempts on goal in the opening quarter of an hour. The goal, however, wouldn’t come, in spite of the collective will of almost all of a 41,000 crowd and as the game wore on they started to look increasingly ragged. With eighteen minutes to play came the killer blow. By this time, Poland were throwing too many men forward in an increasing desperation to score that all important goal. Milan Baros broke for the Czechs and fed the ball to Petr Jiracek, who cut inside Marcin Wasilewski and lifted the ball over the goalkeeper. It was a dagger through Polish hearts, yet there was still time for a piece of drama to send the heart straight to the mouth. Events elsewhere meant that the Czech Republic had to win to qualify themselves, and three minutes into stoppage time at the end of the match Jakub Blaszczykowski’s lob for Poland was heading into the far corner before being miraculously cleared by Michal Kadlec. The Czech Republic, somehow, were through.
The match in Warsaw couldn’t quite offer the same level of drama, but it did at least carry a sting in its tail. Greece needed to beat Russia, and if they managed this then the Russians would be dependent upon a beneficial result from Wroclaw. Russia had sparkled in their opening match against the Czech Republic and won handsomely, but they became unstuck in their second match against Poland during the week and their decline was confirmed two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the first half when Zhirkov made a hash of what should have been a routine clearance on the right hand side and Giorgos Karagounis nipped in, nicked the ball from him, cut inside and shot low underneath the Russian goalkeeper Malafeev. At half-time, though, Russia were still in a qualification position thanks to the goalless score in Wroclaw. They were now, however, dependent on the vagaries of what would come to pass in the other match and with eighteen minutes to play the Czechs scored. Desperately, Russia threw players forward but Greece had shut up shop for the evening and there was no way through. At the final whistle, the television cameras lingered on Russian supporters, their face paint distorted by the tears of defeat. Had goal difference or goals scored been used to determine the positions of teams tied on points, Russia would still have edged Greece out. This year, the head-to-head record is the first thing that UEFA refer to when two nations end level on points, and that was bad, bad news for Russia.
Meanwhile in Wroclaw a party was starting. The Polish hosts applauded the Czech team as they took a lap of honour, but as the supporters of the host nation awaken this morning will surely be that these three matches were a series of wasted opportunities. It was Poland that were the beneficiaries of Greece’s tardy start to the tournament, they who had the one goal and one man advantage at half-time in the opening match. Yet they managed to throw both of those considerable advantages away, conceding a goal early in the second half and then having their goalkeeper sent off in the act of conceding a penalty kick. That Greece missed that kick turned out to be mere respite for Poland. They were unable to break Russia down last week and last night were similarly impotent in their attempts to navigate a way through the Czech defence. The Czechs, meanwhile, deserve full credit for the way in which they bounced back from a stinging opening defeat to Russia. Their win against Greece in the week was workmanlike but merited, and yesterday evening they did, by the skin of their teeth, what they had to do. It isn’t particularly easy to see them getting much further in this competition, but momentum is now behind them and stranger things have certainly happened.
One stranger thing was Greece’s victory in the 2004 European Championships, and there will be some now starting to wonder whether they could possibly be capable of a repeat of this triumph. This seems unlikely, but their resilience has been impressive – they could easily have folded in their opening match and against Russia they defended stoutly and took their chance when it came – it can hardly be considered their responsibility that UEFA now consider the head-to-head record of two teams to be preferable to more traditional methods of separating teams that have finished level on points. Russia, meanwhile, return home with the behaviour of elements of their support being the one thing that their involvement in this tournament will probably be the most remembered for. On the pitch, they failed to build on their excellent opening performance against the Czech Republic and went into last nights match with the distinct look of a team which felt that it had more or less already qualified. A goal went against them in their match, and then a second in the other, and that was that. As it was for Poland, this was a wasted opportunity for Russia and their defeat last night and elimination ultimately came down to what could be interpreted as complacency on their part after their opening match. It’s a failure that may come to live long in the memory of all Russian supporters.
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