I don’t, with any conscience, have much time for ITV’s match summariser Jim Beglin. Unlike most other Liverpool players of the 1980s, I have no idea what he looks like (the fact that he has an Irish accent and is called Jim leads me involuntarily towards Jim McDonald out of “Coronation Street”), and I care for him even less than I did before after his pompous performance this evening during tonight’s match between Greece and Sweden. As Greece passed the ball around their defence towards the end of the first half, he unleashed a torrent of outrage at the fact that they weren’t committing many players forward that made my ears prick up. As it turned out, Jim got what he wanted, but surely I wasn’t the only person sitting at home willing the Greeks to a 0-0 draw that would frustrate the hell out of “football purists”, was I? I see no problem with them playing dour, defensive football. They know their limits, and they stick within them. They did this to devastating effect four years ago, when they bruised and battled their way to possibly the most unlikely tournament win in the history of international football, but it was too much to ask for a repeat of the heroics of four years ago his time around.
It was somewhat apt that this meeting between the two oldest teams in the tournament should be played in Salzburg, since the birthplace of Mozart seems to be the perfect place to host a match that, for much of the first half at least, looked like nothing so much as twenty-two partnerless old men waltzing around an end of pier ballroom. As the ITV commentary team frothed at the mouth about what they took to be an affront to the beautiful game, the two teams played out a dreadful first half, and it was hilarious. Sweden didn’t seem to have much of an answer to Greece’s tactic of passing the around very slowly at the back and the lumping it forward, and the two sides reached half-time with scarcely a shot on goal having been managed between them. The deadlock finally broke twenty minutes into the second half, but not it wasn’t the first clear chance of the match. The hubris would have reached exceptional levels had Petter Hansson’s defensive header just sneaked the right side of the post, but it wasn’t to be for the holders. Yet again at Euro 2008 (and this seems to have been happening in more or less every single match), a clear chance at one end led to a goal at the other, and more or less immediately Sweden took the lead with an absolutely tremendous long range shot from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Five minutes later, they scored a second when Freddie Ljungberg’s long range shot looped up off the Greek goalkeeper Nikopolidis and fell for Petter Hansson, who contrived to bundle the ball over the line even though he didn’t look much capable of stopping himself from tripping over his own feet.
What, then, to make of Greece and Sweden. With Spain still to play, Greece are surely out of the competition now. Their formation worked at Euro 2004 because the coaches that they were up against had underestimated them and didn’t have a proper plan to break them down. The coaches this time could be expected to have a better game plan – decent coaches don’t usually make the same mistakes twice – but, although Sweden eventually ground them down, it took them almost seventy minutes to score the opening goal and the match could quite easily have faded out into a goalless draw. One suspects that this group could yet spring a surprise. Russia are a better team than their scoreline against Spain would suggest, and I was less than impressed by the labour that Sweden had to put in to wear down a Greek team that often failed to what they did so well in Portugal four years ago – defend well. The group table may make it look like a foregone conclusion, but the outcome of this group is far from certain for the time being.