The first round of group matches in Euro 2012 wrapped up Monday, with a few surprises: Denmark topped the Netherlands, the Ukraine beat Sweden and Fernando Torres didn't score for Spain.
Okay, maybe that last one wasn't a surprise.
We're a third of the way through the group stage, and the tournament is off to a good start. As is the BC Fantasy League,where like Kid n Play, things are tight at the top. The big stories so far:
- Spain's novel approach to its striker problem: simply playing without one against Italy. Vicente Del Bosque chose to go with 6 midfielders and no real striker, just Cesc Fabregas playing a bit further up the pitch than the other 5. It could be argued the tactic worked, as Fabregas scored Spain's goal, but Italy never seemed all that troubled by Spain's middle-heavy approach. When del Bosque brought on Fernando Torres late in the match, things changed, and Spain looked much more dangerous. The fact that Torres fluffed a number of good opportunities is a separate issue; the point is the chances were there. Just as Barcelona's tiki-taka style was found out this season, Italy was happy to let Spain dink the ball around and try to pass it into the net. The question for Spain is now if del Bosque can say there's no regret, and if he had to do the same again, he would, his friend, Fernando? Or will he sing the song of a different Fernando -- Llorente in the next match against Ireland on Thursday?
- Are the Netherlands a paper tiger? The Dutch were rated highly coming into the tournament (and chosen as second favorites in the BC Euro 2012 poll), but were dealt a setback by Denmark, losing 1-0 in their opening match. Up next for the men in orange is Germany, which is always a tasty fixture, but one that will take on some extra urgency as the Dutch must win to have any hope of going through. Coach Bert van Marwijk blamed the referee, saying his side was denied a "1000%" penalty, but they weren't helped by a litany of missed chances by Robin van Persie, nor van Marwijk's insistence on playing with two defensive midfielders instead of an additional attacker.
The fears of racism and violence marring the tournament look well-founded. In the buildup to the tournament, there were widespread fears that incidents of racism and violence -- depressingly common in Eastern European football -- could blight events. Things on this front kicked off when onlookers in the Polish city of Krakow aimed monkey chants at the Dutch team during practice, an incident which UEFA (unsurprisingly) chose not to investigate. Since then, UEFA has punted on the issue, asking authorities to ensure that enough police are around "to prevent any display of discriminatory or racist behavior", such as the racist abuse directed at Italy's Mario Balotelli and the Czech Republic's Theodor Gebre Selassie. The latter of those incidents involved Russian fans, who in an instance of non-racial violence, also beat up some stadium stewards at their match after they tried to stop another fan from throwing fireworks onto the pitch. Expect more incidents at and around today's Russia-Poland match, played on Russia's national day and on the back of a lot of history and dislike between the two countries. It's also worth a reminder where World Cup 2018 will be played: Russia. Will any of this have an effect on that? Of course not.
It's frustrating to talk about this stuff, rather than the actual goings-on on the field, but until UEFA, FIFA and the individuals leading those groups choose to take substantive steps to improve the situation, they need to be called to account.
Recapping the groups so far:
In Group A, Poland drew 1-1 with Greece in a match that saw both teams finish with 10 men, while Russia stomped the Czechs 4-1. Russia look like a sure thing to go through the group, the two questions are who will join them, and if they can make a dent in the knockout stages. Their match against Poland today will go a long way towards answering both. And despite scally's best intentions, Greece are going home.
As noted above, Group B saw a big upset in Denmark's 1-0 win over the Netherlands. Keep in mind that Denmark are ranked #9 in the world, so they're a good side, but this is a surprise. Holland will have to dig deep against Germany on Wednesday if they don't want to be on the plane home. Germany, 1-0 winners over Portugal, won't feel the same pressure, but a win would see them guarantee a place in the group stage. Denmark will be looking to win over Portugal and all but seal their passage through in Wednesday's early match.
Over in Group C, the Italy-Spain draw passed some attention on to Croatia's 3-1 dismissal of Ireland, but the first match was played out between the two best teams in this group, who should be able to pass through to the knockout stages. But Croatia is no pushover, and Italy will have to play well on Thursday to put them away. There's no reason to think that Spain will have any trouble with Ireland, but don't underestimate Spain's ability to undercut itself.
Group D saw the surprise of the Ukraine beating Sweden, a result which will build the home fans' hope that they can get through the group at the expense of either France or England, who played out a 1-1 draw. The English media is largely falling into its usual routine of judging the team by some heightened expectations, but Roy Hodgson's tactics largely bore fruit, and a draw is a good result against the group's best team. There's still all to play for in this group, so Friday's matches will prove very interesting, with Sweden up against England and Ukraine taking on France.