Monday, 16 June 2008

Euro 2008 Group Stages, Round Two

feature for blogcritics

The Netherlands have been killing it in the Group of Death, Group C. Fresh from their thrilling 3-0 victory over world champions Italy, the Dutch continued their sizzling form by thrashing World Cup finalists France 4-1. After an early goal by Dirk Kuyt, France passed up several chances to level the score. They were punished when Robin van Persie scored following a great cross by Arjen Robben, but then France pulled a goal back when Thierry Henry deflty glanced a Sagnol cross into the net. But within one minute, just when it looked like France might set up an exciting finish, the Dutch restored their two-goal advantage thanks to a wonderful solo strike from Robben. Wesley Sneijder put the icing on the cake in injury-time with a gorgeous 20 yard dipper that hit the crossbar on its way into the net. After two games against both World Cup finalists, the Netherlands have scored seven goals, won both games comfortably, and already won the group. They look unstoppable.

In the other Group C game, Italy were very nearly eliminated from the competition by a determined Romanian side, but the score finished 1-1, meaning both sides still have a chance of following Holland into the next round. A perfectly good Luca Toni goal was wrongly disallowed just before half-time before Romania took a shock lead when Adrian Mutu took advantage of a Zambrotta mistake to rifle the ball into the roof of Buffon's net. Italy were level just a few minutes later thanks to a tap-in from Panucci, but then the referee shocked everyone by giving Romania a very soft penalty. Mutu struck it hard, but Buffon kept it out with a combination of his right hand and right foot. If Romania can defeat the Dutch, they will qualify in second place, sending both World Cup finalists out. Otherwise, whoever wins the match between Italy and France will join the Netherlands in the Last 8.

In Group A, Portugal looked good again in defeating the Czech Republic 3-1. An early goal from the mercurial Deco was soon cancelled out by a great diving header from Czech winger Libor Sionko, who was excellent throughout. But in the second half, Deco set up Cristiano Ronaldo to drill home his first goal of the tournament. As the Czechs piled forward in search of an equaliser, an injury-time breakaway by Ronaldo earned Portugal their third goal, the Manchester United winger unselfishly setting up Quaresma to score into an empty net.

The Switzerland-Turkey game was somewhat farcical in the first half, as torrential rain turned the pitch into a quagmire. The Swiss adjusted to the conditions better, opening the scoring through half-Turkish midfielder Hakan Yakin, who was able to score from a yard out after a crossed ball stuck in the mud in front of goal. Fortunately the rain stopped and the groundsmen did a great job of sorting out the pitch at half-time, allowing the second half to be played like a normal game. That was unfortunate for Switzerland in the circumstances, because Turkey came more into the game, and equalised when substitute Senturk scored from Nihat's cross. In injury-time, the co-hosts were cruelly knocked out of the tournament as Turkish winger Arda cut inside and rifled a shot into the net, via a huge lucky deflection. It was harsh on the Swiss who had played well, but just as in the first game they were unable to take their chances, and were duly punished. Portugal have qualified from Group A, while the Czech Republic and Turkey effectively face a play-off to decide who will reach the next round.

In Group B, Croatia pulled off a big shock by beating tournament favourites Germany 2-1. Dario Srna opened the scoring on 21 minutes, and Ivica Olic (above) was in the right place to tap in a second goal after a shot was deflected off the post. Polish-born striker Lukasz Podolski, who scored twice for Germany against Poland, scored his third of the tournament later on, but midfielder Schweinsteiger was red carded in injury-time to complete a miserable day for the Germans.

The other Group B game, between Poland and Austria, was a minor farce. In an exciting first half, the only goal was scored by a Brazilian, Roger Guerrero, who obtained his Polish passport only last month after living in the country for two years. He was also clearly offside when he scored. But Austria equalised deep into injury-time at the end of the game after English referee Howard Webb mystifyingly awarded a penalty to the co-hosts, with no one quite sure why. 38-year-old Ivica Vastic scored, making him the oldest goalscorer in European Championship history, but really neither Guerrero or Vastic should have had the opportunity to score for either side. Still, the result keeps both countries in with a chance going into the final group game. Austria will have to beat Germany, while Poland will be hoping to beat Croatia. Frankly, neither result looks likely.

Finally, Group D favourites Spain sealed their qualification for the next round with an injury-time winner in a 2-1 win over Sweden. After being so impressive against Russia, the Spanish midfield was mostly nullified by a very well organised Swedish side. Fernando Torres scored the opening goal for Spain, but it was equalised soon afterwards by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Neither side managed to create many chances in the second half and it looked destined to finish level before star man David Villa ran on to a long clearance and rifled home with just seconds left. In the other game, holders Greece were eliminated from the competition with barely a whimper, losing 1-0 to Russia. The Greeks were shockingly defensive in the first game, where they lost 2-0 to Sweden, and again they looked like they had no plan B when things weren't going their way. A 34th-minute goal from Zyryanov was enough to send the Greeks home early. Russia and Sweden will now play off for the second qualification place - a Last 8 match with the Netherlands awaits the not-so-lucky victors.

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