Thursday, 12 June 2008

Euro 2008 Group Stages, Round One

The first round of group games in Euro 2008 is complete, and everybody's talking about two teams — Holland and Spain.

Many pundits, myself included, predicted that the Netherlands would struggle in their impossibly tough group. But they confounded their critics with a magnificent display, beating world champions Italy 3-0. Their first goal, scored by Real Madrid striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, was highly controversial because he appeared to be clearly offside. Commentators and fans agreed that the goal should never have stood, but UEFA have since found a section of the official rule book which suggests the linesman got it right. Italian defender Christian Panucci, who was lying on his back behind the goal, apparently played van Nistelrooy onside because he hadn't asked the referee for permission to leave the pitch. But many fans aren't convinced by this interpretation, so the debate continues.

There was no doubt over Holland's second and third goals, both wonderful examples of counter-attack football scored by Holland's best two players of the night, Wesley Sneijder and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The Dutch have already achieved more than many expected, so who knows what they can achieve now? In contrast, reports suggest that the Italian squad is furious with coach Roberto Donadoni, and they face a major challenge if they are to qualify for the next round.

Elsewhere in Group C, France were held to a disappointing 0-0 draw with Romania in one of the poorest games so far. Romania were understandably playing for a draw, and the French attack was unable to create many chances, or take them. France will now have to beat either high-flying Holland, or world champions Italy, to have any chance of progressing.

Spain provided the other big thrill of the first round of games, demolishing Guss Hiddink's Russia side 4-1. The star of the show was Valencia striker David Villa, who scored a stunning hat-trick. The other goal was scored by Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas, who came on as a substitute late in the game. The fact that he didn't start shows the remarkable strength of Spain's midfield, and Barcelona duo Xavi and Iniesta were wonderful in the middle against the Russians. Liverpool striker Fernando Torres also had a great game, so the Villa-Torres combination is looking ominously dangerous at this stage. Russia, for whom Pavyluchenko scored a late consolation, were shocking in defence, though they looked good in attack.

In Group D's other game, reigning champions Greece showed the weakness of their one-dimensional defensive football when they went down 2-0 to Sweden. The Greeks were completely unable to attack in the normal way — when they had the ball and Sweden sat back, they just did not know what to do. Sweden deservedly beat them without playing too well themselves, though Zlatan Ibrahimovic's opening goal was the kind of spectacular thunderbolt that deserves to win any game on its own. Despite how poor Russia were defensively, I still feel they have a chance of progressing from this group, as Greece look a very poor side and Sweden are only a little better.

In Group A, co-hosts Switzerland were unlucky to go down 1-0 to the Czech Republic in the tournament's opening match. A late goal from substitute Vaclav Sverkos was enough to settle the result, which was harsh on a Swiss side that created much without having the cutting-edge to deliver an equaliser. That could be put down to the loss of captain and star striker Alexander Frei, whose tournament was ended by injury just before half-time. In the other match, a sharp-looking Portugal side beat Turkey 2-0, thanks to goals from centre-back Pepe and an injury-time clincher from Raul Meireles.

Finally, Group B provided the least excitement of them all. Germany comfortably beat Poland 2-0 in a match that was more interesting for the off-field politics and rivalry than for the actual football. Ironically, it was Polish-born striker Lukasz Podolski who scored both goals, and both of them were set up by Polish-born team-mate Miroslave Klose. Podolksi tried his best not to celebrate either goal too much out of respect for his opponents. In the other group match, Croatia squeezed a 1-0 victory over co-hosts Austria, thanks to a 4th-minute penalty from midfielder Luka Modric.

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