The group stages of Euro 2012 have now concluded and as ever the tournament has lived up to its high expectations. The World Cup may bring the exotic flair of the South American and African teams to a global audience but as a whole package it never matches the overall quality of the European Championships. Not a single goalless draw and each match filled with either excitement or intrigue, it’s time to look back over a highly enjoyable group stage.
Group A: The group that finished upside down
The group began with the Russians flying out of the traps and finished with the Russians flying home prematurely. After hammering the Czechs 4-1 on the opening night, in which Andrey Arshavin’s identical twin brother returned to the side for the first time since Euro 2008, the Russians looked clear favourites to progress as group winners. Even with Aleksandr Kerzhakov doing his best Ade Akinbiyi impression they were firmly established as everybody’s dark horses, but lacklustre second half performances against Poland and Greece saw them take an early flight home. Arshavin, ever the role model, clashed with fans on the way home stating it was simply their problem the players had not met their expectations, not his.
Poland started well against Greece but having missed chance after chance and playing the better football seemed to implode under the pressure of home expectation. Unfortunately the opening 45 minutes were the best they produced and despite looking promising and being the choice of many neutrals to progress, they finished bottom of the group with just two points.
After their heavy defeat on opening night, the Czech Republic picked up solid and relatively uninspiring victories against Greece and Poland to finish the group as winners. This was all the more remarkable when you consider they had a striker in Milan Baros who last had a goal threat sometime in 2007 and an attacking midfielder in Tomas Rosicky who seems to have an allergy to the penalty area (maybe they have different grass in there and he’s a big hayfever sufferer?). The Greeks do what they did best and without seemingly being paid any attention managed to sneak through with a surprise win over Russia, leapfrogging them into second place.
Stat of the group: Russia’s final group game nearly had to be postponed after Aleksandr Kerzhakov blasted all the balls out of the stadium during his pre-match shooting practice.
Group B: Not the group of death
Since we are contractually obliged to name one group in any tournament ‘The Group of Death’, Group B was awarded this honour as soon as the draw was made. However as the games unfolded it appeared to be anything but, with the Germans finishing with three wins out of three despite not needing to get out of second gear. Mario Gomez produced the form that produced a truckload of goals this season, leaving every Spurs fan wondering why he played like a pub player (after several drinks) during the Champions League final.
Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal finished in second place, with their top man finding his form in the final game against the Dutch both in terms of his performance and his ability to ensure everyone was looking at him at every possible opportunity. Even Pepe behaved himself (a huge achievement) and Portugal look to be a very solid unit who are very dangerous on the counter attack, and like the Germans, are serious contenders.
Denmark put up a good fight with Nicklas Bendtner putting in an early application for advertiser of the year with his Paddy Power pants stunt. A big round of applause goes to UEFA for dishing out a bigger fine to Nick than for the racist abuse of black players, covering themselves in glory once again. After a shock(ish) defeat of the Netherlands in the opening game they came up just short against both Portugal and Germany, finishing in third place.
The Dutch proved to be a collection of highly talented individuals with egos bigger than the Goodyear blimp (shocking I know), playing without any cohension and exiting the tournament without a single point to their name. The choice to play Rafa Van Der Vaart as one of two central midfielders in the final game against Portugal produced the expected results; scoring a great goal but leaving the team hopelessly open.
Stat of the group: When aggregated, the collective ego of the Dutch players was found to be large enough to span the entire continent of Europe. Arjen Robben’s alone was the size of Russia.
Group C: The group of 3 teams
The most predictable of the all the groups – this finished exactly as most predicted. There was a lot of tiki-taka, Mario Balotelli followed his one good moment with the inevitable stupid one, Croatia played some splendid football with Luka Modric particularly shining and Ireland were crap but the fans had a good time (unless you’re Roy Keane obviously).
Spain topped the group with an opening draw against Italy, most notably distinguished by playing a team of midfielders, a comfortable win over Ireland and a relatively hard-fought victory over Croatia. They played their usual, flowing brand of football dictated by the ever wonderful Xavi and never really looked in any danger.
Italy (my dark horses from before the tournament for what it’s worth), followed their opening draw with Spain with another against Croatia before victory over Ireland and sealed second spot. The first two matches were affected by their adaptation to a brand new system which hindered their fluidity but as ever they are set up for tournament football and will be very difficult to beat.
Mario Mandzukic announced himself to the world (and probably sealed a big summer move) with some important goals as Croatia continued to produce the lovely football they’ve become known for. However they just did not have enough to pip Italy into second place. Bottom of the group were the Irish who were so pathetic that even Fernando Torres scored twice against them. Trappatoni’s insistence to prepare for the tournament with a vigorous, extended training camp seemed only to serve the purpose of leaving the team bored and exhausted resulting in three defeats and only one goal scored. There were mitigating circumstances of course; any team with Keith Andrews in midfield and Richard Dunne at the back is bound to be ‘limited’ at best.
Stat of the group: Xavi completed more successful passes in any 30 second period of any group game than James Milner has in his life.
Group D: The group of Zlatan
Roy Hodgson’s English army topped the group against almost all expectations (including their own it seems) in the most Roy Hodgson way imaginable. The team were structured and disciplined, playing with a solid defensive shape that proved to be so tough to break through, whilst they took their chances when needed. It may not be beautiful but it works and it’s the best chance England has of making real progress. An opening draw with France was followed by an exciting 3-2 victory over Sweden and an efficient 1-0 victory over hosts Ukraine, leaving England as group winners.
France finished as runners up with a win, draw and loss to show for their three games. Backed my many people before the start of the tournament, they’ve not really produced the kind of form most expected and were a disallowed Ukrainian goal away from missing out. Defeat to Sweden in the final round of matches leaves a very daunting tie against Spain ahead although just imagine how bad they’d have been if Domenech had still been in charge.
Co-hosts Ukraine began with victory over Sweden, leaving us all a bit misty-eyed as Andriy Shevchenko rolled back the years with two goals. Defeat to both France and England finished their campaign and they exit their own tournament early.
Sweden finished bottom of the group with only a final day victory over France to their credit however their position in the tournament was fully justified, as we all got to enjoy Zlatan at his imperious best. From the casual swig of Joe Hart’s drink to the glorious volley against France, Zlatan was everything we’ve come to love about him. With Sweden eliminated and being asked by a journalist who he thought would win the tournament he simply replied “I don’t give a sh*t who wins. I’m going on a holiday.” Just brilliant.
Stat of the group: Zlatan has more talent in his little finger than James Milner has in his entire body (I know I’m picking on Milner but he’s hardly helped himself).