Who says the opening game of a tournament must be a cagey and uneventful affair? Poland versus Greece may not have appeared the most appealing of curtain-raisers but the two sides delivered a goal and a sending off apiece as well as a saved penalty. Here, we look at some of the key talking points from the first game of Euro 2012.
Robert Lewandowski got the co-hosts off to a flying start when he put Poland in front from Jakub Blaszczykowski’s right-wing cross. And things soon got better for the Poles when Sokratis Papastathopoulos was controversially sent off before the interval.
But somehow Greece contrived to get back in it after the break through a goal by Dimitris Salpigidis, and when the substitute won a penalty that saw Wojciech Szczesny red carded, Greece had an improbable chance to go ahead. Giorgos Karagounis was denied and the points were shared in an absorbing 1-1 draw. But what really emerged from the opening game of this summer’s European Championship?
The atmosphere at the National Stadium reached fever pitch during the game. The fans of Poland were clearly determined to create a wall of noise and they achieved that by whistling and jeering every time any Greek player touched the ball. That noise transcended down onto the pitch, with the Polish players desperate to produce the goods for the red-clad fans, who screamed themselves into a frenzy every time the co-hosts came forward. If the fans continue with their feverous support, then it could yet carry Poland far in this tournament.
Somewhere, Jose Mourinho will be chuckling to himself with an even greater degree of self-satisfaction than normal. The Real Madrid boss has had a long-running problem with referee Carlos Velasco Carballo’s decision-making in La Liga and the match official’s performance in Warsaw did not exactly impress. The choice to send off Papastathopoulos for two soft, first-half yellow cards was baffling, as was the call not to award Greece a penalty before the break. He then went on to show Szczesny a straight red card in the second half.
Without confidence, Poland are very average. Franciszek Smuda’s side were billed as potential dark horses to go far as co-hosts and they started with plenty of attacking verve and intent. But, after conceding the equaliser early in the second half, they went into their shells as a partisan support faded. They failed to take advantage of their 25-minute 10-man advantage and Lewandowski was eventually forced to work on scraps. This was partly due to some smart tactics by the Greeks, who tightened things up at the back and in the middle of the park. Blaszczykowski and Ludovic Obraniak were finding all sorts of space in the opening 45 minutes. But when that stopped, so did Poland.
Same old Greece. Unbeaten in qualifying and supposedly possessing some extra swagger, but they did a very good first-half impersonation of the side which slumped out of the 2010 World Cup. They may have changed managers, but they still cling to the formula that won Euro 2004. Football has moved on. A pre-red card 4-3-3 formation all too easily slipped into 4-5-1, leaving Theofanis Gekas very isolated. Oddly, they improved after going down to 10 men and circumstances dictated their changes. But if they continue to start games in such a cautious style, they will soon be going home.
Perhaps the first-game fear factor kicked in for the co-hosts during the second half. Poland played with real confidence before the break but even before 10-man Greece equalised, they were on the retreat. After Szczesny’s red levelled things up in terms of numbers, Poland were a team playing more in hope than expectation – crippled by the knowledge that defeat could scupper their quarter-final ambitions on the opening day. A review of the game may reveal to the Polish players that continuing to attack would have been their best option.
Szczesny too keen
Szczesny is one of the stars of the Poland team but at the age of just 22, and in a position that requires a calm head, that’s a lot of pressure when carrying the hopes of a nation. The co-hosts were in total control when a goal and a man up in Warsaw before the Arsenal goalkeeper’s needless lunge at the ball allowed Salpigidis to fire home into a vacated net. He then emerged from his line again to concede a penalty and receive a red card. Poland’s limited central defenders have been a concern for Smuda’s side and it’s tempting to conclude that the young keeper’s enthusiasm to take responsibility and get involved in the game proved his undoing.
Greece knew that the threat would come from the right-side pairing of Lukasz Piszczek and club team-mate Blaszczykowski, who combined to such great effect for the Bundesliga champions last season. But knowing about it and doing something to stop it can be quite different. With two holding midfielders staying deep, Smuda gave Piszczek licence to drive forward in the first half and it reaped dividends. Smuda will surely want to encourage more of that against the Czech Republic on Tuesday.
Salpigidis has definitely given coach Fernando Santos food for thought. The forward was only sent on as a half-time substitute to cover for the red card of Papastathopoulos. But he injected running, work ethic and a constant threat. Salpigidis scored Greece’s equaliser, won their penalty, leading to the red card of Szczesny, and had another effort disallowed for a very tight offside decision. Surely he will start the Greeks’ next game against the Czechs?
Will Karagounis be allowed to take another spot-kick for the Greeks? In fact, will he even play? The midfielder has impressive skill and vision but his lack of mobility was an issue in his prime, and the 35-year-old rarely gets above a canter these days. Sotiris Ninis has already inherited dead-ball duties but the skipper did take responsibility from the penalty spot. But replacement keeper Przemyslaw Tyton guessed right and dived down well to his left to save Karagounis’ placed effort. Given the fine impact that 19-year-old Kostas Fortounis had as a substitute, Greece coach Santos could be faced with a difficult decision about his captain before the tournament is over.