The 13th edition of the European Championships started out in decent fashion today, as both games had their exciting moments and neither ended in draws. The picks of many to advance from Group A, Portugal and the Czech Republic, both came away with victories, setting up a showdown in Geneva between the two in four days’ time. That game will likely determine the group winner, but before we get there, let’s take a look back at the opening day of Euro 2008.
In the first game, co-host Switzerland had the crowd in Basel firmly behind them against their opponent, Karel Brückner’s Czech Republic. While his team seemed content to sit back and defend in their 4-5-1 for most of the first half, the Swiss came out as the aggressors and created several chances sprung by their wide men, Tranquillo Barnetta and Valon Behrami. On the rare occasions that the Czech Republic did push forward, Switzerland was able to build dangerous counter-attacks, and Alexander Frei forced Petr Cech to make two good saves, one from long range and the other coming from in tight as Frei bore down on the Czech goalkeeper from an angle.
Frei was forced to come off with a knee injury right before halftime, one that left the team’s captain and all-time leading goal scorer in tears. At the time, it didn’t seem like a huge blow because the Czech Republc had done absolutely nothing in the first half to convince anyone that they’d be able to score, and it seemed inevitable that Switzerland was going to eventually break through. Jan Koller was nothing more than a statue up front on his own; he can’t run anymore and it didn’t help that his teammates were not playing to his strengths — getting him the ball with his back to goal so he could play it off to a midfielder making a forward run.
It was more of the same in the second half. Switzerland was controlling the game and playing it at their tempo, forcing the Czechs to chase the moving ball all over the field.
The creative Hakan Yakin came on for Frei at halftime and immediately made his presence known by drawing a foul right at the edge of the area and using his terrific passing ability later on. Yakin should’ve been on from the outside in place of Marco Streller, who also looked frozen up top, and the Swiss were made to pay for not being able to push one by Cech when Václav Sverkoš, who had replaced the ineffective Koller in the 56th minute, outfoxed a Switzerland back line that was in the process of pushing up to catch the Czechs offside and managed to sneak in behind them. A lobbed header over the top by right back Zdenek Grygera put Sverkoš in alone, and the Banik Ostrava striker made his first international goal count in the 71st minute. He clearly mishit the ball; he wanted to strike it on the bounce with his laces but kind of shanked it off his ankle, but they all count the same.
After that goal, Switzerland threw everything they had and the kitchen sink at the Czechs, who dropped 10 men behind the ball and relied on a hoof-and-chase style to clear the ball out of their defensive third. Switzerland had a stone cold penalty turned down by Italian referee Roberto Rosetti after Tomáš Ujfaluši clearly handled the ball in the box. Barnetta then picked up the loose ball, forced Cech to dive to his left to push away a smashing, low left-footed shot, and Johan Vonlanthen put the bouncing rebound off the crossbar. Seconds before full time, another questionable use of the upper arm in the area by a Czech player went unnoticed by Rosetti, and the match ended 1-0 despite the fact that Switzerland deserved a better fate.
Today’s second game wasn’t nearly as dramatic; Portugal dominated Turkey for large stretches and were unlucky to only win 2-0 as Nuno Gomes hit the crossbar and a post and Cristiano Ronaldo’s beautiful curving free kick in the first half was parried off the post by Turkish goalkeeper Volkan Demirel.
Real Madrid’s Pepe had had his header off a corner kick disallowed due to a correctly called offside in the 17th minute, but he more than made up for it with the beautiful one-two between himself and Nuno Gomes that resulted in Pepe walking in alone on goal. The center back coolly finished the play like he was an experienced striker. It had taken just over an hour for Portugal to finally break through, and the goal seemed to break Turkey’s spirit a little bit. Minutes later, the aforementioned Nuno Gomes, who wore the captain’s armband in this game, nodded Cristiano Ronaldo’s good cross off the crossbar.
Turkey huffed and puffed but never did enough to equalize, and Raul Meireles’ first international goal sealed the deal in the 93rd minute. It was created by Ronaldo (who else), who slid a right-footed through ball from the left wing to João Moutinho, who was streaking into the box right down the middle. Moutinho’s remarkable turn with the ball onto his right foot left him with only one option as Turkey’s goalkeeper was bearing down on him, and Moutinho laid a soft pass onto Meireles. Meireles had the net at his mercy and Portugal finished the game in style after outshooting their opponent 16-6 over the course of the game.
I came away most impressed with Switzerland and Portugal, the former of whom I still think will make it out of Group A. The Czech Republic showed me nothing at all except the fact that they obviously miss Tomas Rosicky as their creator in the midfield, and Turkey are good technically but just don’t offer much going forward. Switzerland and Turkey play each other in four days, and the loser of that game will be eliminated from contention — perhaps not mathematically, but for all intents and purposes, the loser is done. Even a draw doesn’t help much for either team, so that should be a fun game to watch. I expect Portugal to wipe the floor with the Czech Republic, perhaps 2-0 or 3-1 if the Czechs really get their scoring boots on.
Group A Standings (after one game):
1. Portugal (3 points, +2 goal differential)
2. Czech Republic (3 pts, +1)
3. Switzerland (0 pts, -1)
4. Turkey (0 pts, -2)
The four teams in Group B open up their respective accounts tomorrow, with co-hosts Austria meeting Croatia in the early game and Germany looking to “blitz” through their Polish neighbors once again in the second match of the day.