The phrase "a turn up for the books" came about to describe a bookmaker's good fortune when an unbacked horse won a race, but Saturday's Group A action could be the definition to serve future generations. At the start of the day Russia -- by an easy consensus the strongest team in the group -- topped a table propped up by Greece, with the much-fancied Poland just a point behind Czech Republic in the middle. By its end, the Czechs had moved to the top of the group and progressed with a negative goal difference, and Greece had beaten Russia to follow them through in second.
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The permutations here have baffled plenty of people, since those teams not separated by their points totals are divided according to the result(s) between them rather than by overall goal difference, but the simplest way out of Group A was to win. Poland -- co-hosting, remember, and desperate to get past the group stage for the first time -- and Russia each dominated the opening stages of their encounters with Czech Republic and Greece respectively, but could not turn chances in to genuine heart-stoppers. By halftime Poland was struggling for half-chances; by half time Russia had fallen behind to a thumping Giorgos Karagounis strike.
After that point, Czech Republic grew in composure and ambition while Poland struggled to keep the ball and handled the combined adventures of Vaclav Pilar, David Limbersky, and Petr Jiracek in much the same way Stone Cold Steve Austin would catch butterflies. Once Jiracek slotted the ball home to put his team ahead (having recovered in a split-second from the shock of Milan Baros passing the ball rather than shooting himself), Poland had 18 minutes to score two goals. Russia, having survived a scything Vassillis Torisidis run, a strong penalty claim when Sergei Ignashevich seemed to trip Karagounis, and a Giorgos Tzavellas free-kick that hit the woodwork, needed just the one.
Neither team could quite fashion the opening, though. The inconsistency of Russia's passing, and the consistency with which its shots veered high or wide of Michalis Sifakis' goal (31 attempts, 29 of them off-target) even suggested that a rescue would now be the turn up for the books. The results mean that Group A -- tagged the Group of Dearth before the tournament -- has entertained and surprised from start to finish, and produced two unlikely quarterfinalists. And an unlikely matchup of European economic policy with soccer if, as anticipated, Greece plays Germany in the next round. Puts a whole new spin on "there's money riding on it".
We'll give this one to Karagounis, since he'll have to sit out the quarterfinal having been booked twice in the group stage -- once for diving, having tripped over Ignashevich's shin, a decision that tested the seams of his sanity. It's a goal that Russia will kick themselves for because it came from Ignashevich and Yuri Zhirkov making a hash of dealing with a long throw forward. Karagounis didn't need asking twice and nipped off with the ball before powering it emphatically into the far-bottom corner. "Oi-oi-oi-oi-oi!" indeed.
"It's classic, it's parasite football" -- British co-commentator and former Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Mick McCarthy describes the turnover of play as Czech Republic breaks forward and scores. Poland had actually been under pressure for at least 10 minutes.
Time for the Group of Death, Group B, to pick off its victims. Top-of-the-table Germany plays third-placed Denmark, but with only three points separating them, anything could happen. A win or a draw would keep the Germans top, but if Denmark wins, it gets tricky, because Germany will then be relying on Netherlands (bottom with 0 points) to beat Portugal (second on 3). Portugal will progress with a win over the Dutch, unless -- are you concentrating? -- Denmark wins by a single goal having conceded at least two goals to Germany. The Netherlands has to win by at least two goals and hope that Germany also wins.
There will be some team changes on Sunday. Germany coach Joachim Low will have to find an understudy for Jerome Boateng (suspended), while his counterpart in the Danish dugout will have to choose someone to fill in for Dennis Rommedahl (hamstring). Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder had a thigh massage in training today, but Bert van Marwijk may make only a tactical switch: putting Klaas-Jan Huntelaar up front with Robin van Persie.