Group A was supposed to be the weak one at Euro 2012, the cousin no one wants to get stuck talking to at Christmas. Yet here it was, full of intrigue and controversy. If Russia beating the Czech Republic 4-1 was not exactly unexpected, it was nevertheless an enjoyable tussle; the last few dashes of uncertainty prolonged by Vaclav Pilar's goal seven minutes into the second half before Roman Pavlyuchenko set up Russia's third goal and scored the fourth in an impressive 17-minute cameo.
Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin recently left north London (where they played for Tottenham and Arsenal, respectively) having never quite lived up to the stir they had caused at Euro 2008, but both look to be in the kind of form that won people over four years ago. Arshavin, in particular, offered one of the day's major talking points, orchestrating Russia's best play (and thus upstaging Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky, trying to do the same for the Czechs) and chipping in for his own half, too.
There will be inevitable jibes about shop-window soccer (plenty of Europe's managers will be checking the correct pronunciation of Dzagoev), but Russia continues to look like a team at ease with its game, no matter how that style matches up with whomever awaits from Group B in the knockout stage.
Things are not so carefree for Poland and Greece, but an opening match that looked, on paper, to be the least interesting of the entire draw turned into feisty showdown. Co-host Poland hadn't played a competitive match since 2009, but quickly had Greece on the hop with a well-polished (no pun intended) attacking game.
The first saw the Greece of 2008 -- easily rattled and incapable of keeping the ball. A red card issued to defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos left manager Fernando Santos an unenviable task of orchestrating a comeback with 10 men at the interval. Yet the second half brought us the Greece of 2004, fighting for its life and revived by substitute Dimitris Salpingidis. Had Kostas Fortounis been a few inches further from goal when he played the ball in from the left in the 75th minute, Salpingidis's disallowed goal might have been the winner.
The first day's action was a welcome reminder that at its best, soccer is a game in which anything can happen. Group A looked to be chock-full of lemons, and we got lemonade.
Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo will have better afternoons. Or maybe he won't -- he already has a reputation for being card-happy in La Liga, and stayed true to it by booking the Papastathopoulos twice. The first time, the alleged elbow on Robert Lewandowski simply never happened; the second, he collided with an already-falling Rafal Murawski.
Pavlyuchenko ought to have passed the ball long before he put the
1,200 -- the number of costumes used in the opening ceremony in Warsaw. 1,000 -- the number of performers in the opening ceremony in Warsaw. Hmm.
Per Mertesacker has been declared fit for Germany's tournament opener against Portugal on Saturday, and it looks as though Shay Given will be ready for the Republic of Ireland's first game against Croatia on Sunday. The luck wasn't so good for French midfielder Yann M'Vila, who injured his ankle and won't play against England on Monday. Greek defender Avraam Papadopoulos picked up a knock in today's match.
Group B kicks off Saturday, an all-around mouthwatering affair that begins with the Netherlands versus Denmark. When the two sides met at the 2010 World Cup, the Dutch won 2-0, and both managers agree Oranje is the favorites in this showdown. "They have quality players in all positions," said Denmark's Morten Olsen. "They really are a better team." Bert van Marwijk agreed, but said, "that doesn't mean it will be easy for us."
Germany then plays Portugal in Lviv, a match that the German coach Joachim Low is itching to play, knowing that his side is the pick of many for the tournament. They beat Portugal 3-2 four years ago. Paulo Bento's side may have to play without Nani, who faces a late fitness test on his foot.