Euro 2012 Day 5: Poland, Russia clash; Czech Republic restores hope
It was a day of howling sirens, blood-spattered pavement and the menacing thump of baton on riot shield as the warnings of violence before Poland's game with Russia proved to be distressingly accurate. As 5,000 Russians marched through Warsaw to celebrate their country's national day, they clashed with Polish hooligans. Police water cannons, tear gas, auditory grenades and 56 arrests were required to restore order.
The game itself was a minor classic, a ferocious encounter of chances at both ends. Russia took a first-half lead, scoring when Alan Dzagoev netted his third goal of the tournament from an Andrei Arshavin free kick. The Arsenal forward, who spent the last five months on loan at Zenit St Petersburg, was in majestic form. Russia threaded skeins of neat passes, but it never showed the same sparkle it displayed during the opening game against the Czech Republic. Poland, on the other hand, attacked with verve and energetic directness.
The lack of mobility at the center of Russia's defense has long been a problem, and it was exposed again on Tuesday. Vyacheslav Malafeev, who might not have even been on the roster if Igor Akinfeev were fully recovered from a knee injury, saved Russia with a number of fine blocks. But even he was beaten after 58 minutes. Jakub Blaszczykowski ran onto Lukasz Piszczek's astute ball inside the fullback, Yuri Zhirkov, before stepping by Sergei Ignashevich and thrashing his finish into the top corner.
Again, it was hard to dismiss the thought that the football at this tournament is far, far superior to that at the 2010 World Cup. In part, that's a credit to the ball, the excellent Tango 12, which unlike the Jabulani, actually behaves in a way that top players can predict. But it's also because of the equality of the field. Unlike at the bloated World Cup, there are no teams merely looking to keep the score down.
Earlier in the day, the Czech Republic restored its hopes of reaching the quarterfinal with a 2-1 win over Greece. Goals from Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar put them ahead 2-0 after just six minutes, and although Theofanis Gekas narrowed the deficit, the Czechs were always in control. The win means a draw against Poland in its final game will be enough to take it through as runner-up, providing that Greece doesn't beat Russia. Russia, meanwhile, needs just one point to ensure its place in the final eight.
This is a tough category given that the Greek goalkeeper Konstantin Chalkias was at fault for both of the Czech Republic goals. But the decision has to go to Petr Cech. Magnificent towards the end of the season for Chelsea, he has returned to his error-laden form of Euro 2008. Cech was arguably to blame for three of Russia's goals in a 4-1 outcome on the tournament's opening day, and then resuscitated a lifeless Greece team by clattering into center back Tomas Sivok and patting a cross to the feet of Theofanis Gekas, who rolled the ball calmly into the empty net.
During the playing of their national anthem, Russian fans unfurled a huge banner that spanned the height of the two-tiered stand, surely the most patriotic display at Euro 2012. It read "This Is Russia" and depicted the warrior prince Dmitry Pozharsky, who led the Russian resistance to Polish-Lithuanian rule in the early 17th century.
Sixth minute -- The time of Vaclav Pilar's goal, a bundling in of a Theodor Gebre Selassie cross to put the Czech Republic up 2-0 against Greece. It was the earliest second goal in any game in European Championship history.
A day after one fixture that resonated with historical significance, another takes place as the Netherlands face Germany in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The sides previously met in the Euro 1988 semifinal in Hamburg, when a Ronald Koeman penalty and a Marco van Basten goal gave the Dutch a win that avenged their defeat in the 1974 World Cup final. Across the Netherlands, fans took to the streets chanting "Give us back our bicycles", a reference to the German occupation during the Second World War when bicycles were confiscated.
"The Germans are very strong, but we can beat them," said a tense Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk. "But I won't tell you how we are going to do that."
If Denmark can avoid a loss to Portugal in the day's early match, a loss at the hands of Germany would officially eliminate the Netherlands.