Tuesday, 12 June 2012

EURO 2012: The Joy And The Pain

As good as it got...

Even as I shamelessly cheered on, and promoted, the prospects of the Irish before Euro 2012 began, I had the sneaking feeling that the excitable atmosphere we'd created for ourselves in Poland would be punctured like a balloon.

We’d never lost an opening match. We’d never conceded more than two goals in a finals game. We’d gone fourteen matches unbeaten prior to the tournament, conceding only three goals. We’d never lost a competitive away game under Giovanni Trappatoni. And Poznan was full of the best fans in the world.

In short, we were setting ourselves up for a fall even before the Croatia game began.

After the match, even Roy Keane, so fiery in his playing days, had a look of resigned acceptance on his face. The 3-1 defeat was a fair reflection of the game, and no matter how many times we tell ourselves, “If James McClean had come on instead of Simon Cox, if that second goal had been rightly disallowed, and if we’d been given a penalty, we’d have drawn or won the match”, who are we really fooling but ourselves?  Contrary to what the game’s most dramatic moments may lead you to believe, this was no heroic defeat; more a grim realization that we simply might not have enough gifted footballers to compete at this level. Only Sean St. Ledger and Keith Andrews can really come away from the match with their reputations enhanced.

England have had somewhat better luck. They may still be waiting for an opening victory in the European Championship finals, but the result and performance versus France sets them up nicely for their remaining group matches. An unfortunate excursion into “playing like Chelsea” (in Patrice Evra’s words) during the last half hour, where France seemed to be doing nearly all the passing and probing while England sat back and tried to hit them with half-baked breakaways, could be forgiven. I especially admired Roy Hodgson’s decision to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in place of either Theo Walcott or Stewart Downing, one that paid off effectively. (Although I still don’t rate James Milner.)


Group A... The Sunday Times were right to liken Russia to Willy Wonka. This team's full of pure imagination, but there's no knowing where they're going! For all their pace and exciting play, I find the team to be rather sloppy and wasteful, so I struggle to see them getting past the quarter finals.

Meanwhile, both Poland and Greece will know that they’ve wasted a golden opportunity to pick up three points, though the fact that the Czech Republic look like nothing special either might just work in their favour.

Group B... Could easily have been called Group "D", with both games providing Drama and Disappointment in equal measure. But the early headlines were all about Danish Delight and a Dehli-catessen (groan) as Denmark swiftly exposing Holland’s championship pretensions in a 1-0 win. Sure, it was “one of those days” for the Dutch, but the bottom line was that Denmark looked like scoring every time they came forward, while Holland didn’t. The question now is, will Holland bounce back against the Germans?

The other question is: Do we want them to? In my view, there’s few better moments for a neutral football fan than seeing the Germans score goals and win games (who’d have thought I’d be saying that a decade ago?) and Mario Gomez’s first goal at a major finals could do wonders for his confidence. Moreover, even if Holland lose against the Germans, it might not be the be all and end all for them if they beat Portugal and results go their way. It’s that sort of group.

It’s just a pity that the Germany-Portugal match, until Gomez’s strike “woke it up”, was utterly dour and conservative. Ronaldo, Nani and Schweinsteiger – where were those long range shots we know you can hit? Fingers crossed we see more of them in future games…

Group C... A win for either Italy (a team of temperamental forwards) or Spain (a team of no forwards) would have relieved the pressure considerably on Ireland. Now, it's raised the stakes for the next game, entertaining though the recent 1-1 draw was (although, like Germany vs. Portugal, it only really took off once the opening goal went in).

Sigh. Where’s Frank Stapleton when you really need him?

Group D... Ukraine vs. Sweden looked like the dullest fixture in the list so far before kick off, but it’s turned out to be one of the most joyous matches, with Andriy Shevchenko rolling back the years in front of a sea of yellow and blue. The sentiment and spirit on show helped obscure the limits of both sides, which could yet be exposed by both France and England. Or could it? Will the win and home support inspire the Ukranians to top the group and eliminate either the French or the English?

It’s been that sort of tournament. For better or worse, there’s almost never been a dull moment – and here’s hoping it stays that way!

I’ll be back on June 16 to review the next series of matches. In the meantime...

Enjoy the games!

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