The first round of Euro 2012 matches saw more wide open play and less cheating than normal. The refereeing, though spotty, was terrible only in the opening match between Poland and Greece. Here is a brief group-by-group analysis.
Group A (“The Group of Life”)
Russia looked like world beaters in a 4-1 rout of the Czech Republic. The opposition was suspect, but Russia’s 3-0 win over Italy not long ago looks pretty good after Italy’s strong performance against Spain.
The fact is that Russia has a talented squad, including a number of quality holdovers from the team that made the semi-finals in 2008. My main concern about Russia heading into the tournament was the age of the team – at 28.3, it’s the second oldest in the tournament. But if this turns into a problem, it will probably be after Russia advances out of its group.
Poland, by contrast, is the second youngest team in the tournament. It showed, as Poland let Greece off the hook. After nearly running the Greeks off the pitch, and gaining a one man advantage, the Poles were only able to come away with a draw. The Polish side is talented, with three big stars from the great Dortmund team, but will need to play with more maturity to advance.
Group B (“The Group of Death”)
Germany defeated Portugal with a workmanlike performance of the kind the Germans delivered back in the days when they won tournaments. Most encouraging was the defense, in which three youngsters – Boateng, Hummels, and Badstuber – excelled (Germany is the youngest team in the tournament, but many of its young players have plenty of big-time experience). Hummels, the best defender in Germany over the past two seasons for Dortmund, was the top defender in the eight games played so far at Euro 2012, in my opinion.
Denmark’s surprise win over Holland means that this group is wide open. The Danes, the Dutch, and the Portuguese all are legitimate contenders to advance, with Germany likely claiming the first spot.
Group C (“The Group of Debt”)
Spain needs to sort out its attack. However, the pieces are there; the manager just needs to solve the puzzle. The bigger concern is the defense, where Arbeloa showed little at right back, Sergio Ramos (a great right back) struggled at center back, and even Pique underperformed.
Croatia gave us something to think about with a 3-1 thrashing of Ireland, a melange of mostly mediocre players from mid-table EPL teams, or worse. However, Spain and Italy will still be favored to advance.
Group D (The Group of Daft”)
France, which was beyond daft at the last World Cup, looked good in its 1-1 draw with England. In Nasri, Ribery, and Benzema, France has three stellar attackers, with Cabaye behind them to set the offense in motion. But the French center backs looked shaky on the rare occasions when England tested them, and I wonder how Evra would have fared at left-back if England had started a pacier, less defensive-minded right winger than James Milner.
By contrast, England’s back line – led by John Terry, also beyond daft – was outstanding. But the team struggled to play the ball out of its own end, never mind pose a serious challenge to French goal from open play.
England will be happy to have Wayne Rooney back for the match with a formidable looking Ukraine team (2-1 victors over Sweden). But first, England must handle Sweden. Last winter, England did so with aplomb in a “friendly” match, as Kyle Walker and Theo Walcott ran wild down the right flank (like Ukraine did against Sweden at times today). But Walker isn’t in the Euro 2012 squad and Milner was preferred to Walcott today at right wing. It will be interesting to see whether manager Roy Hodgson changes things up against the Swedes.