POZNAN, Poland – Quick: name the club with the most Man of the Match awards so far at Euro 2012. Barcelona? Not quite. Bayern Munich? Close, but it falls short as well. Try unfashionable Bundesliga side Vfl Wolfsburg, whose players have garnered three such awards so far. (Real Madrid tied the mark when Cristiano Ronaldo earned the accolade for his brace against the Netherlands on Sunday.)
The irony is that all three players are in wildly different places within the context of the Lower Saxony club. One could even make the case that when combined with the other Euro 2012 players on the club’s books, they comprise Wolfsburg’s band of misfits.
Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic has lit up the tournament with three goals but has been declared surplus to requirements by Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath, who has said he’ll accept the first “fair offer” and insists that the Croat was uncoachable.
The Czech Republic’s Vaclav Pilar, whose scintillating play down the left wing helped rescue his team’s bid for the knockout stages after an early defeat to Russia, has yet to play a game for Wolfsburg, having been sold to the club last January but deciding to delay joining up with the team until after Euro 2012.
Then there is Pilar’s Czech teammate, Petr Jiracek. The Man of the Match in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Poland joined up with Wolfsburg in January yet found playing tough to come by down the stretch. In his last four league games, he was twice pulled off at halftime and was an unused sub in the other two. That fact, not to mention his game-winning goal against the Poles, saw him draw special praise from Czech manager Michal Bilek.
“I’m very happy about [Jiracek],” he said. “In Wolfsburg he didn’t play much towards the end of the season and in the preparation matches it was clear he was not in his top form. But he was improving, and I know that he is now fit. He managed to be fit very fast, and now he’s Man of the Match, he scored goals…He deserves it, his form is excellent.”
Technically, those three aren’t the only Wolfsburg players in the tournament either. Denmark defender Simon Kjaer is also participating, even as he was forced to go on loan at Roma. For his part, Kjaer has stated he will never play for Magath again. It leaves one to wonder how the other three will fair with Magath – as stern a taskmaster as there is in the coaching ranks –once the tournament is over.
As for the international coaches of the aforementioned trio, they’ll be hoping more Man of the Match awards are in the offing.
By Scott Regan and Jason York, ESPN Stats & Info
The Czech Republic and Greece each recorded 1-0 wins Saturday in the final day of play in Group A to advance to the knockout round, though they each took a different path to get there.
Greece withstood a high-end attacking effort from Russia to book its place in the knockout round. Russia finished with 193 completed passes into the attacking third and 260 touches in that area though it ultimately could not score a goal.
In contrast, Greece was not nearly as busy and converted one of its few chances. Greece completed as many passes overall (193) as Russia completed into the attacking third alone.
Greece has made the most of its limited scoring opportunities at this tournament. Greece has created a tournament-low 10 scoring chances (passes that lead directly to shots) in three group stage matches, including only four against Russia, but managed to score one goal in each of those games.
Giorgos Karagounis’ game-winning goal continued a scoring trend for Greece. It has scored all three of its goals thus far in the penalty area and, since 1980 at the EUROs, Greece has scored 11 of its 12 goals in the box from an average distance of 9.2 yards.
Poland was unable to generate any offense in the second half against the Czech Republic and star Polish striker Robert Lewandowski disappeared in the final 45 minutes for the third straight game.
Lewandowski had only eight touches in the second half against the Czech Republic, which tied him for the fewest of any starting Polish outfield player, and none of those touches came in the penalty area.
The Czech Republic completed 413 passes against Poland, its most in the group stage. The Czech’s completion percentage of 81.1 percent was also its highest to date in the tournament.
By James Tyler
Quite a few big nations have labored at Euro 2012 thus far. Recurring issues of ego and self-doubt are plaguing the Dutch, England is slowly growing into its latest evolution, and Italy's two-striker set has yielded just two goals -- and two draws. Yet the consensus for best team so far might fall upon Germany thanks to its resilient 1-0 win over a testy Portugal and a rather comfortable dismembering of the talent-rich Dutch. But if results Sunday swing in a curious direction -- the entire tournament to date has been rich with unpredictability -- it could well find itself eliminated.
Nothing makes me think Die Mannschaft and Jogi Low will fall foul of the permutations, but there is one scenario that puts Mesut Ozil and company on an early flight home.
Germany is not quite through, but will be as group winners (meaning a match against Greece in Gdansk) if they draw. It will be knocked out, though, if it loses to Denmark by any result other than a one-goal defeat in which Germany score at least two AND Portugal win.
If anything, the sheer does-not-compute scenario (while unlikely) is just another example of how enjoyable the tournament has been to date. We've seen 46 goals scored in 16 games, a boredom-busting 2.88 per game average. And expectations for the Group of Death have thus far been paid in full in that all four teams still have a shot at making the quarterfinals heading into Sunday's games. Indeed, only two teams of the 16 are playing for pride in the final round of the group stage; we can only hope that the knockout stages bring a similar sense of excitement.
Yet Germany's position -- the Euros' dominant team and the only side with two wins, but still not safe -- is not one that happens often at the Euros. In fact, it's never happened before; no team with six points after two games has failed to qualify for the next phase since the current 16-team format began in 1996. (The closest was Italy's elimination in 2004; finishing on five points, a 2-all draw between Sweden and Denmark rendered the Azzurri irrelevant that year given UEFA's hierarchy of tiebreakers. Wilder yet is that the same could happen to Italy on Monday.)
But given how wild this summer of soccer has been so far, Germany's status in the Group of Death -- equal parts powerful and precarious -- is not one to be taken lightly.
It’s around four in the afternoon on Day Nine of Euro 2012. The sky over Wroclaw is full of white streaks that look more like airplane vapor trails than clouds. About four guys wearing red and white shirts are outside a café on Olawska Street. They’ve stopped to serenade a couple of young ladies. “Polska, bialo-czerwoni,” they sing. The women, also wearing red and white, respond in kind, singing the two-word song with their arms raised, heads back and eyes closed. Before long, more passersby stop to join the song.
I know what they’re saying but only in a literal sense. Bialo-czerwoni means red and white, but it carries significance beyond color alone. Whenever I ask a Polish fan to translate, he or she struggles to do so. English can’t do it justice. The meaning is too Polish. Polska, bialo-czerwoni describes the color and the people at once, as the same thing.
I also know why they’re singing—tonight the Polish team plays the Czech Republic and Poland must win to continue—but just as I don’t understand the fullness of the words, I don’t understand the full significance of why, outside of the game, today is such a big day for this country. It’s hard for me to put into perspective.
I ask a passing couple—Sylwia and Andrew—to help. Andrew is Canadian but Sylwia is Polish and they both stand for a moment, looking at each other, scratching their heads. They mention that Poland has to win tonight to move on, but I know it goes beyond the team. What about for the country? I ask.
“It’s not like anything we have back home,” Andrew tells me. “Can you imagine the Super Bowl with nations?”
No. I can’t.
Minutes later I talk to Mike, a recruitment consultant from Gdansk. “We’ve never won anything, really, you know? So this is a moment to take a step forward for us,” he tells me. Then he thinks about it a little more and says, “For the Polish people, this is the biggest thing we’ve ever done.”
Tonight, then, when the Polish team takes the field, the tournament will reach a sort of high point: the most important moment during the most important event in recent Polish history.
The fans here are ready. They’re smiling and singing. There’s a jazz band on stage but they’re chanting over the horns and the bassline.
I hope tomorrow I’ll hear them chanting too.
I had another travel day Friday, which means I was stuck on a train instead of where I should be, with the people. I'm now in Wroclaw, the last stop on my Euro 2012 tour of Poland. Here are three quick thoughts:
1) Wroclaw vs. the Fan Zone.
Wroclaw’s old town is rumored to be among the most beautiful in all of Poland. Last night, I walked through the neighborhood and was struck by the unique architecture and well-maintained old buildings. I’ll have to come back if I want to get a better feel for the place, however, because the fan zone in Wroclaw—and the head-high purple fence that surrounds it—is right in the middle of the city’s old town. In Gdansk and Warsaw, the fan zones are centrally located and yet out of the way. Unfortunately, the fan zone in Wroclaw is very much in the way. Imagine a fenced-in festival ground on the streets of New Orleans’s French Quarter. There’s not enough open space. It’s a square peg in a round hole. It makes everything feel claustrophobic.
2) No matches for Krakow?
Everywhere I go in Poland, people ask me about my itinerary. When I say I’m only visiting three big cities—Warsaw, Wroclaw and Gdansk—they wonder why I’m not going to Krakow. Krakow is Poland’s second biggest city and its most popular tourist destination. It’s a university town and a center for art and culture. So why isn’t it a Euro 2012 host city?
The official answer, I’ve been told, is that Krakow’s host city application "just wasn’t very good compared to the other applicants." This answer seems a little too convenient for me. What if the United States hosted the World Cup and Los Angeles wasn’t selected as a host city? There would be some political fallout for sure. When it comes to Krakow, we may have to wait until after the Euro Cup if we want a satisfying answer.
3) On Poland’s Rivals.
Yesterday, I spoke at length with a Polish computer scientist named Artur. We talked about the crowd trouble on Tuesday and I wondered what it’s like in Poland when the National Team plays its other big rival, Germany. “Are things as tense?” I asked.
The answer, in short, is no. Both sets of supporters have their hooligans, to be sure, but the German and Polish supporters don’t clash like the Polish and Russian supporters do. They may share a troubled past but Germany and Poland are more economically integrated than Poland and Russia, which may explain some of the difference.
For Artur, it’s more about manners than anything. On Tuesday night, the Russian supporters in the stadium unveiled a giant banner that read, “This is Russia.” After bringing it up, Artur paused and shook his head. “The Germans would never do that,” he said.
KIEV, Ukraine – Before delving into Ukrainian air travel, I have to mention former French international Christian Karembeu again. Never met the guy and have nothing against him personally. I’m sure he’s nice enough.
But entrusted with picking the sponsors’ man of the match in England’s action-packed 3-2 win against Sweden in Kiev on Friday, he chose Swedish defender Olof Mellberg.
Did Karembeu suddenly go out for a drink after 60 minutes, not realizing England actually triumphed and Theo Walcott scored the tying goal and set up the winner as a sub? Yes, great finish by Danny Welbeck on England’s third goal, but Mellberg was meant to be marking the Manchester United striker. Mellberg was also in the vicinity on Andy Carroll’s opener for England.
No wonder Mellberg looked sheepish when handed the man-of-the-match award in the postmatch press conference. Mellberg and teammates will be on a plane back to Sweden on Wednesday.
And on the subject of planes ... I’d never flown with a Ukrainian airline before and so didn’t know what to expect. I’d gone online to look at reviews of airlines, glancing at Skytrax, self-proclaimed as “the world’s largest airline review site.” I chose to take all my internal flights with Ukrainian International, the official airline of the Ukraine national team. Somehow it made me feel safer knowing that millionaires Andriy Shevchenko and Anatoliy Tymoschuk routinely fly in its planes. (I watch too much of "Air Crash Investigation," I know.)
Still, when determining what star rating Skytrax had given Ukrainian International, I was hoping for three. I looked down the list of three-star airlines, which included American Airlines, Delta and Air Canada.
Please be there.
But no, there was no Ukrainian International.
Darn, please don’t be a one star.
It wasn’t. Instead, it surfaced in the two-star category. The nerves increased when I saw the other airlines in the two-star range. However, I gained a bit of comfort in spotting Ryanair, the budget European company that I’ve flown regularly for city breaks.
Putting me more at ease were these passages on Wikipedia: “UIA is the only airline in the CIS which performs full technical maintenance for its own fleet” and “on the 2001 Papal visit to Ukraine, UIA was the official carrier of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.” Was it true? Not sure.
Who cares? Ignorance is bliss.
As it turns out (so far!), I was overreacting, which has been known to happen. Far from a twin engine, the planes I’ve been on have seemed fairly modern and similar to other airlines with heftier reputations. Boeings, too. On my journey from Kharkiv to Kiev on Thursday, former England international Chris Waddle was on board. In business class, of course, and I also saw ex-Swedish manager Lars Lagerback. I asked for an exit seat and my wish was granted. The extra legroom makes all the difference.
It’s happening less and less at airports around the world, but on all the internal flights, buses have transported passengers to the plane and then to the terminal building when in the arrival city.
When entering the terminal building in Kiev, the first sight that greeted passengers was an odd baggage carousel. This, honestly, had to be the shortest one you’ll ever see, about 10 yards in total.
I’m guessing there were about 130 passengers on board and many checked in luggage, so hovering around the carousel weren’t “two banks of four” but more like four banks of 15.
One more internal flight to go. I’m sure it’ll be fine.
WROCLAW, Poland – Some Czech fans were drinking at a table at a sidewalk cafe, and as two policemen walked by, they implored each other to keep quiet. “Shhhhh,” the call went up. The policemen were no more than 2 yards past them when the chant went up “Ceska! Ceska!” and everyone in the general vicinity burst into laughter. Even the two cops managed wry smiles.
It’s the kind of scene the organizers of Euro 2012 dreamed about when they were first awarded the tournament in 2007. And it stands in stark contrast to the tension and violence that marred Poland’s game against Russia four days ago, one in which more than 200 people were arrested. More trouble could be brewing, as well. In Warsaw, there are concerns that violence could erupt again ahead of Russia’s last group-stage game against Greece.
But in Wroclaw, almost 190 miles to the southeast, the atmosphere between Poland and Czech fans was beyond cordial, with plenty of good-natured banter going back and forth. At the table full of Czechs, another chant of “Who is Czech? Jump, jump, jump!” went up at a group of Poland fans passing by. The Polish responded by singing “Poland! Red and White!” And smiles were on everyone’s faces. The fact that the two teams will be squaring off today to determine who advances out of Group A was, at least for the moment, pushed into the background.
“The Polish, they like the Czechs,” said Richard, a Czech fan who traveled from Plzen for the match. “We are very surprised. It’s my first time in Poland; it’s been great.”
“The Polish people, very friendly,” said Bobil, another member of the traveling party from Plzen. “The town is beautiful, people are beautiful. Perfect.”
The feeling is mutual. Granted, it takes just a few fans looking for trouble to sour the mood. But around Wroclaw’s fan zone, supporters from both sides milled about, grabbing a meal and a few beers before the game, and there were no hints of trouble.
“It’s been all sweet and smooth,” said Radek, a 39-year-old Poland fan from Bielsko-Biala, with the aid of a translator. “We even traveled together on the same tram, in the same car; everything was fine. In the fan zone, we’ve been having fun with the Czech fans.”
The intensity is bound to increase as kickoff approaches, but for now, all is friendly on the Wroclaw front.
KIEV, Ukraine – We’re at that time at the European Championships. Have your calculators at the ready; fans must wonder who goes through to the next round and who doesn’t if two teams – or more – are tied on points. Hopefully results on the final match day, which begins Saturday, will make it easy for all of us. But there’s bound to be some head-scratching at the final whistle in Group A, B, C or D. Or maybe more than one. Maybe every group will be in chaos.
Here’s the key thing to remember: Unlike at the World Cup, goal difference isn’t the first criterion used. It’s head-to-head instead.
"If two or more teams are equal on points on completion of the group matches, the following criteria are applied to determine the rankings:
a) Higher number of points obtained in the matches played between the teams in question;
b) Superior goal difference resulting from the matches played between the teams in question;
c) Higher number of goals scored in the matches played between the teams in question;
d) If, after having applied criteria a) to c), two teams still have an equal ranking, criteria a) to c) are reapplied exclusively to the matches between the two teams in question to determine the final rankings of the two teams. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria e) to i) apply in the order given;
e) superior goal difference in all group matches;
f) higher number of goals scored in all group matches.
If still unable to separate teams, three more tiebreakers are used, culminating with the dreaded drawing of lots. Note that if only two teams are tied on points and they tied each other in group play, then "d" becomes redundant and overall goal difference applies. Here’s a closer look at potential scenarios.
Russia 4, Czech Republic 3, Poland 2, Greece 1
The easy: To have any chance of reaching the next round, Poland and Greece must win. In Poland’s case, if it does secure all three points, it earns a guaranteed spot in the quarterfinals since it would be taking down the second-place Czechs on Saturday.
Most likely: Russia will beat Greece to clinch the top spot, leaving Poland and the Czechs to battle for second.
Head scratching: If Greece wins and Poland and the Czechs draw, Russia, the Czechs and Greece would be tied on four points. In that case, criterion "a" wouldn’t settle the matter but "b" probably would given Russia’s three-goal win against the Czechs.
Germany 6, Portugal 3, Denmark 3, Netherlands 0
The easy: A German win or draw coupled with a Portugal win or draw against the Dutch would see Germany and Portugal advance. If Portugal and Denmark finish on four points, Portugal goes through based on their head-to-head.
Most likely: The Germans to beat Denmark. If it happens, Portugal is guaranteed second with a point.
Head scratching: There are two scenarios. If Portugal and Denmark win, those two nations (and Germany) would finish on six points. If the Dutch win and Denmark loses, Portugal, the Dutch and Denmark end on three points. In both cases, criterion "a" doesn’t provide the answer, but "b" or "c" likely would. One thing is for certain: A Dutch win by two goals or more and a Denmark loss means the Oranje take second place.
Spain 4, Croatia 4, Italy 2, Ireland 0
The easy: If Italy doesn’t beat Ireland – which was the first side at the Championships to be eliminated – Spain and Croatia advance regardless of the outcome in their game.
Most likely: Spain to beat Croatia and Italy to beat Ireland, leaving Spain and Italy as the top two.
Head scratching: Only one set of results will cause any sort of deliberation: Italy winning, and Spain and Croatia tying. Spain, Croatia and Italy would rise to five points. In this case, "a" and "b" are out. If Spain ties Croatia 1-1, then "e" comes into effect. A draw of 2-2 or higher and the Italians are out based on "c." But a 0-0 would see Italy win the group and Spain finish second ahead of the Croats due to a better group goal difference.
France 4, England 4, Ukraine 3, Sweden 0
The easy: Sweden is eliminated, making it two of three to advance. The only way Ukraine can advance is if it beats England. Even a French loss and Ukraine draw would see France move on based on their head-to-head.
Most likely: Swedish manager Erik Hamren said Friday it would take his team at least 24 hours to recover from being ousted. It might require more time. France to win and England not to lose, giving both nations a spot in the quarterfinals.
Head scratching: This group is easy compared to the others. No three-way ties are possible. If France and Ukraine finish on four points, France wins. If France and England end on four points, overall group goal difference would likely be the deciding factor.
By John Parolin, ESPN Stats & Information
France took control in Group D with a 2-0 win against co-host nation Ukraine after a 56-minute, 53-second lightning delay in Donetsk, the first in-game delay in European Championships history. The last major tournament game to be delayed was in the 1974 World Cup (West Germany vs Poland).
For the second match in a row, Les Blues controlled possession in the attacking third of the field. France posted a 190-112 touches advantage in the final third, and through two games enjoyed a 419-211 advantage over opponents England and Ukraine.
While France only scored once against England in its opener, the possession advantage France’s offense had translated into a pair of goals against Ukraine. Both Jeremy Ménez and Yohan Cabaye finished passes from striker Karim Benzema, who added three shots on goal to his pair of assists. Benzema was the fourth player to post a two-assist game this tournament.
Franck Ribéry continued his fine form for France. Ribéry created a game-high four chances for his teammates, and registered 50 touches in the final third. There have been four games this tournament where a single player has recorded at least 50 touches in the attacking third of the field, and France has three (Ribéry in both games and Samir Nasri against England).
After scoring a pair of headed goals against Sweden, Ukraine was 0-for-11 on crosses Friday. Ukraine became the second team to fail to complete a single cross in a tournament match (Czech Republic vs Greece, 0-10).
England scored a come-from-behind victory in Kiev, eliminating Sweden with a 3-2 win thanks to a Danny Welbeck game winner. The English looked like a different side against Sweden than the team that drew with France in its opening match.
The addition of Andy Carroll into the starting lineup paid off when the 6-foot-3 striker headed home a Steven Gerrard cross to give England a 1-0 lead. Carroll’s goal was the third Sweden allowed via header, tied with Portugal for the most in the tournament.
After a Glen Johnson own goal equalized, Sweden took the lead when Olof Mellberg headed home a Sebastian Larsson free kick in the 59th minute. Mellberg’s goal was the fourth by a defender in the tournament (England’s Joleon Lescott, Portugal’s Pepe and Ireland’s Sean St. Ledger), all of which came on headers.
However, the entrance of Theo Walcott changed the game for England. Walcott came on as a sub in the 61st minute, scored the equalizer in the 64th minute. Walcott’s goal was 28.7 yards away from goal, the longest of the tournament and sixth shot from outside the box.
Walcott assisted on Danny Welbeck’s game-winning goal in the 78th minute as well, when Welbeck finished Walcott’s pass to give England the second comeback win of the tournament so far. The first also came against Sweden, when Ukraine fell behind and scored twice to earn a 2-1 win in their opening match.
Sweden’s problems offensively are a big reason they were the second team officially eliminated from Euro 2012. The Swedes completed 85-156 passes in the attacking third of the field (54.5 pct) and rank 14th of 16 teams in attacking third passing percentage.
The inability to move the ball in the attacking third has been consistent among the tournament’s worst teams. The three worst teams in final third passing percentage are all in last place in their groups. Ireland and Sweden are eliminated already, while Greece needs a win against Russia to move out of Group A.
By John Brewin, Senior Editor at ESPNSoccernet
Even on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Roy Keane's message could be heard loud and clear. As he spoke from Warsaw, Poland, for a British TV audience, his words were being discussed in Gdansk even before manager Giovanni Trapattoni was able to have his say. There was a majority agreement with the former Ireland captain's words as we waited for the news conferences. Having great supporters could not mask the pain.
"I think the players and supporters have to change their mentality. It's just nonsense to say how great the supporters are," said Keane, delivering the type of opinion that English TV has wanted all along. "The supporters want to see the players do a lot better and not give daft goals away like that."
Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque offered his take on the vocal response by Ireland supporters to the loss.
"The fans have shown us what football really is," he said.
But he, like Keane, spoke as someone who knows what producing at the top level is about. Hearing 20,000 voices sing "The Fields of Athenry" was tremendously moving but hardly inspirational; as a team, Ireland was finished before the chorus began. Indeed, Cesc Fabregas scored Spain's fourth to the accompaniment of Pete St. John's surprisingly modern folk song.
Though the good times have been cherished, Ireland would still like to be recognized for something other than the high quality of their "sing song," as Keane pertinently described it. Soccer is still the most important thing at Euro 2012. If creating a good atmosphere were a method of qualification, Ireland would be first on the list of invites to every major championship. But it just doesn't work that way.
The key difference to its previous finals campaigns in 1988, 1990, 1994 and 2002 is that, at those tournaments, any "having the craic" situations were paired with some transcendental moments on the field. Even a face-saving win in Poznan against the Italians will not suffice.
Ireland's two matches so far have seen them brutally exposed. The prospect of a highly difficult World Cup qualifying group further compounds the misery. With Germany, Sweden and Austria to face, the boys in green are unlikely to be showing Copacabana Beach how to party Emerald Isle style.
In the meantime, Pomerania will miss them. A late-night Wednesday stroll past the fleshpots of Sopot produced images of a party atmosphere my American colleague described as being akin to spring break. Bars were being closed -- not by the police this time, but because they had simply run out of beer. Polish bars are not used to delivering pints at such a rate despite the country having a considerable beer culture of its own. This was something else. Sopot had transformed into the coastal city that never slept.
Just by Sopot's main square sits the Sheraton Hotel, where the presence of the Irish team could not be avoided considering that a great big team bus with the legend "Ireland" was parked outside its plush front facade. The players may have been tucked in bed, but it would have taken radio-station-style soundproof walls for them not to be aware of the party outside.
The pattern was repeated on game day in Gdansk. Many locals made their way into the city's Old Town to photograph the supporters of Ireland and Spain, but the majority of their snaps will have been of fans in green. As in the stadium itself, Spain was outnumbered four to one. In the main square, a huge cheer went up when a tricolor flag was hung from the top of the cathedral by some daredevil Irishmen.
The Baltic tricity of Gdansk, Sopot and Gydinia offers many contrasts. Yet from dense woodland to the heavy machinery of the huge docks made famous by Lech Walesa, the quaint architecture of the Old Town to the modernity of the vast industrial estates that litter the coastline, it has never quite seen anything like the Irish. More crucially, it has not hosted a team quite like Spain. Ireland certainly could offer not offer a footballing answer to a champion team getting its groove back.
Without success, the excess may be fun while it lasts, but the cold, hard reality is that Ireland is going home. Footballing performances have dictated that Euro 2012 is all over bar the singing.