Euro Kickoff

Preview: Russia and Czech Republic

The opening games in group stages for competing nations can be snooze fests. To put a positive spin on things, commentators like to use the word “tense.” No one wants to lose, since a defeat puts teams behind the eight ball straightaway. Let’s hope Russia and the Czech Republic – two teams that face off in the second match of Euro 2012 at Municipal Stadium in Wroclaw, Poland – buck the trend and go for three points.

What's on the line?

More is at stake for Russia. Dick Advocaat’s men are the clear favorites in what is otherwise a wide-open group. Russia will be buoyed by its semifinal showing at Euro 2008. The Czechs have history at the European Championship, too -- finalists in England in 1996 and semifinalists in 2004. A win for either team, and already the chances of progressing to the quarterfinals greatly improve.

Style and tactics:

When the Czechs landed in the final four eight years ago – only to be stifled by Greece – they played a pleasing, attacking game led by Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros (still around) and Karel Poborsky. With the current squad unable to match that individual quality, it’s now all about organization and nicking a goal. The Czech Republic’s 1.5 goals per game in qualifying were tied for second fewest among Euro 2012 qualifiers, and keep in mind that it played in a tame group that, besides Spain, featured Scotland, Lithuania and Liechtenstein.

Michal Kadlec, whose father captained the 1996 team, led the Czechs with four goals in qualifying – as a defender. Three came from the penalty spot.  

Russia, defending and going forward, has the Czechs beat. Only Italy allowed fewer goals in qualifying, and the Russians possess far more flair up front. Russia captain Andrey Arshavin will be one of the three in a 4-3-3, a formation Advocaat opted for rather than the previous 4-4-2. Roman Shirokov, a two-way midfielder who had a fine season with Zenit St. Petersburg, adds support in the middle of the park.  

Players to watch:

For the Czech Republic: Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky

For all the talk of Didier Drogba, Cech’s contribution to Chelsea in its run to Champions League glory this past season shouldn’t be forgotten. He was outstanding. Cech, however, flopped at Euro 2008, which should give him even more motivation at Euro 2012. Rosicky was revitalized at Arsenal, coinciding with his switch to a more central position in midfield, the role he occupies for the national team. Plus, he’s fit after a calf injury.

For Russia: Andrey Arshavin, Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Alan Dzagoev

What do Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov have in common? They couldn’t cut it in the Premier League with London’s Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea, respectively, and returned to Russia. But Arshavin, in particular, remains Russia’s chief playmaker. Kerzhakov, the former Sevilla man, fills the slot of lone striker, and Dzagoev, who scored four times in qualifying, completes the attacking trio.

What we can expect?

Fresh off an uplifting 3-0 win against Italy, Russia will look to take the game to the Czechs. After downing the 2006 world champion, even if it was only a friendly, beating the Czechs is an easier task. The Czechs, meanwhile, will be content to soak up pressure and try to hit Russia on the counter.

Intangibles:

Logic dictates that if Russia scores first, the goal-averse Czechs will find it hard to recover. However, if the Czechs open the scoring, Russia could be in trouble; it is winless in eight European Championship games when conceding first. And, already without key central defender Vasili Berezutski, Russia is sweating on the fitness of first-choice keeper Igor Akinfeev.

Baros, who led Euro 2004 in scoring, is dealing with a thigh injury. He isn’t as prolific as he was eight years ago, but Baros is an inspirational figure nonetheless and his absence would be a blow.

Who'll win?

Expect Russia to snap its three-game losing streak in Euro openers and win. Prediction: 2-0. For the Czechs to earn a point, Cech will have to be in top form.   



 

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

 

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