But Tuesday’s 1-1 between Russia and Poland had some added twists. Given the Czech Republic’s 2-1 win over Greece earlier in the day, the point the hosts gained did nothing to alter their path to the knockout stages. Win and they’re in; anything else will see them eliminated. The same would have been true had the goal by Russia’s Alan Dzagoev in the 37th minute condemned Poland to a defeat.
But while some results are measured in points, others are judged by more intangible qualities, like the self-belief a comeback can generate. After falling behind, the co-hosts drew level through a Jakub Blaszczykowski curler that had venom and placement. And while Poland couldn’t find a way through to claim the game-winner, the draw has generated plenty of momentum, especially when you consider that it occurred against a bitter rival.
“It was important that we score and get this draw, because if we lose this game, I think it would be difficult in the head [going into the Czech game],” said defender Damien Perquis.
There will no doubt be considerable tension heading into that match, but the vibe surrounding Poland is now very different than it was after the draw against Greece. After that match, the doubt could be seen in the faces of the players. Now, it looks like the pressure is being embraced instead of shunned.
“The pressure is always present,” said Poland manager Franciszek Smuda, with the help of a translator. “[But] it is not growing, I would say the highest tension and the biggest pressure was before the match with Greece. Now the tournament is up and running, and after the first game, we know that the adrenalin is right now lower, the pressure is lower. We have a few days to prepare for the match with the Czech Republic, and we will rest. This is the most important thing ... We will fight to the very end.”
As for Russia, they had every reason to take heart from the result. Securing a tie in the face of a fiercely partisan crowd would normally elicit satisfaction. Instead Russia manager Dick Advocaat was more circumspect. He had watched his side play with some of the same fluidity that it did in routing the Czechs. Andrei Arshavin appeared to have turned back the clock to 2008 with some sparkling interchanges with Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kerzhakov. But a careless pass from Arshavin sparked the counter that led to Blaszczykowski’s goal, leaving Advocaat to lament the two points that escaped the clutches of his side.
“I thought Russia was better than Poland today,” he said. “Obviously it was a very good game. We played very well to get a good result. They have support from 40,000 [fans], a big advantage. You know, 1-1 was nice, but I did think 1-0 was going to be it. We controlled the game.”
Russia still has the benefit of controlling its own destiny, but it no longer has the luxury of resting players or protecting them from yellow-card suspensions. Given the fact that a loss to Greece could see Russia eliminated in the final group-stage match, Advocaat will have to go with his usual lineup -- and in a short tournament the accumulated fatigue could be a factor in the knockout stages.
So heading into the last round of matches, Russia is in first place, but somewhat subdued. Poland is in third place yet has a bounce in its step. Contrasting emotions indeed.