Group A

So much for the 'dull' Group A

James Tyler

By the time Euro 2012 is finished, all four groups (and not just B) will be considered deadly in some way. But Saturday's gripping conclusion wasn't supposed to go like this. Group A was long considered to be the "dull" one. The ugly duckling. A quartet of teams that was impossible to love.

Yet in Greece's stoic, back-against-the-wall 1-0 win over Russia and the Czech Republic's 1-0 triumph over Poland, we got a weirdly beautiful conclusion, given the way both sides started the tournament.

Greece was run ragged by the Poles in Game 1 until finding a second-half spirit that nearly earned it three points. That spirit carried through to its showdown with Russia, a game no one felt the Galanolefki could possibly win.

But the stats resembled those of their Euro 2004 run or Chelsea's gallant Champions League win: just eight shots and 31 percent of the ball, but a strength and self-belief at the back that the quick-passing Russians just couldn't break down. Of Russia's 31 shots, just two were on frame -- and the hapless Aleksandr Kerzhakov (13 shots and zero goals in 144 minutes at Euro 2012) only played the first half.

Having started the tournament brightly, Andrei Arshavin sadly reverted to type, the kind that got him hounded out of Arsenal, given the frustration his listless play tends to inspire in supporters. Lacking the space to run or play incisive passes, he cut a frustrated figure. Others underwhelmed, too. Yuri Zhirkov couldn't use his space down the left flank to any benefit, slashing a ferocious long-range strike over the bar in the first half and overhitting a string of crosses in the second. Alan Dzagoev's best chance came late in the game from Arshavin's back-post delivery, but it glanced agonizingly wide. Kerzhakov, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Roman Pavlyuchenko all failed to convert.

What's next for the 2018 World Cup hosts is anyone's guess. Manager Dick Advocaat will soon step down and segue back into club soccer, taking the reins at PSV Eindhoven. He leaves behind an aging squad with plenty of uncertainty in its future.

Meanwhile, Poland just couldn't sum up enough confidence to overcome its galvanized opponent. Being thrashed 4-1 in the opening game is supposed to be a death knell, but despite Milan Baros' sustained ineptitude up front -- just two shots in 149 minutes -- the Czechs grew in strength from game to game, neatly tucking away Greece before reserving their proudest test in their pivotal final match.

The Czechs' defensive resolve also impressed. Tomas Hubschmann, whose elegant through-ball teed up Petr Jiracek for the side's first goal against Greece, was masterful in defensive midfield, stopping Poland's front four from dominating as it did the first 20 minutes. Tomas Sivok was a rock in the back line against an agitated Robert Lewandowski, who felt all too well the pressures of the anxious home crowd in Wroclaw.

And a simple move -- Baros to Jiracek and a rudimentary sidefooted finish -- was all it took to keep Poland winless in the European Championships.

Though it's sad to realize that the Polish co-hosts are now relegated to mere hospitality, there was little to be surprised about. Coach Franciszek Smuda's failings were two-fold. Not only did his side fail to produce a coherent 90 minutes across the three games, fading in each contest following plenty of early chances, but it didn't have the depth of quality surrounding its handful of brilliant individuals.

Eugen Polanski and Rafal Murawski didn't serve as the midfield platform that the likes of Kuba Blaszczykowski, Ludovic Obraniak and Lewandowski needed to consistently threaten. Unable to impose, the Poles were left to counterattack in all three games to varying effect; the lack of a discernible Plan B will leave a giddy nation wondering what could have been.

Ultimately, Group A delivered on every level, while many expected it to be a dull and insipid mess, and in the days to come the other three brackets have a lot to live up to. Over the course of three games here, favorites became also-rans and underdogs became deserved quarterfinalists. What happens from here on out is irrelevant, whether crushed by Germany or not. The important thing is that they made it through. The important thing is that we couldn't bring ourselves to stop watching.


 

James Tyler is an assistant editor for ESPN.com’s soccer coverage.

 

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