Through the first round of games, the Czech Republic was Euro 2012’s worst team, both numerically and aesthetically. They’re the only team that lost by more than two goals, falling to Russia 4-1 on Friday, giving a performance that was worse than the score. Every time Russia burst into attack, they met a disorganized, unprotected Czech defense too slow to keep up.
Greece experienced an onslaught of their own against Poland, one that saw a them down a man and a goal by halftime. Not only did the former champions come back, they forced a Poland red card, evening the teams. Over the next 40 minutes they’d outplay their hosts, clearly the better side by the time time was blown on the 1-1 draw.
Though only one point separates the Czechs and Greeks, the teams are going in opposite directions. At kick off on Tuesday (noon Eastern), Greece will try to preserve the momentum they carried out of Warsaw. The Czech Republic will be trying to forget Russia.
Here’s your first game’s playlist:
Side 1: Greece vs. Czech Republic
1. Running out of men to use
Central defender Sokratis Papastathopolous was shown two borderline yellows and dismissed 44 minutes into the opener. This came minutes after Papastathopolous’s partner, Aavram Papadopoulos, left with a knee injury. He needs surgery and is out for the tournament. By halftime of their opener, Greece had lost both first choice central defenders.
On Tuesday, Kyriakos Papadopoulos moves into the starting lineup, with Stelios Malezas potentially pressed into action, though situations like these often bring evasive action. You could see Fernando Santos drop a midfielder into defense (Giannis Maniatis) and move Sotiris Ninis into midfield. The shift would have the convenient virtue of creating a spot for Dimitrios Salpingidis, who came off the bench to score Greece’s only goal against Poland.
The subtext to Greece’s disappointing first half and Salpingidis’s goal? Greece is still waiting for one of their young players to step up. While a lot’s expected of Ninis (22), Kostas Fortounis (19), Giannis Fetfatzidis (21), and Kostas Mitroglou (24), none are deciding games. The team’s still relying on the Salpingidises of the team, players like Theofanis Gekas, Giorgios Karagounis, and Kostas Katsouranis.
All of which would be well and good if those players represented a proven formula for success, but they don’t. They’re the players that formed the core of the post-2004 team, a core that has gotten Greece to major championships without any post-qualification success.
Greece needs their young blood to start augmenting their core. During the next qualifying cycle, those prospects will start phasing out the old guard. The transition will be easier with players who have significant major tournament experience.
3. Left in the past
The Czech Republic can afford to leave Friday’s result behind. Not only was it the type of shock that Michal Bilak will want to push out of his players’ minds, but Russia plays nothing like Greece. There’s little to learn from how the Czechs were exploited. After Friday, we know the Czech will be picked apart by a team that can counter like the Russians. That’s not Greece.
More important to the Czechs will be figuring out how to exploit that undermined Greek defense. Milan Baros started up top alone against Russia and was unable to make a mark against a suspect defense. Bilak will stay with him, but if Baros is ineffective again, what’s the Czech Republic’s recourse?
4. The door is in sight
Five teams that lost their opening matches face elimination this week. The Czech Republic go first, and given what a -3 goal difference does their tiebreaker scenarios, the Czechs need to win if they want to keep their destiny in their own hands.
That destiny is not so gloomy. While it’s tempting to write off a team that opened on the wrong end of a trouncing, the Czechs go through if they beat Greece and Poland. Contrast that with Ireland, another first round loser, who have Spain and Italy in front of them, or Sweden, who’ve yet to face France and England. The Netherlands still face Germany and Portugal.
Things could be much worse for the Czech Republic.
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