Poland is a 5/4 favorite for Saturday’s matchup in Wroclaw with the Czechs.
The third and final cycle of opening-round group play at Euro 2012 commences Saturday when Group A steps back into the fray.
More than any of the four first-round quartets, Group A remains wide open, with all sides still mathematically alive for a chance to advance into the knockout phase.
A quick look at the group table entering Saturday notes that Russia leads on four points, with the Czech Republic close behind on three points. Co-host Poland sits in third on two points, with the Greeks on one point.
Russia automatically goes through with a win or a draw on Saturday, and could advance even with a defeat, although it would be subject to tie-breakers and goal difference (which, as things stand now, Russia looks in good shape). The Czechs advance with a win and can also move forward with a draw in case of a Russia-Poland stalemate.
For the Poles, it’s win and in, but a draw will not suffice for advancement to the next phase. As for Greece, it’s only chance is to win and hope for a draw in the Czech Republic-Poland match, and even then Fernando Santos’ side would have to have a favorable goal differential, which looks remote at the present time.
But still, all to play for with each of the sides. Note that all kickoff times will be simultaneous at 2:45 p.m. (ET) for the remainder of first-round action.
Following are look-aheads to Saturday’s Group A contests. Remember, previews continue through the weekend at Don Best as group plays works toward its conclusion next Tuesday.
Czech Republic vs. Poland (Wroclaw)
The co-hosts from Poland still have a shot for the knockout phase but need to get all three points in this showdown vs. the Czechs at Wroclaw after the Poles could do no better than settle for draws in their first two group matches at Warsaw.
Much of the news after Monday’s draw vs. Russia had to do with crowd disturbances in Warsaw, the sort of ugliness that Polish officials were hoping they could avoid in the Euros. Do not expect a repeat in the run-up to this match vs. the Czechs.
A consultation with European oddsmakers notes that most believe Poland will get the three points it needs. The Poles have been priced at 5/4 on the win, with the take-back on the Czech Republic at 9/4. The draw, which will not be good enough for Poland to advance, is priced at 12/5. TV coverage in the states will be provided by ESPN2.
The Czechs, however, would likely settle for a draw as that would move them into the next phase unless Greece would conspire to score an upset over Russia.
A major problem for the Czechs arose in their Tuesday battle vs. Greece, when Michal Bilek’s side scored twice in the first six minutes and held on for a 2-1 win. Along the way, however, Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky suffered a calf injury and was pulled for precautionary measures at halftime. His status for the Poland match remains in doubt.
Without Rosicky, much of the creativity might be absent from the Czech attack. While protecting their lead in the second half vs. Greece, the Czechs were far less adventurous on the pitch minus Rosicky. The midfield axis of Rosicky, flanked by Shakhtar’s Tomas Huschman and Wolfsburg’s Pert Jiracek, displayed movement and invention and ran the Greeks ragged in the first half. But without Rosicky in the second half, Jiracek was forced into a deeper-lying role to cover for his back four, and the Czech attack was blunted.
Also, there is concern in the Czech camp that Chelsea goalie Pert Cech is not on the top of his game. His fumbling assist on the Greek goal was his latest misadventure at the Euros after getting scalded by four goals against Russia.
If Rosicky is out, Poland will like its chances. The Poles have looked compelling at times in this tourney when advancing and have created plenty of scoring chances for Borussia Dortmund target-man Robert Lewandowski, who scored in the opener vs. Greece. Possession remains a key to polish fortunes, as they have sagged in the first two matches when conceding as much.
The fightback vs. Russia to 1-1, and the tying goal by another Dortmund charge, winger Jakub Blaszczykowski, suggests a battling spirit within the squad, with the Dortmund contingent helping foster a battling mentality. With Cech struggling in goal, and Rosicky perhaps out of action, the elements are in place for Poland to succeed.
A win price on the co-hosts at better than even money looks too good to pass up in Wroclaw.
Russia vs. Greece (Warsaw)
Greece hangs in the tourney by a thread but the combination of an unlikely win in Warsaw and a draw in the Czech-Pole matchup creates a scenario in which Greece could still advance and perhaps even win the group, although it would take a mountain of goals to help achieve the latter.
As expected, the Russians are listed as favorites by European oddsmakers, with the win price on Dick Advocaat’s men at 8/11. The take-back on Greece is a hefty 4/1, with the draw prized temptingly at 11/4. TV coverage in the states will be provided by big ESPN.
Greece threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Czechs in the second half of Monday’s 2-1 loss, with Portuguese coach Fernando Santos even opting for a “Hail Mary” 4-2-4 deployment late in the game to flood the attacking zone, but it was to no avail. Too often in the second half, however, Greece looked unsure how to mount a response and often resorted to route one football, banging the ball deep into the Czech end and hoping for the best. It was not as effective as the consistent build-up approach that had gotten Greece back into its opening match vs. Poland.
Moreover, soft spots on the left side of the Greek defense continue to be exploited, and on attack, Greece’s best option remains the set piece, although they have been sparked on occasion in the first two matches by contributions from PAOK forward Dimitris Salpigidis.
What must concern the Greeks the most, however, was how Russia was able to cut up the Czech backline in the opener. Advocaat’s troops have been getting stellar work from midfielder Andrei Arshavin, looking as good as he did in Euro 2008, in the first two matches. And these Greeks do not defend like the Otto Rehhagel Greece side that shocked the world at Euro 2004.
Advocaat has also been getting superb work in goal from Zenit’s Vyacheslav Malafeev, who delivered several brilliant stops vs. the Poles on Monday. We are hard-pressed to envision a scenario in which Greece gets a result, although Russia would be satisfied with a draw to guarantee advancement. The 8/11 win price nonetheless looks like a worthwhile gamble on Advocaat’s side.