Euro 2012 – Phase 1

England entered Euro 2012 yesterday, living up to the billing of being well-organised but uninspired, with a decent enough performance that was worthy of the 1-1 draw against a French side who looked susceptible to runs behind the back of a high-line, and didn’t do enough to get behind England’s deep back four.

The ball retention was slightly better than in England’s two previous games under Roy Hodgson, with Scott Parker central to short-passing in the middle of the field, and Ashley Young linking up and creating an early opportunity with a killer pass that put James Milner through early on. Milner’s movement from off the right was a rare example of the system at its best in the first-half, although as the game wore on England defended deeper with two banks of four, which while thankfully not leaving much space between the back four and the midfield as in previous tournaments, was so rigid it meant there was little fluidity when going forward.

The lack of possession as England toiled in the heat, combined with the weak looking squad that doesn’t have anyone suitable to cover the role Parker has, meant England were hanging on in the end when he was eventually run into the ground. It should be a decent point though, in what looks to be one of the weak groups.

In fact of the sixteen teams, only Russia have truly sparkled with an excellent opening night win, as Roman Pavlyuchenko produced a great cameo that topped off a good team performance. Germany look impressive, with a squad full of talent and a pattern of play that was good enough to break down a Portugal side content with a draw, before then looking dangerous on the counter-attack when they had to defend their lead. Poland started off well when they opened the tournament, with a high-tempo passing and moving game although poor goalkeeping from Wojcich Szczesny meant they were lucky to escape with a point against Greece. And Croatia also looked lively in their 3-1 over the Republic of Ireland, although vulnerable at the back particularly when defending set-pieces.

Ireland should have had a penalty in that game, but the refereeing has been more average than any of the play, with yesterday’s referee in Donetsk arguably the worst, as he ignored persistent fouling by the French to go not just without yellow cards, but often without free-kicks. And comparing the officials to the play so far is a fairly low watermark. When you see the Czech Republic line up with Milan Baros up front and the Portuguese with Helder Postiga, there seems to have been little progression for some countries since Euro 2004. Andrei Shevchenko showed last night that age isn’t a barrier where class is concerned, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Miroslav Klose come off the bench and score a goal for Germany at some point during the tournament, but there seem to be a few sides that are there just to make up the numbers.

Denmark, ranked ninth in the World, beat the Dutch for whom Robin Van Persie had a disappointing game. The Dutch should still have enough to beat Portugal but even that may not be enough. As suggested by John Scales in his pre-tournament-interview on this website last week, big names players such as Van Persie and Ronaldo often fail to deliver in tournaments, and it is likely at least one of those two won’t get out of the group stage now.

The holders and World Champions, Spain, adopted the style they used against Scotland in qualifying, with Fabregas rather than David Silva this time playing as the striker that drops off to create six midfielders who pass and move to create opportunities. The Italians, playing a back three that often had no one to mark, held their shape well, and looked comfortable as the game went into the final phase with the scores level at 1-1, apart from getting caught by direct balls once Spain had changed their tactics and started playing in substitute Fernando Torres from balls from within their own half.

While Messi’s hat-trick for Argentina against Brazil looks to have been the best of the International Football in the past week, Spain’s game against Croatia, the Germans’ fixture against the Dutch and Poland’s match tonight against Russia, all promise to be highlights of the second phase as Euro 2012 should now step up a gear.

MG

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.