The first round of matches in the group stages of the Polish and Ukrainian European Championships came to a climax on Monday night as the two British interests in the tournament began their campaigns.
As the final whistle reigned down in Poznan, Irish eyes were ultimately not smiling after their opener against Croatia in Group C and with both Spain and Italy – strong favourites to qualify – Ireland’s hopes of making it to the quarter finals were severely dashed.
Mario Mandzukic staked his claim for the golden boot by netting twice, with the second left in the hands of the dubious goals committee. The Wolfsburg and Croatian forward scored a soft header in the opening couple of minutes into the later kick-off in Poznan and just minutes later Sean St. Ledger’s mirrored header found Ireland back on level terms for a main portion of the first half.
Everton striker, Nikita Jelavic looked offside as he ran off in celebration on the stroke of half-time after his striker which had dragged Croatia back into a first half lead. Shortly on the other side of the half-time break, Mandzukic was creating problems for the travelling Irish once again.
The forward flicked on yet another header which cracked off the post but unfortunately for Ireland, rebounded off goalkeeper Shay Given’s head, nestling in the back of the net. The two-goal lead would be maintained for the rest of the night despite Ireland peppering the Croatians’ goal and amid penalty claims from Robbie Keane, the Croatians would end the night in top place.
Croatian were able to pull away from the other two teams in the group – Spain and Italy – as the two, who faced off in 2008’s quarter finals, battled out a 1-1 draw in Gdansk in the 5pm kick-off.
The holders of the competition were keen to make it successive Euro wins and were seemingly getting their sternest test out of the way. Both sides had their chances in the first half with Casillas thwarting a free-kick and a point blank header from Thiago Motta. Spain came out of the half-time break fighting, Iniesta firing slightly wide as a sighter on the Italian goal.
However, Italy got the advantage on the hour mark as Antonio di Natale broke the offside trap and his smart finish justified Mario Balotelli’s substitution as di Natale had only been on the field a matter of moments before firing Italy into a lead with just 30 minutes left.
It seemed a tale of two Manchester City players had Balotelli looked ineffective for Italy up front for the hour he was on the pitch. His club teammate David Silva, however, strung a pass forward for Cesc Fabregas and the Barca midfielder duly finished to bring Spain back on level terms just four minutes after the opener.
Croatia had got the advantage from Group C’s first group stage matches and with Spain and Italy drawing, Slaven Bilic has every right to be confident that they can go on and qualify for the knockout stage.
In the England camp in the build-up to their opener, they were looking to turn around the statistic which has seen them not winning a single opening European Championship match, including that 2-1 loss to France in Lisbon eight years ago. Hodgson had gone on record stating that it will either be a terrific three weeks or a horrific tournament for him, stating that England were prepared and labelling John Terry as a warrior.
Laurent Blanc’s pre-match press conferences came across as defeatist or shrewd as he said his French side weren’t a force to be reckoned with anymore. The two-time European Champions were out to replicate their 2000 tournament win.
Nobody was expecting a clear victory from the match and in the end it was a dull and cagey affair which was lit up towards the end of the first half due to two goals. The remainder of the contest was about keeping a sturdy defence with both sides too frightened to make a move which would lead to a mistake.
Patrice Evra stated that England employed Chelsea tactics which saw them through in a good Champions League run as England’s defence remained solid to keep out the likes of Benzema and Ribery. England opened the scoring in similar circumstances to what they did in the 2004 opener, from a wide free-kick converted thanks to Joleon Lescott’s head.
England were leading for a matter of 9 minutes before Samir Nasri unleashed a low effort on goal which defeated his Manchester City teammate, Joe Hart to level the sides up. James Milner missed an open net but the acute angle was too much for the City midfielder who played on the right of midfield.
Roy Hodgson’s men would hold on for the draw, building a solid platform to continue in the Group. Don’t expect the same tactics to be employed against Sweden and Ukraine on Friday and Tuesday respectively. The two aforementioned sides played out an exciting second half in Kiev last night, as they battled to gain an advantage in Group D.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic fired Sweden into the lead and with Johan Elmander missing a glaring chance at goal the veteran in Andriy Shevchenko punished him in a seven-minute turnaround. The small former Chelsea striker levelled the match up just moments after the opener before heading his side into the lead after the hour mark.
England can take solace from Sweden’s performance going into Friday’s clash in Kiev and should Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck be paired up front, expect them to run riot against the Swedes. James Milner probably won’t make the starting line-up and be preferred to a more attacking right-sided midfielder such as Theo Walcott as there won’t be the threat of Ribery, but Seb Larsson could pose a threat of some sort.