Euro 2012: Greece, Czech overcome odds and qualify for quarters


Top of the world: The Czech Republic celebrate qualification but Poland bowed out of their own tournament

Greece may be bust and the basket case of the European economy but last night their football credit rating soared sky-high.

On a night when the European Championship’s Group A was turned on its head, Greece advanced to the knockout stages of Euro 2012 after beating mighty Russia 1-0 in Warsaw thanks to a goal from Giorgos Karagounis.

At the same time, tournament co-hosts Poland were ejected from their own party in Wroclaw after losing by the same score to the Czech Republic.

Drama may have been born in ancient Greece but the shocks provided on a rainy night in Poland will take some beating. And if the rejoicing in bars and clubs from Athens to Thessaloniki were any indication, the country may be bankrupt but it is certainly not on its spiritual uppers just yet.

The flip side of that joy will be despair across Russia. They started the night at the top of their section and hot favourites to reach the quarter-finals — and ended it in despair.

Instead it was the Czechs who bounced to the top of the pile with victory in Wroclaw. They had started Euro 2012 by getting thumped 4-1 by Russia but Petr Jiracek struck in the second half to poleaxe the Poles.

Poland coach Franciszek Smuda quit after the match. But after their Euro 2012 showing, his departure — willing or otherwise — was inevitable.

Greece came from nowhere to conquer Europe eight years ago and they turned back the clock with a typically resolute display in Warsaw to gain a surprise place in the last eight, where they will almost certainly face Germany.

Russia were backed by 20,000 fans who had streamed over the border and vied for supremacy in the national stadium with Greek-supporting Poles eager to see their historic rivals humbled while watching the big screen for news of events in Wroclaw.

Dick Advocaat’s side, unbeaten in 16 matches coming into the game, dominated the first-half exchanges but paid for their profligacy as the Greeks did what they do best — getting bodies in the way of a string of opposition attacks, then striking against the run of play.

With the Russian defence backing off, Karagounis, earning his 120th cap to equal the record of 2004 title-winning captain Theodoros Zarogakis, collected a throw-in, burst into the box and drove powerfully beyond Vyacheslav Malafeev.

As they pressed for their lives knowing that the Czechs were also wrecking their hopes, so Russia lived on the edge. Karagounis was furious not to have been awarded a penalty while full-back Giorgos Tzavellas thumped a free-kick against the angle of post and bar.

The one sour note came when hero Karagounis was booked for diving in the penalty incident, so missing the next game. But not even that could ruin his night. ‘When we left Athens, everyone said we would give everything,’ he said. ‘My countrymen are not having the best time but this will bring a smile to their faces. Sometimes it’s not just about getting to the next round, it’s how you do it and we deserved it. We all said this was a huge opportunity and we showed all our characteristics of soul and heart.’

Advocaat, who had started the game with three strikers, admitted: ‘We tried to win the game and were very attacking but despite all our possession we couldn’t find a way through. We should have won but all compliments to Greece. They are masters at doing what they did today.’

Poland knew that a win would take them through and anything less would see them eliminated. They started with the requisite urgency — but left with a whimper.

The first chance was theirs when a free kick by Ludovic Obraniak was headed on by Robert Lewandowski and Dariusz Dudka’s acrobatic overhead kick hit the side netting. A partisan crowd in the 43,000-seat Municipal Stadium roared on their team but the Czechs were quick to show the danger they posed.

Polish profligacy became a theme. The Czech Republic’s Michal Kadlec cleared from the line with his head but the ball fell to Sebastian Boenisch, who hit a half-volley wide. Nine minutes later Boenisch did much better when he unleashed a dipping shot from 25 yards, eliciting a decent save by Chelsea’s Petr Cech, diving to his right.

After that Poland were pressed on to the defensive as their opponents settled and then dominated. Their pressure eventually paid off when Petr Jiracek scored. Milan Baros, who spent five years in the Premier League with Liverpool and Aston Villa, was the creator, dashing into the Polish area before laying off to Jiracek, who evaded an attempted tackle and shot low under Przemyslaw Tyton in the 72nd minute.

Baros might have put his team 2-0 ahead seven minutes later but for Tyton racing from his line to intercept a through ball and stymie the attack. Plasil maintained the pressure, sending in a ball aimed at two encroaching team-mates but Dudka managed to hook it away.

Poland started the tournament never having won a match at a European Championship finals. They left it the same way.

Russia tanked and the Czechs and Greeks march forward, gloriously so. What a night.

SOURCE: The Daily Mail