Early nerves may hurt hosts
You only need to watch Come Dine With Me to appreciate just what a thankless task hosting is, and it doesn’t get any easier at the European Championships. A series of obstacles, on and off the pitch, from the moment the celebratory ticker tape sinks to the ground as the hosts are announced. Qualification may be assured but that’s just about as good as it gets. How do you prepare for a major tournament with not a single minute of competitive international action? How will the players deal with the weight of frenzied home support?
Not especially well, history would suggest. Just two of the last eight nations to host or co-host the finals have won their opening match. Since 1988 West Germany, Sweden, England, Portugal, Switzerland and Austria have all opened their campaigns with an anticlimax. (The only exceptions were Holland and Belgium in 2000.) The final three were all beaten while the former three played out 1-1 draws.
Of course, not all of those disappointments proved to be terminal, with West Germany, Sweden and England going on to reach semi-finals and Portugal finishing as runners-up in 2004.
But with those curtain-raisers in mind, Poland look too short at odds on, particularly with Franciszek Smuda in charge, a coach yet to inspire confidence, as Michał Zachodny noted on this site last month.
Naturally, there is reason for Polish optimism with Robert Lewandowski leading the line and his Borussia Dortmund team-mates Łukasz Piszczek and skipper Jakub Błaszczykowski also in the side, along with Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny, but they will all be thrown into tournament football at the deep end. Piszczek was involved in Euro 2008 but a topsy-turvy friendly schedule is meagre preparation for top-level competition.
Take Lewandowski’s scoring record for the national team. Of his 14 international goals, four have come in competitive action. The opposition? San Marino and Singapore. Compare that to Greece’s unpredictable Fanis Gekas, who has struck 16 of his 21 goals in competitive fixtures for his country. Not strictly a fair test, particularly in light of Lewandowski’s terrific campaign in the Bundesliga, but he still has questions to answer on the world stage, and those answers may not arrive immediately as nerves take hold.
A concern, too, may be the Poles’ reliance on the 23-year-old, especially against a Greek team likely to favour asphyxiation over style. Indeed while this is not the same side which Otto Rehhagel took to glory in 2004, Fernando Santos has retained many of its defensive principles. Speaking this week defender Giorgos Tzavellas neatly summed up their approach: “All 11 of us play defence, from there we look at improving our attack.” Perhaps some of the sense is lost in translation, but you get the picture. And it is a ploy which should suit the tournament’s opening game: tight early on, frustrate the home crowd, strike later. That old cliché.
It is a plan Santos’ men are quite capable of executing. His side came through qualifying unbeaten, pipping Croatia to top spot, one of only two countries to win a group at the expense of a higher-ranked team (Denmark were the other).
But their fortunes in front of goal lead us to keep the draw no bet option on side, with a dour stalemate far from out of the question. We’re happy to put faith in their defence, which is likely to be marshalled by Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Werder Bremen) and Avraam Papadopoulos (Olympiakos), it is the front line which is less predictable. They struck only 14 times in ten qualifying matches, the lowest goals-per-game ratio of any side at the finals.
Set pieces, then, may be the most profitable avenue, and while Celtic’s Giorgios Samaras is likely to start on the flank, his chance to shine may come from dead-ball situations, so we'll take a punt on the rangy 27-year-old putting his 6ft 4in frame to good use to score the first goal. And one might just be enough.
All that and not a single mention of the financial crisis.
Read Henry Milward's preview of Friday's other Group A clash: Russia v Czech Republic
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