Thursday, 28 June 2012

Euro 2012: The Match of the Century

Well, holy shit. Again.

While the group stages were full of upsets and excitement, it's fair to say that the knockout stages pretty much went back on-message, with all the most-fancied teams winning at more or less of a walk, at least in the quarters. Portugal cashiered the Czechs, Germany kicked the Greeks out of the Euros, Spain bade adieu to the French and Italy did a job on the English.

(Yes, I think I've gotten all the puns out of my system now, thanks.)

Moving on to the semis, an average Spain beat an equally average Portugal, but on penalties, which left a rampaging German team to face an Italy that's maybe not been as feared as Germany or Spain, but which has been showing itself to be a well-organized force. The chorus of pundits writing Italy off before tonight's game apparently reached such a fever pitch that Italy coach Cesare Prandelli is said to have replied, "Well then, why don't we just go home now?"

I'll admit I was not particularly hopeful myself - but I'll take this result. And once again I'll say, this is why they play the games.

Regrettably, I missed the first half, but from the replays I've seen Balotelli's goals were amazing. And more hearteningly, even at 2-0 up Italy was still going for it, especially when Alessandro Diamanti came on. My only complaint is that even so, the Italians weren't quite able to kill it off, with the Germans pulling one back through a penalty after a handball from Federico Balzaretti.

But they weathered the storm, stopping a German team that looked like they'd take the trophy at a trot. I don't like to put too much stock in previous form (after all, the French had never been beaten by Spain until last Saturday), but I am intrigued by the idea that Germany regards Italy in much the same way that England regards Germany.

So anyway, on to the final, and that rematch between Italy and Spain that the Spanish press suggested after the opening game in Group C. Given how unconvincing Spain has been lately, and how convincing Italy's been, I think it's fair to say that anything can happen. Just as long as it isn't another 0-0 draw.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Euro 2012: Italy make it look difficult, as usual

Well, guess which game I was watching?

I'm one of those fans who are always pessimistic, and I've determined over the years that this is the best way to root for Italy. After all, it's a team that's had two abject tournaments in a row, after having won the World Cup in 2006. And frankly, they looked at several points tonight like continuing that streak.

There was the early scare - I'm talking within the first minute - where Robbie Keane was through on goal. And, not to get too arrogant or anything, but I couldn't help but be worried that Italy didn't score against Ireland within the first five minutes... y'know, the way Spain and Croatia both did.

But more seriously, once the goal did come, there was the ever-present worry that Italy would just sit back on that lead. In fairness, they didn't - at least not straight away - but as the minutes wore on into the second half, there was a definite sense of Italy losing momentum. Add to that the ever-present fear of Spain and Croatia drawing in the concurrent game, and it was easy to get a little impatient with the Azzurri.

But Italy regained the initiative, and a goal from Mario Balotelli helped see off Ireland for once and all. And from there, I switched over to the Spain-Croatia game, just long enough to see Croatia fail to equalize, and go crashing out as well.

Phew. Breath released.

So now it's going to be England. Or France. Or perhaps even Ukraine. But at the very least, Italy's finally won a major tournament game again, and kept a clean sheet, and scored two goals in a game. Not exactly a set of achievements to set the pulse racing, but one has to start somewhere.

Roll on the quarterfinals!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Euro 2012: We now resume our normal service

Well, rather shamefacedly, I have to admit that my predicting Denmark could win the tournament has been proven a little bit fanciful. Probably it was the sight of the Dutch being caught flat-footed, although subsequent games have shown just how abject the Netherlands were. In fairness, though, even Germany wasn't able to keep Denmark from scoring, so I think the Danes can go home with a sense of pride, at having given each of their rivals in the group of death a real challenge.

Germany, meanwhile, go on to face Greece in a rather topical-sounding matchup. Before anybody gets too cocky and says the Germans are guaranteed to roll over the Greeks, it's probably worth remembering that eight years ago Greece won the tournament by knocking some of the most-fancied teams, notably the Czech Republic, who were flying pretty high at that time.

Of course, it's also notable that this German team, despite not looking like the unstoppable juggernauts every imagines them to be every couple of years, has come through the group stage with a perfect record, a feat that has eluded every other team in this tournament. Despite jokes about Europe's economic situation, or Greece's record eight years ago, the Germans have to go into the next round as favorites to progress, and in my opinion, to win the tournament. Unlike some teams (COUGH Italy COUGH COUGH England), Germany is generally willing to go beyond what's asked of them rather than sit on a one-goal lead.

Watch me climb down from this prediction next week, of course.

Going home with the Danes are the Dutch, who are only saved by the Irish from being the worst team at Euro 2012 (Sweden having already scored more goals than the Netherlands). I haven't seen enough of them this year to say why exactly they've been so bad, but it could indeed be the hoodoo working on Arjen Robben of having lost in the Champions League final. Add to that the fact that Wesley Sneijder hasn't had the best season, and perhaps you begin to see why they've had such a tough time.

As for Portugal, I've seen even less of them than the Dutch, but I'm still not convinced by them. They may have one of the world's two best players in Cristiano Ronaldo, but I think the rest of the team isn't quite to his standard (and his finishing wasn't brilliant against Denmark either). I do think they'll make it past the Czechs, but I have trouble seeing them going much beyond the semi-finals.

Tomorrow, of course, we have another group of "anything-can-happen", as Italy looks to put the final nail in Ireland's coffin and Spain and Croatia conspire to knock Italy out (or so the Italian press will have us believe). I expect Italy to just squeak past the Irish, but as to whether Spain and Croatia will draw 2-2, I don't want to speculate. Whatever happens, it'll be ugly.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Euro 2012: Through the Looking Glass

Holy shit. What just happened there?

I don't think anybody expected, going into tonight's final Group A games, that Greece would progress to the knock-out stages and Russia wouldn't. Moreover, that the Czechs, who began the tournament being spanked 4-1 by Russia, would top the group. But to return to the wisdom of baseball's Yogi Berra: that's why they play the games.

Russia came into the final game in pole position (no pun intended), requiring no more than a point to qualify. Greece started the match at the bottom of the group, essentially written off, unless they could scrape a win against what many considered to be the best team in Group A. And yet, despite dominating the match in terms of possession, a goal from Giorgos Karagounis was enough to put Greece into the quarter-finals. Karagounis will not be running out for that next game, thanks to a yellow card for alleged diving, but from the Greek celebrations, you'd think they just won the tournament.

Of course, having come in second, they're most likely to face Germany in the next round, barring something unexpected tomorrow. But then, the unexpected has been cropping up all over the place in this tournament so far.

Meanwhile, the Czechs bounced back from a pretty terrible first-game showing to beat Poland and knock out the co-hosts. It looked for a long time like it might become the first 0-0 draw of Euro 2012, but for all that was still an exciting, fast-paced match, though the Poles, despite taking the most shots, rarely looked like they were in any danger of actually scoring. Even at the end, when an equalizer would have simply knocked themselves and the Czechs out, they didn't look all that incisive. The Czechs dominated possession, meanwhile, spearheaded by a series of runs from Vaclav Pilar, in particular.

The win puts them on top of the group, which means they face whoever comes in second tomorrow in Group B - whoever that turns out to be, since even the abject Netherlands are capable, apparently, of making it to the next round. In any case, and knowing how easily these two teams have overturned conventional wisdom, the road probably won't go much farther for either. But it'll be fun to see how it turns out, whatever happens.

Now hang on a second, Neil...

I wanted to take a quick digression from the Euro 2012 blogs to tap out a couple more quick thoughts on writing. A few weeks ago an interview with Neil Gaiman on the Nerdist podcast inspired me to catalogue a few metaphors for writing that I've found useful, but I've since been mulling over something else he said, namely that you shouldn't read the same kinds of things that you write.

More precisely, he suggested that if you are trying to write Tolkien-esque high fantasy, you shouldn't read Tolkien-esque high fantasy. Read about history, read other types of fiction, but stay away from that Tolkien-type stuff.

Now, while he's broadly right, I would like to modify the edict slightly, to don't exclusively read Tolkien-esque high fantasy, if that's what you're writing.

The way I see it is, you do have to know what's out there; most people have their own ideas of genre tropes, regardless of how well they know a particular genre, and if they attempt to go in cold they'll just repeat all of these tropes. My first attempts at fantasy stories were all written with little understanding of the fantasy genre, and when I look back at them now they seem incredibly hackneyed. While I don't advocate going out and reading any old crap, I do think it's worthwhile to be familiar with some of the crap that's out there, as long as you know why it doesn't work and you can learn from it.

Where Neil Gaiman is absolutely right, of course, is in reading outside of your chosen genre. Over the last few years I've followed Dan Simmons' Writing Well column on his website; he's big on craft, and points out that the best (or only) way to learn the craft is to emulate the very best authors. One quote that Dan Simmons is fond of is from F Scott Fitzgerald, who recommended reading "six top-flight authors" per year.

I'd say this is a good way to do it, provided you have some idea of what constitutes a top-flight author. For one thing, once you've read Rabbit, Run, by John Updike, the prose of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books can't help but be a little disappointing in comparison, no matter how much you actually enjoy the stories. For another, it rather admirably serves the purpose of reading outside your chosen genre, while leaving you enough time to keep up with what's actually happening in the world of Tolkien-esque high fantasy.

The other advantage of this approach is that it's so easy to actually find books by top-flight authors, particularly in e-book format. You can download most of the great works of Western literature for free from Amazon or Apple's iBooks app, after all (hell, when I downloaded the Kindle app for my phone it came with Pride and Prejudice and Treasure Island). If you're after something a little more recent, libraries and used bookstores are good places to go looking.

So to sum up, Neil Gaiman (who seems to have picked up some knowledge here and there in his career) is absolutely right to say that you should read outside your chosen field; but my own corollary is to make sure you read the good stuff within it, as well. Now, back to my planned 75-issue comic book series about the Lord of Dreams.

Oh, right. Never mind.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Euro 2012: Order emerges out of chaos

With England's 3-2 win over Sweden, we come to the end of the second set of matches in the tournament, with a better idea of who's going to the next round, and who's going home. Funnily, though, each group is still pretty open as far as who might progress (with a couple of notable exceptions, ie Ireland and Sweden).

Starting in Group A, the Czechs did well to bounce back from their opening defeat, and put the hurt pretty comprehensively on the Greeks, who did, however, seem to pick up in the second half. The Poles, as well, looked like a completely different team against the Russians, bagging a 1-1 draw to keep themselves in the tournament. I still think Russia's the best team in this group, though, and should comfortably beat Greece to move to the next round; and I expect Poland to join them with a win over the Czechs.

In Group B, Denmark fought back bravely from going 2-0 down against Portugal, but in the end they just weren't able to hold on for the draw and lost 3-2. Now that they face the Germans, my prediction of them going all the way looks even more fanciful, but at any rate they've made it difficult for the more-fancied teams they were drawn against. Meanwhile the Dutch, who should have beaten Denmark in their first match, looked pretty dire against Germany; there's apparently some way for the Dutch to make it through to the next round, but at this point I'd say that's as fanciful as Denmark winning the whole tournament.

As for Portugal, I didn't see their match against the Danes, but they were apparently insanely profligate in front of the opposing goal; while they should beat the Netherlands pretty comfortably, I'll be surprised to see them in the semi-final.

Group C, after an exciting start, returned to form with Italy blowing a 1-0 lead against Croatia and Spain drubbing Ireland 4-0. While the Spanish looked a lot better against Ireland than they did against Italy, it doesn't say a whole lot - in both games this tournament Ireland have conceded within the first 5 minutes of kick-off. We'll be in a better position to judge after they've played Croatia, but I doubt Spain will get much farther than the semi-final.

Italy, meanwhile, decided to field their can't-be-bothered team, which meant that after taking the lead against Croatia they sat back and were duly punished. Mario Balotelli wasn't quite as bad in front of goal as he was against Spain, but he still hasn't produced the required performance. Yet Cassano was probably the one Italy should have taken off. Now the team's in the same position as in 2004, where they could win their final game and still get knocked out if Spain and Croatia draw 2-2.

And finally, France did as I predicted and ruined the party in Group D by beating Ukraine 2-0. This was another game I missed, but from the post-match stats it's clear that Ukraine was hopelessly outclassed, with the French dominating possession, shots, shots on target... Ukraine will be going into the final match with England needing a win, but given that England only needs a point to go through, I predict a match played predominantly in front of the English goal with eight English players formed up at all times.

As for England-Sweden, the Swedish papers indulged in a goodly amount of trash-talking before the match, some of which was quite funny, but in the end the Swedes just weren't good enough. That said, they made it pretty damn hard for the English, at one point leading 2-1 thanks to a Glen Johnson own-goal and a strike from Olof Mellberg. I'd call this divine punishment for England taking an early lead and sitting back; but in fairness to the English, they did well to fight back and take the lead again. This means, of course, that Sweden are now out of the tournament - and frankly, good riddance, as they're one of the most boring teams I've ever seen.

Conventional wisdom says that England and France will make it through to the quarter-finals, and if this set of matches demonstrated anything, it's that the conventional wisdom always finds a way to win out. That is, after all, why it's the conventional wisdom.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Euro 2012: The hosts come good on Matchday 4

Big couple of matches today, as England and France came face to face and co-hosts Ukraine played against Sweden. These two matches could have gone either way, but overall were pretty entertaining and fast-paced - and best of all, we have yet to see a goal-less draw. With today's matches, every team in Euro 2012 has now made an appearance, and we can start to get a picture of how the tournament is likely to go.

But first, a few quick thoughts on the matches: this was England's first competitive match under new manager Roy Hodgson, and France's first since their abysmal behavior in South Africa in 2010, so it was always going to be an interesting one, from an academic viewpoint if nothing else. That it ended in a 1-1 draw is probably fair, as neither team was excellent. I'd say the French were just a bit better, in terms of mounting attacks on the English goal, but England did well to keep its shape and hold France to the draw. And more to the point, they did well to repulse the niggling (and sometimes more blatant) fouls thrown their way by France's Franck Ribéry, who should have been booked at some point.

England is a pretty frustrating team to watch, though, because they are so much less than the sum of their parts. It is a team that boasts some truly world-class players (although a few of them weren't on the pitch today due to suspension) but that can't seem to translate that form into success in the international game. I remember when people blamed this on the manager; but I've been following England long enough to think that it's probably the players.

Without going into a long dissertation on the failings of the current English generation, it's sufficient to say that they just aren't imaginative enough at this level: too many times during today's match, England's back four and midfield were strung out in lines of four just in front of their own goal, with the forwards stranded way off in the French half, on the off-chance that a clearance might find them and they could pluckily slot the ball home. Compared to some of the better-organized teams in this tournament, every English attack consisted of two or three white shirts facing off against a flurry of blue shirts, while the French somehow were able to pour more players into the English box whenever they went on the attack.

England still doesn't seem to have gotten over winning the World Cup 46 years ago without the use of wingers. but despite protestations that the players don't understand the 4-5-1 formation, it's time someone stopped to teach them, because otherwise English fans will be doomed to the eternal quarter-final exit on penalties.

On a happier note, the game I'd been slightly dreading, Ukraine-Sweden, turned out to be a much more positive affair, ending 2-1 to the co-hosts. Ukraine have participated in some of football's worst games (notably against Switzerland at the 2006 World Cup), while Sweden always seem to qualify for tournaments without making any particular mark. In fairness, this match looked like it would be one of those games, until Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring. Andriy Shevchenko replied with two of his own, which was enough to sustain the home side until the end, particularly a pretty nervy last ten minutes.

Ibrahimovic and Shevchenko make a nice contrast, actually - both can be called "talismanic", having come from countries outside the usual circle of successful teams; both also made their names in Italy, but I'd say the similarities end there. While not quite as nuts as Italy's Mario Balotelli, Ibrahimovic can fairly be called a loose cannon; he also suffers from a serious case of big-game nerves. I've rarely seen him produce a result in big games (with the natural caveat that these big games I watch him in are usually Champions League matches), yet he's still well-regarded. And in fairness, he did well to break the deadlock tonight.

On the other hand, Shevchenko's not really known for off-field antics, having spent the better part of a decade quietly slamming home goals to win games for AC Milan. What tarnished his reputation was his move to Chelsea in 2006 - he left a team that was better suited to his abilities, for one that, while effective as a unit, had no place in it for natural talent. This may seem harsh on Chelsea, but I really don't understand how else to explain why the likes of Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu and Michael Ballack also failed to make their mark there.

So it was a nice surprise to see Shevchenko pop up again tonight, playing for his country and scoring two important goals. More than that, it was heartening to see how happy he and the rest of the Ukrainian team were when it ended - from the celebrations you'd have thought they'd just won the whole tournament. Without getting too sentimental, it's good to see that these games mean something to the players, beyond a chance to increase their asking price in the August transfer window.

As for what comes next, Ukraine are now in pole position, so unless things go drastically wrong I'd expect them to make it to the next round. The more difficult question will be whether England or France join them - neither team was stellar today, but they also weren't so abject that I can point to them necessarily failing to progress. And somehow I expect the French to beat Ukraine in the next match, if only because it was France who spoiled South Africa's party in 2010 by knocking out the hosts.

So it's time for a little break now - I'll be back on Friday with a quick rundown of the second set of matches, by which time a few teams will have booked their passage to the second round. With luck, the next few days will provide as good a set of games as we've had so far.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Euro 2012: Things get interesting on Matchday 3

Today's matches provided a bit more drama than yesterday's, as the reigning world and European champions Spain met Italy, and the group's two wild cards Ireland and Croatia faced one another. Italy v Spain ended 1-1, which despite the scoreline was an entertaining, fast-paced match, while Croatia confirmed their status as a possible contender by dismantling Ireland 3-1.

The day's first match was the big one for me, of course. With every tournament that rolls around I'm never sure which Italy is going to show up - the confident, fast-paced Italy of 2006, or the listless, negative Italy of 2008 (and 2010). In general I err on the side of pessimism and assume Italy won't be getting out of the group, although I'll admit that even I was a little surprised when they failed to do so in 2010.

My misgivings this year weren't helped, despite some good buzz surrounding coach Cesare Prandelli, by questions about Italy's strikers. Antonio Cassano's in the squad, despite coming off a stroke earlier this season, while Giuseppe Rossi is recovering from a leg injury that should keep him off the pitch for the better part of a year. Which leaves Mario Balotelli, who can charitably be described as mercurial, and less charitably as batcrap crazy, along with a bunch of other players who've roundly failed to make their mark in the last few years.

So I was happy to see that when today's match started, Italy were running for the ball, passing well and actually going for goal. Balotelli and Cassano were up front, Andrea Pirlo was orchestrating things in midfield, and in goal they had a safe pair of hands in Gianluigi Buffon. In contrast to the grinding 0-0 draw these two teams played in 2008, Italy looked happy to actually go for it, rather than merely stopping Spain from playing.

And let's be honest, Italy truly did stop Spain from playing today. The Spanish were the clear winners in terms of possession and passing, and they had a lot of chances to score; the thing that let them down in the first half was their apparent need to walk the ball into the Italian goal. What let them down in the second, of course, was Fernando Torres, displaying so much raw talent that at one point Buffon was able to dispossess him and dribble the ball away. This, of course, is why Chelsea paid the big bucks for Torres. Not that Italy were so incisive on the attack, either - despite a few good attempts, Balotelli in particular was woeful, including during a run on goal that demonstrated neither speed nor purpose.

So imagine my delight when di Natale came on soon after the half and promptly scored. I don't want to come off as overly partisan here, but I did roar so hard that I saw stars for a few seconds after.

Of course, the real blow to the head came a few minutes later when Cesc Fabregas equalized for Spain. But in fairness, it was a long time coming, and if Torres hadn't been so awful they'd have deserved to beat Italy.

Turning to the other match, I noted yesterday after Denmark's win over the Netherlands that I wouldn't be too hasty to rule out Ireland, despite them being the clear weak link in Group C. Well, they didn't play too terribly - their goal in the first half gave them a lot of hope - but with hindsight the scoreline shouldn't have been too surprising. Croatia's been showing some serious quality since 1998, including when they beat Italy in the 2002 World Cup, and they'll be well-placed to pounce on any weakness by either Italy or Spain to progress to the knock-out rounds.

But, while I can't see Ireland getting to the next round, both Italy and Spain have a long history of losing to teams they shouldn't ever lose to (cf the game against North Korea in 1966, or Spain's opening loss to Switzerland in 2010). Group B may be the group of death, but this is just as tough a group, and could throw up a surprise or two.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Euro 2012: Thoughts on Matchday 2

We had a little more excitement today, as the Group of Death met for the first time. Both games ended 1-0, with Denmark beating the Netherlands thanks to a goal from Michael Krohn-Dehli, while Mario Gomez's goal put Germany ahead of a pretty lackluster Portugal.

A friend of mine was saying yesterday that he likes the European Championships because it feels like the teams are a bit more equal - in contrast to the World Cup, where there's a sense that the world outside South America and Europe is really only there to make up the numbers. With the Euros, on the other hand, there's a tradition of teams coming out of nowhere to win it; or at the very least, teams outside the club of big countries can progress well into the tournament.

That said, you can usually tell who the whipping boy in a group is likely to be. Enter Denmark, who actually fall into that club of teams coming out of nowhere to win it - not only did they win the European Championships in 1992, but they only got in because Yugoslavia lost its place as a result of its civil war.

While I wouldn't have gone so far as to suggest Denmark would lose all three games, I did think they wouldn't qualify for the next round, given the quality of the other three teams in their group. But as Yogi Berra said, that's why they play the games: Denmark's performance today wasn't exactly a display of fluid, tactically brilliant Total Football, and the Netherlands pretty clearly had the edge in terms of ball possession, shots and corners.

But the Danish team was well-organized, keeping possession well and looking at a couple of points like they could double their lead. There were questions during qualification about where their goals would come from, but somehow they made it, and given the form displayed today by Portugal and Germany, I no longer think it's out of the question that Denmark could get to the next round.

Not only that, but... if I had to name a dark horse team to win the tournament this year, I'd put my money on the Danes. This was, after all, how Greece won in 2004 - with a string of 1-0 wins against teams that appear much stronger on paper. Somehow I can imagine Denmark eking out a result the same way, although I'm ready to be proven wrong!

What should have been the more entertaining match of the day turned out to be a pretty dour game, as both Germany and Portugal looked for more than an hour destined to grind out the tournament's first 0-0 draw. Portugal certainly looked like they were playing for that scoreline, despite a shot from Pepe in the first half that bounced off the underside of the crossbar but failed to cross the line. Germany eventually went ahead in the 72nd minute when Gomez met a cross from Sami Khedira to head past the Portuguese keeper, but they didn't look all that amazing before or after that goal.

Despite not having won a trophy since 1996, I'd say Germany's been the most successful team in Europe, simply in terms of tournaments qualified for and finals played in. They've been particularly impressive since 2006, when they unveiled the core of the team that played today - they're fast, athletic and they play well as a unit, playing a good passing game that can make opponents look like they're standing still.

But little of that was on display today. I've heard a few voices suggesting that the Germans would be affected by Bayern Munich's loss in the Champions League final. There's possibly some merit to that, especially if you use it as an explanation for why Arjen Robben's performance against Denmark; but whatever the cause, the Germans today didn't look like the flowing football machine I've come to expect.

Before the tournament started I'd have bet on the Germans winning it; while I still think they're a good bet, I think it's worth seeing how the rest of the sides shape up in the next couple of days before deciding. And of course, both Portugal and the Netherlands will be looking for wins to keep themselves in the tournament, so it's still wide open.

Another one that's wide open is Group C, which meets tomorrow. I'll be rooting for Italy against Spain, of course, though I acknowledge that Spain is probably the other side most likely to win the tournament. But given my comments about whipping boys, I won't be too hasty to rule out Ireland (especially if Italy turn out not to have learned the lessons of 2008 and 2010).

Friday, 8 June 2012

Euro 2012: Reflections from Matchday 1


The Euros are finally here!

I'm probably in a distinct minority when I say this, but this is the only sporting event I've been looking forward to for summer 2012. I'm not big on the Olympics or Wimbledon, so I live my life in two four-year cycles: one for the World Cup and one for the European Championships.

This promises to be an interesting one (although I always say that), as it's another of the two-host tournaments that UEFA seems to love so much - this time with Poland and Ukraine playing host. This is the first time it's been held in Eastern Europe since the 1970s (Yugoslavia in 1976), and the first time since the fall of Communism. It feels a little like a coming-out party for Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe, as they showcase what they've been up to since then, and are at pains to show themselves part of a liberal, open European society.

It doesn't entirely help that Ukraine's been criticized over human rights, and there are questions about racism among the home fans, with the Dutch claiming they've already been subjected to abuse during a training session this week. As a result, UEFA's under a lot of pressure to keep things civilized and entertaining (and lucrative).

The first day's matches don't seem to have provided much off-field drama, however. First up was host country Poland, facing 2004 champions Greece, followed by Russia versus the Czech Republic. Going into the tournament this looked like the weakest group, and today's performances haven't dispelled this impression.

Poland v Greece ended in a 1-1 draw, though not without its drama - Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos was sent off in the 44th minute for a second yellow card, after Poland went ahead in the 17th minute with a goal from Robert Lewandowski. Dimitris Salpigidis equalized for Greece shortly after half-time. But the match's biggest moment came in the 69th minute, when Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was sent off for bringing Salpigidis down in the box. Greek captain Giorgios Karagounis duly lined up for the penalty, only to have it saved by Poland's substitute goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton.

The day's other match provided a more satisfying result, as Russian winger Andrei Arshavin inspired his side to a 4-1victory over the Czechs. Alan Dzagoev bagged two as Russia dismantled a generally woeful Czech team, although the Russians seemed to take their foot off the gas during the middle part of the match, during which time Czech winger Vaclav Pilar scored one for his team. But Russia came back in the last few minutes as Dzagoev nabbed his second and Roman Pavlyuchenko grabbed the fourth.

Of the four teams that played today, only Russia looked like they might be able to compete in the knockout stages, and even then they'll get eaten alive if they sit back the way they did against the Czechs. Poland and Greece were both pretty abject, and are unlikely to trouble the tournament for much longer, while the Czech Republic looks ever more like a spent force, and ever less like the serious title contenders that they were in 2004. Ironically, if they lose their next game too, the Czechs will find themselves knocked out by Greece again, just as they were eight years ago. Meanwhile, Poland's my pick to progress to the next round, although I can't see them getting much of a result against the Russians.

Tomorrow's games should give a clue to whoever will be facing Russia in the next round, as Denmark faces the Netherlands and Germany plays Portugal in this year's group of death. And more to the point, one of those - probably Germany or the Netherlands - is likely to win the entire tournament. Roll on the Euros!