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!