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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).