clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Day 1: So, Handballs Are Legal Now?

Group A:

Czech Republic 1, Switzerland 0

I never dreamed I’d say this, but I feel sorry for the Swiss soccer team. They clearly deserved better. Forget the cliché about both squads leaving with a point in a perfect world. The Swiss should have had all three points. Hell they should’ve gotten four or five points, so thoroughly did they dismantle the judge.

Of course, as Clint Eastwood says, "Deserve has nothing to do with it."

Switzerland owned the first half of the game as thoroughly as a game could be dominated with a 0-0 scoreline at the break. They had all the possession, all the shots, all the pressure. Their midfielders were owning the game, despite being outnumbered five-four, and they were having far more success supplying the ball to their star striker Alexander Frei than the Czechs were in finding Jan Koller, who seemed to be stuck in mud.

Frei got off three quality shots on goal in the first 35 minutes, each one more dangerous than the last, and the only reason the game was level was the usual superlative instincts of keeper Peter Cech. Still, it felt as it would only be a matter of time until a ball would elude even his reach. Of the finest eleven men on the pitch, it was as if seven or eight belonged to the Swiss.

The game turned however on a freak play right before half. Frei knocked his left knee with Czech defender Zdeněk Grygera and tore his interior ligament, ending both his game and his tournament. Even though they were owning the game Switzerland had nothing to feel positive about at half, on the scoreboard or off. Frei is pretty much their only forward of note.

Tactically both teams were attacking the other’s right flank. The Swiss tried to repeatedly exploit Czech left fullback Marek Jankulovski with the combination of Frei and midfielder Valon Behrami and were having great success. The Czechs’ most active player meanwhile was right midfielder Libor Sionko who giving Swiss left back Ludovic Magnin fits, forcing him into a near own-goal in the 13th minute, a caution in the 59th. Sionko missed an open header in the ensuing free kick and it appeared as if the Czechs would never get a shot on goal.

By that point their manager Karel Brückner had already given up on the sluggish Koller, subbing him in the 55th minute for unknown youngster Václav Svěrkoš. Curiously, the much more regarded Milan Baroš remained on the bench. Brückner now had both of his star forwards off the pitch. Was he insane?

Insane like a weevil, it turned out. In the 71st minute stud center-back Philippe Senderos got a little too full of himself and tried to clear a ball more fancily than he needed to, kicking it over his head while facing his own goal. He clubbed it low in the air, right toward Czech holding midfielder Tomáš Galásek who headed the ball with purpose and force right back where it came, catching Senderos’ three linemates, who had all pinched forward off guard. Svěrkoš happened to have his head turned in Galásek’s direction and instantly recognized his opportunity and he timed his run just right so he wouldn’t be off side. He collected the ball all alone in the box and even though I very much doubt he intended to squirt it home off his ankle, the football gods rewarded him with his first goal for the Czech Republic. Who could’ve imagined that all three goal scorers in day one of the Euro Cup would tally their premier goals for country?


Shit happens, especially in soccer.


As shocked as they were by the turn of events, give the Swiss all the credit in the world for not hanging their heads. They fiercely chased the game after the fluke goal and had multiple opportunities to tie it in the 79th minute. Czech center-back and captain Tomáš Ujfaluši clearly played a ball played into his box off his left hand but referee Roberto Rosetti missed it. The ball deflected to midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta whose fierce shot was saved well by Cech, right into the path of reserve forward Johan Vonlanthen who, with Cech out of position… hit the cross bar.

And that was that.

The Swiss have to be completely dejected, knowing they played practically perfectly yet lost the game and their best player. Their next match, on Wednesday, will be against the Turks, battling injury problems themselves, on the backline. It looks to be very much a case of the resistible force going up against the movable object and your guess is as good as mine how either team will approach the game mentally, physically or tactically.

The Czechs meanwhile have to be ecstatic, knowing they’ve dodged the mother of all bullets. They know they have to play much, much better to have any chance at all against Portugal, but they can come into the game with no pressure and treat it like it’s house money. Brückner, perhaps trying to motivate his troops, has already told the press that his guys have no chance to win the group.

At this point, who can argue with him?

Three Stars:

3. Alexander Frei – A great first half of football for the classy forward and an unfortunate way for him to go out.

2. Peter Cech – He singlehandedly kept his team in the game in a sloppy first half and made a couple of big saves once given the lead as well.

1. Václav Svěrkoš – Lucky or no, he made the most of his chance. If nothing else, he at least anticipated the play well.

Portugal 2, Turkey 0


Well that was certainly disappointing.

After being annoyed to no end by all of ESPN's hype of Portugal, with nary a word about the Turkish side they'd be playing for the first 27 minutes of their half hour pre-game show, I now reflect on the recently completed game and realize that the ratio of attention paid to the respective teams was richly deserved.

We sucked out there.

Really, Turkey showed me almost nothing. Except for maybe a 20% stretch of the match between maybe the 37th and 55th minutes where they had some decent possession and build ups, Turkey was clearly outclassed by the faster, more organized Portuguese and were thoroughly dominated in all phases of the game.

Portugal were unlucky enough to hit three posts, had an early goal disallowed on a close (but correct) off-sides call and their man Cristiano Ronaldo was the victim of a fabulous finger-tip lunge by Turkish keeper Volkan Demirel, to deny a sure free kick goal in the 36th minute. They could've easily scored five, six goals out there, their chances were so sublime.

Turkey on the other hand created few opportunities, about as many as they get in any other game really, but almost of them were botched miserably by Tuncan Sanli, easily the goat of Day 1. He ran into his own men in the open field, gave away the ball numerous times despite not being seriously pressured, had no nerve at all near the net, and whiffed completely on both an open header and a bouncing ball at his feet in the box. He looked unworthy of a starting spot on the expansion MLS San Jose Earthquakes team I cover, let alone a team in the European Cup. Sanli is definitely a better player than he showed today, but he choked badly against Portugal.

After a 0-0 first half Portugal finally got on the board in the 61st minute, quickly capitalizing on the injury to Turkish center-back Gökhan Zan, who suffered a knock on his knee and had to be substituted with Emre Aşık in the 54th minute. Portugal took advantage of Aşık tootsweet as his opposite number, the unheralded defenseman Pepe, dribbled right past him up through the wide open middle, expertly worked a one-two with lone forward Nuno Gomes and chipped the ball over the late-charging Demirel to make it 1-0. While it’s easy to blame Aşık for the goal, the man he replaced was hardly great shakes himself, misplaying a ball clumsily a few minutes before to turn it over to Simão, who he had to tackle in desperation (where he injured himself). Gomes got the ball on the continuation and struck the post in the 50th minute so Zan’s gaffe didn’t look costly at the time.


Still hatin' the Portuguese.


Oddly, not only was Pepe’s goal his first ever for Portugal, but he was also the man who headed home a beautiful curling chip from the right side by Deco in the 16th minute, only to be ruled off-side. It wasn’t even a certainty that manager Luiz Felipe Scolari was going to start him, and the Man of the Match just about walked away with two goals.

Turkey had several chances to level however. Sanli could’ve gotten his header on a marvelous cross by Nihat Kahveci – he delivered a handful of them – but wasn’t aggressive enough and keeper Ricardo beat him to the ball. Aşık was all alone on his header attempt in the 82nd minute, but smacked it well wide. Sanli had a rolling ball at his feet in the 88th minute off a deflection, swung his right leg and got nothing but air. Most glaring of all, referee Herbert Fandel missed an obvious hand ball in the box on Simão in the 71st minute. It should have been a penalty.

Just so we’re clear, that’s not to say we were robbed of a point in this one. On merit we should’ve lost 4-1, 5-2, somewhere in that neighborhood. Portugal’s midfielders dominated the game throughout and constantly created fabulous chances. Their set pieces were terrifying as well.

They were just better.

Both teams started some guys I hadn’t figured. For Turkey Mevlüt Erdinç started as an attacking midfielder as a part of their 4-5-1 and did pretty much nothing for a half before getting subbed. Colin Kazim-Richards played the whole game at right flank and saw plenty of the ball, but ultimately he too produced little. Left on the pine were Arda Turan and Tümer Metin. Portugal meanwhile went with the veteran Petit and youngster João Moutinho in midfield, leaving Nani, Ricardo Queresma, Miguel Veloso, Fernando Meira and Raul Meireles on the bench. Moutinho in particular I thought was dead last on the totem pole of the eight midfielders vying for three open spots.

Portugal closed the game out with a beautiful goal on the counterattack with Ronaldo steaming down the left side with the ball on and odd man rush and dishing it into the box when Aşık closing in on him. The pass hit Moutinho in stride and he stunned Turkey’s other centerback Servet Çetin with a quick spin move before tapping out to his right to the onrushing Miereles, who had come on as a sub for Simão some ten minutes before. He in turn slid the ball into the empty net and like Pepe, scored his first goal for Portugal, with Fandel mercifully blowing the whistle moments after.

The Portuguese get the Czechs next on Wednesday with the winner likely to take the group, but truthfully they have little to worry about. The Czechs showed even less offensive ability in their win than the Turks did in losing and their lead-footed attack cannot possibly trouble Ronaldo and company. Their back four could stand to tighten up a bit, but I just can’t see any way for the Czechs to deal with them for a full 90 minutes.

My Turks on the other hand will have their hands full with host Switzerland, even without Frei. Manager Fatih Terim said both Zan and Çetin will be doubtful in the back so I have no idea how they’ll defend at all. Perhaps Mehmet Topal will be called on to help Mehmet Aurelio win more balls from the midfield. Aşık is all but certain to start. Turan and Metin deserve a look as well and Gokdeniz Karadeniz is also in the picture. Four or five even new starters aren’t out of the question as Terim desperately needs to find some guys with a defense-first mentality.

The odd thing about the game was that outside of Sanli, I didn’t think any of our starters played all that poorly. Nearly the entire team came out nervous, but most of them got over it by the 25th minute mark or so. The problem was that there was no organization and guys were scrambling everywhere, and I doubt very much that was intentional. Hamit Altintop was the starting right fullback, but he often led the attack in the middle of the pitch. Kahveci was our only forward and he was winning balls along the sideline in his own third. Captain Emre Belözoğlu was seemingly everywhere at once. I think they were trying to confuse Portugal, but more often than not they just confused themselves, especially when they had the ball. Turkey needlessly gave it away time and again despite having time and space. Kahveci in particular refused to shoot and kept trying to draw penalty kicks when Fandel showed little inclination to award them. The whole team was much too respectful of Portgual’s backline and keeper and not nearly concerned as they should’ve been about their attackers. It’s like they thought they were playing Greece or the Swiss.

On Tuesday Turkey will face a real defense and a team that looks decidedly more disciplined and organized than they do. Switzerland will have their fans behind them and the patience to wait for us to make silly mistakes in the back. The Turks have the offensive talent to create more chances than the Czechs did against the Swiss, but if they allow the first goal they’re done for.

Switzerland is absolutely the perfect opponent for them, however. Their main goal poacher is out so there is a decent chance Turkey can survive playing their second-team backline and the whole team will be motivated as hell to seek revenge against the squad that dashed their hopes of qualifying for the ’06 World Cup. I haven’t given up on my guys by any stretch and I know they won’t quit either. In both the ’00 Euros and ’02 WC the Turks dropped their opening game, to Italy and Brazil respectively, and went on to advance to the knockout stages both times.

Three Stars:

3. Cristiano Ronaldo – Turkey did a decent job of paying attention to him and he still narrowly missed out on scoring two goals. He also had the hockey assist on their second score.

2. Nuno Gomes – He played a hell of a lot better than I thought he would, creating turnovers, smacking the post twice and assisting on Pepe’s game winner.

1. Pepe – Normally, when the worst part of a central defender’s day is his defense, it’s a bad thing. Pepe showed impressive scoring skill with both his head and feet.

Tomorrow: Our first look at mighty Germany in what should be a mighty contentious affair with the Poles, and a clash between Croatia and Austria that should serve as an excellent chance to get cracking on the Sunday crossword puzzle of your local paper.