Opening round of Euro 2012 offers plenty of goals, excitement

Louis San Miguel

Dzagoev, Krohn-Dehli, Mandzukic and Shevchenko are names even some of the greatest soccer fans will struggle to pronounce, but as the lights dim on the first round of group play in the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, they will be the names remembered for their opening round performances.

The tournament, comprised of 16 of Europe’s best footballing nations, kicked off at National Stadium in Warsaw as Poland, co-hosts of the tournament, took on defensive-minded Greece this past Friday.

Poland’s substitute goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton was called into action after Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was sent off for bringing down Greek goalscorer Dimitris Salpingidis in a last-ditch effort to prevent a goal.

Tyton performed admirably when called upon and saved the penalty to hold ten-man Greece to a 1-1 draw and ensure a dramatic start to Euro 2012.

Following the draw, Russia, a semi-finalist at Euro 2008, dominated a Czech side found lacking in attack.

Alan Dzagoev, Russian wunderkind, scored two goals in a 4-1 win that further justifies the transfer rumors linking him to Manchester United and Real Madrid. Russian captain Andrey Arshavin also picked up two assists in the match.

Group B started off with a giant upset. Denmark shocked tournament favorite Netherlands after Brondby winger Michael Krohn-Dehli struck a precise, low-angled shot through the legs of Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg for a 24th minute goal. From there on, Daniel Agger and the rest of the Danish defense played well, frustrating the Dutch attack and not giving up any goals for a 1-0 victory.

At Arena Lviv in Ukraine, Germany and Portugal faced off in a timid affair excluding a Mario Gomez header in the 72nd minute that broke the silence. Portugal left the game noticeably frustrated with the 1-0 loss after hitting the woodwork twice. Portugal would earn three points in their second match against Denmark, thanks to a screaming strike from Silvestre Varela in the 87th minute of a 2-2 game. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo failed to connect on multiple chances inside the 18-yard box, and critics worldwide have begun to question his work ethic with the national team.

In a battle of past World Cup champions, Spain and Italy drew 1-1 as goals by Antonio Di Natale and Cesc Fabregas cancelled each other out. Italy played a disciplined game utilizing a three-man defense that troubled Spain. Elsewhere, Wolfsburg striker Mario Mandzukic sent Croatia to the top of Group C after scoring a brace in a 3-1 victory over Ireland.

The opening game of group D then kicked off on Monday with two strong sides looking to impose themselves in the tournament. Joleon Lescott rose highest to head in a curling free kick courtesy of Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard and gave the three lions a lead. Samir Nasri then leveled the score for France with a low, fast shot just out of the reach of keeper Joe Hart. Both sides left happy with a point gained from the 1-1 draw.

As the first weekend of play came to an end, few could predict the performance of 35 year-old Andriy Shevchenko. Shevchenko, whose first international game was in 1995, turned back the years and silenced the critics who called his selection nostalgic with two well struck headers that took co-hosts Ukraine to a 2-1 win over Sweden.

As Euro 2012 continues, the next batch of games holds some rather enticing matchups. Spain will face Ireland on June 14 to try to get their title defense back on track. A group D grudge match then follows on the 15th as England takes on Sweden, who have yet to lose in a competitive fixture to England in a record lasting more than 40 years.