Poland 1-1 Greece: Poland start brilliantly but Greece adjust admirably after red card
One goal each, one red card each, and one point each in an entertaining opening game of Euro 2012.
Poland went with their expected side – there were no real debates to be settled in the starting line-up, and Franciszek Smuda used his usual structured yet energetic 4-2-3-1 system.
Fernando Santos had two major decisions to make. The first was in goal, where Kostas Chalkias was chosen from Greece’s three distinctly average goalkeepers. The second choice was on the right of the front three, where Sotiris Ninis started over Dimitris Salpingidis.
This was a game of three phases: 11 v 11, 11 v 10, 10 v 10. Both sides looked in a commanding position at one stage, but a draw was a fair result.
Poland attack the right
Poland started this match excellently, energetically swarming forward as if expressing sheer relief that the long-awaited tournament in their home country had finally began. Once, during the opening minutes, Maciej Rybus stormed past Vasilis Torosidis into a good crossing position down the left, but almost every other attack was concentrated down the opposite flank.
This was no surprise, of course – the right flank is clearly the strongest part of the Polish side, both in terms of individuals and cohesion, as the Dortmund duo of Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski are situated on that side. They, in turn, have a great relationship with striker Robert Lewandowski.
Greece didn’t help themselves with the positioning of their players – Giorgos Samaras played as the left-sided forward, and although he and Ninis dropped back to form a midfield five, he wasn’t alert to the runs of Piszczek, and left too much space between himself and Jose Holebas at left-back.
This was the pivotal part of the tactical battle in the first half, and the situation was particularly perilous for Grece because of the positioning of Holebas, who played much higher up than the other three Greek defenders, perhaps in an attempt to minimise the space ahead of him. Greece were clearly vulnerable down that side, and while Poland immediately looked to their right flank anyway, they were particularly keen to do so here.
Three players benefited from the space down that wing. Piszczek motored past Samaras to stretch the play and support the forward four on the overlap, Blaszczykowski got space to receive the ball and then dribbled past Holebas at speed, and number ten Ludovic Obraniak played as a central winger, either coming deep to pick up the ball on the left, or higher up the pitch to join in the play on the right.
So many chances came from this side. Piszczek played a one-two with Blaszczykowski and then fired a high cross into the six-yard box, when a low pass would have seen Lewandowski tap in. Moments later, Obraniak moved to the right, slipped in Blaszczykowski, and his cross found Lewandowski, this time able to reach the ball (courtesy of some poor goalkeeping from Chalkias) and headed home to give Poland a deserved lead.
Greece were extremely poor in the first half, a classic broken team when they tried to move the ball forward quickly, with seven defensive players and three attackers. The intended ‘connecting’ player was Giannis Maniatis, who shuttled forward manfully trying to solve this problem, but he ran into the holding midfield duo of Rafael Murawski and Eugen Polanski, and didn’t have the skill to break past.
When they moved the ball more slowly, Greece lacked creativity to break down a packed Poland defence. Ninis had little impact upon the game until the final moments of the first half, as he was tracked well by Sebastien Boenisch, who simply overpowered him in direct confrontations. Most unforgivably, Giorgos Karagounis’ set-piece delivery was terrible, consistently failing to beat the first man.
11 v 10
Then there was Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ red card. Greece had already lost his centre-back partner Avraam Papadopoulos through injury, and he had been replaced by Kyriakos Papadopoulos (no relation). That meant Greece had an all-new centre-back pairing after Papastathopoulos was dismissed, with Kostas Katsouranis dropping back into centre-back, a position he’s played many times before. Considering that double blow, Greece coped excellently at the back.
As Katsouranis was the lone holding player, Santos had to change the formation of the side. If there was anything that went Greece’s way in the first half, it was that the red card came in the 44th minute, and Santos could get his side into the dressing room immediately and explain the strategy for the second half.
Santos made a change – Salpingidis replaced Ninis on the right – but this didn’t affect their defensive reshaping. They came out for the second half in a basic 4-4-1, with the two other central midfielders now sitting deeper, and the wide forwards told to form a strict second bank of four – whereas previously, they’d been part of a front three and were slow getting back into position.
While Greece wouldn’t have wanted the sending-off (and at the risk of using the “sometimes it’s more difficult to play against ten men” cliché) Poland appeared more affected by the Greek red card. Primarily, this was because Samaras was now doing a good defensive job and protecting Holebas (who himself was more reserved). Poland’s previous supremacy down the right was barely notable.
Poland’s gameplan at 1-0 was unclear – they played with much less energy and attacking intent, but lacked the ability to keep possession and kill the game. Greece, despite having a man less, were much improved in the second half, able to bring their wide players into the game and move forward more regularly, if often very slowly.
The introduction of Salpingidis was crucial. He scored the goal – which came after a good overlap from Torosidis and more poor goalkeeping, this time from Wojciech Szczesny. Salpingidis later won a penalty, and scored a disallowed goal after a marginal offside call.
Still at 11 v 10, Santos’ third and final substitution came after 68 minutes. He removed striker Theo Gekas and introduced young attacking midfielder Kostas Fortounis, who played on the left, with Samaras moving upfront. This immediately had an impact, with the front three combining brilliantly – Samaras was now in a position where he could hold the ball up, and did so for Fortounis to chip the ball over the defence for Salpingidis, leading to Szczesny’s red card and Karagounis squandering the resulting penalty, in keeping with his dead ball performance from the first half.
Smuda responded by moving to an identical 4-4-1 (removing Rybus, putting Obraniak to the left and bringing on Przemyslaw Tyton, who was the hero with his penalty save). But Greece continued to look the better side, with great thrust on both flanks. Poland, having made a defensive shift at the break, were unable to regain their initial energy, and a 4-4-1 v 4-4-1 battle for the final 25 minutes yielded a draw.
One can question Santos’ initial strategy – although he was simply using Greece’s natural shape, it was suicidal to leave Samaras high up on Greece’s left against the strongest part of Poland’s side, and the home team should really have punished Greece by scoring more than a single goal in the first half.
But he deserves great credit for the way he reacted to the red card. Moving to two banks of four stabilized the game and helped protect Holebas, sucking the momentum out of Poland’s play. Then, the two changes on the flanks allowed Greece back in the game, and both Salpingidis and Fortounis will be hopeful of a start against the Czechs on Tuesday.
Poland started superbly but once Greece started to protect Holebas, they looked lost. Smuda will regret his side taking their foot off the gas for the second half, as the drop in performance was extraordinary.
Both will still fancy their chances of progression.