The European Championships are finally off... and not a moment too soon! We really couldn't have taken any more of a delay, even if there were a number of juicy transfer rumours to keep us amused while the Spanish and the Germans and the Dutch and the English and all the rest of the 16 teams in Poland and Ukraine went through their warm-ups and rounds of friendlies.
In the end, it was left to co-hosts Poland and Greece to kick start the festivities. On the face of it, the tie seemed like a recipe for dull, uninventive backs-to-the-wall football in a group that many condemned as being the Group of Boredom; anyone who remembered how Greece won the 2004 European Championships will not disagree.
As it turned out, however, we had two rather exciting games to open the tournament and plenty of goals, controversies and talking points.
Tyton to the Rescue
Przemyslaw Tyton could not have dreamt of a more heroic start to the Euros... at least on a personal level. The PSV shotstopper came off the bench, following Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny's moment of madness, to save a spot kick and a point for his country. As it turned out, it was perhaps a shame the Gunner started at all; he wound up having a rather disastrous 70 minutes - he was directly at fault for the equaliser and his rash tackle not only lead to the ejection but also a spot kick for the Greece. He owes Tyton a huge thank you for covering for the blunders!
On a more general note, the opening match was, despite it being between two of the least fancied teams in the tournament, a rather exciting one; and that is saying something, considering one of the two sides was Greece. German coach Otto Rehhagel oversaw a 2004 Euro win for the southern Europeans based on not only a stingy defence but a thoroughly organised method of stifling any measure of creativity from the opposition. The same was expected from Fernando Santos' side and, for the first 45 minutes at least, they failed to deliver. The Grecians were considerably less than impressive in the first half and goal keeper Kostas Chalkias was particularly at fault for the opener, scored by young Pole Robert Lewandowski. It didn't help matters that Sokratis Papastathopoulos was shown two yellow cards in the space of ten minutes (both rather harsh, we must admit) to hand three points on a platter to the hosts. The Poles, however, were excellent hosts - at least, Szczesny was - and offered their guests more than one opportunity to walk away with a first win of the tournament.
When referee Carlos Velasco Carballo finally lowered the curtain, a draw and a point apiece seemed about right. However, given Russia's imperious form in the other game, both Poland and Greece (and the Czechs too) will have their work cut out, if they don't want to book early flights home.
Alan's the Man
The transfer rumours surrounding big name clubs and high profile players tends to focus so much on the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona and the bigger English clubs that we sometimes forget there is footballing life outside of the big four (five?) leagues. Meet Alan Dzagoev, a 21 year old attacking midfielder who has been quietly tracked by Real Madrid and Manchester United for some time now... and with good reason. The CSKA Moscow youngster is a player very much in the David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Mesut Ozil mould - someone comfortable playing high up the pitch and with the pace, skills and vision to either pick out the killer ball or, if necessary, go for goal himself.
Dzagoev led the Russians to a thoroughly deserved 4-1 win over the Czechs in the other group game and although there were contributions from Andrey Arshavin (yes, the same Arshavin; was Wenger watching?) and left back Yuri Zhirkov, it was the CSKA player's night... and didn't he rise to the occasion?! The youngster was full of tricks and turns and his two goals on the night will have definitely alerted both Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, as well as other clubs.