At last -- the finals are under way . . .


Greece,  despite being reduced to 10 men, hit back for a 1-1 draw with co-hosts Poland in a breathless opening to Euro 2012. It was a remarkable recovery after Robert Lewandowski had headed Poland into an early lead and the Greeks had centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos dismissed shortly before half-time.

What had threatened to become a Greek football tragedy turned into a comedy of errors in the second half. First Greece equalised then skipper Giorgos Karagounis missed a penalty after Poland had been reduced to 10 men themselves by the expulsion of keeper Wojciech Szesny.

The launch of the four-year finals was short on quality but long on drama. That will have delighted the organisers. At last football could command the agenda after a fractious approach to the finals dominated by all the  negativity which fills the vacuum of inaction.

These are the third finals to be co-hosted and the first to be staged in the former Soviet block. Belgium and Holland had begun the trend in 2000 followed up by Austria and Switzerland in 2008.

The gamble on heading East, rather than south to rivals Italy, had been the first major decision undertaken by UEFA after Michel Platini’s presidential overthrow  of Lennart Johansson in early 2007. His new executive committee, meeting in Cardiff, had surprised itself in setting the stage for five years of controversy.

Two countries with different currencies, different cultural and historical leanings and even different time zones, made for awkward bedfellows; the imbalance exacerbated by political and economic instability, most notably – and threateningly for UEFA – in Europe’s far east. How Ukraine measures up will become clear soon enough now.

The best antidote to organisational headaches is always to be found in the sport itself and Lewandowski could not have done better for Euro 2012 than guide home a carefully-judged far post header after only 17 minutes. A right-wing cross from skipper Jakub Blaszczykowski lured Greek keeper Kostas Chalkias into no-man’s land and Lewandowski punished him with the third-fastest goal in an Opening Match. It was aslo the Dortmund 23-year-old’s 16th strike in his 44th international.

The lead was well deserved. Poland had been slicing the left flank of the Greek defence into tiny pieces and had enough opportunities to kill the game. Greece appeared at their mercy, particularly after they had to substitute injured centre back Avram Papadopoulos in the 36th minute then lost Papastathopoulos to the first red card of the finals.

The centre-back had twice fouled Lewandowski in quick succession. The first card was perhaps harsh but the follow-up foul was cynically lazy. Papastathopoulos thus became only the second player ever sent off in the Opener, after Sweden’s Patrik Andersson in 2000.

Manager Fernando Santos responded by bringing on Dimitris Salpingidis up front for the ineffective Sotiris Ninis at half-time. It was a positive act of faith for which Santos was rewarded within six minutes. This time it was the Poles’ turn to be ripped apart on the left and, after Szesny and centre-back Marcin Wasilewski collided, Salpingidis struck unerringly.

Important goals have become a collector’s item for the 30-year-old from PAOK Salonika. In 2009 he scored the winning goal in the away leg of the World Cup play-off which beat Ukraine and sent Greece through to South Africa where he claimed, against Nigeria, their first-ever goal in the finals.

Greece should have taken the lead in the 70th minute. The Polish defence stood still, allowing Salpingidis to run in behind them. He was tripped by Szesny who was duly sent off. PSV Eindhoven’s Przemyslaw Tyton came on as sub – in place of Maciel Rybus – and dived left to save Karagounis’s penalty.

Two minutes later Greece – inevitably Salpingidis again – popped the ball into the Polish net but the ‘goal’ was disallowed for offside against Kostas Fourtounis who had supplied the left-wing cross.

Poland tried hard to reclaim their initial momentum but they had lost the thread of teamwork which should have seen them safely heading for three points after the first halfhour.

The increasingly lonely Lewandowski found space on the right but hit the side net then simply ran into an increasingly resolute Greek defence the next time he saw the ball. His personal consolation was to be named, mysteriously, as official man of the match. Perhaps the vote was taken at half-time.

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