Matchday five saw an already strong tournament hit new heights when Russia faced off against hosts Poland, and with Group B afterthoughts Denmark and Portugal fighting for a realistic opportunity to advance while the Netherlands need a win against Germany to keep hope alive after stumbling in the opener, day six promises its share of captivating moments.
Greece 1, Czech Republic 2
GRE: Gekas 53'
CZE: Jiracek 3', Pilar 6'
Just as in their first games of the group stage, the Czechs were good early and the Greeks looked better when things seemed desperate. Unlike in their first games, however, this time the Czech Republic managed to put away their early chances and for Greece playing well late wasn't enough to earn a point. On this night, the Czechs flew out of the gates, intent on making up for their previous embarrassment at the hands of the Russians, and when Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar scored within ten minutes the only question was just how badly the Greeks were going to be beaten, with their shaky backline carved open on every Czech break and the midfield unable to hold onto the ball. The Czechs, though, began to relent, and slowly Greece was allowed back into the game until in the second Petr Cech spilled a soft cross and gifted them a goal. Despite that goal and generally better play, though, a second never quite seemed likely and the 2004 champions now find themselves all but out of the tournament.
Poland 1, Russia 1
POL: Blaszczykowski 57'
RUS: Dzagoev 37'
Russian supporters marching to celebrate the formation of the Russian Federation in 1990 and Polish hooligans spoiling for a fight threatened to derail the day's marquee match in the hours before kickoff, but when the game began any concerns over events outside the stadium were put on hold. For once, the reality measured up to the hype, and a match loaded with meaning beyond events on the pitch burst to glorious, frantic life as Russia continued the form that had seen them crush the Czech Republic while Poland channeled the home crowd to turn in their best ever performance at a European Championship. The first four days of this year's competition had been amongst the most entertaining Euro group stages ever—with only Monday's match between France and England offering little of value for the neutral—but as Warsaw's National Stadium roared and the countries traded punches in the opening minutes at what seemed an unsustainable pace, it was impossible to look away.
Andrey Arshavin was again on top form for the Russians, tearing down the left and hurdling challengers while Yuri Zhirkov threatened constantly on the overlap. Up front, Alexander Kerzhakov was once again flying—though also once again unable to put his shots anywhere near target—while Roman Shirokov and Alan Dzagoev buzzed around him. It seemed impossible to think that Poland could keep pace, and yet somehow they did, countering dangerously through captain Jakub Blaszczykowski and star striker Robert Lewandowski while goalkeeper Tyton, forced into action by Wojciech Szczesny's red card in the opening match, provided a calming presence at the back. He wasn't, however, able to stop Russia from going up late in the first when Arshavin sent a perfect free kick curling in from the left that Dzagoev flicked home.
The Poles, though, refused to crumble, only coming at Russia harder out of the break, hammering at Russia's defence—at times dangerously isolated as the game grew increasingly stretched—until Blaszczykowski's breakthrough smashed into the top corner on 57 minutes. Goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev, Russia's man of the match, had already spoiled two Polish chances in the opening minutes of the second half that on another night would have seen the hosts ahead, but he had no chance on the third. Around the 75 minute mark the sides clearly began to tire, with the Russians in particular running out of energy, but until then it had been one of the most passionate, technically frenetic games of football those watching are ever likely to see. In a tournament that had already provided great entertainment it sets the bar very, very high for what comes next.
For today's matches:
Denmark v. Portugal
5:00PM BST/12:00PM EST
With Portugal frustrating Germany for long stretches and Denmark beating the favoured Dutch in the opening games in Group B, many were left wondering if the underdogs were better than they had thought or if it was only that the favourites had failed to deliver. Wednesday's games will go a long way towards answering those questions, and a winner in the early match between the two presumptive runners-up could put one of them in line for the knock out rounds. Denmark will have reason to feel confident after defeating the Portuguese in Euro qualification, but scoring goals remains a major question mark and despite gaining all three points from the opening game they created almost nothing in attack. Portugal, meanwhile, will need to take a very different approach to the one that kept pre-tournament favourites Germany in check, as a tightly packed and defensive midfield trio protecting the backline and sending the ball quickly up to Christiano Ronaldo seems unlikely to lead to success against the defensively sound but offensively challenged Danes.
Netherlands v. Germany
7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST
The second match of the day pits the two group favourites against each other in a game that has been marked down as one of the biggest of the group stages since the fixtures were set. With the Netherlands struggling against Denmark, however, there's reason to wonder if the aging Dutch may have been over-valued by outsiders, and if Germany plays up to their capacity while the likes of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie once again underwhelm it could mark an early end to the tournament for one of the favourites. In the end, this is certainly a game that Germany would like to win—and doing so would almost certainly clinch advancement—but after losing their opener it is one that the Netherlands quite simply need to win. And given the strength of Germany on the counter, if the Netherlands aren't on top form there's every chance that could lead to them finding themselves on the wrong end of a very unflattering scoreline.