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Russia gave a resounding display of their Group A winning potential by thumping the team expected to be their closest competitors for that spot, the Czech Republic, 4-1 in Wroclaw on Friday night. A goal in either half from 21-year old CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev showcased the youngster's tremendous natural ability, while a couple of other cool finishes from the two Romans - Shirokov and Pavlyuchenko - put the icing on a rather large Russian cake. The Czechs were second best for all but the first 15 minutes of the game, but did get a goal through Vaclav Pilar early in the second half to give themselves a lifeline in this contest. Russia though were far superior at both ends of the pitch, and their quality stood out over the 90 minutes.
After an entertaining draw in the Euro 2012 opener between Poland and Greece, there was an added incentive for Russia and the Czech Republic as they took to the field for game 2, knowing that a win would put them in pole position to qualify for the knock-out rounds.
The match may have been built as the battle between the two Arsenal playmakers, but the contest between Czech skipper Tomas Rosicky and Russian captain Andrey Arshavin, promised to be just a side show between two teams with plenty of attacking talent. Russia came into this match as the slender favourites, but were without first choice keeper Igor Akinfeev and former Tottenham striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, both of whom had slight niggles coming into this game. The experienced duo of Vasily Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich took on central defensive duties, while Aleksandr Anyukov shook off his knock to slot in at right back. Former Chelsea left-back Yuri Zhirkov completed the back four. Alan Dzagoev was an interesting player to watch in the middle of the park, while Arshavin was partnered by Aleksandr Kerzhakov in attack.
The Czech Republic had Chelsea's Champions League hero Petr Cech in between the sticks, but a slightly suspect defence in front of him. Tomas Rosicky and Jaroslav Plasil were the two men expected to do the damage in the middle of the park to set-up former Liverpool striker Milan Baros to score the goals. Baros, who had been so deadly with the giant Jan Koller early on in his career, had another Jan in Rezek lining up alongside him.
The Czech side settled the better and earned a couple of early corners. One of those produced a penalty appeal, with the ball having come off the arm of Aleksandr Anyukov, but referee Howard Webb, who refereed the World Cup Final in 2010 was having none of it. A header wide from Roman Hubnik and a shot right across the face of goal from Rezek had Russia worried early on.
Russia though saw off the early danger and got themselves on the scoresheet in the 16th minute against the run of play as Konstantin Zyryanov's cross from the left was met with a wonderful header from Kerzhakov which cannoned back into play off the upright. Dzagoev though was on hand to hammer home the rebound to put Russia 1-0 ahead.
Minutes later Dzagoev should have put Russia two ahead, with Arshavin threading an excellent pass through to the marauding midfielder, but the CSKA Moscow man fails to hit the target. The Czech Republic threatened briefly up the other end with Rezek making a nuisance of himself in the box and even getting a header on target. However, it was Russia who were soon celebrating again in the 24th minute as Roman Shirokov produced a quality finish, chipping the ball over Petr Cech benefiting from another Arshavin pass (though this one was definitely unintentional).
The Czechs continued to bomb forward despite being two goals behind, and looked at the wide route to try and unlock the Russian defence. However, the Russian center-backs stood strong and prevented the Czech strikers from getting any sort of quality service. Back up the other end, Russia were playing on the counter, and could have well added to their tally hadÂ·Aleksandr Kerzhakov made better use of time and space in the box.
The odd pot shot from distance aside there was nothing really to worry Malafeev in the Russian goal as the senior statesmen of the Euros went into the interval two goals to the good.
The Czech Republic made a surprising substitution at half-time bringing on defender Tomas Hubschman for striker Jan Rezek. The tactical swtich to a 5-man midfield paid instant dividends for the Czechs as they clawed a goal back 7 minutes after the restart with Vaclav Pilar latching on to a perfect defence splitting pass from Plasil, and rounding Malafeev with ease to tuck the ball into an empty net from a tight angle. Suddenly it was very much game on once again.
With the game becoming increasingly stretched there were plenty of chances being created at both ends of the pitch. The best of those arguably fell to Kerzhakov, who latched on to another sublime pass from the rejuvenated Andriy Arshavin, but smashed his effort miles wide with only the keeper to beat.
With the Czechs becoming more and more desperate as the game progressed, they were willing to try just about anything. Some great technical ability saw right backÂ·Gebre Selassie put his laces through the ball with a first time effort from inside the box, only to hit the side netting instead. Moments later, Tomas Rosicky had his best moment of the game, smashing an effort on goal from distance, only for Malafeev to produce an excellent save before getting lucky with the rebound, which fell kindly to him with Baros charging in.
All those efforts though appeared to be in vain when Dzagoev restored Russia's two goal cushion in the 79th minute by smashing the ball home past a stunned Petr Cech, after being well set-up by substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko. The game was sealed moments later by the former Tottenham striker as Pavlyuchenko opted to repeatedly beat defenders inside the box to create space for himself, but showed his approach (instead of passing to an open player) worked too as he leathered the ball into the back of the net, despite Cech getting a hand on it.
The Czechs had the ball in the back of the net deep in injury time, but the goal was rightly ruled out for offside. The match finished 4-1 in favour of Russia, who are now looking serious contenders not just for topping Group A, but perhaps even going really deep in this competition. As far as the Czech Republic are concerned, one seriously wonders where their goals are going to come from in the competition, and though Poland and Greece are unlikely to prove as conclusive a threat going forward, they will no doubt be challenged considerably for the second qualification berth.
Czech Republic: Cech, Gebre Selassie, Kadlec, Hubnik, Sivok, Rezek (Hubschman 46'), Rosicky, Plasil, Pilar, JiracekÂ·(Petrzela 75'),Â·Baros (Lafata 86')
Subs: Lastuvka, Drobny, Suchy, Limbersky, Rajtoral, Petrzela, Hubschman, Kolar, Darida, Necid, Pekhart, Lafata.
Russia: Malafeev, Anyukov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov, Berezutski, Shirokov, Denisov, Zyryanov, Dzagoev (Kokorin 85'), Arshavin, Kerzhakov (Pavlyuchenko 73').
Subs: Akinfeev, Shunin, Sharonov, Granat, Nababkin, Izmailov, Kombarov, Kokorin, Glushakov, Semshov, Pavlyuchenko, Pogrebnyak.
Score: Czech Republic 1-4 Russia (Dzagoev 16', 79', Shirokov 24', Pilar 52', Pavlyuchenko 82')
File Photograph Copyright: Ryu Voelkel
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