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Final score: Russia 4-1 Czech Republic

Welcome to Wroclaw! (Well, we’re there in spirit at least…)

Teams:

Russia - Malafeev, Anyukov, Ignashevich, Berezutski, Zhirkov, Denisov, Shirokov, Zyryanov, Arshavin, Kerzakhov, Dogoev.

Czech Republic – Cech, Gebre Selassie, Kadlec, Hubnik, Sivok, Rezek, Plasil, Rosicky, Jiracek, Pilar, Baros.

Referee - Howard Webb.

Succumbing to pre-tournament excitement, Russia coach Dick Advocaat has been busy talking up his team’s chances ahead of its group stage opener:

“We have a good team, we have the quality, and it is very important that the players start believing in that… So, yes, if we have the form and everything is going the right way, we have a very dangerous team.”

At odds with Advocaat’s assessment sits that of – surprise, surprise – winger Andrei Arshavin. According to the 31-year-old, the Russian team “lacks too much speed to be considered a favourite”.

Whether he’s aware of it or not, it’s a criticism more applicable to Arshavin personally than Advocat’s squad at-large. The former Arsenal man, now of petrodollar-fuelled Anzhi Makhachkala, arrives in Poland a shadow of the player whose dynamism and intelligence invigorated the 2008 tournament.

Debate in the RTÉ studio has turned to the issues of racism and hooliganism, allowing Eamon to segue effortlessly into a state of the game address.

John Terry, he’s looking at you:

“That is casting a shadow over the tournament. It’s very unfortunate, and could play out very badly… The shadow of racism is in football – in Italy, in France, and of course we know about England.”

If Russia are problematic favourites – unpredictable and self-deprecating – the Czech Republic are equally problematic as plucky underdogs.

Defensively rigid, lacking in creativity and reliant on the goal threat of Milan Baros (he’s only 30, if you can believe it), they’re tough for the neutral to take to heart.

The teams take to the field as rushing hordes of uniformed children swarm an oversized papier maché football held aloft in the centre of the pitch.

They’re “throwing shapes out there,” says Brian Kerr, clearly contemptuous of any and all shape-throwing.

Can Howard Webb redeem himself in the eyes of international audiences? Well, it shouldn’t be difficult to turn in the most convincing refereeing performance of the evening.

We’re underway… Russia in red, their opponents in white.

The Czechs have begun the game strongly, allowing Russia little time in which to pick their passes and compose. Rezek has proven particularly willing to impose himself, throwing his massive frame about to good effect.

Winning a free kick on the edge of the Russian box, the No.9 cedes centre stage to Plasil. The midfielder flicks a lob over the defensive wall, allowing Hubník to head wide.

A foul by Rezek affords Russia a minute in which to reboot their footballing brains…

To little avail: they retain possession for all of ten seconds before once again handing the initiative to the men in white.

Arshavin launches Russia’s first counterattack of the evening, breaking clear on the left wing. Rather than hook an early ball into box, he opts to challenge Gebre Selassie, feinting once, twice, then pummelling an effort against the defender’s foot.

GOAL! Russia 1-0 Czech Republic

Seconds after Kerzhakov spurned Russia’s first clear opportunity of the match, shunting an effort wide from just inside the box, he turns creator, meeting Zyrianov’s cross from the right wing with a strong header that ricochets off the far post and into path of Dzagoev.

The 21-year-old, a star in the making, drives an (cliché:) emphatic effort into the bottom left corner.

Russia, suddenly dominant, waste (harsh, but fair) a glorious opportunity to take a two-goal lead…

Pilar slings a ball across the face of Malafeev goal. Rezek is there to meet it, but stumbles under pressure from Zhirkov… That’ll be goal kick, then.

GOAL! Russia 2-0 Czech Republic

Shirokov, “the Joey Barton of Russian football”, finds himself on the end of a through ball from Andrei Arshavin. The captain’s pass was intended for Kerzhakov, but the striker, lumbering his way towards the penalty spot, couldn’t get a toe to the ball.

Believing the danger passed, the Czech defence hesitates, allowing the ball to trundle, somewhat pathetically, into the path of Shirokov. Panicked, Cech goes to ground too early.

A flick of Shirokov’s right boot takes the ball over the line.

Dzagoev goes to ground inside the box, but Howard Webb – donning that “I’m not bothered” expression he usually reserves for aggrieved opponents of Manchester United – trots downfield.

Responding to Russia’s onslaught the only way they know how – by reverting to desperate, uncoordinated counterattacks – the Czech’s lay siege to the Russian box…

Rather than rolling back the red tide, the Czechs’ high-energy, helter-skelter play is making it that little bit easier for Dzagoev and Arshavin to wreak havoc.

Kerzhakov meets another low cross, but sends his effort soaring over the crossbar. Swinging his fist in frustration, he successfully makes contact with the turf. Good to see his upper body coordination remains intact.

Rosicky comes within a hair’s breadth of sending Baros through on goal. The ball’s cleared and settles at the feet of Pilar. Looking lively, he rounds one defender, then another… and concedes a free-kick.

The Czechs, carried along by a wave of crowd enthusiasm, are beginning to force their way back into this contest…

Plasil launches a long, raking cross from the right wing and finds the head of Pilar at the back post. The winger – a wee, stocky lad with quite the vertical leap – nods a powerful effort into the turf, allowing Malafeev to claim confortably.

Half-time: Russia 2-0 Czech Republic

“Probably the best football we’ve seen of this tournament so far.”

Quite.

A question:

Why is Craig Doyle?

Russia looked sluggish for the opening 10 minutes – overawed, perhaps – but found their rhythm when Dzagoev drove the game’s opener past Cech.

From that point on, Advocaat’s men looked imperious in possession, threatening consistently through the attacking triumvirate of Arshavin, Dzagoev and Kerzhakov.

Insight: Liam Brady doesn’t think the Czech Republic can win without scoring at least one goal.

Realising there’s no future in attempting to pronounce Russian squad names accurately, John Giles has apparently decided to refer to every red-shirted player “Shwekov”.

We’re back underway!

The men in white have replaced Rezak with Huschman.

“A big, strong, tough-looking nut” [Kerr], the 43-cap veteran will shore up the Czech midfield and, in theory at least, hamper Dzagoev and Arshavin.

Here’s Dzagoev’s opener:

Now you can compare the actual event with my no doubt erroneous description of it.

Arshavin stetches to keep the ball in play on the left wing and embarks on a meandering run through the Czech defence. Ignoring Kerzhakov, who’s hovering in front of goal, he collides with a Hubnik and sends a feeble effort trickling into Cech’s outstretched arms

GOAL! Russia 2-1 Czech Republic

What in the blazes!? Out of nothing, the men in white have conjured their first goal of the tournament. Some nifty interplay in midfield creates a yard of space for Plasil. Afforded the luxury of time, the winger lobs a ball towards Pilar, charging goalwards from the right wing.

Claiming the ball with an outstetched leg, Pilar drags the ball back towards the right touchline – around Malafeev – and, from the most acute of angles, side-foots an effort into the net.

Factoid: the Czechs are the lowest-scoring team in the tournament; they found the net only 12 times en route to qualification.

Kerzhakov – clearly frustrated by his form in front of goal – has started drifting ever wider and deeper in search of the ball.

Claiming a speculative through ball on the left wing, he turns goalward and lobs a cross towards Arshavin. Reverting to type, the captain looks leaden-footed, immediately ceding possession.

Moments later, the striker beats the offside trap and finds himself bearing down on Cech’s goal. Hesistating for a split-second, he’s outpaced by Hubnik, who spreads a long arm and shepherds the ball out of play.

Ooh! Kerzhakov is entering Mario Gomez territory…

Lunging to meet a cross from Dzagoev at the near post, he sends a harmless hack of an attempt skittering across the face of goal.

Breathing heavily, he looks to the sky. Surely, he can’t last much longer.

Oh dear…

That man again, Kerzhakov, receives the ball in acres of space on the extreme right of the halfway line. He drives, unchalleged, to within twenty yards of goal before slicing a wild effort towards the corner flag.

Almost immediately, the target man finds himself on the end of another fluid Russian attack. Struggling for balance inside the box, he nudges the ball goalward, evades a sliding tackle and Heskeys a shot towards the oppostite corner. Absolutely dire.

Advocaat motions to the bench.

Substitution: Kerzhakov makes way for Harry Redknapp’s former whipping boy, Roman Pavlyuchenko.

Tired of trying (and failing) to thread a pass through the Russian defence, Tomas Rosicky assumes a central position 30 yards out and positively flakes an attempt towards Malafeev’s right post. The keeper gets his body behind the ball, but sends the rebound sailing towards Baros. His reflexes to prove the equal of Euro 2004′s top scorer.

GOAL! Russia 3-1 Czech Republic

The freshness and incisiveness of Pavlyuchenko yields an immediate result. The ex-Tottenham striker cushions a pass into the path of Dzagoev, the winger breaking behind the defence from the right. The 21-year-old, who’s been revelatory this evening, allows the ball to cross his body before spanking a shot back across goal.

Game over.

GOAL! Russia4-1 Czech Republic

Pavlyuchenko, keeping Hubnik at arm’s length, stumbles his way towards the edge of the Czech box. Everyone in the stadium expects the striker to chip a pass towards Dzagoev’s right wing, butapropos of nothing, he carves a merciless strike high into Cech’s goal.

Hysteria ensues.

Substitutions: Kokorin replaces Dzagoev; Lafata replaces Baros; Petrzela replaces Jarosik.

An altogether calmer presence at the fulcrum of Russia’s offence, Pavlyuchenko has liberated Advocaat’s men to claim the convincing victory they so richly deserve.

Full-time: Russia 4-1 Czech Republic

A deserved victory for Russia, who laboured for the opening 10 minutes before assuming control of the fixture. Plasil’s second-half strike theoretically made a game of it, but in truth, it was scored strongly against the run of play.

This was a game defined, at night’s end, by Russia’s lethal blend of accuracy and aggression.

Update: here be the goals!

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