As the battles between fans outside the stadium threatened to steal the headlines, Franciszek Smuda and Dick Advocaat prepared their sides for what looked, and proved to be (so far), the most interesting match of Group A.
Russia were unchaged in their 4-3-3 but Smuda looked to solidify his midfield by bringing in Dariusz Dudka for Maciej Rybus and moving Ludovic Obraniak out to the left in a 4-3-3.
As expected Russia were the controlling side, often using a shape that looked closer to a 4-2-1-3 to manipulate Poland’s tight midfield. Roman Shirokov was the roaming midfielder with Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov sitting deeper, pulling two of Poland’s midfielders forward. This created more space between the lines for Andrey Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev to move into and slide through passes for the overlapping Yuri Zhirkov and Aleksandr Anyukov.
Russia were also looking pretty safe defensively. Pre-match the major issue seemed to be how they would deal with Poland’s right wing – Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek likely to overload Zhirkov – yet Denisov covered that area really well, making sure Poland couldn’t expose the Russian defence.
This didn’t leave a shortfall in midfield because Poland had sacrificed their attacking midfielder for a more defensive option and Arshavin and Dzagoev often opted to tuck in rather than follow the full-backs, blocking passes into the midfielders so they had to move it on down the wings. The need for Piszczek to get forward created a problem as it gave Aleksandr Zherzakov an obvious gap to move into, drifting wide to get some space – he continued his wastefulnesss in front of goal but posed a constant headache for the Polish defence.
The key to Russia’s play is their full-backs, who open up space for the central players by providing width, so Smuda curtailed Anyukov’s influence by having one of the midfielders scuttle across and help deal with him. This relieved Obraniak of the need to track back so quickly – about 10 to 15 minutes in, he began to come in off the wing and into the centre, where he played in the game against Greece. Poland looked much better when he did that, giving Robert Lewandowski someone to link with and take advantage of Denisov’s need to move left. Some neat interplay gave Eugen Polanski or Rafal Murawski the chance to surge forward and support the attack to create some half-chances for Poland.
Regardless it was Russia who got the opening goal – Dzagoev heading home a free-kick. This was poor from Poland as Russia are the smallest team at the tournament and shouldn’t be threatening from set-pieces, looking shaky defensively from them themselves.
In the second half, Russia began to look very stretched on the counter. Dzagoev and Arshavin were reluctant to track back, giving Poland more gaps to exploit. Kuba’s desire to run at people really helped with this and was quite clearly seen in his equalising goal, but Obraniak’s drifting was also seen, him moving out to the right to get the assist.
Rather than confronting Denisov and Zyryanov high up the pitch as they attempted in the first half, the Polish midfield were now happier to sit back and let the pair have it in front of them, restricting the space between the lines for Dzagoev and Arshavin to use. This meant Russia continued to keep the majority ball but were a lot less penetrative with it.
With the introduction of Adrian Mierzejewski, Poland switched to a 4-4-1-1 with a fairly flexible front four, which seemed to be an attempt to make them more attacking. It didn’t really make much difference though, since they couldn’t make use of their extra attacker while Russia were keeping the ball. You could argue the change made it less likely Poland could get back the ball seeing as they removed the more defensive Dudka, but their passive approach to defending meant it didn’t really have an effect.
The result has left Group A in a great situation going into the last game. Russia are pretty much guaranteed to get through but, following the Greeks’ 2-1 loss, the hosts must beat the Czech Republic if they are to advance. They are of a better quality than the Czechs and should manage a win but it certainly isn’t set in stone, ensuring an entertaining game.