In a matter of hours, England are likely to discover that a midfield including James Milner and Stewart Downing is hardly the sort that scares a nation on a 21 game unbeaten run, and could suffer a morale sapping defeat for a country that, despite claims of low expectations, will still throw all logic aside to tear apart the individuals involved if the result isn’t right. Those individuals contain the last two of the Arsenal contingent to feature in the opening round of matches (Laurent Blanc has already suggested that Koscielny will not be involved tonight), and it has to be said that the tournament has started slowly for our boys.
Every match so far has involved a current or former Arsenal player, but those still gracing our squad have found it tough going, with our loanees and former employees having a better time of it. Arshavin and Bendtner both enjoyed impressive wins for their respective nations, while Cesc scored against Italy and Eduardo came on late in Croatia’s win over Ireland last night, but from the opening game, when Szczesny was at fault for Greece’s opener before giving away a penalty and being sent off for a clumsy trip, our remaining regulars have not fared so well.
Szczesny’s tournament could already be over. Poland were cruising against a poor Greece side in the first half, but ended up drawing a game they perhaps needed to win to qualify. The man himself may only be suspended for one game, but when your replacement saves the penalty you gave away, and your enforced absence allows him a game against the best side in the group (Russia), you give him the opportunity to take your place for an extended period. It would be a sad way for Szczesny’s first international tournament to end, particularly on home soil.
Rosicky didn’t fare much better in the group’s second game – captaining his country to a 4-1 defeat to Arshavin’s impressive Russia. The man who was reinvigorated during the second half of last season struggled against a vibrant Russian side, although in fairness his team as a whole looked outclassed. They still have a decent chance to progress thanks to the draw between Poland and Greece.
In Group B, Bendtner’s Denmark beat misfiring Holland, with Van Persie missing a couple of golden chances. For me, though, Arjen Robben was far more culpable, choosing to shoot whenever he got the ball, irrespective of his position on the field or the superior positions of others. He is the sort of teammate that would drive you around the bend, such is his infuriatingly selfishness. The Dutch now have an uphill battle to qualify, and may have to beat both Germany and Portugal to do so.
The only man who is expected to wear the red and white of Arsenal next season, who has actually tasted victory so far, is Lukas Podolski, who was fairly lively in an otherwise uninspiring German performance against Portugal. I have to say that I don’t really rate the Portuguese much at this tournament – I feel they were a better side 4-5 years ago – and I fully expected Germany to brush them aside comfortably. But they were made to toil until Gomez buried a header for the only goal of the game with twenty minutes left of a turgid affair.
Which brings us to tonight, and the last pair of games in the opening round. If the pattern continues, then Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain (if he plays) will have a tough night while Sebastian Larsson shines for Sweden against Ukraine, and looking at how the fixtures fall, I wouldn’t be surprised at those outcomes. Let’s hope for a change in fortunes, though.
If this all sounds a bit negative, be aware that it is a little tongue in cheek. I’m not saying for one moment that the Arsenal contingent aren’t strong, but so far things just haven’t gone their way. I fully expect a number of them to be present in the knockout stages, notably Podolski, Van Persie (yes, really), Koscielny and one of Rosicky/Szczesny, but it is probably fair to say that the only way is up from how our players have started.