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  Group Stage Round-up


Much to savor from first round of Euro surprises
Euro 2004 got off to a flying start with Greece's upset 2-1 win over hosts Portugal and the tournament has not looked back since.
Wednesday, 23 June 2004

The group stage has produced surprise results, positive football, the emergence of precocious young talent and one of the all-time classic matches.

Even Portugal, viewing from the safety of quarter-final qualification, might now be able to appreciate the wholehearted display by Greece, who were never overawed, played with a fierce resolve and set the tone for the rest of the first round.

Tournament debutants Latvia picked up the baton when they led the Czech Republic and although eventually losing 2-1 they go home with heads high having held three-times winners Germany to a goalless draw.

Henrik Larsson had the chance to complete a dream return to the big time two years after retiring when, having scored twice in two minutes, the first a classic diving header, Sweden were awarded a penalty against Bulgaria.

With a hat-trick beckoning Larsson chose to share the glory and insisted his strike partner Zlatan Ibrahimovic took the kick, which he did successfully to help the Swedes to a 5-0 win.

Ibrahimovic was to the fore again in Sweden's second game, his spectacular mid-air back-heel earning his side a vital 1-1 draw with Italy who had played brilliantly for an hour.

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, reduced to flailing by Ibrahimovic's execution, left the pitch smiling, arm in arm with the striker in a nice display of cross-border camaraderie.

A week later, however, the Swedes had become his worst enemy as he sourly accused them of collusion with Denmark in the 2-2 Scandinavian derby draw that sent the Italians out.

Tournaments always throw up special individual talents and though the qualities of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were well known to their club fans, they have now won millions of new admirers.

Despite his two-goal performance in England's 3-0 win over Switzerland, 18-year-old Rooney's real international arrival came against Croatia when he drilled an explosive shot that knocked goalkeeper Tomislav Butina's arm aside before crashing into the net.

He added another goal as England won 4-2 to advance and though comparisons with a young Pele might be over the top, Rooney has certainly earned his place in the spotlight as has Ronaldo.

Spain fullback Raul Bravo was left looking like an amateur as Ronaldo, the ball glued to his foot more impressively than in any computer-generated TV commercial, unleashed his extraordinary bag of tricks to help the hosts to an historic 1-0 win over their neighbours.

Other more established names have furthered their already considerable reputations.

Zinedine Zidane has risen to the occasion as usual, turning defeat into victory with two injury-time goals for France in their 2-1 win over England, while Ruud van Nistelrooy conjured an acrobatic goal to earn the Dutch a 1-1 draw with Germany, the first of his four at Euro 2004.

The match of the tournament was undoubtedly in Aveiro where the Czech Republic fought back from 2-0 down to beat the Netherlands 3-2.

The scoreline barely tells the story of a stream of wonderful attacking football played at a relentless pace as both teams found myriad ways to advance, only to be foiled by superb goalkeeping displays from Petr Cech and Edwin van der Sar.

There were almost 40 goal attempts, including Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved's astonishing 30-metre thunderbolt that almost shattered the goalframe two minutes from time.

The Dutch can possibly look back and enjoy it now having also qualified alongside the consistently impressive Czechs and for those in the stands it was a privilege to watch.

The game's tendency to produce dramatic swings in emotion, epitomised by Italy forward Antonio Cassano's joy at scoring the winner against Bulgaria only to discover moments later his team had failed to reach the quarter-finals, has been matched by its ability to help heal far more serious wounds.

Jesper Gronkjaer missed Denmark's opening game to spend time with his dying mother then returned to score in their victory over Bulgaria, his tearful celebration already an enduring image of the tournament.

In Lisbon, the site where England fan Stephen Smith was stabbed and killed in an apparent robbery attempt has been turned into an international shrine draped with scarves and colours of a dozen competing nations united in grief and respect.
- Reuters



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