The 2012 European Championship has just kicked off, but the Barcelona players failed to make a big impact in their opening games.
Ibrahim Afellay and the Netherlands suffered a rather devastating first round upset to Denmark. The Barcelona midfielder made the starting lineup along with Stekelenburg, Van der Wiel, Vlaar, Wilems, Van Bommel, De Jong, Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie.
Afellay showed that his injury was no longer a factor as he unleashed some fancy step overs and a shot that sailed just over the bar in the 10th minute. Adding in the always dangerous Van Persie, the Dutch looked the stronger side.
However, the 24th minute quickly shifted the momentum. Denmark’s Krohn-Dehli dribbled into the box and nutmegged Stekelenburg to bring the underdogs into the lead.
Robben had a good opportunity to bring the score level in the 36th minute, but the ball ricocheted off the post. Unfortunately for the Dutch, the halftime whistle blew with them still behind 1-0.
The second half was again full of the Netherlands’ attempts to equalize. Afellay made a distance strike that rolled just wide of the near post. As more and more chances went without reward, the Dutch’s frustration was palpable. In the 66th minute, Van Bommel earned a yellow card for a harsh challenge on Zimling.
To reinvigorate a stalled Netherlands, Van Marwick made his first substitutions. De Jong and Afellay took seats on the bench and Van der Vaart and Huntelaar replaced them. The Danes followed three minutes later with their first substitution of Eriksen off for Schöne.
In an effort to prevent letting the Netherlands back into the game, Denmark started committing fouls. The referee showed Poulsen a yellow card in the 78th minute and Jörgensen one in the 81st minute.
Another substitution for each team wrapped up the end of the match. Mikkelsen came on for Rommedahl in the 84th minute and Kuyt switched with Van der Wiel a minute later.
The Dutch failed to finish any of their chances and a first-half goal from the Danes was enough to beat one of the tournament favorites. Afellay and the Netherlands play again Wednesday against Germany. The Germans won their first match against Portugal 1-0.
Five of Spain’s 11 starters were Barcelona players. Piqué, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets and Cesc were joined by Casillas, Ramos, Arbeloa, Alba, Alonso and Silva.
The first half went goalless, but each team rued its missed chances. Pirlo’s free kick almost curled into the bottom corner but Casillas managed to make the save. Cassano shot wide in the 22nd minute and continued to pester Spain’s no. 1 throughout the half. In the 33rd minute, Balotelli didn’t hesitate to show his anger at not receiving what he thought was a penalty from a Piqué foul. In the 37th minute, he earned a yellow card that he had been asking for after a late challenge on Ramos.
As for Spain, Iniesta was the reason behind every scoring attempt. The midfielder tore apart Italy’s defense and set up Cesc and Silva for several good opportunities. In the 44th minute, Iniesta took a shot for himself off a volley that sailed just over Buffon’s crossbar.
With a 0-0 score at halftime, both teams needed to step up the intensity to take control of the group.
Spain tested Buffon early in the second half. Cesc curled in a shot in the 49th minute that never made it to the back of the net. Iniesta was next in the 51st minute after he drove into the box and chipped into the top corner that Buffon saved.
Balotelli de-possessed Ramos in the 53rd minute but was reluctant to put a shot off. Eventually, the defender caught up to him and made the tackle. Soon after the embarrassing waste, Italy substituted Balotelli off for Di Natale.
The super-sub proved the decision to put him on was a good one in the 60th minute. Pirlo cut the ball through Spain’s defense and Di Natale’s strike beat Casillas to the far post.
Before any real tragedy could set in for the Spanish, the reigning champions equalized. Iniesta and Silva combined on the flank before the Manchester City striker sent the ball into the box. Cesc converted the cross at the top of the box to keep Spain’s trophy dreams alive.
The coaches made substitutions just after Spain’s goal in the 65th minute. Giovinco came on for Cassano and Navas replaced Silva. The yellow cards also came in pairs as Bonucci earned one for a high and late tackle on Iniesta and Alba followed in the 66th minute.
Torres had his chance to repeat his Euro glory in the 74th minute when Cesc made way. Unfortunately, the striker continued his streak of underperforming. He was a part of the late yellow card parade that began with Chiellini in the 79th minute. Torres elbowed De Rossi in the throat in the 84th for his card and Arbeloa earned a caution in the same minute. Maggio wrapped up the yellow cards in the 89th minute.
The final substitution came in the 90th minute when Motta went to the bench for Nocerino. That was the last real action for either team and the two former champions had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Iniesta received Man of the Match honors for his playmaking prowess.
Spain plays again Thursday against the Republic of Ireland. The Irish suffered a disappointing 3-1 opening game defeat to Croatia.
In Group A, Poland and Greece tied 1-1 and Russia took down the Czech Republic 4-1. The final group in the championships plays its first matches Monday.
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