National treasure | Andriy Shevchenko was mighty for Ukraine in their opening match, and produced two goals to give his country a famous win (Image | SI)

Think back to some recent international football tournaments, and what stands out to you among the most successful and entertaining? Mostly, the best international tournaments involve a good run by a host or co-host, or by an unfancied outsider. Either of these phenomena keeps local interest buzzing, ensures great crowds at every game and raises the game of both that over-achieving minnow/entertaining host and their opponents.

There are several recent examples – England’s Euro ’96 campaign stands out in the memory, alongside France ’98 and South Korea’s epic run to third place at the 2002 World Cup. Contrast that with South Africa two years ago, where the hosts whimpered out in the group stage with only a Siphiwe Tshabalala piledriver to comfort them, and the tournament somewhat went off the boil until the semi-final stage.

This time around, we have two hosts who are also massive underdogs. In all truth, Poland and Ukraine are probably two of the five weakest squads in this 16-team tournament; the FIFA World Rankings place Poland a lowly 62nd in the world and Ukraine 52nd, with the Czech Republic, the next lowest-ranked side, towering above them at 27th. Of course, this isn’t entirely fair on the Eastern European duo, as the world rankings are devised with a heavy weighting towards competitive results – and neither Poland nor Ukraine were involved in the qualifying stages of Euro 2012 thanks to their automatic entry as hosts.

Captain Fantastic | Jakub Blaszczykowski, whose tragic childhood has made him a national sweetheart and fan favourite, produced a stunning goal to earn Poland a vital point against Russia (Image | from Irish Times)

But both teams have played above their station in their fixtures thus far. Poland, having somehow conspired to deny themselves a much-deserved victory in the curtain-raiser against Greece, were admirable Tuesday night in a highly emotionally-charged showdown with tournament dark horses Russia, and Jakub Blaszczykowski’s second-half equaliser was quite possibly the goal of the tournament so far.

How far can the home duo go? Poland’s path to the knockout stages now is straight-forward – their final game against the Czech Republic on Saturday will be a win-or-go-home affair. With Group A finely balanced following Tuesday’s results, a draw will see the Czechs finish ahead of Poland, while Russia are already two ahead of them; on the other hand, a win will guarantee the co-hosts a route to the last eight and a likely quarter-final with Germany – probably another somewhat highly-charged affair.

Ukraine’s group, with only one game played, is far more open – but right now its Ukraine who sit atop Group D courtesy of their 2-1 victory over Sweden. More will be revealed on the fate of Oleh Blokhin’s team after Friday’s match with France and Sweden’s tie against England. The Swedes will be eliminated if they lose; a win, meanwhile, would ensure Ukraine of a place in the last eight.

It’s realistically possible – probable, even – that Poland will get past the Czechs if they play as they did against Russia. That will be a marquee game no-one should miss on Saturday. Ukraine’s challenge is more complex, but if they can at least pick up a draw from the France game then they will be in a strong position heading into their final group match ag- rapidly degenerating into a “you’re more racist than us” grudge match – with France instead facing the humiliation of a group-stage exit. For the sake of the competition, which thus far has been possibly the best I can recall, it would be a terrific sight to see at least one host make it through.

Tweet the author | @RobertSchatten

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