Now that the first set of group fixtures has come full circle, it was time today to start that whole cycle of shocks, skill and theatre back up all over again. We were back to where it all started, with old foes France, Albania, Switzerland and Romania in group A mixed in with some very familiar faces to England and Wales in Russia and Slovakia.
At 2PM, the opening match of the day started to more build up about the behaviour of the fans than what was actually going to happen on the pitch. I didn’t see the first 70 minutes of the game, but it didn’t take a genius to realise that the Russian team was clearly shaken by the possible ramifications they might face from UEFA and therefore Slovakia had the impetus before the game had even begun. Now the Slovaks certainly aren’t a bad team, especially considering they have Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel in their side, but I believe they would have found it much more difficult to beat the Russians had they played, for example, in the first game of the group. But that’s not taking anything away from them, they definitely deserved the three points in this game (from what I heard and saw in the highlights). Vladimir Weiss’ goal was one straight off the training ground, but so, so simple from the viewpoint of the Russian coaches, who must be mad with their defenders, Sergei Ignashevic and Vasili Berezutski (combined age of 69). They allowed not only the run between them by Weiss after Marek Hamsik’s probing ball to happen, but for Weiss to cut back so easily, leave the two (one sliding past and one totally static, made to look silly) for dead and place his finish far away from the goalkeeper.
Following that up was Hamsik’s own finish, just 13 minutes later in the first half. What a stunner that was. Similar to Harry Kane’s fantastic goal against Arsenal earlier this year, but this time from a short corner, Hamsik’s belter of a shot powered past Igor Akinfeev in the Russian goal, smashing high against the right post, then curling into the goal, completely evading the goalkeeper. That was the goal that won the first ever game for Slovakia in their Euros history, and it was a worthy one. Russia seemed like they didn’t even care about the game until about the last 15 or 20 minutes, in which they finally threw caution to the wind and attempted to make up the deficit by actually attacking. They finally grabbed a slightly fortunate goal (especially considering the massive deflection off of Fyodor Smolov from Tomas Hubacan’s attempted clearance) but you wouldn’t have said they deserved it, reminiscent of the England game. In the end, Slovakia closed out the win and nobody can deny they didn’t earn it.
Following that, we had Romania vs Switzerland, a match which could’ve potentially decided the 2nd place team in the group, but instead left it wide open for these sides’ final matches next week. It wasn’t the greatest of matches ever, but maybe I missed the best bits, considering I was getting home from the orthodontists when Romania’s goal went in, and having dinner when the Swiss scored. During the rest of it, the ball was basically being recycled between each side in midfield, with chances few and far between, good ones at least. There weren’t many standout performers for either side, as they both looked fairly fatigued from their efforts just four days ago, therefore delivering a below par performance. It wasn’t great viewing, but it was effective for both sides and I believe that with the confidence-affirming point for both sides, they will go on and most likely both qualify for the next round with their final games to go.
What a surprise though, that France yet again escaped without even beginning to play well. If you didn’t get that, it was sarcasm. France are sure to be that one team that infuriates all the others by being so lucky that they always have the possibility to win, and that is what makes them so annoying to me. They haven’t deserved, two brilliant individual pieces of play from Dimitri Payet aside, to win either of their games against Romania or Albania, which must be very concerning for Didier Deschamps and the French media. If they can’t break down two of the weakest teams in the competition in Romania and Albania until the 87th minute each time (slightly strange, don’t you think?), then surely they won’t be able to beat sides like Germany, Spain, Italy or Belgium? These two performances have thrown up a lot of questions, although one that has been answered is that they need to play Pogba and Griezmann in order to be at their best. In the first half, France were pretty poor, as Anthony Martial, who was meant to be their heartbeat, continually failed at beating his man, playing overlaps or cutting inside and shooting. Albania more than held their own in that half, and were arguably the better team, carrying out their jobs in a much more effective way. They held back as a team with two solid lines that the French couldn’t break through, and rushed out quickly to charge down any chances that France had.
This continued long into the second half, although the introduction of Pogba from the bench made his team more creative and threatening, as the Albanians took longer and longer to keep their lines and track back, which ultimately told in the end. Antoine Griezmann’s late glancing header just dragged France out of trouble, and you could see the visible relief on the French faces around the ground when that goal went in, that it spared their blushes in the end. Dimitri Payet’s goal, though, just put the icing on, to use a bizarre analogy, a cake that was raw in the middle and had a soggy bottom (for all you GBBO fans). As soon as he picked up the ball, you just knew he would score, and his finish was very tidy, proving a real point to the world, even if it was at 90+3 minutes. As a school report, they would be getting good grades on the foundation papers, but it would say ‘must do better’ as a conclusion. They may be through to the round of 16, but they’ve haven’t earned their space yet.
Team of the Day
This must be testament to how bad the other teams I saw today were, but I’m having to pick Slovakia today as they were the only team that actually began to play well in their game (apparently, I’ve got no proof). It says a lot about the day when the only team you didn’t really see (I witnessed Russia’s play in the last 15 minutes, and that was basically their entire contribution to the game) can win the best team of the day award, doesn’t it? Hopefully someone can spring a surprise tomorrow (rather England than Wales) and win the award when really deserving of my plaudits.
Player of the Day
Again, this time for a player, my award goes to somebody who I didn’t really get a catch of today. But his goal and assist made him the most important and outstanding player of the three games today, taking the game and the group almost single-handedly away from Russia, dishing out a reward for Slovakia’s promise and a thrashing for a Russian team who didn’t deserve anything against England. He was by a long, long way the best player of all today.
Goal of the Day
I’ve said it all before, Marek Hamsik’s goal was undoubtedly the best of the bunch today. The way he even considered taking a chance from there was crazy, but the way he carried it off with seeming ease was the outstanding factor of it. It was a magical goal, up there with the best at the tournament so far. Switzerland’s Admir Mehmedi also deserves credit for his well-taken rising half-volley, which flew like a missile onto the target of the top corner, but as he was closer to the goal, I think Mehmedi’s strike is edged out by Hamsik’s for the award.
Shock of the Day
Pogba and Griezmann not starting was a notable shock in the day, as it got everyone on twitter wondering if Deschamps had either gone mad or become a footballing genius in the space of one team sheet. While the French performance didn’t vindicate his decision, I could understand his thinking behind leaving the two out; he prioritised giving his key men some rest and exploring the options of his vastly deep squad of talent against an inferior opposition. But in the end, France did miss the pair’s energy and skill, as they lacked the cutting edge create any clear cut chances in the first half, requiring the pair’s presence off the bench in the second half to get the goals.
I’m Looking Forward to…
Obviously England vs Wales is the big one tomorrow, but of course I, as well as many others, notably Ofsted inspectors (why would they come to our school tomorrow?) won’t be able to watch it. It is a completely ludicrous decision to schedule this one for 2PM, as Germany vs Poland could’ve easily been planned at that time, as both countries are an hour ahead of us, and on average have shorter working hours than those in the UK. But clearly UEFA don’t care for us over here, so we will have to grin and bear it, even though we are missing out on probably the highlight of the tournament for both of these teams. For one day in the year, I envy unemployed people sitting on the sofa. Anyway, besides that match, there is the obvious Germany vs Poland match at 8PM, another border-rivals clash which should be tasty, deciding the winner of the group. Ukraine vs Northern Ireland is the battle of the underdogs, the two teams playing catch up, with one likely enough to be going home as a result of the points swing. Tomorrow will surely be one of the best days of the entire tournament, that’s how good I think it should be.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!