Today brought unheralded and (arguably) thrilling change to the tournament and group A, creating non-stop drama for the hour and three quarters or so we had of football for the whole day. This was proper, palpable tournament football, with four top teams battling for attention and for qualification. It was sure to be a massive day; and it lived up to its billing for the most part.
Where to start though? With both games kicking off at (roughly) the same time in the evening, the cities of Lille and Lyon heard the referee’s whistle in union, signalling the countdown to the first occurrences of elimination and qualification in the competition. I think I’ll begin by describing events at Lyon tonight, with the seemingly unloved and side-swept match-up between Romania and Albania, which I kept up with by diverting my attention to the live stream on BBC iPlayer from BBC Four. Of course, this match did not have the talents of Pogba, Griezmann, Lloris and Shaqiri involved in it, but it is often the matches without the biggest names or most skilled nations that are the most entertaining at this level, as games can become more open and unorganised. But that is what I find is better to watch for around two hours of your time, rather than sides who keep the ball, fearful of conceding or losing possession.
Romania came into this match with a lot to prove; they knew they had to win as favourites after claiming a vital point against Switzerland last match. They kept up their positive, optimistic style that almost also earned them a credible point against hosts France all the way back in that opening match (just nine days ago), aiming to go out and really earn their qualification by thrashing their close rivals. Albania, on the other hand, believed they could play in the same ilk as their larger (by population and land mass) opponents, without much end product as they are widely regarded as the least skilful side in the group. The opinion of many that they would get the wooden spoon in the group was backed up in the first 40 minutes of this match, as in a game that still held a lot of importance, while in other tournaments where only two sides qualify it wouldn’t, they didn’t really perform. One great piece of play they had in the first half, where they had four on two, stretching the Romania defence, was spooned over the goal by a sliding Ermir Lenjani, who somehow missed a gaping goal under no pressure. If that wasn’t to go in for them, nothing really would (we all thought). While they did create a few decent chances and challenged Romania’s superiority, the Albanians I thought weren’t going to get any other number on the scoreboard other than 0, and that would be their ultimate downfall, in this match and the tournament alike. While both sides tried their hardest to get moves flowing, neither actually made that goal-winning final ball, leaving a typically grouchy Mark Lawrenson on commentary to rue the lack of quality of both sides. My advice for him would be; if you don’t like it, go home mate, you’re watching live summer tournament football for god’s sake. Well, erm, as I was writing that, Albania scored. Maybe I shouldn’t have criticised them quite so much. Armando Sadiku (who plays his club football in the Liechtenstein league) headed over a crazily onrushing Ciprian Tătărușanu in the Romanian goal, who was left in no man’s land by his defence, allowing the Albanians to score a simple goal. I wouldn’t say either side deserved a goal in the first half, but the underdogs Albania got one, and it was history-making as well as game-changing.
That goal forced Romania into a more attacking mentality for the second half, leaving their defence stretched and unprotected against a temporarily rampant Albanian attack, before the Romanians actually held the ball in the opposition’s half. They introduced three attacking substitutions, Roy Hodgson-esque, which livened them up as a side, announcing to the rest of the players that they had to get forward if they didn’t want to be packing their backs later in the night. They created their fair share of opportunities, but the Romanians never really got close enough to Etrit Berisha’s goal to stand a chance of scoring, and gaining the point, or even points, that they needed to progress. By the end, they hardly had anything more to give, on their knees in fatigue, and the Albanians deserved their three points and (possible) place in the second round on this performance. They were better prepared, more passionate and much more clinical, dominant in nearly every department.
In Lille, France and Switzerland played out the highly built-up and probably (what we imagined at least would be) the best quality match in the group, between the favourites in the competition and a team that were ranked 6th in the FIFA rankings after the last World Cup. The first half didn’t get my full attention, of course, but when I did pick my head up from the perfect set-up of my computer and the other match on my mobile, I certainly appreciated what I saw glimpses of. Paul Pogba looked up for the match, most importantly, as he fizzed a few dangerous shots on the Swiss goal from distance, with one smacking the crossbar, certainly the highlight of the first half. Switzerland looked to have the impetus when Pogba wasn’t running with the ball, though, as Blerim Džemaili and Xherdan Shaqiri led the charge into the French half, as the replacement paring of Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko (for Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kante) seemed unconfident in their introductions to the tournament. France’s best chances came from a number of corners, which lacked in accuracy and respondents to head it in, meaning the two sides went in equal at half time, as Switzerland were never really likely to score.
It has to be said, the second half was no better, possibly even worse, in comparison, with the only entertainment coming when Dimitri Payet was introduced, and he only just missed his volley and free kick. Both sides visibly struggled and were happy to settle for 7 points (France) and 5 points (Switzerland) respectively, as well as secure places in the round of 16. There was nothing to show that France had the strength in depth to win the tournament with their (partly) second choice side, as Cabaye, Gignac and Coman all offered little going forward. There was only a handful of chances, let alone good ones, and at the end of the day they weren’t taken, so the game ended as a boring, dour 0-0 stalemate. A point well won by both sides for their unbearably equal and unenergetic play.
Team of the Day
Albania were the only side that won, and (more importantly for our entertainment) scored, today, the only nation that equalled their supporter’s passion with a typically battling performance. Their defence was stout, their attack was clinical. Their midfield worked with the rest of the team, pushing forward in support and dropping back to defend what they believed was theirs, the three points. It was all that you could ask for such a small nation on an international stage.
Player of the Day
Nobody really stood out to me today, with a few players showing flickers of talent and desire. Paul Pogba had a couple of great shots and led his side well going forward, Elseid Hysaj showed massive desire for his nation from the back, and Armando Sadiku obviously got the goal that won the match and the night for Albania. Can they just share the gold medal between them for today?
Goal of the Day
It would’ve been Dimitri Payet’s (again), but it was such a shame his thunderous volley from a fantastic Moussa Sissoko cross-field pass hit the crossbar instead of the back of the Swiss net. Instead, I’m forced into going for Armando Sadiku’s questionable and hardly award-worthy header, which at least I can commend for the cross provided for him by Ledian Memushaj, placed perfectly for Sadiku’s head. But don’t get me wrong, this goal definitely wouldn’t have been scored if Tătărușanu hadn’t have come sprinting out of his goal like a madman to try and claim a ball that was never his. What can I say; it was the only goal of the day! (Bit of unintended poetry there).
Shock of the Day
The ball popping after Valon Behrami’s last-ditch tackle on Antoine Griezmann was a rarely amusing moment in a pretty dull match between France and Switzerland, the first time I’ve actually seen something like that happen live in a game. The destruction of the ball was not the only thing that fell apart in Lille tonight, (my prediction of 2-0 France on the BBC competition) so did the Swiss shirts in the first half, specifically those of Granit Xhaka, who must’ve thought the only time he was going to lose his clothing tonight was later with his girlfriend, but I shouldn’t spread rumours. The Sun would be on me for that!
Albania actually going one nil up after being dominated by Romania for the first half and hour was a shock in itself, as I actually looked twice at my phone screen once I heard from my headphones that they had scored. For such a minute nation on the world footballing stage, Albania have upset everyone at these Euros by possibly, just maybe, getting through to the next stage (fingers crossed they win the whole thing now).
I’m Looking Forward to…
Two massive matches from a British perspective tomorrow, with a return to battle from England, plus the addition of Sturridge, Vardy and maybe even Henderson or Wilshere to the starting line-up, against a decent Slovakia side desperately straining for more points to secure qualification. Roy Hodgson’s side will do well to win tomorrow, and that must be the only ambition as they need to grab top spot in order to go far in this tournament. They would much rather be facing an Albania, a Northern Ireland or a Czech Republic than Portugal, Iceland or Austria, preferring to build up to the big threats as opposed to facing them immediately. For Wales, too, their match against Russia is vital, as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen need to lead their side back to good form, claiming a second place spot in the group and assured qualification against a difficult Russian side to break down. One thing is for sure, it will be a tournament-defining day, especially for those in the British Isles.
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!