So, here finally came the day that all of England’s (as well as Wales’, Russia’s and Slovakia’s, it’s important to note) pining’s since the group stage had all be leading up to; the game in which they could seal qualification into the next round and 1st place in group B. It was time for Roy Hodgson and his boys to prove their worth to the continent; prove that they justified their ranking and top seeding in this group, all the hype that has surrounded them. After securing a crucial last-gasp win against Wales, they now had to run away with the group after that kick-start, facing off against a tricky and unpredictable Slovakian side still with very real ambitions of even winning the group. Talented minnows Wales also had to navigate a tough tie, with geographical and political elder statesmen Russia standing in their way, in order to lock down their spot in the last 16.
Without any action until 8PM, I was forced to return to watching programmes of the regular schedule, as well as playing Football Manager, to pass the time until the highlight of the day began. After the wait, I switched to the double channel format of my TV and phone again, having to break through a horribly clunky ITV Hub app to be able to listen to the dreary commentary their ‘pundits’ (or just professional players and managers, who mostly know nothing, bar the fantastic Slaven Bilic) offer. Let’s start with a breakdown of Russia vs Wales, as it’s always better to save the best until last, wouldn’t you agree? Both sides made changes to their sides which similarly lost 2-1 in their last matches; the Russians once again rotating their midfield to try and find the right combination, as Wales brought in a proper striker for once in Sam Vokes, signalling their attacking intent. There wasn’t much action until the goal, which was a bit of an anti-climax for me as the live stream was a good minute behind real time, so I got the alert from ITV1 first. Thanks a lot, television signals. It was a chance carved out of nowhere, Aaron Ramsey somehow finding a space for Joe Allen to play an inch-perfect through ball which the bleach-blonde midfielder could use to open up the veterans in the Russian defence and just ease a finish over a hopeless Igor Akinfeev.
That left Wales plump top of the group for the time being, in full control of the game and just waiting for England to respond. Once again, I was left fuming at the ITV links, as Wales went 2-0 up in quick succession. Neil Taylor was completely unmarked on the left side of the pitch as the Welsh counter-attacked with speed and numbers, with no Russian response in the slightest. Gareth Bale bamboozled the defenders, who were predictably all over him, to spread the ball out wide to Taylor, who admittedly did have to take the ball second time after a questionable first time finish (not bad for a left back though). There was no question that Wales would not let this slip, especially as the Russians looked totally clueless in both attack and defence. All the Welsh had to do for the rest of the half, after an exhilarating first 20 minutes, was sit deep, play the ball amongst themselves, draw the Russians out and try and extend their advantage. From the perspective of Tony Pulis (who loves the word aplomb I’ve found out) and all the Welsh fans, it was the perfect half for them.
All the heroic players in red had to do in the second half was scrap for every ball, keeping it in the opposition half for as long as possible, basically protecting a uncertain Wayne Hennessey. Thanks a third time, ITV. Ruining Gareth Bale’s goal for me now. It wasn’t a difficult goal to score, but it was a fine one all the same. Joe Allen’s beautiful probing ball was fed through to an unseen, onside Bale who didn’t provide a finish equal in aesthetics, but his attempted outside-out-the-boot (actually coming more off his laces) was effective in beating Akinfeev. The last half an hour or whatever (I didn’t really care by that point) didn’t hold too much action or excitement, so it’s best to gloss over it and congratulate the Welsh on their win. They carried out their game plan perfectly (in the group stage as well as in the match), deserving of their victory as a result. Oh what I’d give to have such a manipulative and respectable manager as Chris Coleman.
The Three Lions began their match with Slovakia to the tune of pundits discussing tactical changes too, with six whole changes to the starting line up from the Wales match, with the fatigued Rooney, Alli, Walker and Rose all dropped alongside a misfiring pair in Kane and Sterling. But our replacements were by no means a loss to our chances, with Sturridge, Vardy, Henderson, Wilshere, Bertrand and Clyne certainly no mugs themselves, demonstrating the quality of our squad, a response to all the plaudits who overrate the French depth.
The first half went in a similar vein to the two previous matches the team have played in the group, with countless chances, some better than others, being passed up, clearly as the side wanted to make things interesting for the watching audience. At least that’s my explanation. Sturridge and Vardy looked much more up for the fight than Kane and Sterling were in the opening duo of fixtures, with all eyes on goal as the likes of Clyne, Henderson and Wilshere were providing the chances. Our best play came down the right, definitely, notably the opportunity Adam Lallana had, unmarked in the box from a Clyne pass, which went straight into the goalkeeper’s eager hands. The Slovaks looked unorganised as we ran rampant in the final third, dominating possession also as the opposition sat back deep. However, we once again didn’t get that vital leading goal, so we were left to mull over the play during half time and hope for better in the second 45 minutes.
As that second half began, it was the Slovaks who surprisingly led the opening action, carving out one or two good chances which nearly outfoxed Joe Hart in the England goal. After that worrying ten minutes, Roy Hodgson wisely decided to introduce the key players in Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli, prompting the English players to direct their attention forward, swamping the opposition box with players. Alli went close a minute or so after coming on, hooking an effort on goal which was only stopped by a last-ditch clearance. England were definitely on the up, in the same way in which you could feel their confidence against Wales in the second half, the midfield three linking up fluidly with their front trio. But we weren’t scoring. Another chance was missed by Daniel Sturridge after he couldn’t get a touch to a great dinked ball into him. Would it prove to be the story of the night, we wondered?
Next, we turned to Harry Kane. Would he grab the goal? Of course, Slovakia turned to defensive substitutions to try and hold us out. They held men behind the ball, dropping all the way back to their own box, allowing even Cahill and Smalling to get into their half. We were reduced to corner after corner, Henderson and Rooney now bossing the show. It was nail-biting stuff, painful even, with England messing about as much as Andy Murray stereotypically does, straining to get the win. As the game entered the deep reaches of added time, Slovakia wasted their, and our, time. In the end, we didn’t get that winning goal. That final whistle was like the ring of death to English ears. Somehow, just somehow, we lost control of this group. We bossed all three matches, but Slovakia and Russia played us brilliantly, suffocating our potent attack as they knew they were no match to our talent. At the end of the group, you have to say Wales deserved their win and qualification as the best side in the group. Yes, they didn’t match us in performance, but they were clinical with their chances, whereas we frustrated ourselves. Hopefully we now get Iceland or Hungary in the next stage, fingers crossed.
Team of the Day
Like their group B win, Wales deserve this award today. They massively outplayed Russia in every single department, and in contrast to England, they finished their chances. It just makes it even more bitter to lose this group to your closest rivals though, so, so gutting for all in England colours.
Player of the Day
Personally, I’d go for Jordan Henderson today, as he was by far the best player on that pitch in Saint-Étienne, running forward and back across the park (more the former), whipping in crosses low and high which were good enough to win the match if only there was a finisher. He could’ve won that match all on his own with the desire he showed, proving he should probably deserve a starting position in the next match, whoever it may be against. Another who backed him up in a similar vein was Nathaniel Clyne, another on the right (our most dominant side tonight) who created chance after chance which deserved much better responses.
Goal of the Day
Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t believe that any of Wales’ goals tonight were of any reasonable quality deserving of goal of the day. From the three, I’d go with Ramsey, but I’m fed up so there will be no further comment on the Welsh tonight. I can’t even give them the time of day tonight (ironically), they wind me up so much.
Shock of the Day
Another wink during the nation anthems by this time a Slovakian player, I’m not quite sure who it was but it was certainly another for the bloopers reel. I don’t actually get the motives behind sneaking in a wink during the music that you are supposed to respect the most, the closest moment of the night you feel to your nation’s history. Just get on with the singing, no matter how bad you are (Joe Hart, I’m looking at you) and save the banter for later, alright mate?
Other than that, the only shock I can find is the glaringly obvious, that England didn’t f***ing get top spot or even win on the night. How pathetic are we that we can’t even break down Slovakia? Woy and Wazza have certainly got some things to sort out before we face out next opponents, that’s for sure.
I’m Looking Forward to…
An even more hectic schedule tomorrow, with a whole four games concluding two group’s worth of action in the space of around five hours or so. First up, there’s Northern Ireland vs Germany and Ukraine vs Poland in group C at 5PM, deciding some vital qualification spots, likely to be the World Champions Germany and strong yet underperforming in attack Poland, as well as the possibility of Northern Ireland, providing they don’t take too much damage against Joachim Löw’s team. Following those two matches in a similar of pattern of tandem are Croatia vs Spain and Czech Republic vs Turkey, the former a match packed full of stars probably likely to be low on goals, while the latter potentially deciding a 3rd place team, but it is not that likely seeing how poorly both have played so far. At least it won’t be as disappointing as today (at least I don’t think it can be), so enjoy it while it lasts!
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!