On the busiest day of the tournament to date so far, with a whole four matches being played in just the evening hours (two at 6PM French time, another pair at 9PM on the continent), there was sure to be non-stop drama and action with plenty of permutations for the eight sides involved. First up to the stage was group C, with massive underdogs Northern Ireland squaring off against World Cup winners Germany and misfiring, underperforming Ukraine facing up to the bordering nation they co-hosted with four years ago; Poland. Later on, there was the highly hyped-up Croatia vs Spain and the expectantly underrated Czech Republic vs Turkey.
Seeing as I would rather save myself from the strain of watching both 5PM matches (as well as the fact Ukraine vs Poland was on the red button, which you can’t access on the BBC iPlayer app), being fatigued like some of the England players, I chose to fix my focus on Northern Ireland vs Germany. This had high reason to be a great match; one small side scrapping for qualification, another that is, in all but ranking, the best side in the world right now, who needed to win to secure top spot and save them from a massive upset. The Germans made two changes to their side that disappointingly and direly drew with Poland, replacing Julian Draxler and Benedikt Höwedes with the out-and-out striker Mario Gomez and young talent Joshua Kimmich respectively. Northern Ireland remained unchanged from their mightily impressive 2-0 defeat of Ukraine, with a side made up of ageing and underrated Premier League players, with the addition of some steady Championship talents and a Scottish Premier League goalkeeper. This goalie, Michael McGovern (who plays/played for Hamilton Academical) was certainly made busy in the opening stages by a positive and full-on-flair German attack, saving strong goal scoring chances from Mueller, Özil and Götze with a sense of ease. McGovern, along with his extremely competent side, has been one of the surprises of the tournament so far on how well he has performed, and the opening 20 minutes did nothing to change that.
Make no mistake though, this first half was by no means all about the Germans. Michal O’Neill’s green-kitted troops also had their fair share of opportunities, particularly down the left with Stuart Dallas, who profited from the inexperienced Kimmich’s unrelenting attacking intent, leaving his right-back station unmanned. From what we saw in the opening half an hour, this certainly wasn’t going to be a turgid, slow game made unwatchably boring by continuous defending; both sides were out to win for sure. The setting of the beautifully green Parc des Princes and the boisterous but well-spirited fans of both Germany and particularly Northern Ireland made this a memorably great match to watch; a perfect advert for this summer’s tournament.
Just on the half hour mark, Germany went ahead thanks to a clinical open-goal Mario Gomez strike that was made almost entirely by Thomas Mueller’s creativity. He surged into the box, wriggled around a few defenders, evaded the grasp of McGovern, drawing the goalkeeper out before he gave the ball back to Gomez, who only had to aim around McGovern, who was still on the floor, and get the ball past two defenders, McAuley onrushing and Jonny Evans on the line. It was commendable defending by Northern Ireland, closing the Germans down so quickly, but the World Champions are usually known as such for good reason, and for the Germans it was their flair in difficult situations. After that, the Germans smelt blood and were creating chance after chance; Mueller hitting the crossbar, Sami Khedira missing a header and Gomez hitting one straight at McGovern. Still, Northern Ireland held out for the rest of the half, not letting their heads drop, defending resolutely and showing plenty of energy in chasing every ball. The problem was, they couldn’t get the ball for long enough periods to get men forward and have a go in response to the Germans. In all honesty, it was probably the best 45 minutes, or at least the half I’ve enjoyed the most out of all that I’ve seen in this tournament so far, (although it could’ve been the good weather outside that has improved my mood).
The second half began in much the same vein as the first, with the Germans creating plenty of passably goal-bound chances while McGovern and his defence responded doggedly. Gomez missed another golden chance, a header from about five yards out, which he should’ve buried, and the game became disjointed by the introductions of Andre Schurrle, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Kyle Lafferty and Josh Magennis. Play slowed down, Northern Ireland dropped even deeper and clear cut opportunities became rarer as both sides were becoming worn down by their efforts. By the time the final whistle had gone, you had to feel that both sides would go through, Northern Ireland by the lottery of 3rd place, as they both definitely deserved to be in the last 16. Northern Ireland will be satisfied that they only lost by a one goal margin, as am I for my BBC predictions (finally some points after getting the first four games of the round totally wrong). Their players put in great shifts against a top, top side in not just this tournament, but in history also, containing Kroos, Neuer, Mueller and Götze et al.
In contrast to the Parc des Princes, (just as a short highlights package here), the pitch at Marseille that Ukraine and Poland played on today looked parched, tough and unfit of such a great stage as this. The chances ebbed and flowed, but once again neither the misfiring Polish strikers (Lewandowski, where are you?) nor the Ukrainian players (think Yarmolenko, Konoplyanka) could find the back of the net in the first half. The second half appeared to be much more open, with a few more top chances, although the only goal, for Poland, did admittedly only come from a short corner, delivered by Arkadiusz Milik to Jakub Blaszczykowski, which was finished emphatically. Perhaps it showed Poland’s determination, bordering on desperation, to stick the ball in the back of the net for only the second time in the tournament, but whatever it was. the one important thing for the Polish was that they won today.
Later in the day, there came Croatia vs Spain, a game chock full of big names to entice the audience; Iniesta and Rakitic, Morata and Mandzukic (who didn’t actually start), and Perisic and Fabregas. An unchanged Spanish side, who barely had to break sweat against a poor Turkish outfit last time around, didn’t even have time to give everybody on their team a touch before they scored their opening goal of the night. A beautiful, flowing passing move was chipped over the goalkeeper by Alvaro Morata to seemingly finish it, before Fabregas nipped in to steal the goal. If who is getting the goals for Spain their only problem in the competition, I don’t think they will have any difficulties in getting to the semi-final and even further. It was just so easy for them, and I had only just sat down by the time they scored it! They say a goal always opens a game up; and that was certainly the case here, as Croatia only grew in confidence after that goal; Nikola Kalinic going close with a shot which De Gea turned around for a corner, and a massive chance in which Perisic lobbed De Gea, only for the ball to hit the crossbar, then Pique on the line, before it got back to a returning De Gea. That was Spain’s lifeline, and the old adage that every winning side gets lucky at some point was proven here.
However, that luck didn’t last for long. After Spain sat back and tried to hold their advantage at the close of the second half, suddenly Croatia scored from nowhere (RKO outta nowhereeee). Ivan Perisic picked up the ball on the left, whipped in a perfect ball to Nikola Kalinic, who powerfully volleyed in past David De Gea, clawing the Croats back into the game right at the end of the half.
De Gea appeared panicky in this game, something we never see from him at a club level, but he gifted Croatia chance after chance by attempting Neuer-style heroics, as if trying out being a sweeper keeper on the training ground. This continued into the second half, in which Croatia suddenly seemed to have the ascendancy, as Spain lacked their finesse; playing long balls(ch) and scrambling defensively, whatever del Bosque said at half time clearly not having the required effect. Little really happened as the light faded and the minutes ticked away, with chances going astray and slow play creeping in. That was until the penalty decision. David Silva was apparently (according to the referee) shoved over by Sime Vrsaljiko as a cross came in, even though there was no contact between the two that should’ve led to the Spaniard falling. Maybe it was justice, then, that Sergio Ramos hit the penalty straight at a diving, onrushing (way off his goal line) Danijel Subasic, with the ball bouncing straight off his palms and to the Croatia defence, who then cleared it. That left Spain ruing their missed chances and gave the Croats, once again, the impetus to go forward and make chances.
There passed another 20 minutes without note in the game, but then something magical happened. Something truly unordinary. As Croatia broke forward after another wave of limp Spanish attack, Ivan Perisic took a chance on goal from just inside the left hand side of the box, speculative if anything, but somehow it went in. That powerfully dragged near-post shot took the slightest nick off of Gerard Pique, and then squirmed past De Gea’s foot and into the bottom corner. Croatia had the winning goal against the double reigning champions Spain, a side that hadn’t lost a game in the Euros since 2004, against eventual finalists and hosts Portugal. This was a moment to savour. Croatia had topped the group, and Spain were left to play Italy in the round of 16. This was unbelievable stuff. A dream maybe, but nobody thought it would be reality. Croatia didn’t even have Modric or Mandzukic for this match, and they still won! Unbelievable Jeff.
Elsewhere, the Czech Republic vs Turkey match was never likely to get my full attention as I wasn’t very hopeful for either of these teams’ chances to score and win in this game, especially after their previous performances. Surprisingly enough, though, soon after Spain’s opening goal, Turkey actually scored (their first goal of the tournament) as Burak Yilmaz finished off a well-made chance with a side-footed volley past Petr Cech. Turkey added to their lead in the second with Ozan Tufan’s similarly top-corner, near-post finish that Cech really should’ve stopped, after Tufan found space in the box when the ball dropped from a free kick. Turkey still have a chance of getting through, but it as close as Leicester winning the Premier League. We all know how that one panned out though.
Team of the Day
Germany are my pick today, as although Croatia played well enough to win (questionably), they didn’t have the finesse or cutting edge to it as the Germans, who won with class, skill and tremendous link-up play. Their whole team was effective in beating Northern Ireland all over the pitch, never relenting their pressure, creating loads of chances and playing attractive, likeable football. If there is one side at the end who I would want to win the competition, because it’s clearly not going to be England, I would follow Germany passionately.
Player of the Day
On only his second international appearance, in a vital group stage match, Joshua Kimmich really impressed me today. He covered the right flank without fault or let up in his running, closing down chances in his own half and creating plenty great opportunities at the other. Yes, he may have not played in line with the rest of the German defence, but that was part of the game plan, as he is not naturally a right back, rather a defensive midfielder at club level, and a big part of that job at Bayern Munich is to create openings. He played a man of the match performance in his team’s match, and that was very impressive for me.
Goal of the Day
Jakub Blaszczykowski’s strike looked stunning on the highlights reel today, I can only imagine how amazing it would have felt in real time! The way he lent back, smacked the ball and just watched it curve into the top corner was inch-perfect in every aspect, a real goal to behold. How he wasn’t more closely marked at a corner, let me remind you, was absolutely shocking defending on the Ukrainian’s part, but he still got the goal, and that’s all that matters for my goal of the day.
Shock of the Day
The ball slamming against the assistant referee in the NI vs Germany match (at the end of first half) after it pinged off Conor Washington’s knee from a Jonas Hector clearance was a hilarious yet slightly worrying moment in the day. While the official tried to laugh it off, you could tell he was hurt and that was so hard not to laugh at, making the match even better in my opinion.
The nickname that the ITV commentators gave Croatian left-back Sime Vrsaljiko during the match of ‘The Psycho’ (not really of course, it was just their way of pronouncing it) harked back to days of Stuart Pearce running back and forth down the left flank, which must’ve been a good memory for Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle must be the most incompetent commentator I’ve ever had the misfortune of being guided through a game by, up there with Jonathan Pearce, who at least knows (vaguely) what he is on about, not just spouting up memories of the 90’s. Hoddle is like a University campus in that way, but not in many others, it must be said, as he doesn’t educate nor hold hungover 20-somethings inside him.
I’m Looking Forward to…
A final set of four matches tomorrow, with group E concluding with Italy vs the Republic of Ireland as well as Sweden vs Belgium, both vital matches, with the ROI possibly shaking up the whole group if they win, and Sweden also having the ability to do the same. Zlatan could do anything on his day, and hopefully, if they do go out, he will make a fitting impact on his international swansong. Elsewhere, Hungary play Portugal and Iceland face Austria to finally decide a wide open group, with Hungary and Iceland holding the upper hand and Portugal threatening massively with obviously Ronaldo to regain top spot, which honestly should be theirs. One final massive day of group stage football to come.
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!