So here we had it; the last day of the group stages. It was a day to celebrate and savour the final chance we had to watch every single team in the tournament, before their impending elimination or qualification for the next round. For their last chance to prove they deserved either of these fates today, we had group F for some reason first, with Hungary vs Portugal, a match widely expected prior to the tournament to only boost the Portuguese points tally, but in reality a vital match that would decide their fate in this tournament. Elsewhere, Iceland faced up against Austria, with one side definitely going out if they lost, presumably meaning conservatism from both sides until they got decent chances. Later, we had Italy vs Republic of Ireland and Sweden vs Belgium, concluding what was built-up as the ‘group of death’ out of the six prior to the competition with two big games with lots at stake.
Hungary, already effectively qualified for the next round after a win against Austria and a stalemate against Iceland, changed their side slightly, just resting their in-form midfielders in preparation for the next round. Portugal, on the other hand, had to roll out the big names, with Ronaldo, Nani, Moutinho, Pepe and William Carvalho all starting, with the addition of the pacey wing duo Andre Gomes and Joao Mario, adapting their formation after it failed in the opening two matches. There was little action of note in the opening quarter of an hour, but suddenly after a Hungarian counter attack, Zoltan Gera smashed in a sumptuous half volley with his left boot from a corner. How he was left unmarked, just like Jakub Blaszczykowski yesterday, from a corner was a criminal offense from a Portuguese defensive perspective, deserving of conceding a goal to put them 1-0 down. The way Gera was left behind about five Portuguese players, with room enough to take the ball down and pick his spot perfectly, was disastrous and compounded when the ball went through Richard Carvalho’s legs on its way to the bottom corner.
The half slowed down from that point, with Hungary only too happy to sit back and defend against Nani and Ronaldo, who became cut off from the rest of their team. That was until Ronaldo picked up the ball in the Hungarian half, took a well-thought out quick free kick, passing the ball straight along the ground to his strike partner Nani, who gleefully tucked the ball with power into Gabor Kiraly’s near post corner, finally giving the Portuguese fans something to shout about. That goal levelled up the game just before half time, leaving the game wide open for the second 45. While Portugal appeared to have the ascendancy, bringing on Renato Sanches, a slightly more attacking player for Joao Moutinho, they were struck back down to 3rd in the group all of a sudden. Dzsudzsak’s hopeful free kick took a big deflection off the Portuguese wall, which set it undoubtedly for the goal. Rui Patricio was already set, and couldn’t get back for the ball, and the Hungarians went into pandemonium.
But that lead only lasted for two short minutes. Cristiano Ronaldo’s announcement to the tournament; his half-volleyed back-heeled flick was amazing, and fitting of a player needing a big statement. Two captains goals in the space of four minutes into the second half, and the game was tied up again. But wait, Hungary were ahead yet again! Dzsudzsak grabbed another deflected goal (off Nani) that Patricio had no chance with, another speculative strike from out wide on the outside of the box. Surely Hungary could hold onto this goal? For the ten minutes that they settled the game down, it seemed that way. But there was yet another twist in the tale of this game, Ricardo Quaresma, with his first touch after coming on, crossed it in for Ronaldo to head in from a corner, levelling the game up for Portugal for an unbelievable third time. Even the commentators didn’t think it was true at first, you could hear the surprise in their voice! From that point onwards, there was no let up defensively for the Hungarians, as Ronaldo, Quaresma, Renato Sanches and Joao Mario all had their eyes on goal, focused on that winning strike. Hungary were quite happy, but very tired, in defending for the rest of the match as (believe it or not) defending is definitely their strong point.
In the end, it was a draw, and the most entertaining type of draw we are ever likely to see, with both sides certainly deserving of their point. Hungary were stronger defensively than Portugal, but Portugal had their focal points in attack. Pitting these two differing styles made for a great match, and made sure Hungary really had to work for their group win.
Around 280 miles away in Paris (from Lyon), Iceland and Austria lined up for their match, in tandem with their group opponents. Iceland went in unchanged from the Hungary match, with the threats of Sigurdsson, Sigthorsson and Gudmundsson apparent from the start. Austria remained faithful in their underperforming (if you listened to the people that rated them) stars, such as David Alaba, Marco Arnautovic and Marcel Sabitzer, hoping things could only get better. Austria kept the ball more efficiently from the start, but it was Iceland who got the goal to go one up and go through to the last 16 as things stood, only seconds after Hungary’s goal. If that minute or so long period wasn’t representative of the story of this group, the two minnows defying odds to beat the sleeping giants, then I don’t what would be. Aron Gunnarson’s Rory Delay-style long throw was headed down by Kari Arnason, and fell to Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, who slid in a finish past a despairing Robert Adler, gifting the Icelanders the lead from what seemed a harmless throw in. About 20 minutes later, an Austrian corner resulted in a penalty, after Alaba was adjudged to have been brought down by Skulason in the Icelandic defence. What followed that though was awful, as Alexander Dragovic dragged (get it?) his penalty onto the post, typical of a centre back and a reminder of Ramos’ effort last night.
Austria did get back into the game in the second half, amidst all the drama in Lyon, as Alexander Schopf finished off a tidy chance to give his side back a chance of qualifying. They then had to chase the game to get that 3rd place spot, ahead of Iceland, going after that one goal that would make their competition. In the very last minute of added time, Iceland broke away from a flooded half, full of Austrian players, with only green carpet in front of them. Teddy Bjarnason, an Icelandic substitute, ran free down the right wing, although even he looked shattered after about 20 minutes defending, supported by Arnor Ingvi Traustason and Birkir Bjarnason. The questionable cross came in, and Traustason was there at the far post to slide in and poke it past Almer. Iceland had their winning goal; and suddenly England were faced up against the small nation in the R016, instead of Portugal.
At 8PM, the football returned, and with some reluctance I chose Italy vs the Republic of Ireland, as I knew Italy would be defending, but the ROI would have to attack to get through to the next stage. The Italians, who were already assured of top spot in the group, swapped up most of their team, with only Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Alessandro Florenzi surviving from the side which beat Sweden 1-0, even Buffon didn’t get to play! Ireland also made their fair share of changes; James McLean, Daryl Murphy, Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy replacing Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan, John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark in some encouragingly attacking alterations. Surprisingly enough, Ireland actually started the stronger side in the first half, with free kicks the basis of most of their opportunities, although James McLean on the left was also a common outlet to their play. Robbie Brady played well, so did Jeff Hendrick, and Darren Randolph was made to work by the Italian front players in Ciro Immobile and the inexperienced Federico Bernadeschi, who threatened in one or two counter attacks. As for the penalty argument that everyone at ITV seemed to think should’ve been given, I would back up the referee in saying there was not sufficient contact to give the pen for Bernadeschi’s tight pressure on James McLean, as the Irish winger went over far too easily when he knew he was surrounded by defenders. Personally, I just think that ITV were trying to get the Irish viewers on their side by buttering them up, as there was literally no other reason to keep going on about the penalty. Other than that, there was little first half action, although there were reasons to think things would improve.
Well, I have to be honest, they didn’t. Speculative shots went well wide for both sides, the defences grew stronger and the ball was just being hoofed clear, nothing was done with care. No wonder the camera kept panning over to Antonio Conte, prowling on his technical area, half John Travolta half Sylvester Stallone in appearance, as there was dwindling action on the pitch. Lorenzo Insigne came off the bench and struck the post with a hopeful shot and Wes Hoolahan missed a clear cut chance when clean through on goal, which he aimed straight at Salvatore Sirigu, but Ireland at last got the goal. Hoolahan redeemed himself about two minutes after his chance by whipping in a great ball from the right to Robbie Brady in the middle, which the Norwich City winger gratefully tucked away under little pressure. It was the goal they fully deserved, but the ITV commentators acted as if they had suddenly become Irish, and were obsessed by congratulating every one of their players and their fans (?). Well, they saw the game out and gained a memorable win (the Irish players that is, not the commentators) against one of the five or six best sides in the tournament, earning their place in the knockout stage against France (gulp).
Just as a quick roundup of Sweden vs Belgium; I’d describe it as lacking in quality and representative of the off form of both side’s strikers, as from the highlights package I can see that, beside from pot shots made during the build up to what could’ve been good chances, the only real goal scoring opportunity was Thomas Meunier’s flicked header from Kevin De Bruyne’s corner, which fizzed past the Swedish far post. De Bruyne looked, at least from the highlights, the only one who was up for this game from an attacking perspective, with both defences on form today. With seven minutes left on the clock, Hazard broke free down the left, crossed a great ball over the other side of the pitch which travelled to Radja Nainggolan on the other side, who cut inside and smashed a ball across the Swedish defence, ending up in the top left corner, always rising to settle it with style. In the end, it was the Mohican-topped Belgian midfielder’s strike which decided the game and his side’s 2nd place in the group.
Team of the Day
The Republic of Ireland deserve massive credit for their battling, domineering performance against a second-string Italian side tonight, only winning because they worked together. Richard Dunne’s outlandish claim that Ireland would’ve beaten Italy’s first team was too far, but let’s just celebrate that Ireland did play well in the circumstances tonight, and earned by working hard for their place in the last 16.
Player of the Day
Balazs Dzsudzsak was fantastic for his side today, putting in a shift as captain all over the shop, from leading their forward charge on counter attacks and scoring two (admittedly deflected) goals, to securing the draw by shifting to makeshift centre-back in added time at the very end. He never seemed to run out of energy, covering every blade of grass on the pitch and doing well every time he had possession, creating chances and holding up the ball. The way he manages games is a very important part of his play, and one that in a captain is usually overshadowed, but all sides would be lost without a player like this.
Goal of the Day
Zoltan Gera’s finish, all the way back in the 18th minute of Hungary vs Portugal, before the second half madness, has to be my pick today as it was the only well-struck shot that didn’t take a deflection and actually made me stare in awe today. My memories of Gera stretch to collecting his card while at Fulham and West Brom for my Match Attax collection, and while he was a solid player back then, he is the catalyst for his country now. At 37 years of age, he knows that this is his last tournament, and he wants to help his side go as far as possible, and if not go out with a bang. Well, if they hadn’t of got through the group, this goal would’ve been his bang. A sweetly struck shot, just on the edge of the box from a corner, it skimmed across the floor, nutmegging the Portuguese defender and planting just out of reach for Rui Patricio in the bottom right corner. This goal was an outstanding moment for Gera and Hungary, and one that set the tone for the rest of the pulsating match.
Shock of the Day
How Portugal got back into the game three whole times after deserving their losing statuses each time was a shock in itself today, as I have never seen anything like it in international football! I suppose anything is possible when you have Ronaldo in your team, but that will definitely be the one-off high scoring match in this tournament, that much is for sure. It’s not even like any of the goals were saveable for either goalkeeper, that’s how good the game was!
Just the fact that the group stages have now ended is a shock! It’s strange to think that it was 12 days ago that Dimitri Payet’s stunning goal won France the opening game of the tournament, at its very birth. It’ll be sad to say goodbye to such a great, inclusive stage in the tournament, as after this it gets really serious. There have been great moments, but I’m sure we’ll have a roundup at the end of the competition. For now, we’ll look forward in anticipation to the knockout stages, knowing that we are getting ever closer to the conclusion of the tournament (sob).
I’m Looking Forward to…
A rest really! Without wanting to sound like a curmudgeonly old man, this daily tournament football lark does take it out of you. A day off should do us all good, giving us a break for reality during this month of magic. I’m very much looking forward to this day of rest, and coming back revitalised for Saturday, and the first set of R016 matches. If I don’t see you between now and then, I’ll say goodnight and see you soon for another round!
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!