Hello again everyone, and welcome back to the Euros and A Continental Affair! It feels like forever since we had some football, and I’m sure we were all raring to go for the Round of 16, with three top matches to get us started today. We had the battle of the red-and-white underdogs in Switzerland and Poland, the Home Nations match-up between Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as a very tasty, colourful and attacking match in Croatia vs Portugal to whet our appetite, and they certainly delivered.
So it was Switzerland vs Poland first in Saint-Étienne, an expectantly tight, defensive slog between two fairly blessed teams with talents such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Robert Lewandowski. Both sides went with their strongest, widely agreed strongest teams, putting everything on the line for a quarter-final spot. Poland probably had the harder group of the two to escape from, having to beat Ukraine and Northern Ireland, but Switzerland also had to perform to get a close win against Albania, as well as a fair draw against Romania and a lethargic stalemate vs France. It was sure to be a tight match, and I was backing Poland on penalties.
In the opening 45 minutes, it’s fair to say little of game-changing note actually occurred, but it was still good to watch. Both sides passed the ball cleanly and effectively, Switzerland occupying possession and holding the ball well in the opposition half, rather than vice-versa. Poland probably created the better chances in the periods they had the ball, with Lewandowski and Milik both going close, as Switzerland were limited to trying corner after corner. As I said this, though, another Swiss corner went astray, with Kamil Grosicki breaking down the left with pace (from a massive Fabianski throw) and playing an inch-perfect ball across the box to an unmarked Jakub Blaszczykowski, who calmly slotted the ball between Yann Sommer’s legs and past the defenders attempting to cover the open goal. Poland were elated; Switzerland on the other hand were left frustrated. The Polish midfield and defence then grew in confidence, keeping the ball more effectively and blocking numerous Swiss shots, closing out the half with a tidy lead.
Switzerland came out for the second half knowing they had to chase the game, going for goal more often and abandoning the tactic of just keeping the ball, stopping Polish attacks. Shaqiri, Džemaili and Mehmedi worked hard to create chances, cutting inside and playing the ball on the deck to compensate for their height inferiority, but Haris Seferovic, once again in this tournament, could not finish any chances. Poland could hit the Swiss on the break now; and they missed a few good opportunities from this as their final ball delivery was not up to scratch. The game was then broken up by a series of fouls, one which led to a great fingertip save by Fabianski from a close-range Ricardo Rodriguez free kick.
Switzerland pushed forward in numbers again; this time Seferovic teeing up Fabien Schaer for a 18 yard right-footed shot which smacked back off the crossbar, past the goalkeeper. Then came the goal. What a bloody stunning goal. Switzerland, camped in the opposition half, put a ball in, which was nudged out by Michal Pazdan straight to Xherdan Shaqiri, who, no he couldn’t be, bicycle kicked the ball so cleanly past the defenders, onto the right post and in. He was about 18 yards or so out, and he absolutely cut it into the path of the goal. It was the crispest, most difficult to score, goal we are ever likely to see over the course of this tournament, and it was worthy of levelling up the game with about eight minutes left.
Then we went to extra time. Neither side really went for it, with the two defences playing the ball sideways or backwards, and the attackers only too happy to take a break from constant pressurising of the opposition. It certainly didn’t captivate me in the first 15 minutes, that’s for sure. The second half in extra time offered a lot more in terms of excitement, with Switzerland reverting back to their set pieces, as they now had the momentum. Eren Derdiyok missed a glaring one-on-one headed chance with Fabianski, with Shaqiri still shining bright as the man of the match, putting in crosses from all over the opposition half. Derdiyok missed another close-range chance under pressure from Pazdan, failing to toe poke the ball past Fabianski, as it became apparent the game would go to penalties, as the Swiss couldn’t finish. My BBC Sport prediction got off to a great start for this round, as I got 1-1 and penalties down. But who would win on penalties? Liechtsteiner scored first for the Swiss. Lewandowski scored a perfect penalty. Granit Xhaka then fired one far, far wide, an awful miss. Advantage Poland, and Milik took it. Shaqiri dragged one back for his side. Glik scored too. Schaer coolly slotted in. 3-3, and Blaszczykowski tapped in. Then Rodriguez had to score, under great pressure, and he did. Krychowiak then smashed it in to win, securing the Polish spot in the quarter-finals. It was a high quality match and penalty shoot-out, but Xhaka was the one who put one foot wrong, which in the end counted. Poland are through, but they had to work hard for it.
Then we headed to the Parc des Princes in Paris, where Wales started as favourites against Northern Ireland. Chris Coleman picked an unchanged side from the one who beat Russia 3-0, with Northern Ireland making a single alteration, talisman Kyle Lafferty coming in for Conor Washington up front. The game started in a positive fashion; both sides looking to create from the off, with Stuart Dallas and Aaron Ramsey both going close before 15 minutes had passed, and Ramsey scoring an offside goal a few minutes later. Wales were slightly sloppy with the ball under Northern Irish pressure, as Michael O’Neill’s men benefitted from their superior height and strength to outmuscle the Welsh. Gareth Bale and the rest of his side lacked finesse in their play, with the final ball always lacking, as Northern Ireland soaked it all up pretty easily. Towards the end of the half, play was broken up by a number of fouls, but there was still nothing to show that either side deserved to win yet. It was a pretty unremarkable half, nothing clear and amazing to note from either side, but Northern Ireland showing promises of being a good, free-flowing side, performing better in the things they did than their close home nation rivals.
In contrast, Wales started the stronger side in the second half, in particular missing a glaring goal scoring chance when Sam Vokes broke free to get his head to an Aaron Ramsey cross, but he lifted it wide, right of the goal. Chris Coleman wanted an impact, so he sent on Hal Robson-Kanu for Vokes. He made it clear he wanted pace up front, playing the ball on the floor from counter attacks, as Robson-Kanu would never win headers against Craig Cathcart and Gareth McAuley. Gareth Bale resorted to drawing fouls, using the acting skills he has honed at Real Madrid to convince Martin Atkinson to give him a chance from 30 yards out, which McGovern palmed away, stretching to his left. Wales kept turning up the pressure, a crank a time, with Northern Ireland becoming pinned back in their own half after Bale, Robson-Kanu and the recently introduced Jonny Williams chased that winning goal. In the 75th minute, that goal did arrive for Wales, but from an unfortunate and unlikely source; Gareth McAuley. Gareth Bale whipped in another of his perfectly-flighted crosses, down at hip height for Robson-Kanu, but McAuley, attempting to clear the ball before it got to Wales’ number 9, slid in and stuck his leg out. As he did that, the ball hit his toes for a lovely finish, if only it came from a Welsh player. McAuley despaired, Northern Ireland despaired, but they couldn’t complain that it wasn’t coming.
After that, Northern Ireland had to look forward. Niall McGinn and Josh Magennis came on again for them up front, partnering Kyle Lafferty, as the punts forward had to start being delivered. The only thing was, Wales’ defence was stronger, working together, sacrificing free kicks, position and their own body (Ashley Williams’ arm for one) to get the win, which after a wasted final corner which McGovern went up for, they did. It was sad for Northern Ireland, but they can take a lot of credit from even getting to the tournament, let alone the round of 16, whereas a jubilant Wales have made history by reaching the quarter-finals. The good thing for me was, I picked up another 40 points for my predictions with this result.
To finish off the day, Croatia faced off against Portugal for the third place in the quarter-finals of the day, with the expectant fans of the world hoping for goals, drama and clashes between the top talents of Modric, Ronaldo, Rakitic and Nani. Croatia reverted back to their strongest line up, drafting a fit-again Luka Modric and a so far underperforming Mario Mandzukic back into the line-up, whereas Portugal shuffled their pack, with Jose Fonte, Cedric Soares and Adrien Silva all coming in to freshen up the look of the side. It’s all well and good changing your side as Portugal manager, but everyone else is always going to be overshadowed by Ronaldo in Portugal. That was what the Portuguese players had to challenge today, but it wouldn’t be easy, especially considering all of Ronaldo’s trigger-happy prowess in the first set of games.
To be brutally honest about this game; it went about as far down in terms of expectation to actual end product as a Tim Peake coming down from space; it shot down faster than the speed of light. I can’t even remember hearing the name Ronaldo from either of the commentators, as Croatia, who had a vast majority of the ball, didn’t really have any momentum in any of their attacks, pace or cutting edge, to find a gap through the stout Portuguese defence. It says a lot that there wasn’t even a SHOT ON TARGET. I hope that woke you up, because I almost fell asleep during that dreary half. Even the ITV pundits had to switch to talking about Shaqiri’s goal, that is how little happened, that they couldn’t even fill 10 minutes with chat about what happened in Lens between the two teams, (easy to forget them from how little they created) Croatia and Portugal.
Even the second half continued in the same vain. Croatia yet again had more of the ball, Portugal yet again defended without letting the opposition had any good chances, so the game hit a brick wall. The ITV commentators resulted to try and convince us that Vida’s header from a free kick was a realistic chance by shouting at the top of their voices, and that Nani had won a penalty, when in fact he gave away a goal kick to Croatia. It was nigh-on unwatchable stuff. Even when the game got stretched (as the commentators love to describe it as), the efforts were still awful and easily comparable to non-league stuff. It was as if neither side even wanted to get through to the quarter-finals, that’s how poor their players were. Portugal, you have Ronaldo, arguably the second best player in the world, what is wrong with you? Croatia, you have Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic, why can’t you find the net? It was bewildering and ugly to watch, as the moves both sides created always fell apart half way through. There was no finesse, skill or technique that these two nations have been so heralded for in the past, and it was pitiful. Honestly, the best things on show were the two kits. Now we all had to watch 30 minutes more of the stuff, just to know who might even stand a chance of getting through!
I can’t tell if it was the pitch or not, but in extra-time, when both sides seemed a little more livened up and willing to attack, but nearly every chance either side has was disrupted by someone falling over or their foot slipping, which leads me to believe that both sides’ problems were not just in their personnel. It summed up the night when, in the second half of extra time, Domagoj Vida missed an open-goal from a corner, as his header went high and wide. It was only in the last five minutes of extra time that Croatia went forward for the winning goal, but hi the post from Ivan Rakitic. But then, Ronaldo broke free with the ball down the right, offloaded it to a rangy and pacey Renato Santos, who ran it down to the edge of the 18-yard box, passed it to Nani to his left. The former Manchester United winger then played the ball across the box to his captain Ronaldo, whose powerful shot was beaten away by Danijel Subasic, but only into the path of Ricardo Quaresma, whose header was on plate to win the game. Vida missed another chance from a corner in the last minute of added time to extra time by a matter of inches, and the game was over. Portugal won, but I don’t think either of these sides deserved to get through, as their efforts were awful today. The fact of the matter is; Portugal scored with the ONLY shot on target in the entire 120+3 minutes. That is such an embarrassing statistic, but it was true, and Portugal live to see another day, but I’m not sure anyone outside the nation will be very happy that they are going to.
Team of the Day
Well, it won’t be Portugal, it won’t be Wales as they didn’t boss their game either, so it must be Poland. But even the Polish didn’t fully deserve their win, so I’m not very happy with my decision. Basically, Poland were more entertaining than either Wales or Portugal, so that has to be my reasoning.
Player of the Day
For me, Xherdan Shaqiri has to be the pick of the players. He had confidence that no other player showed today, he believed in his ability to change that game and win it for his team. The way he led from the front when his striker Seferovic wasn’t performing was very commendable, as he never gave up, taking his country’s hopes by the scruff of the neck and running with them, most importantly levelling up the game.
Goal of the Day
Are you kidding me? Of course it was Xherdan Shaqiri, that goal was something absolutely else. Another great candidate for the goal of the tournament, and such a vital one too.
Shock of the Day
Mark Lawrenson’s constant complaints about every single foot the Swiss and Polish players put wrong does get tiring at times, but it is certainly entertaining to watch and listen to. His dreary, northern tone spiced up by lines such as ‘oh behave yourself’ to Liechtsteiner after he drew a foul from the Polish left-back, and ‘get up’ to Lewandowski after he was decked by Breel Embolo make him a hilarious addition to any game, reminiscent of Geoffrey Boycott on the cricket coverage.
If the map of Croatia wasn’t bad enough in the previous match, Ivan Perisic’s new haircut really took the biscuit. I can understand his thinking; ‘this is going to look great on my head, his red and white chequered style’, but to be honest, it is pretty cringe worthy to look at. Yes, he wanted to show his patriotism, his pride to represent his country at the international level, but asking your hairdresser to spend hours colouring in the side of your head with painstaking accuracy is taking it a bit too far, don’t you think?
I’m Looking Forward to…
A trio of hopefully much more entertaining matches tomorrow, with France and the Republic of Ireland kicking off proceedings at 2PM, in what should be a closely contested and open game, as well as Germany vs Slovakia and Hungary vs Belgium. Germany should be wary of a Slovakian side that, we know as England fans, can really get men behind the ball when they need to, so it should be interesting. Hungary vs Belgium is an unprecedented and peculiar match-up, one that Belgium really should boss, but they might easily be pegged back by an over performing Hungary side. If one thing is for certain, is that history will be made, and the competition will be changed.
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!