Today we were reintroduced to the warmth and relaxed atmosphere of Sunday tournament football, the day of rest transformed into the day of competition-changing action. We had another three matches ready to liven up the tournament and decide who could go on to win the entire thing, with group A winners France up against a battling, last minute qualifying Republic of Ireland, surprise group F victors Hungary vs similarly unexpectedly 2nd place finishers in group D Belgium, and arguable favourites for the tournament Germany against a defensively solid Slovakia. A set of matches which could possibly decide who goes on to win Euro 2016, as well as some very exciting ones for the viewers.
First up was hosts France against the plucky Republic of Ireland in a boiling Lyon, where pressure was certainly on the favourites and home side. Didier Deschamps reverted back to his trusted, first choice side, with Payet, Giroud, Kante, Matuidi and Griezmann all coming back in after the bore draw against Switzerland, whereas Martin O’Neill kept faith in his XI which, although not immediate first choices, beat the Italians in their final group match, with names such as Daryl Murphy, Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy all involved. Both sides looked as if they wanted to attack from the off, making their impact on the game, but it was still a shock when the Republic of Ireland won a penalty in just about the second minute of the game. France looked lost defensively as Shane Long ran into the box, and a recovering Paul Pogba approached the striker from behind, sticking a leg out to try and win the ball, but Long got caught up in the mix and fell. The referee had adjudged Pogba to have fouled the Irish striker from behind, but from my perspective Long was always looking to go down, and at the slightest sense of contact he did just that. It worked for Ireland, with the livewire Robbie Brady tucking it away by sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way and pinging it in off the right post. This was not the script that ROI were meant to stick to, France were supposed to win this one easily, and now they had to chase the game.
For the rest of the half, after those mad first two minutes, the Irish team still dominated play. France looked unorganised and nervy, like the Brazilians two years ago, as their defence made last ditch challenges and their midfield scrapped for balls that were never theirs. Yellow cards were handed out by the referee like dollar bills at a strip club, with Rami, Kante and Hendrick all missing the next match if their respective teams got through. Ireland did their jobs across the park to perfection, with Hendrick, McCarthy, Brady and McLean all running their socks off in midfield, putting constant pressure on the heartbeat of the French side; Kante, Pogba and Matuidi. This isolated Giroud, Payet and Griezmann up front, restricting the French attack of opportunities as Keogh and Duffy won all the headers in their box. The best French chance came right at the end of half; with Payet playing a ball to Sagna out wide, who played it back to the West Ham player, whose shot was blocked, rebounded to Giroud, whose fate was the same, and then Griezmann, who fluffed his shooting opportunity. That was the story of the half for the French; they really should’ve been winning, but Ireland blocked everything they tried to do going forward. Didier Deschamps had to give his side a kick up the bum at half time, livening up their play and giving them belief in their ability to score.
Then came a big statement of intent by Deschamps at the start of the second half; Kingsley Coman, the exciting, pacey, tricky winger was thrown on to support the front three, replacing the holding N’Golo Kante. They knew they had to attack, and doing so would be easier with more creative names in the side. France soon dominated possession as every Irish player sat back in their own half, frustrating the front six of France and forcing Sagna and Evra forward in support. It was like a game of chess; who would blink first, who would make the wrong move. That side was Ireland, 13 minutes into the half. France came forward in numbers again, somehow keeping control of the ball, with Pogba offloading to Payet, who spread it wide to Bacary Sagna, unmarked on the right, who put in a perfect cross for Antoine Griezmann in the middle, whose untypically powerful, bullet header flew past Darren Randolph in the Irish goal. Then France were rampant. They knew high crosses and through balls worked, and Giroud headed down a great cross-field ball under heavy pressure to Griezmann, who was clean through in the middle to run into the box and smash a pinpoint finish past Randolph’s despairing dive, putting his nation into the lead for the first time in the match.
Then things fell apart for the Irish defence. The team knew they had to attack to get back in the game, but they left Duffy and Keogh stranded when they lost the ball. When Griezmann was clean through on goal for a third, Duffy had to stick out a leg and stop the chance from coming to fruition. He may have got a little nick on the ball, but he did take the man as the last defender, and had to go, even if it was only a free kick. That left the Gaelic nation with so much to do to save their position in the tournament against the home side, who smelt blood, and with only 10 men to do it with. In reality, it meant they would never get back into the game, and had to spend most of their time defending against the fresh legs of Andre-Pierre Gignac, Coman and an always rampant Griezmann, which meant they couldn’t use the ball themselves. As the clock ticked down and down for the Irish, neither side even had enough energy to score when presented with clear cut chances, players being stretched across the park for both sides, out of position and shattered. Ireland put up a good fight, but in the end they didn’t have enough to overcome the favourites for the competition, the confident and talented hosts. France march on, with their path panning out roughly as planned, although they could come up against the tough test of England in the quarter-final.
Up next came Germany against Slovakia in Lille, where a previously criticised pitch had been re-laid for the occasion. Of course, the world champions were expected to win this one, but not by a large margin, as we all know how well the Slovaks defended against England in their final group match. The Germans made only one change from their solid win against Northern Ireland, with Julian Draxler returning in place of a so far disappointing Mario Götze on the left wing, whereas Slovakia made four changes, particularly in midfield, with Hrosovsky and Skriniar coming in, as well as Gyomber in defence and Duris up front. This was definitely a defensively-minded set-up from the Slovaks, looking to frustrate Germany just as they did England a few days ago.
But this defensive formation and selection of personnel did not have the required effect from the start. Germany put on immediate pressure, and the culmination of their early attacks was Jerome Boateng’s forthright finish from a Toni Kroos corner, smashing the ball with his right boot from outside the box into the bottom left corner of the goal, past a maze of Slovakian defenders and Matus Kozacik. Then it all went to pot for Slovakia, with Mario Gomez winning a questionable penalty from Martin Skrtel’s shirt-tugging. The only thing was, Kozacik dived the right way for Mesut Özil’s penalty, palming it sideways and clear, even if it was a decent effort from the normally clinical Arsenal playmaker. Following that, the Germans kept up their pressure, but you could see they didn’t have quite the same belief they had prior to the penalty, as they never created any clear cut opportunities after. Don’t get me wrong, they were definitely on top, but they didn’t do anything to show they were going to extend their lead against an off-colour and inferior Slovakian side, who grew in confidence over the course of the half. Juraj Kucka probably had their best chance of the half, but I never really thought it was going in against the best goalkeeper in the world right now in Manuel Neuer. Soon after that though, Germany went up the other end, with Julian Draxler squirming in between three or four Slovakian defenders down the left with some step overs, bamboozling them and drawing them out before slipping in a ball across the six yard box to Mario Gomez, who was well placed to lift in a finish, making it 2-0. With that, Germany were as good as into the next round at half time, and Gomez had equalled up Jurgen Klinsmann’s German European Championship scoring record of five.
In a pretty meaningless second half for both sides (as Slovakia never looked like they had the belief to even score), the only event of real note was Julian Draxler’s well-taken and opportunistic finish from a Toni Kroos corner. Once the ball had come over and Jerome Boateng has knocked a header on, Draxler hooked a clean, incisive volleyed finish backwards over his shoulder when only a few yards from a helpless Kozacik in goal. The Germans only had to press high as a unit, restricting any movement and link up that the Slovaks were hoping for to see the game out, and they did this to perfection. There was even time for Joachim Low to give old stalwarts Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Shkodran Mustafi a run out, just showcasing the strength in depth of the German squad to their future opponents, be that Spain or Italy, while also catering to the fitness needs of his impact subs, who will be vital to any success the team has. So, in the end the Germans won comfortably and stylishly, but there is always room to improve and I’m sure they will step it up another level against countries more their own size, à la Spain, Italy, England or France.
To round off the day, we had Hungary vs Belgium in Toulouse, where an underrated, inexpensive squad of Hungarian rejects faced off against one of the most highly rated collections of players in the world in the Belgians. The former made two changes from their rotated yet fairly successful side against Portugal, with Tomas Kadar and Adam Nagy coming back in at left back and centre mid, while Belgium made a single tactical change, the impressive impact sub Dries Mertens replacing Yannick Carrasco on the right wing. From the very start of the game, the quality of the Belgians showed, with Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku all threatening. So it was unsurprising when De Bruyne’s wide free kick, whipped into the far edge of the six yard box, was headed in by Toby Alderweireld, under no pressure other than Lukaku, past Gabor Kiraly (who could’ve done a bit better with it). This was only after 10 minutes, and it already wasn’t looking good for the Hungarians. For me, the Hungarians were far too positive and attacking in their formation and tactics, as when they defended they only had six players back, as opposed to the usual eight that most teams drag back to defend against top opposition. When you’re playing against Lukaku, Hazard, Mertens, De Bruyne, plus Nainggolan and Witsel who like to attack, you cannot afford to have your wingers waiting for the ball on the half way line, they need to track back for the good of the team. You cannot rely on your defenders always doing the right thing and continually bailing you out to win a game, you have to demand more from your forward players across the pitch. Luckily enough for them, Belgium didn’t finish any of their numerous other chances, and only went into the changing rooms at 1-0, with the door still open for Hungary.
Well, the door may have been ajar, and the Hungarians had their opportunities in the second half, hitting posts, forcing Courtois into great saves and sending the ball inches wide, but they didn’t take their chances, which they must’ve known were going to be few and far between. Szalai didn’t get the greatest service up front, and in the end that did count, as Belgium took their chances at the other end. The game swayed back and forth between the two sides, and when the misfiring Romelu Lukaku went off on 76 minutes, everything went crazy. Firstly, after just two minutes, Michy Batshuayi, his replacement up front, made an immediate impact when he met Eden Hazard’s pinpoint cross after a wayward Kevin De Bruyne corner. I don’t know what the Hungarian defence was doing after that corner, but once Hazard pulled wide on the left, they left Batshuayi wide open in front of goal against Kiraly to effortlessly finish off the chance. About a minute after that, Hazard decided to create his own chance, running with the ball from out wide on the left to the edge of the 18-yard box along the white line, evading both lunging centre-backs and curling a perfectly weighted shot with his right foot into the bottom right corner, past a despairing Kiraly. This was a similar goal to the one he scored against Spurs towards the end of the season, and another great strike. A good ten minutes after that, once the game had slowed down and Hazard had been subbed off, Belgium added a fourth. Hungary were left exposed at the back, and Nainggolan played substitute Yannick Carrasco in for a tidy finish under Kiraly, completing the rout. I don’t think Belgium deserved 4-0, but their fans won’t have any complaints, as their side have sent a big statement out to the rest of the teams in the tournament.
Team of the Day
Belgium have to be given this award considering their attacking ruthlessness today, absolutely thrashing their opponents by score line at least. They showed quite how good their endless list of talents actually can be, and that is very impressive considering they haven’t been firing on all cylinders prior to this match.
Player of the Day
Eden Hazard absolutely played the Hungarians off the park today, with a world class performance, particularly in the second half. He fizzed numerous shots off, whipped perfect crosses in for his strikers and linked up well with his midfielders in De Bruyne, Nainggolan and Witsel. But one of the best things about his game is that he doesn’t have to use the other players in his team, he can take on the opposition all on his own, and that is what he showed today, especially for his goal. A match winning performance from the mercurial Belgian winger. Extra shouts also go to a close second place for Antoine Griezmann, a third for Julian Draxler and a fourth for Toni Kroos, all of whom played massive parts in the success of their sides in qualifying for the next stage today.
Goal of the Day
It was close run by both of Antoine Griezmann’s goals and Jerome Boateng’s smashing finish, but Eden Hazard’s one-man run and finish have it for me today. It may not have been a winning goal, but it was the most difficult to score, and the level of skill required made it so admirable from my perspective. He bamboozled the Hungarian defenders and beat the goalkeeper all ends up, deserving each and every aspect of the perfection of his toils. A fitting goal for such a brilliant player, who will only improve in this tournament.
Shock of the Day
Slovakia’s Peter Pekarik’s blue bandage across his nose today not only looked ineffective at holding his injury in place and protecting him from further damage, but it also looked hilarious at the same time. It was as if he had put on his war paints for the match, auditioning for a role in Braveheart, to appear more imposing, but the effect was totally the opposite. To top it all, the little Slovak symbols on either side of the plaster made it even more cringe worthy.
Thibaut Courtois’ uncharacteristic first half slip when attempting a clearance from an Axel Witsel back pass, where he went for the ball but ended up nutmegging himself and conceding a corner, must’ve been an embarrassing moment for the goalkeeper. I can’t tell if it was the surface or just a momentary lapse of judgement, but Courtois will not want to relive that moment. Maybe he was just mimicking English goalkeepers over the past 15 years, trying to recreate the infamous mistakes of Paul Robinson, Scott Carson and Robert Green!
I’m Looking Forward to…
Two brilliant-looking match ups tomorrow, both with huge implications for the future of the tournament over the next two weeks. Italy vs Spain will be surely be a closely-contested and highly dramatic game, not befitting of the fate of just being a round of 16 match, rather a semi-final, considering the quality of the two sides. Following that at 8PM, there is a big match, hopefully more entertaining and positive from an England perspective than the Slovakia match, against over performing minnows Iceland this time. The goals will hopefully be flying in across France tomorrow, with great matches that will certainly be on the highlights reel for the tournament, all teams scrapping to get through to the next 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!