So, today marked the end of a short round of 16 phase, crowning a number of great matches with two fascinating and highly entertaining games that were sure to fulfil all expectations. We had surprise group D winners Italy vs surprise group E runners-up Spain in what shaped up to be an amazing, ground-breaking tie that could decipher a possible semi-finalist (only if they get past Germany in the next round). Added to that tasty proposition was another delectable course on the menu, an underscoring yet threatening England side up against a dangerous minnow in Iceland, which would decide who went on to face hosts France in the quarter-finals.
Without a 2PM match, we headed straight to Paris and the Stade de France at 5PM to tune in to Italy vs Spain, ancient, fiery Mediterranean rivals of the beautiful game, who know how to play it in just that way when they need to. Antonio Conte’s Italians made seven changes to the side which lost against Ireland, with Mattia de Sciglio for Darmian the only change to the side which beat Belgium and Sweden. In the Spanish camp, they certainly know their best team and began with the same XI that beat the Czech Republic and Turkey, but lost to Croatia. There was a distinct lack of height up front in Morata, Silva and Nolito compared to Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci at centre-back for Italy, but Vicente del Bosque has trained his players to overcome situations like this by moving the ball quickly, and it has won them a World Cup and two Euros. Despite their success in the trophy cabinet over the past eight years, Spain were inferior to the Italian charge in the first 10 minutes, with De Gea having to tip two great shots onto the post, although one of those was Emanuele Giaccherini’s bicycle kick called back for a foul. There was a gap in the action as both sides were held up in midfield for a good 20 minutes, but in the 33rd minute, Italy were given a direct free kick about 25 yards out, which Eder fired low through a gap in the suspiciously misplaced wall to a shocked De Gea, who spilled it diving low, only for Giorgio Chiellini to poke into an open goal in front of him, after reacting first (or rather third as Giaccherini and Pique couldn’t get a good touch to the ball) from the set piece.
You can’t say Italy didn’t deserve it for all their positivity in the first half, but Spain might feel aggrieved after De Gea effectively had the ball in his grasps. At the other end though, Spain couldn’t link up their play well enough, with the consistent chip over to Jordi Alba on the by-line of the 18 yard box never really coming off, the Italians frustrating them and isolating Morata, who I cannot remember having a shot. In fact, I couldn’t recall any Spanish shots on target in the first half, and that shows just how well the Italians played defensively. Spain were being outplayed at passing, their own game, as well as being toyed with mentally. The movement of Eder, Pelle, Giaccherini and Parolo outfoxed and outskilled the Spanish defenders, and that is what separated the two sides at half time.
Del Bosque did make a change to his side at half time, with prolific veteran striker Aritz Aduriz coming on for the missing in action Nolito, who has disappointed since his MOTM performance against Turkey. This brought an immediate impact to the Spanish side, who proceeded to gallop forwards in larger numbers with more mojo than before, even though they couldn’t grab a goal. From counter attacks, Italy nearly nicked a second gaol to their advantage, with De Gea having to spread himself to charge down Eder’s powerful one-on-one effort, but it was Spain who now bossed possession and chances. Iniesta had a self-set-up volleyed chance saved by a surprisingly agile Gianluigi Buffon, but that aside there was little urgency in the Spanish game in the last 20 minutes, as they struggled to convert possession into clear cut opportunities. Lucas Vasquez came on for Morata in the absence of any other recognised strikers, and to compound the Spanish misery Aduriz also went off with running injuries. They couldn’t seem to get anything going up front, and as the game entered added time, the Italians broke with the ball against a tiring Spanish defence, spread it from Lorenzo Insigne on the left to Matteo Darmian, wide open on the right wing, who only had to whip a ball into the middle for Graziano Pelle. While the ball wasn’t the best, it got a nick of Pique’s boot and travelled on through to Pelle, who volleyed an incisive finish, both to the game and to Spain’s tournament, past De Gea, similar to his other goal against Belgium the other week. It was a killer blow to Spain’s heart, and a unbefitting end to probably both Vicente del Bosque’s reign and the international careers of the national greats; Pique, Iniesta and Sergio Ramos, as I doubt they will want to put in another two years of hard graft, as they have nothing more to prove to the world right now. This should’ve never been a round of 16 match, but Italy won’t care, as they beat the double defending champions, and will next move on to face the world champions Germany.
Matching the intensity and drama of that match was always going to be a tough task for England and Iceland, but neither of them needed to play pretty, they would rather just get through for now. At least, then, the setting was picturesque, the environmentally-friendly Allianz Riviera in the beautiful coastal resort of Nice, where the sun shone on the players and fans the whole day long. England came into the match with just the six changes from the second-string line up against Slovakia, with Rooney, Kane, Sterling, Alli, Walker and Rose all returning to the XI. Iceland kept true to their winning combination for the fourth match running. England started positively, with Kane, Sturridge and Sterling all having their eyes fixed on goal, and that told after only four minutes as Sterling broke free from a long pass, knocked the ball past the Icelandic goalkeeper Halldórsson, inviting the tackle, and the goalie obliged. Rooney stepped up to take the unarguable penalty, tucking it into the very bottom left corner, out of the reach of Halldórsson, putting us safely 1-0 up. At least we thought it was safe. Just 34 seconds after kick-off, the long throw of Aron Gunnarsson was utilised to great effect by the Icelanders, Kari Arnason getting his head to the ball first, nodding it backwards towards just the right area for centre-back Ragnar Sigurdsson, who slid in past an out-of-position Kyle Walker and a despairing Joe Hart to level things up. My, my, my, I had barely had enough time to celebrate before they equalised! It was another set-piece from which England saw their downfall, and that is certainly an area that needs to be improved in the future.
As we all caught our breath following that hectic, end-to-end first half dozen minutes, England settled back into possession and, despite the Iceland fans’ (very) vocal booing of our style, Dele Alli and Harry Kane both went close with self-made opportunities. If we wanted answers about how solid England’s defence was at this tournament; we certainly got them when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scrambled through the defence, cut in a shot, and Joe Hart completely fumbled the ball when he should’ve gobbled it up. The ball desperately trickled over the line, reminiscent of Robert Green 2010, and Iceland were somehow 2-1 up within 18 minutes with only their second shot on target. This was embarrassing stuff now. We couldn’t even hold a lead against a country the size (population wise) of Leicester, the players were showing how badly they can play, as we lost ball after ball without putting pressure back on Iceland’s defence. We were in dire need of a hero to drag us back into this game, and it was almost Harry Kane as his pile-driver of a half volley was just tipped over by Halldórsson. The English mantra seemed to be ‘take as many shots as possible, because at least one of them will pay off’, but it wasn’t working for us. Our front five were getting in all the right positions, but the final ball or finish was always lacking. The Icelandic players were happy to foul our players out of the game, which the referee often didn’t notice, as our impatience told by the end of the half. We needed a big kick up the bum at half time, as it was vital to get back in this game and into the next round, to spare our blushes and resurrect our hopes.
So with that in mind, the saviour Roy Hodgson offered the nation was… Jack Wilshere. Erm, I don’t know if you’re aware Roy, but I don’t think Jack is quite the impact sub that any of us would turn to when the nation was in trouble. It turns out he wasn’t either, and the gaffer was forced into another change, replacing Raheem Sterling with Jamie Vardy, to attempt to revitalise our play and the whole game. Iceland sat deep, soaked up pressure and countered when they needed to, but England had all of the ball. Their dilemma was finding a useful way to move it. The clock ticked to 70 minutes, there was still no change to the score line. Wayne Rooney in particular was struggling to get himself in the zone, as our whole team failed without his guidance. 75 minutes, and still no goal. Something had to change, and fast. We were camped in their half, but there were no obvious chances to score. Then 80 minutes, still awaiting a third substitution. 85 minutes passed, still no sub! Finally, in the 86th minute, on came Marcus Rashford for Rooney, and we finally went all out attack. If we were to go out, this was the way we had to do it; attacking till the very death. Iceland had a good eight or nine players back every single time we went forward, they stopped everything we tried. By added time, we had to throw everyone forward to counteract it, and when Jamie Vardy just missed the ball with his header, we had one chance left. A corner, taken by Harry Kane, with Joe Hart being shunted up there. When the ball evaded Sturridge’s clean strike and trickled wide; that was it.
We were out. To Iceland. A country with a population similar to that of an English city. A country with no Rooney, no Kane, no Alli, no Hart, no world class players at all, just a squad of tight knit second, even third-rate footballers, fit for Championship level. But they absolutely humbled us. They played us like a fiddle and they go on to face France in the quarter-finals, a match that was destined for England. Maybe we counted our chickens before they had even been bought, we underestimated just how well they could defend. I was under no illusions, I knew they would be one of the toughest sides in the competition to break down, but I at least expected 1-0 England. It was shambolic stuff, as we never produced the attacking intensity to win the match, nor the defensive capability to restrict Iceland to even one goal. Roy Hodgson now has to leave his post, he cannot continue now. It was foolish of Greg Dyke to start up the whole contract debacle, and ultimately that put the pressure on Hodgson unnecessarily, which then also put the strain on the players too. They could feel it, and they couldn’t live up to any of our expectations. Iceland are nowhere near us on a professional or international level, but they schooled us at the game we invented and introduced to the world, and we’re the ones who look like amateurs now. Something fundamental needs to be looked at in our game, there needs to be a post-mortem to this. If we just needed something to round off a sad week in British history, then this was it.
Team of the Day
It doesn’t matter if they defended the whole match, Iceland were still undoubtedly the team of the day. You can defend well to show how good you are, it doesn’t just take an attack to win games, although you could fool England with that. They were clinical when faced with Joe Hart’s goal, and resolutely defiant when defending theirs. The way they approach it is so methodical and inspiring, and so frustrating for the opposition. They would protect their goal with their lives, we just don’t have the same connection and passion for our country, and that is where we need to improve. But hand it to Iceland for now, it is their day.
Player of the Day
Emanuele Giaccherini was my pick of the players on show today, as he ran Spain ragged even though he is technically still a Sunderland player. He is Champions League quality on that performance today, and he deserved everything he got back for his side for it. He ran for miles, tried shots on De Gea’s goal, one of which very nearly came off, and linked up perfectly with all of his teammates.
Goal of the Day
Of the five goals today, it can’t be any of the ones between England and Iceland, as they were all poor. So left with Chiellini’s open goal scramble and Graziano Pelle’s smashing volley, it has to be the latter. No other reasons other than it was the only one that took real skill to pull off, even if he was only faced with De Gea.
Shock of the Day
Watching Antonio Conte march along his touchline, almost on the pitch at times of particular rage or elation, in a stereotypically Italian act of expression is such a hilarious thing to watch during games, especially in this match today contrasted against the calm, reserved del Bosque. He looks like a mafia boss in his pitch black from head to toe suit, shirt and trousers, with scruffy dark hair and a naturally angry face, and could match the character with his outbursts, in particular when he smashed a ball away in the second half after Giaccherini miscontrolled a pass. His reaction at the end though, as Pelle scored, was marvellous, as he ran around in delirium with his coaching staff, letting out all his rage as jubilation in one moment. I can’t begin to think how much coffee he drinks to give him that much energy! He may be a bit of a nutcase as a manager, but you can’t argue he doesn’t get results, and it will be interesting to see how he progresses both in this tournament and with Chelsea next season.
I’m Looking Forward to…
Another short rest period of another two days before we see Poland and Portugal return on Thursday, which should give us adequate time to analyse the fallout of this round, particularly with Spain and England going out. I’ll tell you what, I’ll need some time to cry this all out first. We’ll miss you Woy, we’ll miss you England. For now though, I will say goodnight, goodbye and good luck, and hope for a nice rest before we return on Thursday for another edition of A Continental Affair, with just the single match. Try to keep your head up England fans, and I’ll see you again soon.
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!