After the last-gasp drama and disappointment of last night, day three of the European Championships 2016 was, it’s fair to say, a good day to be a neutral fan. A day to recover and indulge in some games with varied and quality nations, from all four corners of Europe, fighting for the three points.
First of all, after we had dusted off our Sunday lunches, there was Turkey and Croatia lining up in the Parc des Princes, the home of Paris Saint Germain now transformed into an atmospheric international-wide beacon for football. These two sets of fans, from two sun-kissed Mediterranean nations, demonstrated great support for their side without ruining their nation’s reputations or undermining the spirit of the game (unlike the disgraceful scenes from English and Russian fans in Marseille). It was a match that was effectively made by the supporters, as they brought to life their sides, forcing some great football to be played. Croatia were clear winners of the game, but had to settle for just a single goal margin to seal those three points. Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic bossed the midfield for the Croats, completely overrunning the Turkish players and creating chances for Mario Mandzukic and Marcelo Brozovic at one end, while also snuffing opportunities for Turkey at the other end. They gelled amazingly, and provided the backbone for the current, and any possible future, success in this tournament for Croatia. The Adriatic state fully deserved their win, and can move on in their group with plenty of confidence, while the bi-continental Turks need to go back to the training ground and rethink their approach.
Next, we travelled down to the picture-postcard worthy Allianz Riviera in the similarly beautiful city of Nice, to be served up a contest between a promising Poland side and an unfancied Northern Ireland team containing 4 players from Leagues 1 and 2. It’s fair to say this one won’t be the most memorable of the tournament, as Poland toiled for most of the game, luckily enough for them taking the one great chance they had. It wasn’t a classic certainly, but Northern Ireland can take a lot of credit from their first tournament match for 30 years for matching the Poles for a majority of the game. Michael O’Neill’s side set up exactly as many expected, highly defensive in formation and choice of players (arguably seven defenders in the side, two playing in midfield) and frustrated a strong attacking force including an unusually misfiring Robert Lewandowski for Poland. When it came to it, though, the Slavic nation had too much quality for a plucky Northern Ireland, demonstrated by Arkadiusz Milik’s coolly slotted finish into the bottom corner, through Craig Cathcart’s legs. They threw everything at it, but the home nation side couldn’t break through against an opposition who have probably made secure their path into the round of 16 phase already. O’Neill will need to sit down, analyse the match and prepare fully for Ukraine now, knowing that to get through they must get a result from them.
To finish off an engrossing day, we had Germany against Ukraine in Lille, seemingly a formality of a result from the start. Despite that lack of expectation, Ukraine did threaten a real upset at one point in the first half, notably seeing a chance slip when Jerome Boateng acrobatically cleared off the line, reminiscent of John Terry (against the same Eastern European opponents) four years ago. But even despite that chance, we all knew Germany would boss this game. They showed their class and opportunistic finishing from Toni Kroos’ sweet delivery, with Shkodran Mustafi the man to get his head to it. That is typical Germany; efficient with their chances (the complete anti-England), using their resources to their advantage. They probably practiced that routine in training for hours, that’s how methodical they are! While most of the game was bogged down in midfield, particularly in the second half, this suited Germany perfectly. They used it to their advantage by biding their time and waiting right until the last minute of added time to tire out the Ukrainians, hit them on the counter and finish their rare chance thanks to Bastian Schweinsteiger’s fine finish off the bench. A steady first game for the Germans, nothing out of the blue and plenty of room for improvement. But that’s the sign of champions (as the old cliché goes), they can win even when they don’t play all that well. That is the difference between them and us, but I shouldn’t be bringing up England again (hmph).
Team of the Day
Croatia were my pick as a surprise package at the start of the tournament, and didn’t let me down today with a fantastic team effort, with all players giving their all for the side, not reliant on any one player, although Modric was very good. The fact that manager Ante Cacic didn’t make any of his three subs until the 87th minute is testament to the team’s fitness and desire to keep going for the fans and the nation as a whole, which is very impressive. Despite their workload, none of the Croatian team buckled or faltered, delivering an almost perfect performance, led impeccably by Darijo Srna, the record appearance holder and surprisingly disciplined right back who kept the team hungry and focused. The icing on the cake of the performance would’ve been if they scored one or two more goals, but they’ll happily take the win for now.
Player of the Day
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric share this award for me today, as they both dragged their teams forward with man of the match performances, replicating their Real Madrid form on the international stage. To have players of their quality available to their respective countries is a massive boost, and their very presence makes others raise their game to just keep up with them. They mixed short passing with long, without a single misplaced pass that I could see, just proving their quality and importance from Kroos’ come-and-get-me free kick assist and Modric’s peach of a winning strike, making the vital winning moments for their sides. Other candidates included Ivan Perisic and Vedran Corluka for Croatia, with the former providing and getting on the end of numerous chances and the latter putting his body on the line (literally with his recurring head wound) and securing the win. Jakub Błaszczykowski and Arkadiusz Milik were both productive for their side as well, leading the charge for the three points double-handedly when in the absence of an in-form version of Robert Lewandowski taking the reins, and deserving of a lot of credit for it.
Goal of the Day
Luka Modric’s crisp volley has to be up there with Payet’s effort for goal of the tournament already, just for sheer audacity. At that point in the game, Croatia desperately needed a goal to reward their dominance of the first half against Turkey (remind you of anyone?) and if you were looking to anyone to grab it, a Real Madrid player isn’t a bad candidate at all. When the ball fell to him on not just the edge of the box, but about 25 yards away, from a Turkish clearance, you could just tell he was going to take aim on Volkan Babacan’s goal, and boy did he strike it well. It flew off his laces, looped over Turkey’s defenders’ heads and dipped straight into the pinpoint corridor of opportunity. Just where the ball took its bounce was perfect as well, as it found the gap to squeeze under Babacan and nestle in the back of the net. It was a beauty of a goal, fitting of settling the first game of the day.
Shock of the Day
Darijo Srna and Marcelo Brozovic’s second half open goal misses vs Turkey today were nothing to be admired, particularly the former’s, as he totally mucked up a great cross-box chance by falling back and shooting wide. Brozovic’s chance was slightly tougher, but he still horribly fluffed it by volleying high and way above the target.
Thomas Mueller also made the highlights reel for sheer hilarity, as he had his very own John McEnroe moment, screaming “did you see it?!?” to Bobby Madden, the fourth official (or should be sixth these days with the two goal line officials?) after he lost a second half throw in decision. The high pitched, Germanically accented plea to the official surely made viewers across the continent chuckle and rethink their opinions of Mueller as a cool, calm player with his out of the blue flare-up.
I’m Looking Forward to…
Another trio of offerings from UEFA’s fixture list, although I will definitely miss the first match between Spain and Czech Republic, which is fine for the rest of Europe as they are an hour ahead, but means the UK and Ireland have to miss out as we are still at work and school at 2PM. Oh well, we’ll still have two mouth-watering matches between the Republic of Ireland and Sweden, as well as Belgium and Italy. The former should be a group-decided, surely settling the 3rd and 4th place finishes, although there will be plenty of time to regain ground for either if they lose that match. What a game Belgium vs Italy promises to be though, eh? Hazard, Courtois, Lukaku, Buffon, Chiellini and De Rossi all lining up for their respective sides, going toe to toe for the potential win. It should be a cracker of a day.
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!