If yesterday had the feel of the morning after the night before, then today was surely the first day back at the office after the seemingly never-ending continental holiday. The matches seemed business-like and unloved, especially as the first fixture (Spain vs Czech Republic, in case you didn’t catch it) became almost irrelevant to everyone away from home in the UK, as we could not access most of it while being preoccupied by our daily toils.
From what I caught on the radio and TV of the last 30 minutes or so, I could tell that Vicente del Bosque’s side once again came into an international competition with plenty of intent, despite their lack of expectation (compared to Germany or France). Their possession stats told the entire story of the game; almost absolute Spanish domination of the Czechs in midfield, creating plenty of chances, similarly to England the other night, but failing to finish any of them off until Gerard Pique’s late, imposing header won the game in the 87th minute. I think their problem was the fact that their main striker, Alvaro Morata, is not a player in the ilk of former number 9’s David Villa, Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente, he is not a tall or physically feared striker like them and in del Bosque’s already proven style, he does not quite fit in. Aritz Aduriz looked a better fit in the side, and although he didn’t score off the bench, he should bag one or two vital goals this tournament, whether that is starting or from the bench. Taking their chances is the area Spain clearly need to improve in going forward, but they can take a lot of confidence from this win.
Second up was the first match of group E, a colourful and physical clash between the Republic of Ireland and Sweden. Little is expected of these two in comparison to their rivals in the group, but they certainly both gave it their all in this ding-dong battle. Ireland’s first half performance was complete in everything but the score line, as they were all over a side with little threat, barring the obvious in Zlatan Ibrahimović. Their front three linked up to great effect, while also being ably supported by an energetic Jeff Hendrick and a commanding James McCarthy, who conjoined play between defence and attack very effectively. After their half time oranges, the Irish came out with even more energy, with Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady finally both getting forward to create goal scoring opportunities, which came to fruition for Wes Hoolahan’s deserved goal.
However, they then decided to sit deeper as a team and this proved fateful for the Republic of Ireland, as the threat posed by Zlatan forced Ciaran Clark into a rushed and instinctive attempt to clear, which instead resulted in an embarrassing own goal. The Swedish got their goal, despite their lack of a single shot on target during the whole game, but you have to admit for their pressure and toil they did deserve it. Maybe a draw was harsh on the Irish, but in the end they didn’t quite have enough to get over the line. The lack of real quality in this match just backs up the opinions of many that neither of these sides will grab a top two spot in their group nor go far in this tournament.
Then, it was on to the main event in rainy Lyon, as Belgium and Italy prepared for the biggest game of their group stage campaigns. I’m not going to lie, I thought the first half was pretty dire stuff. The most exciting moment was the start, the inclusion of a player called Ciman (sigh, yes Ciman) for Belgium and a rousing (as ever) rendition of Il Canto degli Italiani by the Azzurri. Yes, Italy played well but it definitely wasn’t engrossing stuff, the goal aside. Even that was typical of the Italians, a moment out of the blue and a sucker-punch after a long period of defending. What wasn’t so Italian was the route-one stuff played to Emanuele Giaccherini (where did he go after Sunderland?), about the shortest player on the pitch which was surprisingly effective for that goal. The ball had to be perfect and it was, from the half way line to the penalty spot, leaving an easy finish for the midfielder past Thibaut Courtois. That was the only moment that stopped me going to YouTube and yes I’m sorry, listening to 5 Seconds of Summer (what can I say?).
That said, the second half wasn’t at all better by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, the Italians (suspiciously similarly to the Germans) got their winning goal in the final minute of added time through a smashing open-goal volleyed finish from Graziano Pelle, but it still wasn’t edge-of-the-seat. That type of defensive, solid, boring in my opinion, play that the Italians used was so frustrating, making me want to get behind a slightly more open and exciting Belgium, who were overall quite poor in failing to get anything from this game. Well, at least it was comfort for England in that they weren’t the only top seed to fail to win in the opening set of games. So thank you Belgium on that account. You could see how much it meant to the Italians from their celebrations at the end, how together they are as a group, but I don’t think the Italians will be deserving champions of this group if they back up their opening game with at least one more win. They don’t go about it in an entertaining style, and for that I will have to root against them in this tournament.
Team of the Day
Yes, I could’ve given this to Spain, who dominated play against the Czech Republic, or Italy for their efficient and strangling performance against Belgium, but for me the Republic of Ireland deserve it today, as they were the only side that actually entertained me. Their first half effort was top class, full of brave creativity and opportunism, in contrast to the lower tempo Spanish and Italian styles. Martin O’Neill’s men actually threw caution to the wind, and while it wasn’t quite enough in the end, they at least won a new fan in me. On that note, their amazing fans also deserve recognition for their great passion and tongue-in-cheek attitude, an exemplary set of supporters.
Player of the Day
Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan can share this award today, as for me they were equally as impressive in creating chances and covering large parts if the pitch in tandem throughout the match. Hendrick bossed the first half, while Hoolahan edged it in the second half, but both contributed massively over the whole 90 minutes, and if Ireland had 11 of either of them in their side they would have undoubtedly won, that’s how they good they were today. This Irish side shows a lot of promise, and it lies with these two (current and future) Championship playmakers to carry the fight for their side, but after this performance I believe they can do it.
Goal of the Day
Wes Hoolahan’s cross-goal half volley showed great skill in guiding it into the top corner, but this goal was a great all-round attacking piece of play. Jeff Hendrick and Jonathan Walters combined on the left to provide the first cross, then James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman did the rest on the right. Coleman effectively made this goal by keeping the ball alive by preventing it going out for a Swedish throw in, taking on Emil Forsberg (who was admittedly light), beating him and chipping in a delightful ball across a sea of yellow shirts to Wes Hoolahan, who provided a sumptuous finish. Their celebration showed their surprise and ecstasy at the goal, and also summed up their top team ethic.
Shock of the Day
Jonathan Pearce’s ramblings during ROI vs Sweden about talking to a mirror or something (?!?) and the weight of some of the players was totally unexpected and hilarious, yet totally confusing as he stumbled and muttered into conversations seemingly with himself, chatting about total rubbish. One piece of advice he should take is demonstrated perfectly by Jamie Vardy; chat sh*t, get banged. Is Pearce just in love with his own voice? It seems it, as he could talk about anything he could vaguely remember reading or seeing for hours. At least he makes sure the audience is listening. He certainly got excited for the goal though, didn’t he? It’s good to know he was actually paying attention at one point.
Andreas Granqvist’s dive in the same game was another unbelievable moment in the game, as he went down like he was shot down from the stands, and still somehow won a free kick after being brushed by Jonathan Walters. You wonder how far players will go these days to win small decisions, and that is just the dreadful truth of the matter in that moment.
I’m Looking Forward to…
Only a pair of matches tomorrow, deciding only the early lead in group F. Cristiano Ronaldo’s introduction to the tournament against respectable and dangerous minnows Iceland should be a cracker, especially if he gets a free kick in an interesting position. Gylfi Sigurðsson will be just as much of a threat from set pieces though, so it could be quite a match up. Austria against Hungary, the reuniting of a former singular nation (admittedly during the early 20th Century) is also a tasty proposition, which should be full of flying tackles and (hopefully) exciting forward play. If one good thing is for certain, it’s that there will be no 2PM games tomorrow, thank god. On that note then, I’ll sign off here and hope for another productive, yet hopefully more inspiring day tomorrow.
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!