A whole week since the opening ceremony and game between France and Romania at the Stade de France, today capped off a successful, entertaining and often strange week for football with another set of games with high quality. We had the clash of the defensive titans in Italy vs Sweden, a battle between two geographical and historical (footballing-wise) minnows of Europe with the Czech Republic vs Croatia, and a match-up of two Mediterranean countries at either end of Europe with Spain vs Turkey.
Starting at 2PM, of course I didn’t catch the first 70 minutes of Italy vs Sweden, but it seems I didn’t miss that much, as from the highlights I can see that chances, from the start of the game until around the 80th minute, were at a premium, with strikers left to attempt speculative long-rangers. Like I predicted yesterday, both defences dealt adequately with the opposition’s forward lines, marshalling their troops to leave no space free for any potential runners, resulting in a bit of a stalemate. The most exciting thing about the game before around the 75th minute was the amazing spectacle at one side of the ground, with an absolute sea of yellow-clad Swedish fans providing a powerful, colourful and proud symbol of unity and patriotism, reminiscent of fans of the Netherlands in past tournaments.
Getting home after being soaked in the remnants of a thunderstorm here on the south coast, I was glad to get warm and sit down to some tournament football, and it seems I tuned in at the right time as the action finally got going after the introduction of a few attacking substitutions, which shook up the game. It was one of these subs, Simone Zaza, who made the difference with the assist for Éder’s outstanding late goal (another one) by chesting down a difficult ball from Giorgio Chiellini’s throw in, allowing Éder to pick it up. Then, all the striker had to do was squeeze past about four Swedish defenders and still beat the goalkeeper, but he made it look easy, if admittedly on the part of some questionable Swedish defending. But nobody can deny that such a well-taken and rare chance in the game deserved to win it in the end, as Éder providing the only real moment of quality, which the ITV commentators (finally getting something right) said one of the teams had to find if they were to break the deadlock. In the end, the rapid Brazilian-born striker provided it, and his team sealed a place in the round of 16 as a result. Not a bad day for the Italians, but once again they will have to step it up a gear against better opponents.
The next hour or so later, up stepped the Czech Republic and Croatia to the fore, taking the stage to decide if one would get through to the RO16 and if the other would be eliminated. The Croats lined up with the same XI that impressively beat Turkey, the threats of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic obvious from the start, with their side dominant in the early stages. For once, a side that carried a real threat in the first half actually got the goal to cement their threat, with Perisic picking up the ball in midfield, easing through to the box unopposed, using a step over to fool the defender, then finessing the ball round both him and Petr Cech in goal. It was a fine goal, but it just highlighted what was a weak and unorganised Czech defence, which would’ve been torn to pieces in the Premier League. This glaringly obvious weakness in the Czech side was blown even more into proportion in the second half, when Roman Hubnik’s poor pass forward was seized upon by a high-pressing, attacking Croatia, for whom Ivan Rakitic was slipped in easily to chip Cech.
This is when we all thought the Czech Republic were done for. They hadn’t scored in their first game against Spain, and they weren’t able to net in the first 70 minutes of this match, so Croatia should’ve been easing to a win. But out of nowhere, Tomas Rosicky’s teasing cross was emphatically headed home by Milan Skoda with 15 minutes left, a lifeline for the Czechs and a way back into the game. This was a final chance they would not let slip. Following the despicable scenes from one corner of the Croatian support, flare throwing and infighting, the Czechs had the ascendancy, while the Croatian players looked nervy. The Czechs threw everything at it without much luck, but in the final few minutes of the game, Domagoj Vida, a defender with a face only his mother could love, stuck his arm out at a free kick, handing an easy chance to Tomas Necid from the penalty spot, one that he confidently put away in the roof of the net. In the end, after the nine minutes of added time and all, the Czechs did deserve their goals, but also similarly earned their two sloppily conceded goals for poor defensive play. The Croats suffered from the same last-minute blues as England after they had bossed the first two thirds of the game, but couldn’t hold onto their lead after mass pressure in the last third, with the loss of talisman Luka Modric to injury a game-changing moment. They will be left to rue their mistakes, but Croatia should be confident of still doing well in this competition.
To conclude the day, we headed off to Nice for Spain vs Turkey, a match that should’ve only had one result. And luckily enough for Spain, that was the final result; a clinical win for the reigning champions. From the off, Spain’s players looked focused and well-trained for the way they would approach the game, as always; hog possession, move the ball quick and hopefully forward, create unmissable chances and soak up any chances the Turks may have by holding Sergio Busquets back to protect the defence when Iniesta and Fabregas get forward. You can’t argue that Vicente del Bosque’s winning formula was deliciously effective in this game against a Turkish side lacking depth of quality and defensive discipline. Nolito, David Silva and Alvaro Morata, who I doubted pre-tournament as to their ability to be clinical and strong enough to destroy defences, worked perfectly, moving quickly, giving their midfielders plenty of options and often fashioning their own chances, they had creative freedom. With players of that quality in your side, you have to give them the reigns to create something, you can only drill the way you want to play into them so far, and del Bosque has mastered this managerial style. The way his side always find a gap to pass to their teammates is so perfect, a joy to watch and probably the closest you can get to art in football. For the first two goals, both Nolito and Fabregas demonstrated their passing ranges, pinging a pair of beautiful chips (the latter helped by a Turkish defender on its way) to first Morata, then Nolito, who added a #miserycompiler just three minutes after his assist. Spain were on fire, and as hard as Turkey tried, there was no stopping them in their tracks tonight.
The second half had no let up for the Turks. Just five minutes into the second half, a brilliant bit of play led up to Iniesta slipping Jordi Alba through to square the ball to Alvaro Morata, who simply tapped in, demonstrating the ease at which Spain could play, and the massive gulf between the two sides. It was absolutely effortless stuff from their whole side, like watching Premier League clubs play non-league sides in pre-season friendlies. There was something calm but so torturous about their approach, reminiscent of James Bond’s greatest adversaries, or even a lion, playing with its prey before it tears it to shreds. From then on, you knew Turkey would have no response. Spain saw the rest of the game out with the professionalism of champions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they now became such in three weeks’ time. The Spanish bandwagon has officially started up again, and it means business this time.
Team of the Day
What else can I say, obviously its Spain! Their performance was so good tonight that it was deserving of winning the entire tournament, simply faultless in every way you look at it. Their odds will be dramatically shortened by bookies across the continent after tonight, and there is a big reason to, everyone now believes they have the quality. It just goes to show; never doubt the Spanish, if you do so it is at your own peril.
Player of the Day
For a player with just 11 caps for his nation at the age of 29, Nolito should never be able to hold down a place in the starting XI of the defending European champions, but his form and talent override that. He wasn’t at his best against the Czech Republic, but here he was simply incredible. He actually made me stare in disbelief at his skill and caressing of the ball today, he was absolutely amazing and invaluable to his side, a true match winning performance from a guy who has just soared up in my estimation. Superlatives fail me, words cannot do him justice.
Tomas Rosicky is my runner up today, as he held the Czech Republic’s performance and hopes in the tournament together while nobody else showed anything near his desire for the first 70 minutes of the game. His cross got them the first goal, but his passing and lung-busting forward, positive runs were just as important to the side. At the age of 35, and having hardly played for Arsenal this season, he should’ve never have been able to deliver a match like what we saw today. He certainly put himself in the shop window, what a free signing he would be for any side!
Goal of the Day
Éder’s game-saving mazy run and finish for Italy was the only piece of real great play in their game, and it was the only goal that made me actually get to my feet and celebrate with the players. All credit to Perisic’s pinpoint finish, Rakitic’s cheeky chip, Skoda’s unstoppable header and Morata’s second half one-touch team goal (about 20 passes or something), but I believe Éder’s effort was the victor today, for the execution and the non-nonsense build up; throw-in, header down, run past defence, clinical finish. It may not be the most difficult goal to score in history, but the execution of it all was so, so perfect.
Shock of the Day
Jimmy Durmaz’s appearance off the bench for Sweden physically made me laugh today, not for his play or contribution to the game, but just for the unlikeliness of his name. Since when has any Swede had the name Jimmy? Who has ever heard of a Turkish or Arabian person (his parents hailing from the region) with the name Jimmy? It’s just so strange and out of the blue, but it made me laugh.
After the impeccable behaviour of Croatian fans in their opening match against Turkey, they were the last set of supporters I thought capable of their unacceptable behaviour today. Flares thrown onto the pitch is totally out of order at any football match, and I understand that it is part of their footballing culture in Eastern Europe, but those fans don’t need to bring it over to an international tournament that is being watched around the world. How security has even allowed so many incidents like this to happen in the tournament reflects badly on the French Police, and it is something they need to improve immediately, for the sake of the tournament.
I’m Looking Forward to…
Another three games tomorrow, with a very quick turnaround from the first games the sides in group F played just three days ago to their second set of fixtures tomorrow, as well as a highly intriguing clash between Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. That group E match at 2PM has the potential to be one of the highlights of the group stage, with an aesthetically pleasing and well-drilled Ireland side facing off against a hurting Belgium squad who desperately need a win to revive their tournament, which is on thin ice right now. In the evening, we open with Iceland vs Hungary, a potentially decisive match between the two surprise benefiters of the opening round, a game from which Hungary can qualify for the next round. Then, there is Portugal vs Austria, which sets the stage again for Ronaldo to try and perform this time, with a defeat for either side potentially sending them home. Another massive day is waiting for us.
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!