Today was the return to a weekend of European football, a chocolate box full of treats, flavourful and enticing, although we weren’t sure what those matches were going to be like before we dipped in. Another vital day for the tournament, which meant even more entertainment for us viewers. While we experienced dreary weather here in the UK, our French counterparts were basking in the glory of the footballing gods smiling down on Bordeaux, Marseille and Paris, with European football uniting with world class support and Mediterranean level weather.
For the first offering of the day, we headed over to the South West and Bordeaux, where Belgium and the Republic of Ireland were waiting for us. This was the perfect setting for summer tournament football; sun shining, fans at the top of their voices and two top sides facing off (with a pair of great kits as well). Marc Wilmots knew he needed to make changes to his side which disappointed against Italy earlier in the week, and he made a big statement by bringing in Moussa Dembele, Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier for Fellaini, Nainggolan and Ciman, completely changing the approach. He went for an attacking, exciting side, which while it toiled and stalled in the first half, which against popular belief I thought was pretty good, completely succeeded in the second half. Ireland’s attack was always going to be their salvation, compared to an unreliable and shaky defence which included two centre backs at the wrong end of the Premier League table this season (O’Shea and Clark). But Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick (who I think was playing on the right?) never really linked up that well, resulting in a lack of chances for their side, and ultimately lost them the game, the fact they couldn’t replicate what Belgium offered up front.
Playing slightly more defensive than they did against Sweden, Ireland dealt well with the threats of De Bruyne, Lukaku and Hazard in the first half, but as soon as lost concentration on what they had already secured in the first half, the game went to pot for them. Their attacking numbers grew too large, opening the chance for De Bruyne to break with the ball and slip Lukaku in to side foot a tidy finish in for the opening goal. That gave Belgium the ascendancy they needed, and they could attack with confidence, which Ireland’s unheralded defence could not cope with. Axel Witsel’s well timed header and Lukaku’s second easy tap in compounded Irish misery, and that was that for the game. Ireland’s game plan was torn to shreds, arguably imploded by their own players, but Belgium’s easy approach also won them the game here. Their attacking talent was too much, and in the end they got the result they needed to kick-start their competition.
For the second match of the day, we returned to the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, where some great matches already in the competition have been played, hoping for another. This was a typical game between two underdogs and minnows; scrappy, compact and low on real skill, but broken up by plenty of interesting moments and good chances. Iceland carried their fantastic support and spirit from their match against Portugal into this one, with their small nation represented with excellent effort from their players. In the first half, Iceland were just on top, holding the ball better than their Hungarian counterparts and tracking back and forth as a side. Play was handed back between one side and the other on regular occasions, with plenty of missed chances and break downs in play, which made the game a little repetitive, until a sudden moment of craziness six minutes before half time. From a seemingly harmless Icelandic corner, Gabor Kiraly in the Hungarian goal spilled his first chance to grab the ball, then charged after it, attempting to save it from the clutches of three Iceland players, but failed again. He pawed the ball away, but Aaron Gunnarsson claimed he was caught by Kiraly’s trailing leg, somehow convincing the officials to award the penalty. Gylfi Sigurdsson tucked away the penalty with ease, but I don’t feel there was any justice to it for the Icelandic players.
From then on, Iceland were happy to sit back and defend. This worked well for them for a certain period of time, as Hungary spent a long time trying to start up chances, but failed considerably for the majority of the second half. Players like Kleinheisler and Dzsudzsak who performed well against Austria this time struggled, as Iceland soaked up the pressure by introducing substitutes, starting counter attacks and relieving occasions where they were light at the back by sacrificing yellow cards and fouls. It was smart play by Iceland, but eventually their defensive minded performance had to have an off moment, and that was with only three minutes of time to see out. Nemanja Nikolic’s teasing cross was well placed for Adam Szalai to finish from, but, to compound Iceland’s misery further; it was their defender Birkir Saevarsson who turned it into his own net. It was heartbreak for the passionate, fighting Icelanders, but from another perspective it was fair for the Hungarians, who matched Iceland for most of the game, neither really playing to their best ability. It opened up top position in the group for the impressive Hungarians, but left Iceland requiring another fighting performance and positive result against Austria to earn their place in the R016.
To conclude the second round of group fixtures, we had the tempting and vital match between Portugal and Austria, both of whom needed to recover desperately from unexpectedly poor starts to the competition. The stage was set; the Parc des Princes beaming into the Paris evening sunset with its party atmosphere and united spirit amongst the fans. Oh, and of course Cristiano Ronaldo was there. He appeared confident and proud ahead of kick off; desperate to grab the game and tournament by the horns and show the world why he is here. In the opening 45 minutes, his side should’ve scored two or three with the chances they had, similarly to their performance against Iceland, with himself and Nani both going close. Austria looked rocked and stranded defensively, with goalkeeper Robert Almer particularly to blame for failing to settle his side and creating more reason for confidence in the Portuguese camp. Apart from a few minutes of promising play led by David Alaba for the Austrians, that half was all about Portugal; it was just a wonder how they didn’t score.
This theme continued into the second half, with Ronaldo & co. making a mockery of the stereotypically ruthless nature of the Portuguese side, think Eusebio and Luis Figo. Here, they created chance after chance without having the ability to finish any of them off, admittedly with Almer and the Austrian defence stopping numerous attempts. Ronaldo’s penalty summed up the day for Portugal; so close, yet so, so far away from actually scoring and taking the game by the scruff of the neck. The way that post slammed from the power he put on it, willing it to go in, was representative of the way the footballing world stood shocked, jaws dropped at how he missed it. Portugal did not have the cutting edge, the end product, the extra 10% that would’ve made their performance, and they will be left to rue all those missed chances for the rest of the tournament, whether they miss out on top spot in the group or don’t even qualify for the next round. They desperately need to get that ball in the net against Hungary, but I don’t doubt their potential to take out their anger on the Eastern Europeans.
Team of the Day
Belgium were the only side clinical enough to actually finish their dinner today, and for that we have to commend them. Yes, they are second in the world and have world class attacking players, but it still takes a good team ethic to gel that all together, and while that didn’t happen against Italy, they hit back today with a big message back to the world about how good they are. They didn’t have fear, charging forward in their masses all looking to put the Irish to the sword, and for that you have to say they did get to where they should as a team. Expect to see more of the same from Hazard, De Bruyne & co. over the rest of the competition.
Player of the Day
I have to say, Thomas Meunier at right back for Belgium really impressed me today, combining resolute and solid defending with continually threatening attacking play from his deep lying position. For a player with just 5 caps for his nation prior to today’s match, and having only turned out in the Belgian leagues in his entire career so far, Meunier showed excellent skill and composure to deliver an outstanding performance despite his relative inexperience at this stage. Coming into the side only as a replacement for a player six years his senior in Laurent Ciman, the 24 year old took to his role marking the ever-dangerous Robbie Brady with great enthusiasm, also linking up well with his similarly rapid winger in Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco. His cross for Axel Witsel’s headed goal was perfectly judged, finding just the right figure in the middle of a sea of Irish green. For the third and final goal, he also effectively started it all off, winning the ball back from James McLean in the corner of the pitch, escaping with it in his own half and finding a gap on the by-line for Eden Hazard, who was free to use his considerable pace and play in Lukaku, who grabbed another tidy goal.
Goal of the Day
Although there was a lack of goals, especially ones with real quality today, I’d pick Romelu Lukaku’s first strike for the toughest and most important goal of the day to score. Hitting the Republic of Ireland on the break as they did repetitively for long periods of the game, Belgium looked to talisman Kevin De Bruyne to work the magic on the break, and he definitely delivered on this occasion. Given the ball on the half way line, he skinned a diving James McCarthy with a simple piece of skill, sped down the touchline, cut inside and slipped the ball across, just outside the area, to an huge, onrushing figure in Romelu Lukaku. The striker then only had to take one touch with his left foot to control the ball, then another to power it in with his right, guided like a bullet into the bottom left corner of Darren Randolph’s goal. It was magnificent to watch, a goal that rewarded all of Belgium’s hard work in the game with a delayed start to the tournament.
Shock of the Day
Not a day of many shocks, but the level of finishing in our last game between Portugal and Austria today was pretty awful in itself. For international level players, you expect a certain level of ability and skill, to be able to hit the target at least from a good chance. But that is not what we saw today, as even Cristiano Ronaldo was so often off the target, especially missing some inviting, possibly greedy, free kicks. I was writing this exactly when he missed that penalty as well. My, my, my, that was poor. He didn’t even look sure which way he was going during his run up, for god’s sake. How much is he paid a week, and to do that? Arguably the best player in the world, and he still can’t score a penalty. Well, at least it made for a dramatic final few minutes.
Robbie Brady’s ‘groin problem’ or whatever the monotonous ITV commentators called it during the first half of ROI vs Belgium was something you couldn’t help but laugh at. While he defended for his team, he intercepted an attempted pass from a Belgian player, and in doing so took it in a *painful* place, causing him to fall to the floor while the referee had to make sure he was alright. While the commentators didn’t know what to make of it, we were left to only make fun of the Irish winger’s pain. The German term Schadenfreude was very apt here.
I’m Looking Forward to…
A slight change in the set-up of the tournament starting tomorrow, with a return to just two games per day, but with both games at 8PM this time around. It could make things very interesting for the four teams involved, as obviously UEFA had to organise these matches to favour none of the sides, giving nobody an advantage in scheduling. I will have to share my attention between the two games, one on BBC One and the other on BBC Four, possibly watching one on the TV, most likely France vs Switzerland, and the other on my mobile, the enticing and vital Romania vs Albania, to keep up with all the action. Whatever happens, it’s sure to be exciting, with something up for grabs every minute of the game, particularly with players like Dimitri Payet on the pitch.
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!