Welcome back to the Euros everyone; it’s been a long and patient wait for quarter-final action, but finally it’s here today, with a stretch of single games on our screens over the next four days. Poland vs Portugal was the treat up on offer today, with the impressive and methodical Eastern Europeans coming up against the underperforming, arguably one-man orientated nation at the very western edge of the continent. It was grit vs flair, power vs pace and team ethics vs self-centered captaincy, but most importantly Poland vs Portugal in Marseille.
Poland kept their winning formula which proved victorious against Switzerland in the last round, keeping faith in a disappointingly lacking-in-goals Robert Lewandowski, whilst Fernando Santos again tinkered with an as-of-yet lacking in mojo side, bringing Eliseu and Renato Sanches in for Andre Gomes and Raphael Guerreiro. Poland were left to drop (not literally) their red shorts for this tie, swapping them for white yet again after coming up against a blood-red-kitted opponent, but it didn’t seem to do them any harm in the early stages of the game. In fact, they were only spurred on to press forward, and before you could say ‘Portugal are such a one man team the rest of the side could be immobile pensioners and Ronaldo would still win the game for them’, Poland had scored. Emphatically so. Lukasz Piszczek strode casually to the half way line on the right, floated a hopeful ball over to Kamil Grosicki, who luckily picked it up after Cedric Soares’ shoddy attempt at a header, leaving the left winger to just whip an inviting cross into the box. Who was there, but one of the most potent strikers in the world, of course! Lewandowski invaded into the six-yard box largely unmarked, and just side footed a simple finish just out of Rui Patricio’s reach, sending his side 1-0 up after just a minute and 40 seconds (the second fastest goal in Euro history!). It was a beautiful move to watch, but one that you have to admit the entire Portuguese side should’ve done better with, a needless lapse of judgement on their part.
Following that shocking start, Portugal had to go for it. Cristiano Ronaldo particularly, and he sent his team a statement by taking pot shots (which probably would’ve gone in for a player of his class) and long-range free kicks, only for an organised and unselfish Polish defence to stand firm and block them. If that wasn’t a message to their opponents of how hard it would be to break them down tonight, I don’t know what else Poland could’ve done. Then Adam Nawalka’s well-oiled side grew even more into the game, and their lead, by striding forward when they had the chances, and linking up well together. Grosicki, Lewandowski, Milik and surprisingly enough Piszczek mainly (from right back) were all big parts of what their side was creating, playing short passes to outfox the slow-of-minds and slow-of-legs Pepe and Jose Fonte, succeeding as they did it too. Their game plan was working perfectly so far, with Glik and Pazdan holding up the aerial threats (Portugal were mainly reduced to a load of crosses as their wingers were quickly pressed) of Ronaldo and Nani, and the pairing of Krychowiak and Mączyński getting physical and imposing in midfield. They were pushing the Portuguese players around, and the fiery Mediterranean’s were sure to take dislike to that.
But the humble wonder kid Renato Sanches, reminiscent of a giant, shaggy Ruud Gullit in the attacking midfield area, used that dislike to power in an equaliser for his side. After a neat one-two with the experienced Nani, the youngster used his instinct and turned to line himself up, just on the edge of the 18-yard box, for a speculative effort. Now, this is just what it would’ve been, had the sea of white shirts around him, specifically the one with the number 10 and Krychowiak on the back, not been in place to offer a deflection past Lukasz Fabianski. Take nothing away from Sanches though, he was the one who fired in the effort, and got his just rewards with the ball sailing past a despairing Fabianski, to level up matters. Let’s not forget too, this guy is only 18 and was on his first start of the tournament, which is astounding at such a massive international stage!
That goal on 33 minutes finished off the half really in terms of chances, as both sides were content to just sit back and wait for half time instructions from their respective managers, but at least left it as an open game for the second 45. Overall, the first half could be concluded as surprisingly high-quality, particularly for two sides who weren’t really expected to challenge for semi-final spots, and packed with entertaining end-to-end action, which we could only hope would continue into a more nervy second half.
Perhaps it was understandable then that chances did come at more of a premium at the start of the second half, with very little to shout about before 65 minutes other than Ronaldo’s side-netting blast and Adrien Silva’s blocked edge-of-the-box shot. Poland broke away in short spells on occasion, with Krychowiak and Mączyński dictating the play for their side, carrying the ball forward like draft horses, only for their forwards to struggle in creating opportunities. After the clock hit 66 minutes or so though, Poland came to life and decided to actually start attacking for once in the half. Arkadiusz Milik struck a dangerous shot at Rui Patricio, Robert Lewandowski became an available option, and the wing duo Grosicki and Blaszczykowski got more of the ball, whilst at both ends the tackles flew in and the risky substitutions were made. Experienced heads Joao Moutinho and Ricardo Quaresma came on for Portugal, whilst Poland brought on a player who I thought looked promising in the group stage in winger Bartosz Kapustka. Chances were reduced to weak headers, as neither side really found the space after these disruptive subs to get close to scoring. The game was edging further another 30 minutes for both sides, who also incidentally both went to extra-time in their round of 16 matches, and after Blaszczykowski’s last-minute free kick lacked any powerful response from his teammates, it was confirmed we would be treated to the dreaded prolonged period.
Both sides must’ve been mentally and physically shattered after their previous outings, against Switzerland and Croatia respectively, and they surely weren’t looking forward to extra-time, but they let themselves in for it. Portugal immediately went for the goal at the start, Ronaldo going very close when the ball just got stuck under his feet, unmarked in the box. The western Europeans looked like the side with the extra beans (Harry), especially when they replaced William Carvalho with a rangy and powerful Danilo in midfield. Poland refreshed their tiring and battling side, bringing Tomasz Jodlowiec on for Mączyński in a useful change, putting impetus back into the side. Soon after, the Poles had their very own Gazza moment, Lewandowski sliding a perfect ball between Patricio and his defence, only for no one to get a decisive touch to it. There were no other big chances in the half, and nobody really expected there to be any in the second. To be truthful too, there weren’t any. At all. Time went on so slowly by the end, and we all just wanted it to be over. So on we went to penalties (and another ad break, sigh), to decide who would come out victors.
Ronaldo stepped up first for his side (of course) and tucked the ball in. Lewandowski then coolly placed the ball in the bottom right corner. Sanches surprisingly took the next, but rifled it in easily. Milik was handed responsibility for his side’s second, and slammed it in (just) off the post. Moutinho placed the ball down and went in the same corner, scoring as well. Glik bravely took the ball for his second penalty of the tournament, getting the same result as the two takers before him. Nani picked his spot top right, 4-3. As Blaszczykowski took his, it stayed 4-3, as Patricio made a great stop to keep the effort out. Quaresma then dragged Portugal into the semi-finals, despite the fingertips of Fabianski reaching the ball. Heartbreak for Poland, who did so well in the tournament and the match, but elation for Portugal.
Team of the Day
I can only say the winning side today, and after a lot of deliberation I think it will be… Portugal. I really didn’t want the Portuguese to win the shoot-out, as I thought Poland were the stronger side in the first half and extra time, but they came out victors in the end, and even though they haven’t won a game in 90 minutes at these championships, you can’t dispute they have won with grit. They were determined to get this far, and they have defied critics (I am one) to reach the semi-final now.
Player of the Day
Renato Sanches stood out for me today, not just for his goal, but for his all-around performance throughout the 120 minutes and his emphatic penalty. He tracked the ball and ran past defenders with it like, as I would describe him, a loyal, carefree puppy with boundless heaps of energy, who is just developing into a mature, refined pedigree. A great prospect on the hands of both Portugal and Bayern Munich here.
Goal of the Day
I’d probably, from the two, go for Lewandowski, as I think it required a lot more skill to piece up each part of its jigsaw, the Piszczek 80-yard or so pass, the Grosicki cross and the perfect Lewandowski finish. Both goals required a bit of luck, the lack of a header from Cedric for the first and the deflection for the second, but I think the entire move for the first deserved that luck a bit more.
Shock of the Day
Seeing Ryan Giggs rear his controversial and as-of-yet inexperienced (in terms of punditry) head on the ITV coverage of the match certainly made me look twice at the screen, as I never expected him to come out on national television during a period in which he is linked with numerous jobs. It was sad to see him go from Manchester United from a fan’s perspective, but even more miserable to watch him desperately rake in the money as a knowledgeable yet mundane pundit for the loaded-but-shockingly biased and immoral ITV. Oh, and on another note, (the question from thousands on twitter was) where were his eyebrows?
That streaker or ‘idiot’ as the ITV commentators branded him, cracked me up in an otherwise plain 30 minutes of extra-time, and I applaud him for finding a way through security and onto the pitch. He had some pace too, didn’t he?
Day Rating: 8/10 (I’m just going to introduce this as a way to sum up the day, considering we’ll only have a match a day from now on.)
I’m Looking Forward to…
Quite the spectacle tomorrow, with the talented but undervalued Welsh side up against the mismatch of superstars, as dysfunctional sometimes as the Avengers, always arguing with each other but with the same basic aims. Bale, Ramsey, Williams and Allen will all have to be at their very best for their country to even match the levels of Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Nainggolan and Alderweireld for the Belgians, so it promises to be a top, top match.
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.
Today we were reintroduced to the warmth and relaxed atmosphere of Sunday tournament football, the day of rest transformed into the day of competition-changing action. We had another three matches ready to liven up the tournament and decide who could go on to win the entire thing, with group A winners France up against a battling, last minute qualifying Republic of Ireland, surprise group F victors Hungary vs similarly unexpectedly 2nd place finishers in group D Belgium, and arguable favourites for the tournament Germany against a defensively solid Slovakia. A set of matches which could possibly decide who goes on to win Euro 2016, as well as some very exciting ones for the viewers.
First up was hosts France against the plucky Republic of Ireland in a boiling Lyon, where pressure was certainly on the favourites and home side. Didier Deschamps reverted back to his trusted, first choice side, with Payet, Giroud, Kante, Matuidi and Griezmann all coming back in after the bore draw against Switzerland, whereas Martin O’Neill kept faith in his XI which, although not immediate first choices, beat the Italians in their final group match, with names such as Daryl Murphy, Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy all involved. Both sides looked as if they wanted to attack from the off, making their impact on the game, but it was still a shock when the Republic of Ireland won a penalty in just about the second minute of the game. France looked lost defensively as Shane Long ran into the box, and a recovering Paul Pogba approached the striker from behind, sticking a leg out to try and win the ball, but Long got caught up in the mix and fell. The referee had adjudged Pogba to have fouled the Irish striker from behind, but from my perspective Long was always looking to go down, and at the slightest sense of contact he did just that. It worked for Ireland, with the livewire Robbie Brady tucking it away by sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way and pinging it in off the right post. This was not the script that ROI were meant to stick to, France were supposed to win this one easily, and now they had to chase the game.
For the rest of the half, after those mad first two minutes, the Irish team still dominated play. France looked unorganised and nervy, like the Brazilians two years ago, as their defence made last ditch challenges and their midfield scrapped for balls that were never theirs. Yellow cards were handed out by the referee like dollar bills at a strip club, with Rami, Kante and Hendrick all missing the next match if their respective teams got through. Ireland did their jobs across the park to perfection, with Hendrick, McCarthy, Brady and McLean all running their socks off in midfield, putting constant pressure on the heartbeat of the French side; Kante, Pogba and Matuidi. This isolated Giroud, Payet and Griezmann up front, restricting the French attack of opportunities as Keogh and Duffy won all the headers in their box. The best French chance came right at the end of half; with Payet playing a ball to Sagna out wide, who played it back to the West Ham player, whose shot was blocked, rebounded to Giroud, whose fate was the same, and then Griezmann, who fluffed his shooting opportunity. That was the story of the half for the French; they really should’ve been winning, but Ireland blocked everything they tried to do going forward. Didier Deschamps had to give his side a kick up the bum at half time, livening up their play and giving them belief in their ability to score.
Then came a big statement of intent by Deschamps at the start of the second half; Kingsley Coman, the exciting, pacey, tricky winger was thrown on to support the front three, replacing the holding N’Golo Kante. They knew they had to attack, and doing so would be easier with more creative names in the side. France soon dominated possession as every Irish player sat back in their own half, frustrating the front six of France and forcing Sagna and Evra forward in support. It was like a game of chess; who would blink first, who would make the wrong move. That side was Ireland, 13 minutes into the half. France came forward in numbers again, somehow keeping control of the ball, with Pogba offloading to Payet, who spread it wide to Bacary Sagna, unmarked on the right, who put in a perfect cross for Antoine Griezmann in the middle, whose untypically powerful, bullet header flew past Darren Randolph in the Irish goal. Then France were rampant. They knew high crosses and through balls worked, and Giroud headed down a great cross-field ball under heavy pressure to Griezmann, who was clean through in the middle to run into the box and smash a pinpoint finish past Randolph’s despairing dive, putting his nation into the lead for the first time in the match.
Then things fell apart for the Irish defence. The team knew they had to attack to get back in the game, but they left Duffy and Keogh stranded when they lost the ball. When Griezmann was clean through on goal for a third, Duffy had to stick out a leg and stop the chance from coming to fruition. He may have got a little nick on the ball, but he did take the man as the last defender, and had to go, even if it was only a free kick. That left the Gaelic nation with so much to do to save their position in the tournament against the home side, who smelt blood, and with only 10 men to do it with. In reality, it meant they would never get back into the game, and had to spend most of their time defending against the fresh legs of Andre-Pierre Gignac, Coman and an always rampant Griezmann, which meant they couldn’t use the ball themselves. As the clock ticked down and down for the Irish, neither side even had enough energy to score when presented with clear cut chances, players being stretched across the park for both sides, out of position and shattered. Ireland put up a good fight, but in the end they didn’t have enough to overcome the favourites for the competition, the confident and talented hosts. France march on, with their path panning out roughly as planned, although they could come up against the tough test of England in the quarter-final.
Up next came Germany against Slovakia in Lille, where a previously criticised pitch had been re-laid for the occasion. Of course, the world champions were expected to win this one, but not by a large margin, as we all know how well the Slovaks defended against England in their final group match. The Germans made only one change from their solid win against Northern Ireland, with Julian Draxler returning in place of a so far disappointing Mario Götze on the left wing, whereas Slovakia made four changes, particularly in midfield, with Hrosovsky and Skriniar coming in, as well as Gyomber in defence and Duris up front. This was definitely a defensively-minded set-up from the Slovaks, looking to frustrate Germany just as they did England a few days ago.
But this defensive formation and selection of personnel did not have the required effect from the start. Germany put on immediate pressure, and the culmination of their early attacks was Jerome Boateng’s forthright finish from a Toni Kroos corner, smashing the ball with his right boot from outside the box into the bottom left corner of the goal, past a maze of Slovakian defenders and Matus Kozacik. Then it all went to pot for Slovakia, with Mario Gomez winning a questionable penalty from Martin Skrtel’s shirt-tugging. The only thing was, Kozacik dived the right way for Mesut Özil’s penalty, palming it sideways and clear, even if it was a decent effort from the normally clinical Arsenal playmaker. Following that, the Germans kept up their pressure, but you could see they didn’t have quite the same belief they had prior to the penalty, as they never created any clear cut opportunities after. Don’t get me wrong, they were definitely on top, but they didn’t do anything to show they were going to extend their lead against an off-colour and inferior Slovakian side, who grew in confidence over the course of the half. Juraj Kucka probably had their best chance of the half, but I never really thought it was going in against the best goalkeeper in the world right now in Manuel Neuer. Soon after that though, Germany went up the other end, with Julian Draxler squirming in between three or four Slovakian defenders down the left with some step overs, bamboozling them and drawing them out before slipping in a ball across the six yard box to Mario Gomez, who was well placed to lift in a finish, making it 2-0. With that, Germany were as good as into the next round at half time, and Gomez had equalled up Jurgen Klinsmann’s German European Championship scoring record of five.
In a pretty meaningless second half for both sides (as Slovakia never looked like they had the belief to even score), the only event of real note was Julian Draxler’s well-taken and opportunistic finish from a Toni Kroos corner. Once the ball had come over and Jerome Boateng has knocked a header on, Draxler hooked a clean, incisive volleyed finish backwards over his shoulder when only a few yards from a helpless Kozacik in goal. The Germans only had to press high as a unit, restricting any movement and link up that the Slovaks were hoping for to see the game out, and they did this to perfection. There was even time for Joachim Low to give old stalwarts Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Shkodran Mustafi a run out, just showcasing the strength in depth of the German squad to their future opponents, be that Spain or Italy, while also catering to the fitness needs of his impact subs, who will be vital to any success the team has. So, in the end the Germans won comfortably and stylishly, but there is always room to improve and I’m sure they will step it up another level against countries more their own size, à la Spain, Italy, England or France.
To round off the day, we had Hungary vs Belgium in Toulouse, where an underrated, inexpensive squad of Hungarian rejects faced off against one of the most highly rated collections of players in the world in the Belgians. The former made two changes from their rotated yet fairly successful side against Portugal, with Tomas Kadar and Adam Nagy coming back in at left back and centre mid, while Belgium made a single tactical change, the impressive impact sub Dries Mertens replacing Yannick Carrasco on the right wing. From the very start of the game, the quality of the Belgians showed, with Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku all threatening. So it was unsurprising when De Bruyne’s wide free kick, whipped into the far edge of the six yard box, was headed in by Toby Alderweireld, under no pressure other than Lukaku, past Gabor Kiraly (who could’ve done a bit better with it). This was only after 10 minutes, and it already wasn’t looking good for the Hungarians. For me, the Hungarians were far too positive and attacking in their formation and tactics, as when they defended they only had six players back, as opposed to the usual eight that most teams drag back to defend against top opposition. When you’re playing against Lukaku, Hazard, Mertens, De Bruyne, plus Nainggolan and Witsel who like to attack, you cannot afford to have your wingers waiting for the ball on the half way line, they need to track back for the good of the team. You cannot rely on your defenders always doing the right thing and continually bailing you out to win a game, you have to demand more from your forward players across the pitch. Luckily enough for them, Belgium didn’t finish any of their numerous other chances, and only went into the changing rooms at 1-0, with the door still open for Hungary.
Well, the door may have been ajar, and the Hungarians had their opportunities in the second half, hitting posts, forcing Courtois into great saves and sending the ball inches wide, but they didn’t take their chances, which they must’ve known were going to be few and far between. Szalai didn’t get the greatest service up front, and in the end that did count, as Belgium took their chances at the other end. The game swayed back and forth between the two sides, and when the misfiring Romelu Lukaku went off on 76 minutes, everything went crazy. Firstly, after just two minutes, Michy Batshuayi, his replacement up front, made an immediate impact when he met Eden Hazard’s pinpoint cross after a wayward Kevin De Bruyne corner. I don’t know what the Hungarian defence was doing after that corner, but once Hazard pulled wide on the left, they left Batshuayi wide open in front of goal against Kiraly to effortlessly finish off the chance. About a minute after that, Hazard decided to create his own chance, running with the ball from out wide on the left to the edge of the 18-yard box along the white line, evading both lunging centre-backs and curling a perfectly weighted shot with his right foot into the bottom right corner, past a despairing Kiraly. This was a similar goal to the one he scored against Spurs towards the end of the season, and another great strike. A good ten minutes after that, once the game had slowed down and Hazard had been subbed off, Belgium added a fourth. Hungary were left exposed at the back, and Nainggolan played substitute Yannick Carrasco in for a tidy finish under Kiraly, completing the rout. I don’t think Belgium deserved 4-0, but their fans won’t have any complaints, as their side have sent a big statement out to the rest of the teams in the tournament.
Team of the Day
Belgium have to be given this award considering their attacking ruthlessness today, absolutely thrashing their opponents by score line at least. They showed quite how good their endless list of talents actually can be, and that is very impressive considering they haven’t been firing on all cylinders prior to this match.
Player of the Day
Eden Hazard absolutely played the Hungarians off the park today, with a world class performance, particularly in the second half. He fizzed numerous shots off, whipped perfect crosses in for his strikers and linked up well with his midfielders in De Bruyne, Nainggolan and Witsel. But one of the best things about his game is that he doesn’t have to use the other players in his team, he can take on the opposition all on his own, and that is what he showed today, especially for his goal. A match winning performance from the mercurial Belgian winger. Extra shouts also go to a close second place for Antoine Griezmann, a third for Julian Draxler and a fourth for Toni Kroos, all of whom played massive parts in the success of their sides in qualifying for the next stage today.
Goal of the Day
It was close run by both of Antoine Griezmann’s goals and Jerome Boateng’s smashing finish, but Eden Hazard’s one-man run and finish have it for me today. It may not have been a winning goal, but it was the most difficult to score, and the level of skill required made it so admirable from my perspective. He bamboozled the Hungarian defenders and beat the goalkeeper all ends up, deserving each and every aspect of the perfection of his toils. A fitting goal for such a brilliant player, who will only improve in this tournament.
Shock of the Day
Slovakia’s Peter Pekarik’s blue bandage across his nose today not only looked ineffective at holding his injury in place and protecting him from further damage, but it also looked hilarious at the same time. It was as if he had put on his war paints for the match, auditioning for a role in Braveheart, to appear more imposing, but the effect was totally the opposite. To top it all, the little Slovak symbols on either side of the plaster made it even more cringe worthy.
Thibaut Courtois’ uncharacteristic first half slip when attempting a clearance from an Axel Witsel back pass, where he went for the ball but ended up nutmegging himself and conceding a corner, must’ve been an embarrassing moment for the goalkeeper. I can’t tell if it was the surface or just a momentary lapse of judgement, but Courtois will not want to relive that moment. Maybe he was just mimicking English goalkeepers over the past 15 years, trying to recreate the infamous mistakes of Paul Robinson, Scott Carson and Robert Green!
I’m Looking Forward to…
Two brilliant-looking match ups tomorrow, both with huge implications for the future of the tournament over the next two weeks. Italy vs Spain will be surely be a closely-contested and highly dramatic game, not befitting of the fate of just being a round of 16 match, rather a semi-final, considering the quality of the two sides. Following that at 8PM, there is a big match, hopefully more entertaining and positive from an England perspective than the Slovakia match, against over performing minnows Iceland this time. The goals will hopefully be flying in across France tomorrow, with great matches that will certainly be on the highlights reel for the tournament, all teams scrapping to get through to the next round.
Hello again everyone, and welcome back to the Euros and A Continental Affair! It feels like forever since we had some football, and I’m sure we were all raring to go for the Round of 16, with three top matches to get us started today. We had the battle of the red-and-white underdogs in Switzerland and Poland, the Home Nations match-up between Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as a very tasty, colourful and attacking match in Croatia vs Portugal to whet our appetite, and they certainly delivered.
So it was Switzerland vs Poland first in Saint-Étienne, an expectantly tight, defensive slog between two fairly blessed teams with talents such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Robert Lewandowski. Both sides went with their strongest, widely agreed strongest teams, putting everything on the line for a quarter-final spot. Poland probably had the harder group of the two to escape from, having to beat Ukraine and Northern Ireland, but Switzerland also had to perform to get a close win against Albania, as well as a fair draw against Romania and a lethargic stalemate vs France. It was sure to be a tight match, and I was backing Poland on penalties.
In the opening 45 minutes, it’s fair to say little of game-changing note actually occurred, but it was still good to watch. Both sides passed the ball cleanly and effectively, Switzerland occupying possession and holding the ball well in the opposition half, rather than vice-versa. Poland probably created the better chances in the periods they had the ball, with Lewandowski and Milik both going close, as Switzerland were limited to trying corner after corner. As I said this, though, another Swiss corner went astray, with Kamil Grosicki breaking down the left with pace (from a massive Fabianski throw) and playing an inch-perfect ball across the box to an unmarked Jakub Blaszczykowski, who calmly slotted the ball between Yann Sommer’s legs and past the defenders attempting to cover the open goal. Poland were elated; Switzerland on the other hand were left frustrated. The Polish midfield and defence then grew in confidence, keeping the ball more effectively and blocking numerous Swiss shots, closing out the half with a tidy lead.
Switzerland came out for the second half knowing they had to chase the game, going for goal more often and abandoning the tactic of just keeping the ball, stopping Polish attacks. Shaqiri, Džemaili and Mehmedi worked hard to create chances, cutting inside and playing the ball on the deck to compensate for their height inferiority, but Haris Seferovic, once again in this tournament, could not finish any chances. Poland could hit the Swiss on the break now; and they missed a few good opportunities from this as their final ball delivery was not up to scratch. The game was then broken up by a series of fouls, one which led to a great fingertip save by Fabianski from a close-range Ricardo Rodriguez free kick.
Switzerland pushed forward in numbers again; this time Seferovic teeing up Fabien Schaer for a 18 yard right-footed shot which smacked back off the crossbar, past the goalkeeper. Then came the goal. What a bloody stunning goal. Switzerland, camped in the opposition half, put a ball in, which was nudged out by Michal Pazdan straight to Xherdan Shaqiri, who, no he couldn’t be, bicycle kicked the ball so cleanly past the defenders, onto the right post and in. He was about 18 yards or so out, and he absolutely cut it into the path of the goal. It was the crispest, most difficult to score, goal we are ever likely to see over the course of this tournament, and it was worthy of levelling up the game with about eight minutes left.
Then we went to extra time. Neither side really went for it, with the two defences playing the ball sideways or backwards, and the attackers only too happy to take a break from constant pressurising of the opposition. It certainly didn’t captivate me in the first 15 minutes, that’s for sure. The second half in extra time offered a lot more in terms of excitement, with Switzerland reverting back to their set pieces, as they now had the momentum. Eren Derdiyok missed a glaring one-on-one headed chance with Fabianski, with Shaqiri still shining bright as the man of the match, putting in crosses from all over the opposition half. Derdiyok missed another close-range chance under pressure from Pazdan, failing to toe poke the ball past Fabianski, as it became apparent the game would go to penalties, as the Swiss couldn’t finish. My BBC Sport prediction got off to a great start for this round, as I got 1-1 and penalties down. But who would win on penalties? Liechtsteiner scored first for the Swiss. Lewandowski scored a perfect penalty. Granit Xhaka then fired one far, far wide, an awful miss. Advantage Poland, and Milik took it. Shaqiri dragged one back for his side. Glik scored too. Schaer coolly slotted in. 3-3, and Blaszczykowski tapped in. Then Rodriguez had to score, under great pressure, and he did. Krychowiak then smashed it in to win, securing the Polish spot in the quarter-finals. It was a high quality match and penalty shoot-out, but Xhaka was the one who put one foot wrong, which in the end counted. Poland are through, but they had to work hard for it.
Then we headed to the Parc des Princes in Paris, where Wales started as favourites against Northern Ireland. Chris Coleman picked an unchanged side from the one who beat Russia 3-0, with Northern Ireland making a single alteration, talisman Kyle Lafferty coming in for Conor Washington up front. The game started in a positive fashion; both sides looking to create from the off, with Stuart Dallas and Aaron Ramsey both going close before 15 minutes had passed, and Ramsey scoring an offside goal a few minutes later. Wales were slightly sloppy with the ball under Northern Irish pressure, as Michael O’Neill’s men benefitted from their superior height and strength to outmuscle the Welsh. Gareth Bale and the rest of his side lacked finesse in their play, with the final ball always lacking, as Northern Ireland soaked it all up pretty easily. Towards the end of the half, play was broken up by a number of fouls, but there was still nothing to show that either side deserved to win yet. It was a pretty unremarkable half, nothing clear and amazing to note from either side, but Northern Ireland showing promises of being a good, free-flowing side, performing better in the things they did than their close home nation rivals.
In contrast, Wales started the stronger side in the second half, in particular missing a glaring goal scoring chance when Sam Vokes broke free to get his head to an Aaron Ramsey cross, but he lifted it wide, right of the goal. Chris Coleman wanted an impact, so he sent on Hal Robson-Kanu for Vokes. He made it clear he wanted pace up front, playing the ball on the floor from counter attacks, as Robson-Kanu would never win headers against Craig Cathcart and Gareth McAuley. Gareth Bale resorted to drawing fouls, using the acting skills he has honed at Real Madrid to convince Martin Atkinson to give him a chance from 30 yards out, which McGovern palmed away, stretching to his left. Wales kept turning up the pressure, a crank a time, with Northern Ireland becoming pinned back in their own half after Bale, Robson-Kanu and the recently introduced Jonny Williams chased that winning goal. In the 75th minute, that goal did arrive for Wales, but from an unfortunate and unlikely source; Gareth McAuley. Gareth Bale whipped in another of his perfectly-flighted crosses, down at hip height for Robson-Kanu, but McAuley, attempting to clear the ball before it got to Wales’ number 9, slid in and stuck his leg out. As he did that, the ball hit his toes for a lovely finish, if only it came from a Welsh player. McAuley despaired, Northern Ireland despaired, but they couldn’t complain that it wasn’t coming.
After that, Northern Ireland had to look forward. Niall McGinn and Josh Magennis came on again for them up front, partnering Kyle Lafferty, as the punts forward had to start being delivered. The only thing was, Wales’ defence was stronger, working together, sacrificing free kicks, position and their own body (Ashley Williams’ arm for one) to get the win, which after a wasted final corner which McGovern went up for, they did. It was sad for Northern Ireland, but they can take a lot of credit from even getting to the tournament, let alone the round of 16, whereas a jubilant Wales have made history by reaching the quarter-finals. The good thing for me was, I picked up another 40 points for my predictions with this result.
To finish off the day, Croatia faced off against Portugal for the third place in the quarter-finals of the day, with the expectant fans of the world hoping for goals, drama and clashes between the top talents of Modric, Ronaldo, Rakitic and Nani. Croatia reverted back to their strongest line up, drafting a fit-again Luka Modric and a so far underperforming Mario Mandzukic back into the line-up, whereas Portugal shuffled their pack, with Jose Fonte, Cedric Soares and Adrien Silva all coming in to freshen up the look of the side. It’s all well and good changing your side as Portugal manager, but everyone else is always going to be overshadowed by Ronaldo in Portugal. That was what the Portuguese players had to challenge today, but it wouldn’t be easy, especially considering all of Ronaldo’s trigger-happy prowess in the first set of games.
To be brutally honest about this game; it went about as far down in terms of expectation to actual end product as a Tim Peake coming down from space; it shot down faster than the speed of light. I can’t even remember hearing the name Ronaldo from either of the commentators, as Croatia, who had a vast majority of the ball, didn’t really have any momentum in any of their attacks, pace or cutting edge, to find a gap through the stout Portuguese defence. It says a lot that there wasn’t even a SHOT ON TARGET. I hope that woke you up, because I almost fell asleep during that dreary half. Even the ITV pundits had to switch to talking about Shaqiri’s goal, that is how little happened, that they couldn’t even fill 10 minutes with chat about what happened in Lens between the two teams, (easy to forget them from how little they created) Croatia and Portugal.
Even the second half continued in the same vain. Croatia yet again had more of the ball, Portugal yet again defended without letting the opposition had any good chances, so the game hit a brick wall. The ITV commentators resulted to try and convince us that Vida’s header from a free kick was a realistic chance by shouting at the top of their voices, and that Nani had won a penalty, when in fact he gave away a goal kick to Croatia. It was nigh-on unwatchable stuff. Even when the game got stretched (as the commentators love to describe it as), the efforts were still awful and easily comparable to non-league stuff. It was as if neither side even wanted to get through to the quarter-finals, that’s how poor their players were. Portugal, you have Ronaldo, arguably the second best player in the world, what is wrong with you? Croatia, you have Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic, why can’t you find the net? It was bewildering and ugly to watch, as the moves both sides created always fell apart half way through. There was no finesse, skill or technique that these two nations have been so heralded for in the past, and it was pitiful. Honestly, the best things on show were the two kits. Now we all had to watch 30 minutes more of the stuff, just to know who might even stand a chance of getting through!
I can’t tell if it was the pitch or not, but in extra-time, when both sides seemed a little more livened up and willing to attack, but nearly every chance either side has was disrupted by someone falling over or their foot slipping, which leads me to believe that both sides’ problems were not just in their personnel. It summed up the night when, in the second half of extra time, Domagoj Vida missed an open-goal from a corner, as his header went high and wide. It was only in the last five minutes of extra time that Croatia went forward for the winning goal, but hi the post from Ivan Rakitic. But then, Ronaldo broke free with the ball down the right, offloaded it to a rangy and pacey Renato Santos, who ran it down to the edge of the 18-yard box, passed it to Nani to his left. The former Manchester United winger then played the ball across the box to his captain Ronaldo, whose powerful shot was beaten away by Danijel Subasic, but only into the path of Ricardo Quaresma, whose header was on plate to win the game. Vida missed another chance from a corner in the last minute of added time to extra time by a matter of inches, and the game was over. Portugal won, but I don’t think either of these sides deserved to get through, as their efforts were awful today. The fact of the matter is; Portugal scored with the ONLY shot on target in the entire 120+3 minutes. That is such an embarrassing statistic, but it was true, and Portugal live to see another day, but I’m not sure anyone outside the nation will be very happy that they are going to.
Team of the Day
Well, it won’t be Portugal, it won’t be Wales as they didn’t boss their game either, so it must be Poland. But even the Polish didn’t fully deserve their win, so I’m not very happy with my decision. Basically, Poland were more entertaining than either Wales or Portugal, so that has to be my reasoning.
Player of the Day
For me, Xherdan Shaqiri has to be the pick of the players. He had confidence that no other player showed today, he believed in his ability to change that game and win it for his team. The way he led from the front when his striker Seferovic wasn’t performing was very commendable, as he never gave up, taking his country’s hopes by the scruff of the neck and running with them, most importantly levelling up the game.
Goal of the Day
Are you kidding me? Of course it was Xherdan Shaqiri, that goal was something absolutely else. Another great candidate for the goal of the tournament, and such a vital one too.
Shock of the Day
Mark Lawrenson’s constant complaints about every single foot the Swiss and Polish players put wrong does get tiring at times, but it is certainly entertaining to watch and listen to. His dreary, northern tone spiced up by lines such as ‘oh behave yourself’ to Liechtsteiner after he drew a foul from the Polish left-back, and ‘get up’ to Lewandowski after he was decked by Breel Embolo make him a hilarious addition to any game, reminiscent of Geoffrey Boycott on the cricket coverage.
If the map of Croatia wasn’t bad enough in the previous match, Ivan Perisic’s new haircut really took the biscuit. I can understand his thinking; ‘this is going to look great on my head, his red and white chequered style’, but to be honest, it is pretty cringe worthy to look at. Yes, he wanted to show his patriotism, his pride to represent his country at the international level, but asking your hairdresser to spend hours colouring in the side of your head with painstaking accuracy is taking it a bit too far, don’t you think?
I’m Looking Forward to…
A trio of hopefully much more entertaining matches tomorrow, with France and the Republic of Ireland kicking off proceedings at 2PM, in what should be a closely contested and open game, as well as Germany vs Slovakia and Hungary vs Belgium. Germany should be wary of a Slovakian side that, we know as England fans, can really get men behind the ball when they need to, so it should be interesting. Hungary vs Belgium is an unprecedented and peculiar match-up, one that Belgium really should boss, but they might easily be pegged back by an over performing Hungary side. If one thing is for certain, is that history will be made, and the competition will be changed.
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!