Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Decent Start to the Euros

A Decent Start to the Euros.
FRANCE 1:0 ROMANIA
SWITZERLAND 1:0 ALBANIA
WALES 2:1 SLOVAKIA
ENGLAND 1:1 RUSSIA

Two days in and the 2016 European Championship promises to be a reasonably entertaining and attacking tournament.

France happily won what had been a typically frustrating opening game thanks to Dmitri Payet's Roy of the Rovers winner. 

Had that game ended goalless it might have set a dull tone for the first round and more importantly left the host nation's fans a little demoralised when they need to be leading by example.

Les Bleus did some good midfield work and should have no trouble despatching limited Albania on Wednesday. With every win the host nation gets more behind its team and France have all the means to tap into the spirit of 1998 - fine players and home advantage most notably.

I travelled to Euro '92 in Sweden where there were only eight finalists: Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, France, England, Scotland and the Commonwealth of Independent States (the post USSR).

Some of those might not look like they belonged in the top eight in Europe but with this edition's expansion to 24 teams, the minnows clearly outnumber the big fish.

But how many tiddlers are there in the pond? Albania who had a typically plucky debut today, losing 1-0 to Switzerland and having their captain sent off, are clearly one. 

Yet the same afternoon, Wales, making their first finals appearance since 1958, beat Slovakia 2-1.

The other suspects -  Northern Ireland, Austria, Eire, Iceland, Hungary, Romania and Turkey could well upset an apple cart or two so it seems churlish to complain about the tournament's size at this stage.

Should we suffer from a plague of first-round draws and take-it-easy final games, as four our of the six third-place teams will qualify for the next round, then fingers should be pointed at Michel Platini, even though he has left the building.

I leapt for joy when Wales won today, not least because I lived over Offa's Dyke for four years and watched endless near misses at qualifying, even with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes and Ian Rush in their ranks.

Gareth Bale clearly is a large part of their success, as his goal underlined today, but credit too must go towards Ashley Williams' solid marshalling of their backline and Chris Coleman's tactical nous. Their use of the flanks and diagonal balls were ideal against the overloaded Slovakian midfield in Bordeaux.

Slovakia again looked the hard-tackling, rugged side who muscled past Spain at home in the qualifiers, winning no points for artistic impression. 

Skipper Martin Skrtel was particularly aggressive and was lucky to escape censure for elbowing Jonathan Williams in the box and body-checking Bale at one point. What a pity Marek Hamsik and their other creative players are not the abiding memory.

As for England, their 1-1 draw with a very limited Russia was a textbook example of the old adage that it's goals that win games. Were football a sport like ice dance, Roy Hodgson's men would have won on points by a canter. 

The Three Lions played excellently for about an hour, employing pace and off-the-ball movement to produce flowing football like the best modern sides, before succumbing in injury time to Russia's umpteenth hoof up towards the big guys.

Despite the outrageous last-gasp theft of points from a deserving England, there was something endearing about Russia doing a compelling impression of a lower-league English side.

After a confusing few final friendlies and a questionable squad selection, Hodgson's men finally seemed to be clicking, even though they only managed a draw.

Alas, hooliganism has already reared its ugly head and not just between English and Russians in Marseille.

After a scary experience in that port city in 1998 when England played Tunisia at the World Cup, I was happy to avoid it this time. A big football match, large stadium, hot weather, local youths, rival fans and strong lager proved another dangerous cocktail for trouble in 2016.

Whilst the press have clearly been exaggerating again over the past couple of nights, it was clear on television today that much violence was only too real. Let us pray this is the last football-related trouble of Euro 2016 and we can only talk about on-field activities from now on.

Sunday matches (times GMT)
Turkey v Croatia 2pm
Poland v Northern Ireland 5pm 
Germany v Ukraine 8pm

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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