Wednesday 15th June
Russia 1 – 2 Slovakia – Gp B, Lille
Weiss 32’, Hamsik 45’
It’s now Wednesday, and three nights of sleep deprivation have me worrying about how much further I can go in this tournament. Much like Russia, who are poor again. Not as poor as against England, but still poor. Slovakia are quite good, again, as they were against Wales, but they don’t have to be that good. Because Russia are, as I said, poor. Maybe that’s why their fans are behaving like such massive twats – if they didn’t, would anyone notice that Russia were actually taking part?
Dreams of a sunbathed mid-afternoon kick-off are dashed by pictures of a closed roof in Lille – the tournament organisers having gone all Wimbledon and shut the roof because it’s ‘forecast to rain’. For God’s sake.
Both Slovakia’s goals are good, Weiss talking out two Russians with a feint before curling in and Hamsik absolutely belting the ball in off the post before half time. Two goals in the first half? Maybe the tournament is opening up!
Russia pull an undeserved goal back with their only good move – a one two, clipped cross and cushioned header. But they don’t really threaten an equaliser. Oh, and there’s more dicking about with plastic chairs in city centres, what with England and Wales playing down the road tomorrow, but in the stadium there’s calm. Apparently UEFA will chuck Russia out if there’s any more trouble – but that’s not really going to happen, is it?
Wednesday 15th June
Romania 1 – 1 Switzerland – Gp A, Paris
Stancu pen. 18’
I don’t make it to the end. I just can’t do it. From around the hour mark the eyelids started to droop and I do the old ‘I’ll just lie down here on the sofa but won’t sleep oh no I won’t fall sleep’ routine.
Watching football matches far beyond midnight on a regular basis has shown me just how mysterious the act of sleeping is. One minute you’re awake; the next you’re not. One minute I’m watching football; the next I’m not. But you never notice your eyelids closing – it’s never a conscious decision. Well, obviously sleeping’s never a conscious decision, but you know what I mean.
Turns out falling asleep after an hour was the best thing to do here. The first half is an entertaining romp with chances for both sides – Stancu becoming tournament top scorer with two penalties. Switzerland’s equaliser is a well taken half volley across goal. After the match I read reports of it being a limited, and dull, game so I guess it must have petered out badly towards the end, when I was already snugly snoring.
Wednesday 15th June
France 2 – 0 Albania – Gp A, Marseille
Griezmann 90’, Payet 90+6’
As the score line suggests, France left it very late and didn’t really impress against another resilient but limited Albania performance. I didn’t miss much through this being the 3am kick-off, it seems. But, still, France are the first team through to the knockouts. Albania cling on, just about.
One of the weird things about a 24 team tournament, and everyone complaining about the ‘new’ format seems to have forgotten that 3 World Cups were held in this way, including the ‘classic’ 1986 and 1994 editions (as well as the stinky Italia ’90), is that 3rd place finishers are left hanging on somewhat. Say Albania beat Romania in their final game to finish 3rd on 3 points. That’s not great, yet may be enough for them to sneak through as one of the four best 3rd place teams. But they’ll have to wait for three days until the other groups have wrapped things up. What will they do for those three days? Train even though they might be eliminated at any second? Lie around the hotel pool so much that they are out of shape when an unexpected second round game comes along?
Thursday 16th June
England 2 – 1 Wales – Gp B, Lens
Vardy 56’, Sturridge 90+1’
The big one. At least in the British press. The fact that it’s stuck away on a Thursday afternoon suggests it wasn’t high on the Euro 2016 fixture compiler’s list of priority matches (how I’d love to have that job – official fixture compiler…)
Upon kick-off it’s easy to see why. There’s a lot of commitment and energy, ‘tracking back’ and ‘getting in amongst it’: things that British coaches love to see from their lads, but not bags of quality. Add the four sided stadium and the rowdy atmosphere (more chair chucking ahead of kick-off) and it feels like a lower mid-table Premier League clash. Although the weather isn’t particularly redolent of a British league game. Yes, lo and behold – a pitch bathed in Northern French sun.
When Gareth Bale gets involved he is clearly the best player on the pitch and he puts Wales in front with a free kick from a long, long way out. Within the subsection ‘Top Ten Things About Watching England Fail’ that I mentioned earlier, one of my other favourite categories is… drum roll… ‘When England Keepers Cock It Up in Major Tournaments’. Joe Hart joins this list (see also David Seaman in 2002 and Rob Green in 2010) by softly palming Bale’s free-kick into the bottom corner.
But England do look better and Hodgson really goes for it by bringing on TWO strikers at half time. The two strikers that go on and score both goals. After Vardy stabs in his equaliser it seems inevitable that England will win, but Wales weather the storm and by the time Sturridge does win it they appear very unlucky.
For what it’s worth, I think Sturridge is an even more dislikeable character than Vardy. Yes Vardy has the criminal past and the casual racism to go against him. But Sturridge has the fact that he’s clearly a pampered wuss who would pull out of a match with a stubbed toe, the fact that he does that stupid dance after every goal AND the fact that he believes God to be on his side, avidly following his career over the fates of 6.5 billion other souls. “I am grateful to God for allowing me to score,” he says post-match. The thought that God, were he to even exist, would give two hoots about professional athletes, let alone an overrated and permanently injured Liverpool striker, is ridiculous. What about all the Welsh people praying for their team to win, Daniel? Does God love you more than them? Does he really?
Thursday 16th June
Ukraine 0 – 2 Northern Ireland – Gp C, Lyon
McCauley 49’, McGinn 90+6′
It’s now Thursday, the fifth day in a row in which I’ve stayed up late to watch these bloody championships. Except, this time I have to accept defeat. I can’t even see the first five minutes out without slumping forward, head heavier than your grandad after his post-Christmas dinner port.
I awake from the sofa at half time and drag myself off to bed. Trying to watch the second half would be ridiculous. My mind is a bizarre mix and match of images from the game, or at least what I think is the game, and I drift off – properly, in my bed – convinced that Northern Ireland were 1-0 up at half time.
Except they weren’t. They didn’t score until the 49th minute – a great looping header from Gareth McCauley. So, I begin to wonder, am I some sort of psychic? A footballing Nostradamus who, if asleep in front of a game during the first half, can predict what will happen in the second? Something to explore later on in the tournament, perhaps.
From what I can later tell, this match was a little different from the norm: Northern Ireland scored, for a start, which wasn’t looking remotely likely after their opening performance. There was also a hailstorm (in southern France, in June…) that caused a delay of several minutes. A delay that led to lots of injury time and Niall McGinn tapping in the latest ever goal in a European Championship. And apparently now Ukraine are the first team to be eliminated from the competition. Which seems strange to me as there are three points and a 3rd place spot left up for grabs but I think it’s got something to do with Northern Ireland being the only team that they can catch but because they’ve lost to Northern Ireland then they can’t actually catch them. Maths and logic were never my strongest points.
Thursday 16th June
Germany 0 – 0 Poland – Gp C, St. Denis
Another 3am kick-off and I feel once again that I dodged a bullet not having to watch this. The first nil-niller and, while I’m not against the odd goalless game, from the highlights it’s clear to see that not much went on. Both teams look good for the knockout stages so let’s move on. The weekend approaches and two days of unadulterated football viewing.
Friday 17th June
Italy 1 – 0 Sweden – Gp E, Toulouse
Hot on the heels of the first, it looks like we are going to get our second nil-niller. But then Eder dances past three Swedish defenders all lined up along the 18 yard line and thumps the ball into the bottom corner. A brilliant goal the game didn’t deserve: apparently it had the lowest number of attempts at goal in a Euros match since records began (i.e. 1980). Upon the final whistle, Italy are already through, and have already won the group.
It truly was a slog. The worst game of the tournament so far (that I’ve watched, that is, though I doubt any of the games I haven’t seen were worse than this) as Italy seem to settle for a draw and Sweden are just pretty rubbish. Ibrahimovic in particular, for all his grandiose statements, has offered nothing in either game he’s played.
Toulouse, though, apropos of nothing, takes the prize for my favourite stadium of the tournament. It’s the smallest of the ten host stadiums but the little arches that run around between the stands and the roof give it a character lacking in the faceless bowls of Nice, or Lyon, or Lille. It hasn’t changed since it was used in the 1998 World Cup, my aforementioned footballing alma mater, where I can remember those arches forming the backdrop to classics such as Cameroon Vs Austria and Romania Vs England. It also allows a lot of sunlight to reach the pitch and, yes oh yes, today’s game was at least partly redeemed by being played in a glorious shade of Languedoc yellow. Apparently the Stade Municipal de Toulouse was slated for expansion and redevelopment ahead of this tournament but the local government decided not to – the stadium was lovely as it is – and well done them for making the right choice!
Friday 17th June
Czech Republic 2 – 2 Croatia – Gp D, St. Etienne
Skoda 75’, Necid pen. 89’
Perisic 37’, Rakitic 59’
What with tomorrow being Saturday, I don’t even attempt to stay up for the midnight kick-off. But I’m glad I decided to watch in full the following morning, because it’s an interesting one.
Croatia pick up where they left off against Turkey, creating lots of chances and looking like one of the best teams in the tournament. Seriously, I can’t think of any team having played better over their opening match and a half. By the hour mark they’re 2-0 up and safe: two cute finishes from midfielders – a precise shot across goal and a little chip. This tournament may not have been awash with goals; but the ones that do come are usually lovely.
The Czechs pick up where they left off against Spain: running around a lot while looking very limited. But then Croatia take of Modric (player of the tournament so far?) and the Czechs bring on Skoda (a nice little runner…) and the game starts to change. Skoda heads in. Surely nothing but a consolation?
Suddenly, though, there are flares on the pitch. Lots of them, thrown from the Croatian end. One explodes near a steward. The players leave the pitch. There are what commentators would describe as ‘disturbing scenes that the game could do without’. Rakitic, Srna and others go to the crowd, who are now fighting each other, to appeal for calm. Eventually the game resumes, but Croatia look rattled and almost instantly give away a penalty for handball. The spot kick is rattled in to give the Czechs an undeserved point.
The pedant in me is concerned by the timing of the penalty, too. Some sources put it as 89 minutes, having paused the clock for the long flare-related stoppage. But some sources put it down as 90+4, having let the clock run on throughout. What to do? I’ll just have to count to ten and not let it keep me awake. Either way it’s another very late goal: of the 39 scored so far, 12 have come in the 87th minute or later.
Friday 17th June
Spain 3 – 0 Turkey – Gp D, Nice
Morata 34’, 48’, Nolito 37’
Spain see that Croatia performance and raise it, by producing a performance that is simply peak Spain. They run Turkey ragged and kill them off with three well-constructed goals either side of halftime. They could have won by five or six, if they’d wanted to, but you feel that Spain see winning by five or six as vulgar.
You do wonder what happened in Brazil, at the last World Cup. They’ve been the best team in the world for almost ten years, cruising through Euros and qualifiers and whatever else the footballing world threw at them, but completely bollixed up in 2014. I suppose any team can lose two games in a week, especially to Holland and then Chile. But to lose those two games and crash out of the competition that you won at such a canter four years earlier, in that fashion, just seems weirder and weirder the more time moves on. If they play like this from now on then very few, if any of the teams in this tournament, will be able to stop them.
Turkey look as awful as Spain look awesome. I doubt they’ll be troubling the knockout stages. Their fans do make a mark by letting of flares, though, joining the Russians and the Croatians in this regard. Without wanting to sound like a paranoid housewife – if they can smuggle flares in that easily then what else can they bring in? Apparently they’re hiding them up their bums, though, a search that is probably well beyond the pay-grade of a minimum wage security guard.
Saturday 18th June
Belgium 3 – 0 Republic of Ireland – Gp E, Bordeaux
Lukaku 48’, 70’, Witzel 61’
Belgium see that Spain performance and… Well, not quite. But they do look much better than in their first game. A twenty minute blitz does for the Irish and, if they can keep this up in their last group game then we may have to consider them as contenders.
Somehow, despite this being a Saturday 9pm kick-off, a not particularly strenuous Saturday either, I doze off. I did go out for dinner though, and drank some wine which may explain my lethargy. Betrayed by alcohol! Since the previous Sunday I hadn’t touched a drop – taking my preparation for a metaphorical marathon (of football!) very literally.
Anyway, I seriously hope that this group doesn’t provide one of the four runners up, as I don’t fancy watching this Irish or that Swedish team any more than I have to. But it does look as if the games are opening up a little more now. In the past three matches we’ve had our first 4 goal game and two teams scoring 3! A bonanza!
Saturday 18th June
Iceland 1 – 1 Hungary – Gp F, Marseille
Sigurdsson pen. 40′
Saevarsson o.g. 88′
And, having dosed through the 9pm kick-off, I’m wide awake for the midnight performance. And a gloriously scrappy one it is. Two very limited teams that make the most of what God gave ‘em. Iceland and Hungary have been really fun to watch over their two matches, which is more than you can say for many of the supposedly more capable teams in the tournament.
Kiraly, the Hungarian keeper and oldest player ever at a Euros, fumbles a corner and fouls an attacker: Sigurdsson sweeps home the penalty. Hungarian pressure mounts and mounts as the second half rattles towards its climax and, just in time, a devilish ball into the box is prodded into his own net by sorry Saevarsson. Iceland denied a famous first win, but there’s something very admirable about this Hungarian team –motivated perhaps by their glorious history.
One of my many favourite aspects of international tournaments – how many favourites can one person have? – is seeking out the most ‘budget’ fixture. The game that, if this weren’t a World Cup or European Championship, you wouldn’t even consider allowing to darken your TV set. I had this one earmarked as such from the get-go, closely followed by tomorrow’s Albania-Romania clash. Budget fixtures from previous international tournaments, in my lifetime, include South Africa Vs Saudi Arabia in ’98, China Vs Costa Rica in 2002 and, perhaps my favourite of all, Angola Vs Iran from 2006. Note that none of these had come in the European Champs until this year – the earlier 16 team format streamlined to allow only the creamiest cream to rise to the top.
Saturday 18th June
Portugal 0 – 0 Austria – Gp F, Paris
Ronaldo m/p 78
And so the second round of games draws to an end. ‘Draws’… get it? The initial glut of fixtures is over, replaced in the schedules with simultaneous kick-offs to see each group out, sparsely spread out over 4 days. And there are no 9pm kick offs. At least I might get some sleep.
Anyway, if a game is going to be 0-0 then the least it can do is look like it’s trying not to be. And this one does try. At least Portugal try. Well, Ronaldo tries. And fails. And it’s quite funny. Days after bemoaning Iceland’s presence in the tournament, Ron’s Portugal find themselves stuck behind the Reykjavik Rousers (potentially not their real nickname) with one game left to play. And after several attempts from a variety of ranges, CR7 thumps a spot kick off the post. But that’s not all. With five minutes left he heads in. Redemption, his perfect little face contorted in relief and just the tiniest shade of self-love. But it’s offside. Like I said, if Carlsberg did 0-0s…
No matter how watchable the match is, I do feel like a bit of a fool for sitting through a goalless 90 minutes that was played twelve hours earlier. But I’ve invested in this tournament and there’s no turning back now! It’s also hard not to be very frustrated with this lacklustre Austria side: the pre-tournament hipsters’ choice (proving yet again that hipsters are not to be trusted). Aside from the teams that everyone knew would be crap anyway, Austria are the crappest.
And note that I include the missed penalty in my scoreline above – a throwback to late ‘90s teletext. I’ve never seen it done like that since but, if anything, missed penalties are the backbone of a good football match. Even better when it’s Cristiano Ronaldo that’s missing them.