Midnight in Paris – Part 4

Saturday 25th June

Switzerland 1 (4) – (5) 1 Poland (a.e.t)

Round of 16, St. Etienne

Shaqiri 82’

Blaszczykowski 39’

 

After a football free break of two days, we arrive at 9pm on Saturday, to a pitch awash with sun, and the prospect of knockout fun! Though, to be honest, I approach Switzerland Vs Poland with no little amount of trepidation, having seen more than enough of the two sides in the group stages…

It starts off slowly – if ever there was a game in need of a goal it’s this one – but Poland have the better chances. Their forward Milik has to be the most frustrating player at this tournament, sending shot after shot after shot high or wide in every game so far. Today he shoots over an empty goal (the keeper isolated following a bad back pass) with 25 seconds played.

Luckily, though, we get the goal we need before half-time. Blaszczykowski slotting home after a counter, and hopefully that’s his last meaningful involvement in this tournament as typing his name’s a right pain in the arse. Poland then decide that’s enough and have no meaningful attempts at goal post-53 minutes.

The Swiss punish them with the goal of the tournament, the goal of any tournament: a bicycle kick from the edge of the area. It needs no description other than that, does it? There’s no way a bicycle kick from the edge of the area could be anything but amazing. Shaqiri performs the acrobatics, the ball clips in off the post, and we have extra time.

And by this point I take back everything I ever said about Switzerland being boring – they are the only team trying to win it. Derdiyok has two great chances but Poland hold on and, as is so often the case, the team that should have won it loses on penalties. Xhaka the only man to miss – but at least he does so in some style: well, well wide.

Not awful, in the end, but surely just a mildly diverting amuse-bouche ahead of two bombastic ties…

 

Saturday 25th June

Wales 1 0 Northern Ireland

Round of 16, Paris

McAuley o.g. 75’

 

Hmmm, or not.

The problems with this format are thrust out into the open for all to see: Northern Ireland simply shouldn’t be in the knockout stages of an international tournament. They arrive here because they lost by as few goals as possible, and they now carry on where they left off against Germany. That’s not to say that they are completely negative; just incredibly limited.

Wales, meanwhile, appear to struggle in their new role as favourites and look unrecognisable from the team that dismantled Russia last week. It’s a struggle, especially as the clock ticks past one a.m.

Thankfully, I am spared the extra half hour by one moment of quality from Gareth Bale (he really is carrying them through this tournament) as he beats his man, swings in a devilish cross and forces the own goal from McAuley. Phew.

So, that was a write-off. But up next is the team of the tournament, who just beat Spain in thrilling fashion, and a team coming off the back of a crazy 3-3 draw. Now we’re talking!

 

Saturday 25th June

Croatia 0 1 Portugal (a.e.t)

Round of 16, Lens

Quaresma 117’

 

Oh, sweet Jesus.

I don’t watch it live (…”I will be forever grateful that I didn’t get up to watch the match that morning. I don’t know what made me stay in bed, sometimes fate is just on your side”…) and when I try to watch it ‘on-demand’ the game is nowhere to be seen. I don’t pause to think that my TV might be trying to tell me something.

So, I naively track it down (on ITV; the sacrifices one makes…), and settle down to what should be match-up of the tournament so far. I can see from the length of the programme and the position of the advertising breaks (quite the amateur detective) that the match has gone to extra time but not penalties. 2-2 and a 120th minute winner?

Kick-off… Nothing immediately happens, and then nothing continues to happen. Towards the end of the first half, with still nothing whatsoever having happened, I start to skip ahead. Half time. Second half. Still nothing. I start skipping again. Every time I press play I see one of two things: a wildly over hit pass or a player being tripped. Skip skip skip. Last ten minutes. Skip skip skip. Full time. Extra time. Nope, nothing to see here. Skip skip skip.

It’s abysmal.

Modern football has reached the point where players are so drilled, so well-trained, so tactically programmed that, if they were so-minded, two managers could put their teams out to play a never endingly goalless game. Two managers could ask themselves the question: what’s the bare minimum effort, ambition, drive… whatever required to play something resembling a football match? And they know that footballers will never deviate from the game plan because, well, why would they? That’s what happens here, in Lens, on this infamous night: two sick Victor Frankensteins perform their twisted experiment in front of the whole world. How else can you explain what happened to these previously attacking, entertaining sides? The players spend 120 minutes in a daze of short passes, over hit long balls and clips round the ankle. Portugal only win because Subasic in the Croatia goal short-circuits (he’ll never be seen again, mark my words) and fails to hold a Ronaldo shot. The first shot on target. After 117 minutes. Quaresma nods the rebound in. Suddenly Croatia wake up, their manager’s spell broken, and actually try to score. But it’s too little and way, way too late. Modric, Srna and co. fall to the ground, distraught, but it’s hard to have any sympathy for them at all. Come back Poland and Switzerland, all is forgiven. At least there can’t be a worst match at the tournament. The depths have been plumbed; the nadir reached. The only way is up… baby. Or am I being far too naive?

 

Sunday 26th June

France 2 – 1 Republic of Ireland

Round of 16, Lyon

Griezmann 57’, 61’

Brady pen. 2’, Duffy s/o 66’

 

Despite the temptation, after last night’s debacle, to divorce myself from football and run away with a fresher, sprightlier sport – rugby maybe – I tune in at 9pm in true Pavlovian fashion. (As an aside, can there be a greater insult to a game of football than the statement: I’d rather be watching rugby? No, I didn’t think so).

And, in a sign from the footballing Gods that says ‘everything’s going to be alright’, Ireland win a penalty within barely 60 seconds of kicking off. Brady slots home off the post, and provides the starting pistol for a superb game of football.

And I don’t mean ‘superb’ in the way a starving man will find any meal ‘superb’, it really was a good game, tussling directly with Hungary-Portugal (Portugal… shudder) for game of the tournament.

You always knew France were going to win, but it didn’t make the match any less interesting. Plenty of people watched Titanic, after all. And Ireland do have chances to extend their lead but, after a nervy first half at the end of which they are booed off, Les Bleus come out revitalised for the second and both Griezmann’s goals are well-taken. After Duffy is sent off for a last-man trip it could have finished 4 or 5-1.

And that’s the last of the 9pm kick-offs! The tournament is reaching the business end and my resolve is going to be tested like never before. The quarters and semis are all 3am-ers…

 

Sunday 26th June

Germany 3 – 0 Slovakia

Round of 16, Lille

Boateng 8’, Ozil m/p 13’, Gomez 43’, Draxler 63’

 

It turns out that France-Ireland is the last of the 2nd Round games that I see in full, as my carefree life of wall-to-wall football finally catches up with me. After feeling perfectly alert – refreshed almost – after an un-taxing weekend, my eyelids droop as soon as the action in Lille gets underway.

Sleep, as I’ve written before, is an elusive beast. The more you want it the more it slips between your fingers; but when you could really do without it, sleep slaps you on the back of the head and drags you off. Lack of sleep is also hard to quantify – it’s not just a case of ‘miss two hours one night, catch up on two hours the next’. You can go days, weeks (17 days and counting) with reduced sleep and not feel terrible. And then all of a sudden it hits you on a languid Sunday evening. I remember travelling around Vietnam 7 or 8 years ago, on bumpy night-buses driven by what may have been escaped convicts. After 3 weeks of this I was, while not feeling terribly exhausted, slowly losing my mental capabilities. One evening I was walking in Ho Chi Minh City, through a grid-style block of streets that was incredibly easy to navigate, the sort of grid that lab rats negotiate on a daily basis, to the hostel in which we had stayed for the past four days, and I got hopelessly lost. I went around and around for ages trying to find the entrance only to find that I had never been more than twenty feet away from the hostel door the whole time. Yet, if you’d have asked me I’d never have said I felt tired.

Anyway, this meditation on sleep is in lieu of anything much to say about this match. From the highlights Germany look very impressive – after Northern Ireland and now this they seem to be clicking – while we are all better off without Slovakia. Ozil’s penalty miss, fact fans, is Germany’s first at a Euros since 1976 (including shootouts!)

 

Sunday 26th June

Hungary 0 – 4 Belgium

Round of 16, Toulouse

Alderweireld 10’, Batshuayi 78’, Hazard 79’, Carrasco 90+1

 

From the highlights Belgium look mighty impressive, although in the 70 or so minutes between the first and second goals Hungary appear to have given it a real go. They really have re-established themselves on the international stage during these past two weeks and, as when Uruguay re-joined the international elite at the turn of the decade, it just feels right.

But eventually Belgium wear them down to register the biggest victory of the tournament so far. Hazard runs the show and scores a superb solo jinker. It’s a statement much like Germany put out in the previous game, or as Spain did against Turkey. Contenders!

 

Monday 27th June

Italy 2 – 0 Spain

Round of 16, St. Denis

Chiellini 33’, Pelle 90+1

 

The last hurrah. The final whistle peeps, and ushers in a changing of ways. Spain are no longer the dominant force in world football; and we are now in the dead zone of non-stop 3am kick-offs. And I myself am also playing football this very evening – albeit in the slightly less high stakes arena of Victoria Park pitch number 3. Though I leave early to ensure that I am fed, showered and generally not too shattered to sit up watching this ‘Match of the Tournament So Far’. I do have previous in missing huge Italian matches in the European Championships due to my own footballing commitments, actually: I missed their classic Euro 2000 semi-final with Holland because of a keenly-contested encounter on the grass outside my house (if my memory serves, I scored a sublime diving header…).

Anyway, this is a good send-off for the midnight kick-offs: a compelling, absorbing match that threatens to be utterly thrilling at times. Despite my eyelids growing heavy a few times in the opening half an hour, I manage to see it through to its 2am conclusion. I feel a strange sense of achievement.

Although Italy have now comfortable dispatched both Spain and Belgium, both by two goals to nil, I still can’t see them as favourites. France lurk, Belgium have resurged, Germany await… Perhaps if they can see off the Germans in the quarters then we’ll have to take them seriously.

Here Spain are disposed of very clinically and, in the end, pretty easily. At first it did seem that the World Cup was an anomaly, that Spain were still Spain and they were going to pass their way to a third consecutive triumph. Against Turkey and the Czechs they turned on the old tiki-taka and started to purr. But in some ways it was like a Rolling Stones tour: they pleased the crowds but didn’t really prove to be relevant at the top of the charts (the charts, in this tortured metaphor, being the later stages of an international tournament). Croatia and Italy have found them out and dispatched them by playing solidly, and robustly, but with plenty of pace and vigour in attack. Spain can caress the ball around like no other but, as the saying goes, they don’t like it up ‘em.

 

Monday 27th June

England 1 – 2 Iceland

Round of 16, Nice

Rooney pen. 4’

Sigurdsson 6’, Sigthorsson 18’

 

Oh stop now, you’re spoiling us.

After a group stage rich in pickings for those of us who enjoy the England football team’s travails, from last-minute Russian equalisers, to free kicks from 97 yards out, and blank scoresheets against dire Slovakians, this is gold.

I, of course, miss the 3am kick off. I head online over breakfast, more for confirmation than anything else: England set up quarter final with France. But no. England dumped out by heroic Iceland. Ignominious end to Euro 2016. Hodgson resigns.

I save the highlights for after work, and watch the glorious first twenty minutes or so in real-time. Sterling chopped down. Rooney into corner. 4 minutes gone. Routine. Iceland throw in. Oh, it’s long. And oh… it’s being flicked on… And it’s in. Apparently everyone saw the replica goal they scored against Austria apart from Kyle Walker and co. But the best is yet to come because in their next attack, Joe ‘I’ve had nothing to do all tournament’ Hart fails to keep out the weakest trickler you have ever seen.

Then I watch Match of the Day for the rest of the highlights. The scene opens on a dimly lit studio, flags at half-mast, Lineker wearing the sort of expression usually saved for North Korean news anchors announcing the death of the President. Shearer is puce – laying into the team and the worst performance he has ever seen from any team ever! And in truth they never really looked likely to get back into the game despite having 70 minutes plus to do so.

And with that, the Round of 16, which started with such a whimper, ends in high drama. Can the quarter finals continue the theme?

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