Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Rise of Football Collectivism

Together Stronger. That was the official hashtag and slogan of the Wales squad during the European Championship. Usually anything ‘official’ when it comes to the marketing side of football is to be ignored or avoided as the embarrassment it is, but this one hit the mark.


The achievements of the Welsh team have been well documented over the last few weeks but this feeling of togetherness, of unity, was something that was very noticeable among all of the successful sides in France.

Although Portugal had probably the biggest individual football superstar, it was the rest of the squad that came together as a team to take on their French opponents – and a partisan home crowd – after Ronaldo left the pitch on a stretcher after 25 minutes of Sunday’s final.

The Portugal team were actually unfairly deemed to be bit part players to Ronaldo’s headline act but they showed the unity and teamwork that was needed to win their nation’s first ever major trophy. By disregarding players such as Nani, Sanches and Pepe, pundits and fans alike helped foster the togetherness that brought them their famous victory.

But if you look at the tournament as a whole it is easy to see that those squads that worked as one were the more successful compared to other nations with perhaps a higher number of top quality players. England and Belgium are just two examples of squads brimming with some of the best players in Europe. But when they found themselves up against players playing for each other, for their coaches, and for their countries, it was the superstar sides that came up short.

Although Wales reached the semi-final in their first major tournament in 58 years it is probably Iceland that epitomise this feeling of football collectivism. In their first ever finals they compounded all expectations to, first of all, get out of a group above the eventual winners and then to go on to beat the inventors of the game themselves. England, on paper, were far too powerful for their tiny North Atlantic opponents, but as a team Iceland fought together and played to their strengths, dispatching England’s supposed superiority.


Iceland found the French side in imposing form in the quarter final and were soundly beaten. But even in that match the underdogs never gave up, kept on pushing forward when they could and won the second half of the match (unfortunately they had already conceded four in the first half).
There are a number of other examples of this togetherness from the tournament – Hungary winning their group, Albania scoring their first ever goal to win their first ever match at a finals, Northern Ireland and Slovakia qualifying for the knock out stages. All these instances give credence to the belief that teamwork can overcome individual talent.

The bloated format of the competition has been derided by many and maybe that gave some of these ‘smaller’ nations a bigger chance to work together to progress further than they would have done if only the ‘elite’ were allowed to qualify. But they still had to bring themselves together to produce these performances and results – even if some of the more storied nations were not always up to par.

In the end Ronaldo – one of the biggest superstars the sport has ever known – has won the European Championship but it was his team that won it for him. And as another tournament enters the history books the fans will remember most the exploits of Wales and Iceland as they were the teams who showed that you don’t always need the most money, or a plethora of gal├ícticos to be successful. Sometimes you just need to play together as a team.GALGGGGjhbgjhjhjhjhjnjhn 






Monday, 11 July 2016

Champions of Europe

So we did get to see Ronaldo tears, for a variety of different reasons in the end, as Portugal beat the host nation to win their first ever major trophy.


Much has been made of the fact that Portugal only won one game in regular time throughout the entire tournament but this well drilled, organised side was able to thwart the French attack last night - and push forward when necessary to win the European Championship.

With Ronaldo missing the majority of the match after being carried off on a stretcher following a collision with Dimitri Payet most observers would have given Portugal even less of a chance of victory. But they showed that their team - and squad - had more quality than just their superstar, scoring in the second half of extra time to break French hearts.

France were dominant throughout the first half and Rui Patricio made a number of saves to keep the match goalless. One from a majestic header from Griezmann showed why the Portugal keeper was probably the best shot stopper in the tournament.

France, having most of the play, did not seem to be able to work out the clear cut chances that they needed to score and even when Ronaldo exited the pitch, Portugal's regrouping denied the hosts any really good opportunities.


In all fairness this wasn't a classic final but there was enough happening to keep the interest of the neutral. France almost nicked it right at the end when substitute Gignac turned wonderfully in the six yard box to make space for what was a scuffed shot that beat Lloris but not the post.

Extra time it was and Portugal defied expectations by turning their game up a notch. If anything they were the attacking side in this period and nearly took the lead when the very impressive Guerreiro hit the bar with a powerful free kick with around ten minutes to go.

But just a minute later Eder picked the ball up around 30 yards out, shrugged off the challenge of Koscielny and fired an unstoppable shot to the right of Lloris in the French goal. It had looked for a while that one goal would win this final and that proved to be the case.

Ronaldo, with his leg heavily strapped, encouraged his teammates from the sidelines as the seconds ticked away and then the ref blew his whistle to give Portugal a famous victory.


Pundits have been quick to criticise the organisation and format of the tournament - a fair point given that a third place team went on to lift the trophy - but there is nothing quite like a major international tournament and for everyone who enjoyed watching Wales, Iceland and Gabor Kiraly's tracksuit trousers this has been a memorable few weeks. Not a classic tournament but one with some definite highlights.

And if you're worrying about where you're going to get your Euro 2016-style football report fix now the tournament is over, never fear. I'm going to have a few tournament round up pieces for you in the next few days to keep you going (you lucky people!)

Friday, 8 July 2016

And now, the end is near...

In a semi final played at a frenetic pace, France absorbed German pressure and went on to book a place in Sunday's final thanks to two goals from Antoine Griezmann.


Wales and Portugal's match looked like an afternoon stroll in comparison to the blistering speed of the second semi final. France were buoyed by a passionate Marseilles crowd but soon found themselves on the back foot thanks to waves of German attacks.

But for all their pressure, Germany were not making any clear cut chances and the lack of a natural striker was clearly showing. Gomez was out injured and Thomas Mueller was still unable to find the form that we all know he possesses.

Even with all that play it was France who were closest to scoring what would have been the goal of the tournament when a slick move involving Griezmann (who else?) and the impressive Matuidi was only denied a goal by the outstretched arm of Manuel Neuer in the German goal.

Giroud also had an excellent chance to score in the first half but his quite incredible lack of pace meant that Howedes was able to get back and block the Frenchman's shot.


But just when it looked like we would go into the break goalless Germany gave away another stupid penalty. This time it was Schweinsteiger who led with his arm as he challenged for a header. The referee spotted the infringement and France had a wonderful chance to go 1-0 up against the run of play. Antoine Griezmann expertly dispatched the spot kick to score his fifth of the tournament and Germany were left scratching their heads at how they were losing the match.

The second half saw more pressure from Germany but they never looked like breaking down the final barrier and making all their possession pay. And with just under 20 minutes to go Griezmann scored his second of the night to send the home crowd into ecstasy.


It was a mistake by Kimmich that led to the goal. Paul Pogba latched onto a mishit pass in the box and toyed with the German defender before putting an inviting cross into the middle. Neuer flapped at the ball somewhat and it was left to Griezmann to prod the ball home to sweep his nation into the final.

Germany kept on playing in their patient, attacking style but to no avail. Hugo Lloris did make an incredible save from a header close to the end but by that point the French crowd were already celebrating a famous victory that makes them favourites to win the trophy at the weekend.




Thursday, 7 July 2016

No Shame

So it was not to be. Wales failed to score for the first time in this tournament and were beaten by two goals in three minutes that take Portugal through to the final.


It was billed as the battle between Ronaldo and Bale but anyone who has watched both these sides would know that they are both much more than sidekicks to their respective superheroes. And with Wales and Portugal both missing key players it was always going to be a case of whose absence was felt the greatest.

Although Bale is undoubtedly the star of the Welsh side it is Aaron Ramsey that has ran the show, being able to defend and attack in equal measure and push the entire team forward. And how he was missed last night. Wales never looked as inventive or creative as they had done against Russia and Belgium, although Portugal were not offering much in return.


The first half was a fairly stale affair with an early showing of Ronaldo's frustration one of few highlights. Joe Allen was unable to make the incisive runs he showed in previous matches and although the Wales defence was tight, Portugal were having few problems containing Robson-Kanu or any other Welsh threat.

It was still goalless at the break but within a few minutes of the restart Portugal had taken the lead. They had come out much stronger and seemingly with real intent and it showed in the 50th minute when Ronaldo leapt highest - and longest - to fire a trademark header past Hennessey in the Welsh goal.

Wales had not really looked like scoring up until this point and Portugal put the game beyond any real doubt just three minutes later when Nani stretched out his leg to deflect a Ronaldo shot into the net to make it 2-0.

Chris Coleman did his best to refresh the side, throwing on Jonny Williams, Simon Church and Sam Vokes in a bid to get back into the game but even though there was more attacking strength there was still little to show for it. Gareth Bale attempted to take matters into his own hands with some powerful runs but his shots were easily fielded by Rui Patricio and Wales could not get the goal that would have given them the belief that they could go on and get another.

Portugal took off Sanches with a quarter of an hour still to go, possibly to give him some extra rest before the final. They will be hoping that he can provide Ronaldo with opportunities to score against either France or Germany as he is the biggest threat in the rest of the team - even at his young age.


As for Wales, reaching the semi final stage in their first major tournament for nearly 60 years seems like a poor consolation this morning but the entire squad can take great heart and pride in their performances in France and now look ahead to the World Cup qualifiers that begin in September.

Wales desperately missed Aaron Ramsey and just didn't have enough to break down a Portugal side who hadn't lost a single match in the tournament. They will now go home with their heads held high while Ronaldo will have to figure out how to lead his side to the victory he yearns for against either France or Germany on Sunday.

The second semi final brings together two of the favourites in what should be a really enthralling game. Neither side has looked overly dominant up to now but the performance from France against Iceland - along with home support - could give them the confidence that they need to beat Germany.

Mario Gomez is injured so won't be playing tonight and it could be the lack of a proper striker that is Germany's downfall. Goetze looked woefully out of form - and position - in the first two group games and Joachim Low's men will have to rely on the attacking prowess of the midfield if they are to progress. Or maybe Thomas Mueller will finally click into gear and score some goals?


Didier Deschamps has no such selection worries with his entire squad fit and now suspension free. If this match was taking place anywhere apart from in France I would be going for a German win but I think the home side will use their advantages well tonight and make it to the final - without the need for extra time and penalties.

Monday, 4 July 2016

HUH!

Iceland's European Championship journey ends in a thrashing by the hosts who looked on top form even with some of their first choice starters missing through suspension.

They have made a lot of new friends (apart from Ronaldo) but Iceland are finally going home after coming up against a rampant France side in Paris. The French scored four before half time to stroll into the semi finals.


Iceland could not repeat the heroics of the England match, possibly due to tiredness, and unfortunately met a France side who were far better than their cross channel counterparts.

France started very well and looked in control, although Iceland had seemed to weather the early pressure before Giroud was allowed far too much time to control a neat through ball before shooting past the Icelandic keeper to make it 1-0 after only 12 minutes.

French poster boy Paul Pogba rose majestically for the second, heading powerfully into the net from a corner seven minutes later and it was already looking like it would be a long night for Iceland.


Iceland seemed to have made it to the break without any further trouble but in the space of three minutes the whole game was over. Payet worked some space for himself well before finishing with his left foot from the edge of the box to make it three before Griezmann deftly flicked the ball over the advancing keeper for the fourth on the stroke of half time.

Without wanting to sound patronising, Iceland never gave up and scored ten minutes into the second half after Sigurdsson had put in a really good low cross that Sigthorsson poked home. But any wild thoughts of a comeback were dashed a couple of minutes later when Giroud got his second of the night, leaping highest to meet a Payet free kick.


Iceland were rewarded for their continuing efforts towards the end when Bjarnason headed to make it 5-2 but the hosts were through and everyone's second favourite team were left to celebrate their remarkable tournament with their adoring fans.

France will meet Germany in what could be an outstanding semi final after they finally beat Italy on penalties on Saturday night. Ozil put the Germans 1-0 up with a sweet finish after some really good work from Gomez down the left hand side.

And it was Mario Gomez who should have made it two when his elaborate finish was well saved by Buffon in the Italian goal. If the German striker had been able to finish conventionally rather than going for a fancy flick he may have put the game beyond doubt. But Jerome Boateng's moment of madness gave Italy a penalty with just over 10 minutes ago which Bonucci slotted expertly into the corner of the net.


No further goals could be found in extra time so it was all down to penalties to decide who would go through to the semi final. Three penalties had already been missed - one a comical effort from Zaza for Italy - before Darmian had his effort saved. Next up was Hector who squeezed his spot kick under the arm of Buffon in the Italian goal and Germany were through.

Another nervous couple of days off now before the semis. Wales v Portugal on Wednesday and Germany v France on Thursday.


Saturday, 2 July 2016

Dreamland

Incredible. Amazing. Outstanding. All of this and so much more. Wales defeat Belgium's golden generation to seal a semi final against Portugal.


It is still sinking in. Wales have made it to the last four of a major international tournament for the first time ever. The squad's togetherness and teamwork has definitely got them where they are now but they have also shown great skill along the way.

From the start of the match Wales confounded expectations and refused to just let Belgium attack and seemed to surprise their opponents as much as everyone else with their inventive, creative play. But Eden Hazard had seemed to come good just at the right time for the Red Devils and his side were looking the more dangerous when Nainggolan struck an absolute screamer to put Belgium in the lead in the 13th minute.


At first it looked like Wayne Hennessey should have done better with the 25 yard shot but the pace that the Belgian midfielder thundered into his strike was just too much. Wales were not deterred though and simply composed themselves and came back into the match again.

Their efforts were rewarded on the half hour mark when a well worked corner routine was finished off by captain Ashley Williams directing his free header into the corner of the net. Once again we saw the togetherness of the entire squad as Williams ran to the bench to celebrate the goal.

This was turning into the match of the tournament with both sides playing some really attractive football, completely believing that they had the skill to get through the opposing defence. Incredibly it was Wales who succeeded.

Ten minutes into the second half Gareth Bale played a perfect pass to the feet of the irrepressible Ramsey who controlled the ball before crossing in towards Robson-Kanu. The Welsh striker's exquisitely elegant turn took out the entire Belgian defence and gave him the space to put his shot past Courtois to make to 2-1 to Wales.


The Welsh fans were delirious. Not only had their side gone into the lead in the quarter final of the European Championship against one of the favourites to win the trophy, they had just witnessed one of the best goals ever in a major tournament.

Belgium looked stunned but pushed forward again in an attempt to force an equaliser. Fellaini had come on at half time to add some muscle in the middle of the pitch and surprisingly took a whole 14 minutes to pick up a yellow card. Although Belgium were now enjoying more of the ball, Wales didn't just sit back and Bale, Allen and Ramsey tried everything they could to add to the goal tally.

Belgium were creating chances but Fellaini missed with a close range header before Nainggolan had a penalty appeal turned down as the minutes ticked away. With Belgium pushing forward that left even more space for the Welsh wing backs to attack. And it was from Chris Gunter's cross from the right that Sam Vokes perfectly glanced header floated into the net with five minutes to go and seal the victory.


Belgium could point to their reshuffled defence as a factor in their defeat but they know that they were beaten by the better side on the day. The team work and talent at Wales' disposal - added to passion for the shirt - propelled them into the semi final. A major blow for Wales is the suspension of Ramsey and Davies for the semi as they both picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament. But even taking that into consideration, Ronaldo and co will not be too confident of a victory.

A real mouth-watering fixture later as Germany take on Italy. The Italians have confounded expectations from the start of their campaign when they beat Belgium and will take comfort in the remarkable fact that they have never lost to Germany in a tournament match.


Joachim Low seems to have found his favoured starting eleven now (in between smelling various parts of his body on live television) and Gomez will be hoping he can add to his goal tally against Italy.

The Azzurri had been called the worst Italian squad ever before the tournament but now they will be full of confidence and believing that they are on the same trajectory as their 2006 World Cup winning counterparts.

Germany, without looking all-conquering, have done the job so far and I feel that this is where the Italian dream ends. I'm going for a tight German victory - possibly on penalties.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Together Stronger

No Ronaldo tears yet. Shocked into the game by an early Polish goal, Portugal eventually go through to the semi finals on penalties.

Ronaldo is still misfiring, slapping his thighs and shouting to the heavens but his side are through to their fourth semi final in five European Championships and will now think that they can go all the way.


Poland had the best possible start with Robert Lewandowski finally scoring within two minutes of the kick off. A long ball was hopelessly misjudged by Cedric Soares, allowing the very impressive Grosicki to put a low cross into the six yard box where the Bayern man was able to direct it past Rui Patricio and into the net.

Portugal looked stunned and for the next ten minutes or so Poland piled on the pressure having a few more good chances without adding to the score. Then it all calmed down a little bit and Portugal took control. Renato Sanches in particular orchestrated the play from the middle of the pitch and looked like he was worth every penny that Bayern Munich paid Benfica for him.


And it was no surprise that it was Sanches that drew Portugal level just after the half hour mark. Cutting in from the right, Sanches played a neat one two with Nani and curled a shot from the edge of the box - via a slight deflection - into the net. It was nothing more than Portugal deserved but both sides had looked good and pleasantly surprised most viewers expecting a dull game.

Those expectations, unfortunately, were to be met - and then exceeded - as the game went on. The second half was most notable for Ronaldo reverting to the way he performed in the first two games of the group stage - and another pitch invader.

Ronaldo made a mess of one through ball in particular when he missed the ball completely attempting to shoot - an action that perfectly summed up the second half of the match. Poland looked more confident of the tie going to penalties while everyone else sat through a turgid extra time period.

After three penalties each both sides hadn't missed but then Blaszczykowski - the hero in the match against Switzerland - had his effort saved at full stretch by Rui Patricio. Next up was Quaresma, who had come on for the woeful Joao Mario, and the rejuvenated forward swept the ball into the roof of the net to put Portugal through to the semis.

Poland didn't really look like winning the match even after their early goal and the incisive play from Sanches gave Portugal a distinct advantage. Ronaldo still isn't hitting top form though and he will need to do so if they are ultimately going to be victorious.


Tonight's match sees Wales face Belgium for what seems like about the hundredth time in the past few seasons. These sides faced each other in qualifying for this tournament where Wales took four points off the Belgian 'golden generation'. But not too much should be read into that. Belgium can be very arrogant in their play and not perform as well as they might if they believe that they have a right to beat a supposed smaller nation. I can't see them playing that way today.

From losing in their first group match, Belgium have clicked into gear and, led by an Eden Hazard showing the form of previous seasons, will be very confident of meeting Portugal in the semi final. But if this tournament has been encapsulated by one theme it has been teamwork and the 'Together Stronger' slogan of Wales is much more than a marketing gimmick.

Although they lost to England, Wales deservedly topped the group by playing to their strengths, teamwork and passion, backed up by some exemplary individual displays. Ramsey and Allen in particular have been outstanding, giving Bale the room to add his little bit of magic. The fact that Bale has not looked at his very best yet shows how well Wales as a whole have played - and how much Belgium should worry that he hits his stride tonight,

Although I obviously would love for Wales to reach the semi finals (even just typing that is incredible) Belgium seem to be back at their best and it will be very tough for Chris Coleman's men. Belgium are missing some vital players in defence so that could be where Wales might win this game. As much as it pains me to say it, I think Belgium will probably nick it but I'm hoping that my standard of predicting matches continues in its usual way tonight!