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


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


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!

Thursday, 30 June 2016

We Go On...

After two horrible, soul-destroying days without football the European Championship is back as Poland face Portugal in the first of the quarter finals.

Most people would probably have predicted Poland getting out of their group but to qualify unbeaten and then follow that up with a win on penalties over Switzerland is a real achievement.

When you consider that their star man - Robert Lewandowski - has not had a very good tournament then it shows that the whole squad has really come through to get them this far. This togetherness has been a common theme in this competition and they will need it tonight against the more fancied Portugal.

Arkadiusz Milik has also been fairly woeful up front for Poland but he has at least been getting into good positions - he just needs to start putting some of his chances away.

Portugal limped through to the second round without a single victory against Iceland, Hungary or Austria. Although they have a good squad, much has been put on the shoulders of Ronaldo and his frustration in not being able to deliver has been there for all to see.

Ricardo Quaresma scored the late late winner against a much lauded Croatia team in the second round and it should be worrying for Poland that Portugal seem to be finally getting into gear. The introduction of Bayern Munich new boy Renato Sanches bolsters an already impressive midfield and the whole squad will be confident going into this game.

Although Poland have strength at the back and Kapustka back from suspension I think Portugal are starting to play just at the right time. If Ronaldo can stop getting so angry and play football instead of sulking his team should go through. It may well be a tight affair so I'm going for Portugal 1 Poland 0.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Day 18 in France

Another tournament ends in embarrassment for England as they lose to a country of 330,000. Iceland deservedly march on to the quarter finals as the post mortem begins for England.

We've seen it all before. English players, fans and media arrogantly presuming they have a right to win trophies when they are just simply not good enough. The difference this time that it wasn't a Germany or an Argentina or a Brazil - it was Iceland. But it was an Iceland who had shown more teamwork, passion and determination (and let's not forget about skill) than the representatives of supposedly the best league in the world.

England had actually got the best possible start with Rooney scoring a penalty in the fourth minute after Raheem Sterling has been upended by Halldorsson. This should have been exactly what England needed and a body blow for Iceland but just 34 seconds later they were level.

If England had bothered to study Iceland's tactics they would have known that a long throw into the box was one of their many strengths. But Gunnarsson's throw was flicked on easily while Walker lost Sigurdsson in the box where he calmly side footed it past Hart in goal.

England carried on as before and played with confidence if not much drive and found themselves behind just 12 minutes later. Some nice interplay on the edge of the box was not closed down by a static English defence and Sigthorsson took a couple of touches to work some space before shooting. Joe Hart made yet another crucial error and it was 2-1. Nothing more than Iceland deserved and the beginning of the end for England.

Maybe England thought that Iceland would sit back and defend their lead but they were mistaken if they believed their opponents would show the same lack of imagination. England got worse and worse and it quickly became obvious that if anyone was to score again it would be Iceland.

Roy Hodgson had made some strange selections and his belief in Sterling and Kane, in particular, was left wanting. Rooney continued his amazing loss of form and it was not a surprise when he was subbed off - only a surprise that it took until the 86th minute for it to happen.

England looked totally devoid of ideas while the Icelandic team showed time and time again how much more they were willing to put in to get the result they craved. Even towards the end of the match Iceland were pushing forward - with two strikers - trying to get that third goal.

It is not surprising that England went out. It is surprising that their fans were duped once again into thinking that they had a chance of going far in a major competition.

The first game of the day was a match up between two of the sides that had really performed in the group stages. Italy had shocked everyone by beating Belgium in their first match and then topped the group with some more convincing displays.

Spain had looked good against the Czech Republic and Turkey before losing to Croatia. But even that late winner from Perisic hadn't seemed to take the shine of what looked like a very accomplished side with Alvaro Morata looking to come to the fore up front.

But one of the first rules of international football is to not rule out Italy. Supposedly their worst squad for 50 years, this group of players seem to thrive on the insults thrown their way and totally dominated the first half and deservedly went ahead just after the half hour. A free kick from Eder was only parried into the path of Giaccherini, and the captain Chiellini finally poked the ball home to put the Azzurri one up.

Italy were looking very good and Eder in particular was having a field day making Gerard Pique look like a pedestrian. Italy were on top in all areas of the pitch and it was only thanks to De Gea that they didn't go further ahead.

The second goal eventually did come in injury time as Pelle once again volleyed in from close range. Italy showed what has been a common theme in this tournament - teamwork and togetherness - and that is what took them through to the quart finals where they will meet Germany.

Other things I noticed yesterday...

  • ITV are terrible at the best of times but their patronising attitude towards Iceland was beyond belief. Mark Pougatch even asked his fellow 'pundits' at half time whether Joe Hart should be dropped for the quarter final. England were 2-1 down at the time
  • It's hard to single out any England player but Harry Kane was especially poor and it will be interesting to see how he comes back after this next season
  • Watching the highlights show it was refreshing to see Alan Shearer actually ripping into England's abject performance. I wonder whether he'll do the same to Premier League sides on Match of the Day next season?
  • For an Italian defender Chiellini loves getting forward
  • There was a lovely range of managerial cagoules on show in the Spain v Italy match
  • Why couldn't Spain wear their red kit? (as much as I did like their second strip)
  • Before the tournament many Italians didn't like the idea of Brazilian-born Eder being in the squad. Wonder what they think now?

No more games until Thursday now when the quarter finals start. If you're very lucky I might have something for you before then though. You have been warned.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Day 17 in France

After three matches that were good for catching up on some sleep on Saturday, yesterday's games had a little bit more to be excited about.

France would have been very confident going into their game against the Republic of Ireland in Lyon but went behind after only two minutes. Robbie Brady scored from the penalty spot after Pogba had become entangled with Shane Long to give away the foul.

That was about it from Ireland who noticeably tired in the second half especially. France did have a couple more days rest between their group games and this match but they always looked in control after the early penalty wake up call and deservedly equalised just before the hour mark.

Bacary Sagna put in a good cross which Antoine Griezmann finished expertly. The strength he got into his header was incredible and too much for the Irish keeper. Giroud, who had played forcefully all game, muscled his way between two defenders to flick on a header for Griezmann to get his second a few minutes later.

As with most of the top sides in this tournament, France played well and were in complete control without ever looking outstanding. They now face either England or Iceland in the quarter finals.

Germany easily overcame Slovakia in the second game of the day in Lille. The Slovakians were always going to find it tough but were rocked by an early goal from defender Jerome Boateng. It came from a corner that was only cleared to the edge of the box where the Bayern Munich man met it perfectly on the volley. It was reminiscent of Modric's goal against Turkey - although this one did benefit from a slight deflection to make sure it got past the Slovakian keeper.

The early goal forced Slovakia not to wholly rely on parking the bus but they never had enough insight to break through Germany with Hamsik having a very quiet game when his side needed him most.

Some excellent play down the left hand side from Draxler gave Mario Gomez the opportunity to cement his place in the starting eleven and score Germany's second just before half time and - as a competition - it was all over.

Julian Draxler added a third himself in the second half, finding himself completely unmarked at the far post from a corner. He volleyed the ball into the roof of the net from about five yards out and completely deserved some personal glory after a fine display.

Shock group winners Hungary met Belgium in the last game of the day and were unlucky to find the golden generation - and Eden Hazard in particular - finally discovering their very best form.

Belgium were simply outstanding with Hazard orchestrating much of their many, many attacks. Kevin De Bruyne also found a lot of space to conduct the play and it was a surprise that it was only 1-0 at half time. De Bruyne had floated in a lovely free kick right onto the head of Alderweireld to head past Kiraly to open the scoring. Both the Spurs man and Lukaku had easily brushed aside the 'marking' of the Hungarian defenders to create far too much space for themseleves.

Although Belgium were well on top, Hungary did play a lot of very good football but their attacking play was never rewarded with a goal and their defending looked, at times, woeful.

Belgium finally made their superiority tell towards the end. Michy Batshuayi scored with his very first touch after coming on for Lukaku. Hazard had breezed past the defender to slide a very inviting cross for the Marseille striker to side foot into the net with no Hungarian defenders anywhere near him.

Hazard topped off a perfect performance by scoring a trademark goal a minute later as Hungarian players wilted. A fourth goal in injury time was probably cruel on Hungary but Yarrasco, another sub, finished well after being put through by Nainggolan.

Other things I noticed yesterday...

  • There was bright sunshine for the France v Ireland game - exactly how it should be in a major international tournament. It took me back to Italy v Brazil in Spain in 1982
  • Skrtel is a dick
  • Although they have a lot to make up for by inflicting Sam Matterface and Clive Tyldesley on us, it was good to see an actual football journalist on ITV's pundit panel. A nice change from the usual ex-player 'insight' and 'analysis'
  • How lovely is that Belgium kit?
  • Ireland once again "defended heroically". This may be good at getting the crowd going but if that is what a team resort to it means that they are being bettered on the pitch. By the way, England do it a lot

The second round finishes today with two intriguing matches. Italy play Spain the early evening match. Hopefully both sides will stop grumbling about how unfair it is that they have to play each other so early and provide us with a treat of a game. Italy looked immense against Belgium in their first game but have looked a little shaky since so I think Spain will play their way to victory - 1-0.

David and Goliath in the second match of the day as Iceland face England. England, as usual, have looked far from convincing but surely Iceland can't repeat the heroics of the last few weeks? They do possess greater teamwork and do have a couple of players that could trouble the English defence but the talent should show in the end. I can see a nervy 1-0 England win (although I have consistently prematurely predicted the end of Iceland's involvement in this tournament so who knows!)

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Day 16 in France

Back to business with three second round matches consisting of, well, not that much really.

Poland beat Switzerland on penalties in the first match with a tempo of play that dictated how the rest of the day went. The Poles started much brighter but both sides looked over cautious with some terrible finishing on show.

Poland took the lead just before half time through Blaszczykowski who finished off a swift counter attack. The midfielder had scored against Ukraine in their final group match and gave his side a deserved lead.

The two Polish forwards - Lewandowski and Milik - looked very poor once again and it was Switzerland who finally perked up in the second half and looked the more likely to score. And their equaliser was a thing of pure beauty.

A speculative cross from Lichsteiner was only half cleared by the Polish defence and, as the ball bobbled up, Xherdan Shaqiri executed a sublime scissor kick volley from the edge of the area that dropped perfectly into the Polish net.

It was a goal that deserved to send Switzerland through but with no more goals added in the ten minutes remaining - or the extra time period - it was penalties in the first knock out match of Euro 2016.

Both sides scored their first attempts before new Arsenal man Granit Xhaka hit his effort wide of the post. The rest of the spot kicks were all successful giving Grzegorz Krychowiak the honour of sending his side through to the quarter finals.

The second match of the day was another tense affair with both Wales and Northern Ireland looking nervous in what was a largely uneventful match. Northern Ireland got control of the game in the first half, nullifying Gareth Bale and looking the better side without really looking like they might score.

Aaron Ramsey was nowhere near as effective as he had been against Russia and Joe Allen looked frustrated at his limited chances to get things going in the middle of the pitch.

Northern Ireland's tactics stopped Gunter and Taylor being able to push forward for the Welsh so their was no chance to pull out the defence splitting diagonal balls that worked so well for them in their final group game.

The game finally opened up a little as time went on and Bale was able to get a few runs going but with little effect until the 75th minute. After beating his man, Bale whipped in a low cross into the six yard box and Gareth McAuley, a hero for Northern Ireland against Ukraine, could only poke it in to his own net in an attempt to stop Hal Robson-Kanu connecting.

Wales are now through to the quarter finals where they will play either Hungary or Belgium on Friday night.

The final match of the day pitted the skillful Croatian side against Ronaldo's Portugal. If we thought that the two previous games had lacked excitement we hadn't seen anything yet. For a match with Modric, Rakitic, Ronaldo and Sanches - plus all the other highly talented players on show - we were presented a turgid match with absolutely no spark or innovation.

Both sides were so desperate not to lose that they simply forgot about trying to win. As the match crept towards the end of extra time, with penalties seemingly on the cards, Croatia finally pushed forward. Unfortunately for them it was their undoing. Perisic hit the base of the post with a header and with the ensuing counter attack Portugal scored.

Nani ultimately crossed from the edge of the area to Ronaldo whose shot was only parried onto the head of the incoming Quaresma. The Croatian players were distraught as the final whistle blew just minutes later and it is a shame that a side that looked so good in their group matches (apart from the capitulation to the Czech Republic) are now on their way home.

Other things I noticed...

  • Wolfsburg's Swiss defender Ricardo Rodriguez has been hyped up throughout the tournament but didn't impress in any of the games I saw. Does he play in a different role for his club?
  • As much as I admire the unique kit of Croatia, chequered socks are a step too far
  • Speaking of kits, the Portugal second strip is an insult to the eyes
  • Perisic's hair. We will say no more

Sunday sees three more matches to enjoy/endure with France taking on Ireland in the early game. Although it would be nice to think that the football gods will wreak revenge for Thierry Henry's cheating hand, the hosts will be far too strong and I can see them getting a few goals against a creaky Irish defence. I'm going for 3-0.

Hopefully these games will have a little bit more excitement than Saturday's but Slovakia will be looking to stop Germany play and nick a win so it will be up to the World champions to break their opponents down. I think they eventually will but don't expect a classic. Germany to win 1-0.

Hungary v Belgium in the final game of the day. I fear this will be the last outing for Gabor Kiraly's tracksuit bottoms, as although Belgium have looked far from being the 'golden generation' they should win here. Hungary have showed that they are no pushovers though and kept on coming back against Portugal in the final group game. I think Belgium will win in extra time - 1-0.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Two Days Off in France

Another day off today before we get down to the important business of knock out international football tomorrow. Saturday sees Switzerland v Poland, Wales v Northern Ireland and Croatia v Portugal. The middle game of the three has obviously attracted most of the attention but each match up is intriguing and we could be in for a treat.

There is the prospect of defensive football taking over as sides try everything they can not to lose rather than win games but hopefully some of the real superstars in these teams will choose tomorrow to put on a show.

Switzerland looked out of sorts against Albania in their first match but still managed to get the crucial win before drawing against both Romania and France. Their star players are yet to perform and they may feel that attrition is the way to go against Poland.

The Poles are in a similar position having not played that well yet still going into the second round unbeaten. Robert Lewandowski has looked particularly out of sorts with Milik picking up the slack. The Ajax striker has found good positions in all three matches without actually finding his finishing form.

These two sides are pretty evenly matched but I fancy Switzerland to go through if their players can rise to the occasion. It might go to penalties though!

Wales and Northern Ireland both qualified much to the surprise to most neutrals. Northern Ireland have looked a very cohesive unit and it will be this team strength that they will be hoping will be too much for the Welsh. Unfortunately for them Wales have just about trademarked 'teamwork' - even their slogan is 'Together Stronger'.

Gareth Bale finally clicked into gear against a very poor Russian side but his presence alone puts fear into opponents. Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey have been superb, running the show in the middle with the rest of the side playing as a team to see them qualify top of their group.

Wales should be too strong for Northern Ireland tomorrow and their superior class will show. Northern Ireland's fans will no doubt make it a great occasion but I see them going home after this one - 2-0 to Wales.

The final match of the day could be a real cracker. Croatia have come past the incidents of their second match with the Czech Republic to look like real contenders for the title. The speed and skill on show has been a delight to watch, even with Modric injured for the last game.

Portugal just about limped through to the second round thanks to Ronaldo finally scoring some goals. I've said before that they are more than a one man team but they really need the Real Madrid ace to perform if they are to beat Croatia tomorrow. I think they will play better than they have in the group stage - they couldn't get much worse - but to lose out to the better team in the end. Croatia to win 2-1.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Day Thirteen in France

After 13 days and 36 games the group stage of Euro 2016 is over. We have said goodbye to a grand total of 8 countries from the original 24. Now the real football starts.

Most of the attention seemed to be on who was going to be the best third placed sides but there was a lot still to determine in both Groups E and F.

The early games saw Iceland play supposed dark horses Austria while Ronaldo battled to keep Portugal in the competition against surprise group leaders Hungary. The matches ended up being two of the best we have seen so far.

Hungary and Portugal traded goals like two over the hill heavyweight boxers slugging it out in the final round. Zoltan Gera struck first for Hungary before Nani brought Portugal back into the match just before half time.

Dzsudzsak twice put Hungary back in the lead only to be pegged back by Ronaldo who at last found some real form. One of the Portuguese captain's goals was a wonderful flick, the other a commanding glancing header. But the two sides couldn't be separated meaning that Hungary won the group they were expected to prop up. Portugal had to make do with scraping through as one of the best third place sides. And that was down to the amazing story that is Iceland.

Once again Iceland were not fancied to take anything from a match and once again they defied expectations. If Austria thought that their opponents would sit back and try to grind out the draw they needed they were sadly mistaken. It took Jon Dadi Bodvarsson under 20 minutes to open the scoring and Iceland had already hit the woodwork before then.

Dragovic missed a first half penalty for Austria befoe they finally drew level on the hour mark. Alessandro Schopf scored a great goal after a Ricky Villa-esque dribble but as much as they tried they couldn't get the second goal that would have put them through to the next round.

But Iceland were not finished. As the seconds ticked away in injury time they sprinted into one last counter attack culminating in Traustason sliding in at the far post to squeeze it past Almer in the Austrian goal to seal the win. Apart from a moment of intense drama it showed the spirit of the Iceland team that should act as a warning to England that they won't be a push over in the second round.

Group E was a little bit more straight forward but no less dramatic. Belgium finally overcame Sweden in a drab game with Chelsea target Radja Nainggolan benefiting from a wicked deflection to score past the Swedish keeper and cement their second place finish.

Italy had already won the group and knowing that they would be facing Spain in the next round rested a number of players. The Azzurri definitely looked a weakened side but Ireland, although performing much better than in their previous two matches, still didn't seem to have the quality that they needed to get the three points that would put them through.

In a last roll of the dice Martin O'Neill put on Wes Hoolahan with just over ten minutes to go. Ireland's most creative player had been dropped in a bid to muscle the Italians out of the match but almost as soon as he came on he was given the perfect chance to score. The pressure got to the Norwich midfielder who could only shoot straight at Sirigu - Buffon's woeful replacement in the Italy goal.

Everyone thought that the one chance Ireland had needed had been and gone but with just five minutes left Hoolahan crossed perfectly onto the head of the very impressive Robbie Brady who expertly found the net and gave Ireland a dramatic victory.

The result was tough on Turkey who would have squeaked into the second round if Ireland hadn't scored but for sheer guts and determination Ireland deserved their win. They now face France on Sunday where I'm sure the fans will remind Thierry Henry of the last time they played each other in an important match.

Other things I have noticed...

  • I'm very jealous of Icelandic captain Aron Gunnarsson's beard but his long throws are not really that long (although they do seem to be effective)
  • It was only a matter of time before Ronaldo started scoring and the two he got against Hungary were fantastic
  • Some of the Ireland players look like they had stepped off the local park to play - although the extra levels of sweating were probably down to the closed roof in Lille
  • Such a sad way for Zlatan to finish his international career but he was really left to carry the Swedish side - and he didn't really do that well anyway

Obviously no games today - an absolute outrage - and we will have to wait until Saturday to get back into the swing of things with three second round matches. But never fear, I will still serve you my Euro 2016 ramblings tomorrow with a look ahead to the weekend's games.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Day Twelve in France

The shape of the second round is slowly - very slowly - starting to take shape with a few surprises served up along the way.

Two more groups were decided yesterday but because of the expanded format of the competition we don't know if some of the teams involved are through or not. What we do know is that Northern Ireland are through even after losing 1-0 to Germany.

Goalkeeper Michael McGovern was the star of the day as he stopped what could well have been a thrashing at the hands of a German side who still haven't clicked into gear yet. Mario Gomez started for the first time and it was he who scored the only goal of the match after about half an hour.

Northern Ireland will now go on to play either Wales or France in the next round although no-one seems to know how that will be worked out. Germany will play one of the other third place sides.

In the other Group C game Poland beat Ukraine (as expected) 1-0 to set up a second round match against Switzerland. Ukraine had already been eliminated from the tournament and this lack of pressure may have been the reason for their performance. They did have a majority of the ball and looked a better side than they had in their previous two matches but they lacked any real fire power and will be going home having failed to score a solitary goal.

Lewandowski once again looked out of sorts and although Milik was finding himself in some good positions it was left to the substitute Blaszczykowski to score the only goal of the game.

The top two teams in Group D met knowing that whoever lost would probably be facing Italy in the next round. Spain scored early through Morata but Croatia played some really nice football and it was no surprise when Kalinic equalised just before half time.

Spain continued to play their usual fluid, passing style but Croatia were more than a match for them - pressing and containing the skill and talent that is usually given free reign. It was always going to be interesting how Croatia reacted to their capitulation to the Czech Republic in the last match and the absence of Luka Modric, but Croatian fans had nothing to fear as they went on to record a famous victory.

Sergio Ramos had a penalty saved by a keeper who seemed closer to the spot than his goal by the time it was taken but it could be argued that this made up for the weak decision to give the penalty in the first place - David Silva falling over after the slightest of contacts with a Croatian defender.

Jimmy Somerville lookalike Ivan Perisic scored the deserved winner right at the end after another one of his frighteningly quick runs. A slight deflection was enough to put De Gea off balance and beat the Spanish keeper at his near post. Croatia now have a far easier route to the final leaving neutrals salivating at the prospect of Spain v Italy on Monday.

Turkey confounded expectations in the other Group D match and beat the Czechs to keep their faint hopes of going through alive. Young Turkish sensation Emre Mor put over the cross for Yilmaz to score the opener after only ten minutes. Emre Mor has been excitedly talked about during this tournament but hasn't really shown the flair that has persuaded Borussia Dortmund to take a chance on the Danish-born attacker.

Ozan Tufan scored the second to punish the Czech's ageing side and give Turkey a glimmer of hope about going through to the next round. Neither of these sides have impressed in any of the group matches and after less than stellar qualification campaigns to get to France both countries will be hoping that an influx of youth will change their fortunes going into the World Cup qualifiers.

Other things I noticed...

  • I'm a big fan of Ukraine striker Roman Zozulya's denial of hair loss (see below)
  • In further hair news, Turkish goal scorer was given a really hard time for seemingly fixing his hair rather than block Midric's wonder strike in the first game so it was nice to see him score yesterday
  • I never really rated him that much when he played in England but Vedran Corluka has been outstanding in France - even with his many hat changes
  • It pains me to say it but I really liked the Spain kit. Even if it was described by some as looking as if someone had dropped a paella on their shirts
  • Spanish boss Vincente del Bosque was visibly sweating at the end of the match last night. It may well have been the Bordeaux humidity but the idea of facing Italy in the next round can't have helped

Today's matches finish off the group stage with a lot still to be decided. What will happen in Group F is anyone's guess but surely Ronaldo will be able to find his shooting boots at last to help Portugal beat Hungary. A victory could well put them top of the group where they might face Belgium. I'm going for 2-0.

Iceland play Austria knowing a win will put them through. An Austrian victory would see them progress, so it really is all to play for. I've really enjoyed watching Iceland but think the Austrians will finally live up to a fraction of their pre-tournament hype and get the result they need to qualify for the next round. Austria to squeeze a 2-1 win.

Italy should be far too good for what has been a very ordinary Republic of Ireland side. The Azzurri beat Sweden without looking anywhere near as good as they did in their opener against Belgium but I can't see Ireland troubling them - 2-0 Italy.

Zlatan will be hoping he can lead his side into the next round with a victory against Belgium in Nice. The Belgians have flattered to deceive once again but should take all three points here - 1-0.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Day Eleven in France

Oh, to be in Toulouse last night! Wales crushed Russia with a performance that must rank with the very best this tournament has seen so far. The victory meant Wales topped the group as England could not break down a Slovakian defence intent on getting a point that should take them through as well.

Everything went right for Wales against Russia. Gareth Bale had easily his best game so far thanks to a Russian team who offered little and didn't seem to be able to cope with him running at them. Alongside Bale, Aaron Ramsey - arguably Wales' best player so far - ran the show alongside Joe Allen and it was those two who linked up for the first goal after only ten minutes.

Allen spotted the early run by Ramsey and split the accommodating Russian defence with an inch perfect pass. Ramsey coolly lifted it over the advancing keeper and Welsh nerves began to abate.

Ten minutes later a powerful run from Bale was only stopped by a Russian boot inadvertently playing Neil Taylor through on the left hand side. The Swansea defender took two attempts to score his first ever goal for Wales and Russia looked dead on their feet.

As well as Wales played, Russia were awful. Their centre back pairing had a combined age of 70 but the way they played you wouldn't have been surprised if you were told that was their individual age. Wales could have been four or five up by half time and were playing some lovely football cheered on by a noisy and exuberant crowd.

Bale finally got the goal he deserved with just over 20 minutes to go when Ramsey once again split the Russian defence before the Real Madrid man stuck it past Akinfeev with the outside of his left boot.

Wales will now play one of the best third place sides and will be hoping that the tournament's top goal scorer - Gareth Bale - will continue his goal a game form to take them even further in the competition.

Roy Hodgson made a whole host of changes for the match against Slovakia and although some of them had been called for - Vardy and Sturridge playing from the start - it was a strange decision to upset the cohesion in the team however admirable the belief in his squad was.

Both full backs were replaced with Clyne and Bertrand starting. Clyne looked very good and he is only unlucky that Kyle Walker has had such as good tournament so far or he could well be expecting to play in the next game.

Obviously I can only judge the England performance from the highlights but their finishing really let them down - especially from Vardy and Sturridge. With Slovakia content to defend for the first half, England found it hard to get clear shots on goal but the chances that did come their way were wasted.

The second half saw Slovakia come out a little bit more but it was still largely one way traffic. Vardy seemed to disappear as the game went on and Slovakia could have picked up a very unlikely victory had Hamsik made more of Smalling's error when heading it back to his keeper.

A 0-0 draw was met with a few boos at the end of the match but England still go through to the next round unbeaten. This is a better squad than they have had in a while but Hodgson seems unsure who to play and where to play them. They now have a week's rest before their second round match so maybe he can work it out on the training ground between now and then.

Other things I noticed yesterday...

  • Sam Vokes played really well, occupying the Russian defenders to give Bale space to run with the ball. He should probably start in front of Robson-Kanu or Johnny Williams in the next game
  • Igor Akinfeev seemed to be the only one to go over to the Russian fans at the end of the game. By the look of it they were telling him exactly what they thought of the side's abject performance
  • England have the expanded tournament format to thank for their next fixture. Although by finishing second they would have qualified even if there was only 16 teams, they would have previously faced a group winner. Now they get a fellow runner up (although it could well be Portugal)
  • A plea to all English TV reporters: Please, please, please stop interviewing Eric Dier. He may well be having a pretty good tournament but he rivals Michael Owen for the mantle of most boring man ever

A plethora of matches today as both Group C and D come to a close. Poland have been disappointing so far but if Milik continues to get in the right positions he must find his shooting boots soon. It could be today and I'll go for 2-0 against Ukraine.

Northern Ireland could go through even if they lose today, which is good as they are playing Germany. The Germans failed to kick on from their opening match win but should be too good today - I'm going for 3-1.

Croatia will be thinking that they will need something from their game against Spain to make sure of at least second place in the group. They are both already through but it will be interesting to see how Croatia react to the crowd-related incidents of their last match. Spain, without being back to their world beating best have looked comfortable so far but I think it will finish 0-0.

Turkey have looked woeful in both matches with a real lack of invention or innovation. The Czech Republic will be buoyed by their comeback against Croatia and I can see them winning easily today - 2-0.