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.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Day Ten in France

The final round of matches in the group stage have begun. France and Switzerland shared the points to safely put them both through while Albania beat Romania to give themselves a slim chance of progressing.

Unlike Lineker, Shearer and Henry I thought the France v Switzerland match was pretty good. Maybe they were disappointed with the lack of French flare on display but that was mainly down to the Swiss performance (their best so far) as well as Deschamps resting some key players, notably Dimitri Payet.

Switzerland also made a few changes and although there was a worry that both sides would grind out the draw that would take them both through this wasn't your typical no score bore draw. Xherdan Shaqiri was more involved than he had been in the previous two matches and the Swiss team as a whole looked much more up for it than they had against either Albania or Romania.

Payet did come on in the second half and almost scored what would have been the goal of the tournament. Moussa Sissoko took off deep in his own half and left the Swiss defence in his wake as he sprinted off down the right before floating in an inch perfect cross for Payet. The darling of the French fans met the ball on the volley but the crossbar denied him the perfect finish to the move.

The other game in the group saw Albania not only score their first ever goal at a major international tournament, but pick up their first points and win as well as they beat Romania 1-0. To the delight of their fans Armando Sadiku expertly headed past the Romanian keeper to make history just before half time.

Although Romania started quite positively and had a few chances, including one that cannoned off the crossbar, they could not make their possession tell and Albania deservedly took the three points.

The goal was met with jubilant scenes in the stadium, none more so than by the Albania team and officials themselves. The outpouring of emotion was a joy to see and showed exactly what it meant to everyone involved.

Albania will now have to wait to see how the other groups finish before they find out if their victory is enough to squeeze them into the second round as one of the best third place sides. Maybe my pre-tournament prediction of Albania qualifying will come true after all!

Other things I noticed yesterday...

  • As poor as the pitch in Lille was for France and Switzerland, it is hard to be too sympathetic about the players not being able to perform on anything less than a carpet. Maybe they should look into wearing the right kind of boots?
  • Switzerland need to have a word with Puma about their kit. If their shirts can't take a little bit of holding then they are not fit for purpose in today's football world
  • I'm still not a fan of 24 teams but it does mean that we don't have many meaningless matches at the end of the group stage

And so to today's games. Wales take on Russia knowing that a point should be enough to put them through to the next round. The Russians have been their usual enigmatic selves, popping up to score right at the death against England while looking completely outclassed by Slovakia days later. I can see Russia frustrating Wales tonight but Bale only needs a free kick relatively near the box to carry on his run of goals - I'm going for a 1-1 draw.

After the 'crisis' of drawing against Russia in their first game England looked fairly comfortable against Wales - especially when they brought on Vardy, Sturridge and Rashford. It will be interesting to see which of those start against Slovakia tonight but whatever team Hodgson puts out should have too much for their opponents. England to win 2-0.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Day Nine in France

With all sides now having played two games there is still not a clear favourite and, thanks to the expanded format, not many teams confirming their return tickets home.

Belgium finally showed their killer instinct against a poor Republic of Ireland side. They must be poor because Lukaku scored twice in their 3-0 victory. Although the Belgian striker had a terrible end of season for Everton (as did his club) and looked out of sorts in Belgium's first match he is a very good striker and a couple of goals will really boost his confidence.

Ireland will complain that they should have had a penalty when it was still 0-0 but they were outplayed yesterday and keeping Belgium down to just the three goals is probably an achievement in itself.

Group F's surprise leaders Hungary met Iceland in the second match of the day knowing that a win would put them through to the second round with a game - against Portugal - to spare. They started really well so it was unlucky for the all new Magnificent Magyars when Iceland got a penalty just before half time. It was unclear whether the culprit was tracksuit trouser enthusiast Gabor Kiraly but Sigurdsson put away the spot kick to put Iceland one up going into the break.

It looked like Iceland was going to get all three points but once again we saw a goal in the last few minutes with Saevarsson turning the ball into his own net to give Hungary a point. Iceland are still unbeaten going into their last game and Hungary stayed top of the group thanks to the result of the last game of the day.

Portugal had 23 shots compared to just four from Austria but they just couldn't make any of them pay as Ronaldo's men drew another game they had been expected to win. Nothing went right for Ronaldo who even missed a penalty to raise his already peaking levels of frustration. Ricardo Quaresma started but for all their invention and skill, Portugal couldn't break the deadlock.

The draw leaves the group wide open going into the final matches so both games should be tight affairs.

Other things I noticed yesterday...

  • There was a lot of police in front of the Hungarian fans for a majority of the match
  • Given his levels of frustration during the match it was a surprise that Ronaldo seemed fine posing for a photo with the guy who ran onto the pitch. Anything to look good for the cameras I guess?
  • Austria celebrated their draw against Portugal like they had won. They seem to think they will have no problem getting three points against Iceland to take them through

We're down to the wire in the groups now so just two games played at the same time today. A draw would put both France and Switzerland through to the next round but I think France will want to keep up their unbeaten form and go for all three points. Switzerland have been largely unimpressive in their two games so far and I can see current player of the tournament Dimitri Payet scoring again tonight. I'm going for 2-0 to France.

Romania should be able to beat Albania so (if my other prediction remarkably comes true) it will come down to goal difference as they drew with Switzerland last Wednesday. Romania have only scored penalties so far so it will be interesting to see if they have the attacking strength to get through the Albanian defence. I can't see that happening so a 1-0 win is on the cards.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Day Eight in France

Some of the better looking sides from the first round of matches were in action on day eight - with decidedly mixed results.

Italy, who looked so impressive in their defeat of Belgium, reverted to type against Zlatan's Sweden in what was largely a very uneventful game. Although the Swedish captain was more involved than in their draw with Ireland, he couldn't inspire the rest of his side into anything too adventurous in what was probably the least exciting game of the tournament so far.

Eder finally put us out of our misery by scoring, admittedly, a very well finished goal in the 88th minute and put Italy through to the knock out stage. Unsurprisingly a foul throw from Chiellini went unpunished and Eder worked some space for himself for a shot after Zaza's vital flick.

Sweden actually started the match quite well but they really haven't looked like they would go very far in the tournament - especially if Zlatan is not performing.

The second game of the day will largely be remembered for the flares thrown on the pitch by disgruntled Croatian fans, but this was the first match to have more than three goals and was a real treat to watch.

Croatia played the majority of the match like they had in their first game and carried on looking like they might have a real chance of winning the whole thing. The Czechs just couldn't cope with the skill and invention of Modric and Rakitic and if was no surprise when they took the lead through Perisic just before half time.

Croatia added a second with about half an hour to go when Rakitic chipped over the advancing Cech after the keeper had put his defender under far too much pressure with a lazy goal kick.

At this point it seemed more a question of how many more Croatia would get than whether the Czech Republic would get back into the match but substitutes once again changed the day.

A wonderful cross from the outside of the Rosicky's boot was met by Skoda whose header flew into the corner of the net. It was sweetly met but I thought the Croatian keeper could have done a much better job of keeping it out.

Modric had already gone off by this time and it was now that the Croatian fans threw a number of flares onto the pitch stopping the match. Seemingly intent on causing the Croatian FA maximum embarrassment and in the hope of incurring a fine - if not more serious repercussions - six or seven flares had to be removed from the pitch while the fans started fighting among themselves.

The whole spectacle seemed to break the Croatian side's concentration and a stupid handball right at the end gave the Czechs a penalty which Necid - another sub - powered past the keeper.

The Czech Republic will now be confident of beating Turkey to qualify for the next round while Croatia, who will also go through, will wait anxiously to see how UEFA react to their fans' behaviour.

In the last game of the day Spain brushed aside Turkey on their way to the next round. Two from Morata and one from Nolito gave Spain the victory in a match where they could easily have scored four or five.

The third goal was a sheer delight with Spain showing everyone that they still know how to move the ball around with 22 passes being made before Morata finished the move off. According to the official statistics Spain had 61% of possession but it is questionable whether De Gea even touched the ball - he wasn't even on screen for the entirety of the evening's highlights package.

The defending champions are looking very good and although I doubted whether they could repeat their feat of four years ago they seem to easily brushing aside their Group D opponents so far.

Other things I noticed yesterday...
  • The vibrancy and colour of the Swedish fans are always a great addition to any tournament. Shame the team aren't doing their part
  • Not sure it was really necessary for the camera to stay on Croatian captain Srna during the national anthems knowing that his father had died just days before
  • Turkey's second kit should always be a white shirt with a red band across the chest. The fact that it is not in this tournament is probably why they were so poor against Spain
  • Although there are complex reasons for the disruption in the Croatia game it should be said that their fans have an unsavoury history that is sometimes forgotten - perhaps as Croatia are always seen, in a vastly simplistic manner, as the good guys compared to their Serbian neighbours?
  • Modric ran the show against the Czech Republic and will be badly missed for the game against Spain

And so to today's matches. Belgium v Ireland could be a real cracker and although I have no doubt the Irish will be right up for the match, surely Belgium will realise that they need to get a win here if they are to do anything in this tournament. I expect them to be much better than against Italy but still only scrape through 1-0.

Both Iceland and Hungary have an excellent chance to progress thanks to their first games in the group so today's match is vitally important for both sides. As much as I would love Iceland to push on from their draw against Portugal I have a feeling that Hungary will sneak a win, 1-0 again.

The ever lovable Ronaldo will lead his Portugal side against Austria in the evening match knowing that a victory should put them through to the next round. Portugal were very disappointing in their draw with Iceland but should have too much for potential pit ponies Austria even if their captain decides to have a strop again. I'm going 2-0 to Portugal.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Day Seven in France

It was so close for Wales. They almost got the point that would have guaranteed qualification for the next round. But an injury time winner from Sturridge gave England the win they deserved.

Choosing to start with the same eleven, Roy Hodgson was made to pay for his conservatism with Harry Kane - and Raheem Sterling in particular - not performing and then Gareth Bale firing in a free kick from 36 yards to put Wales one up just before half time.

Wales had started nervously but had settled in to their game of stifling the English attack without showing too much of their own. Aaron Ramsey really shone in a side that looked like they were a little bit overawed by the occasion early on.

Joe Hart should have kept out Bale's free kick as he got across to the ball in time but only parried it into the inside of the net. Against the run of play maybe, but England had not really looked like capitalising on their dominance and that was mainly due to an insipid front line.

Vardy and Sturridge came on for the second half and instantly changed the look of the game. Wales were looking worried again and as the half went on offered less and less in the way of attack. Speaking as a Wales fan, the sight of Vardy and Sturridge - along with the later introduction of Rashford - was a far more worrying site than the eleven that started the game.

If any team was going to grab a winner it was going to be England and Sturridge broke Welsh hearts right at the death after waiting perfectly for the possibility of a one two on the edge of the box and then poking it past the prone Gunter and Hennessey.

A real kick in the teeth for Wales then, but they know that a result against Russia on Monday will put them through to the knockout stage and that is definitely possible given their displays so far. England looked much better with Roy's second choice strikers so it will be interesting to see what he does from now on. I think Vardy is still better used as an impact sub but Sturridge should start instead of the woeful Sterling.

After all that excitement Northern Ireland needed to change a lot of things from their first match if they wanted to get anything out of their game with Ukraine. I thought Ukraine got their tactics just right against Germany but were still not strong enough so I expected them to be able to power past Northern Ireland.

Michael O'Neill made five changes to the starting line up though and his spirit of adventure certainly paid off. In sometimes torrential rain Northern Ireland looked a million miles better than they had against Poland and deservedly took the lead just after half time. A beautifully weighted free kick from the left was met by West Brom's Gareth McAuley who steered his header past the Ukraine keeper.

Although Ukraine started to attack after going one down they showed that they didn't have much about them except the defensive tactics that almost worked against Germany. Northern Ireland looked very good on the attack and Jamie Ward in particular was really worrying the Ukraine defence down the right hand side.

But it was Ward's replacement, Niall McGinn who put the game beyond doubt in injury time, tapping it in after some good work down the right wing and a shot from captain Steven Davis was saved. Northern Ireland completely deserved the win and Ukraine find themselves with no chance of getting through to the next stage.

Germany v Poland was expected to be a really fiery encounter but both sides offered little and eventually played out a largely boring 0-0 draw. Poland will be the happiest with the result and it seemed like that they went out with the sole intention of grabbing a point.

I expected Germany to push on from their late victory against Ukraine and look to show their championship winning credentials, but they created little insight and Mario Gotze up front again failed to perform. Gomez was given his chance later on but never really looked like troubling the Polish defence.

Poland's Arkadiusz Milik missed the best opportunity of the night by electing to head from two yards out - and sending it past the post - when he could have simply tapped it in. But even with Toni Kroos bossing the midfield, Germany lacked a final ball that could open up the game.

Other things I noticed...

  • Ukraine's lanky striker Yevhen Seleznyov looks like he has stepped right off the Amish settlement to play for his team (see below)
  • The BBC provided us with Robbie Savage and Martin Keown as co-commentators for the England v Wales game. Thanks BBC, but you really shouldn't have
  • Although it would have been unlucky for England, I thought for a second that Gareth Bale had met his last gasp header perfectly. Worrying for England that they gave him a free header much like the one that led to the Russian goal though
  • Although he again got into a lot of good positions, Poland's Milik did make you wonder how good strikers in the Dutch Eredivisie really are
  • Dan Walker's presentation skills consist of at least 87% statistics

Three good looking games today. Italy can show that they are a possible eventual winner when they take on Zlatan's Sweden in the early game. I don't expect Italy to be quite as dominant as they were against Belgium but still should come away with the victory. I reckon 2-1 (with Zlatan popping up for the Swedes).

Another one of the more impressive sides from the first round of matches, Croatia take on the Czech Republic in Saint-Etienne and should be too strong for them. This group is going more to the script than some of the others and although initially I thought that the Czechs might be able to do something at this tournament I'm not sure now that's the case. I'm going for Croatia 1 Czech Republic 0.

Spain take on Turkey in the evening match and even without looking like world beaters in their first match they should be too strong for a spirited but ultimately limited Turkey side. It will be interesting to see if Morata has a good game and lives up to his transfer rumour talk but overall Spain should come away winners 1-0.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Day Six in France

With only eight nations leaving after the group stage there is a good chance that a side could lose its first two matches and still go on to qualify. So the desperation wasn't quite kicking in yet for teams like Slovakia but they knew that a win for them against Russia would really open up the group. And win they did.

Russia looked completely uninterested until the last 15 minutes and thoroughly deserved to lose against a Slovakian side led by their Napoli superstar Marek Hamsik. He made the most of some really lazy defending to score Slovakia's second with a beautiful shot that went in off the post (goals always look better if they go in off the woodwork). Earlier former Manchester City neck tattoo fan Vladimir Weiss had used the Russian defenders ability to turn as quick as an oil tanker to put Slovakia one up.

Russia came back into the match towards the end but it was far too late to get anything from this match. But even with just one point from two games, they still have a chance of qualifying for the knock out rounds so their match against Wales in Toulouse on Monday will be vital for them.

Romania, the only team to get a penalty in the first round of matches, got another one against Switzerland which Stancu put away to give them the lead. But this match was all about Switzerland. I didn't see all of the game but they certainly seemed to be on top for most of the match and were probably unlucky to only come away with a draw after Mehmedi scored just before he was about to be substituted. 

A win would have put the Swiss through to the last 16 but they will now play France at the weekend knowing that a draw will do the job. Even a defeat to the host nation may not mean an early departure depending on other results.

France left it very late once again to get their second win of the tournament and qualify for the next round. Griezmann and Pogba were both left on the bench by Deschamps as he tried Martial and Coman up front in the first half. To give the French boss some credit he soon realised that plan A wasn't working. Pogba replaced Martial at half tie and Griezmann came on for Coman with around 20 minutes to go.

And it was Griezmann who headed home in the final minute to deflate an Albanian side who, although looking very limited, did give it a go - especially in the second half. Dimitri Payet added a second in injury time and French nerves were eased. Payet is looking like the player of the tournament so far and although Kingsley Coman's skill was a treat to watch, there was a real buzz of excitement every time Payet got the ball. I really don't see him at West Ham next season.

Other things I noticed yesterday...

  • I was able to watch the Russia v Slovakia match at the place I was working yesterday but when I heard that Mark Lawrenson was the co-commentator I decided not to use my headphones. Judging from comments from others I chose wisely
  • By the look of the fans, body building is VERY popular in eastern Europe
  • Russian coach Leonid Slutsky looked like he knew exactly what fate lies in store for him when he returns to Moscow. He doesn't look too happy (see below)
  • The Velodrome ground in Marseille looks absolutely amazing
  • Hoddle's expert knowledge really shone through once again. After the Albanians hit the post he offered "If it's inside the post, it's in". Thanks Glenn
  • Although he was a late replacement, French central defender Adil Rami had another good game and was the one who put the cross in for the first goal last night
  • I really don't know why Switzerland don't start with Breel Embolo. He looks really dangerous whenever he is given the chance

And so to today's matches. With the British media probably unhelpfully referring to the game as 'The Battle of Britain, Wales take on England knowing that a point will probably be enough to go through and that the pressure is really on Roy Hodgson's men. I'm torn to whether it will be a draw or a narrow English win. I'll go with head instead of heart and say 1-0 England (hoping that my predicting form continues and Wales actually win).

Ukraine v Northern Ireland is the early evening match and it is hard to see anything other than a Ukraine victory. I thought they got their tactics right against Germany and will be looking at this game as a must win. Northern Ireland need to change the way they play if they are to get anything from this and I think it might be just too much for them. I'm going for Ukraine 2 Northern Ireland 1.

Another local derby tonight with Germany taking on Poland. This could be a really good game with both sides knowing that a win will put them through. Lewandowski needs to be more involved in this match than he was against Northern Ireland if Poland are to win. Even though they didn't look flawless in the first match I was impressed by Germany's performance and a continuation of that form will be enough to get them the win - 2-0 again.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Day Five in France

Only two games on day five, which seems awfully early to take away our triple header of daily games, but they both brought us a few shocks and upsets.

Earlier in the day I heard Austria being described as 'potential dark horses' which seemed very faint praise indeed. Not even nailed on dark horses - just the potential to be one. Much was made of these dark ponies and when David Alaba hit the post in the first minute it looked as if it was going to be a very long 90 minutes for Hungary.

But Kiraly's tracksuit trousers inspired the not so magnificent Magyars and after Szalai had scored his first goal since about 1965, Austria were given an even harder task when Dragovic was sent off. The dark shetlands were always going to find it difficult after that and a sublime finish from Steiber made it two with minutes to spare.

Austria looked very ordinary and once again it was teamwork and togetherness that won through. Beautiful huh? The only disappointment was the lack of a Franz Ferdinand half time entertainment show (that's one for you history lovers out there).

The second match brought us an even bigger upset with Iceland grinding out a draw against Ronaldo's Portugal. Iceland looked in trouble in the first half with little invention and a real problem getting the ball out of their own half. They did have an early chance but it was no surprise when Nani scored the opener in the 31st minute after some nice work by Andre Gomes on the right.

It can never really be said that Ronaldo is anonymous in a match but he wasn't demanding the ball and running at the opposing defence and the more the game went on the more Iceland grew in confidence. This paid off just after the break when Bjarnason finished off a nice move and drew Iceland level.

Although Portugal did have the majority of possession after that it would unfair to say that Iceland simply parked the bus. They defended well but attacked when possible and thoroughly deserved the draw. It is probably fair to say that not many people would have had Hungary on top of the group after the first matches.

Other things I noticed...

  • Although all footballers dive these days Hungary surely have to be the kings of the pathetic exaggeration
  • The referee in the Austria v Hungary match was Clement Turpin. I like that a lot.
  • Apparently Iceland has a population roughly the same as Leicester. Is everything comparable to Leicester these days?
  • For some reason I was disappointed with the lack of beards in the Iceland side
  • Is there a bigger pantomime villain in the world of football than Pepe?
  • Did anyone else notice a Germany flag with 'Fuchtorf' written across it at the Portugal v Iceland match? Think about it...

So everyone has played one match now and while no one team has stood out, there have been some good performances - many from nations that you wouldn't have expected it from. I've been impressed with Croatia, Italy and Germany without thinking any of them will definitely be going all the way. There are some big names that need points in the second round of games so we should be in for a bit of a treat over the next few days.

Back to three matches on day six. Russia v Slovakia in the early game. Neither of these sides looked particularly good in their first outing and I can see another draw on the cards - I'm going for 1-1.

A draw would probably be enough for Switzerland but I think they will get another win against Romania. They didn't impress against Albania but a favourable schedule will help them through. I predict a 2-1 Swiss victory.

I've completely reversed my prediction of Albania as dark horses (light cows?) and fully expect France to comprehensively beat them in Marseille. I'm fully aware that this will probably mean Albania will win now but I'm going for a 3-0 French victory. Allez les Bleus!

Day Four in France

Well yesterday's predictions were spectacularly bad but, as the cliche goes, I'm glad to say that football was in the end the winner.

When will people stop writing Italy off? (At this point I must admit that I also wrote Italy off yesterday but that doesn't make my point any less valid!) Supposedly the worst Italian side in 50 years put on the performance of the tournament so far and beat Belgium's 'golden generation'.

I've mentioned before that I'm not entirely convinced by Belgium and see them as a team of individuals who don't always perform when expected. Last night was a brilliant example of that. Italy played a fast, flowing brand of football with their defenders making the type of 40 yard diagonal balls that Steven Gerrard could only dream about.

The first goal was a thing of beauty. An inch perfect pass from Bonucci, controlled perfectly by Sunderland reject (!) Giaccherini before he slotted it past Courtois in the Belgian goal. And it was nothing more than they deserved. An injury time second goal from Southampton's Graziano Pelle made the victory even sweeter.

Belgium should still qualify from a group that also contains the Republic of Ireland and Sweden but their limitations have been shown once again. This was the best match we've seen so far and with most of the sides having played now it is still completely up in the air as to who will probably win the trophy.

The day started off with Spain seeing off the Czech Republic thanks to a Gerard Pique headed goal three minutes from time. I didn't get to see this match live (I know! Someone should be paying me to watch these games...) but the highlights showed that Spain were well on top with the Czechs looking very lacklustre.

Ireland nearly pulled off what would definitely have been considered an upset but in the end had to be content with a point against Sweden. Zlatan didn't really turn up for the first half and only fine saves from the Swedish keeper and the woodwork (I know they're not made out of wood but I love the terminology) kept Ireland - and Derby's Jeff Kendrick in particular - from taking the lead.

Wes Hoolahan finally opened the scoring in the second half with a lovely finish after Seamus Coleman had done some really good work out on the right. But an own goal levelled the scores with 20 minutes to go and that is how it stayed. Ciaran Clark may have put the ball in the back of his own net but the goal was all down to Ibrahimovic's persistence and it looks like he will have to carry Sweden through the remaining two matches if they have are to have any chance of getting out of the group.

Other things I noticed...

  • Loved how Czech defender Roman Hubnik went for the whole 'geography teacher who also takes PE' look (see below)
  • What was Pique's goal celebration gesture all about? He looked like an over elaborate Bono
  • I used to like Ireland's Jon Walters when he shaved his hair. Now he looks like a sales rep for a small drinks firm in the north west
  • Big fan of Ireland's kit - although they stretched authenticity a bit far by using the 'fake Irish pub' font for the names on the back of their shirts
  • Italian footballers give the best anthem
  • Italy showed the same squad togtherness that Wales did the other day - it will take them far
  • Romelu Lukaku is really bad at major tournaments
  • Martin Keown is an earnestly appalling co-commentator

And so to today's games. Just the two - what fresh hell is this? - to enjoy. Austria take on Hungary in Bordeaux and will be looking for their own superstar, David Alaba to inspire the side to victory, And they should be too good for Hungary who should have tracksuit trouser wearing custodian Gabor Kiraly in goal. I'm going for a 2-0 victory for Austria.

It sounds like Ricardo Quaresma might miss the match tonight which is a massive shame considering he has had a brilliant season both for his club side Besiktas and the national team. Ronaldo has his own injury worries but should play. Expect Iceland to attempt to stifle the Portuguese creativity but I can't see them keeping them out for the entire match. Portugal are far more than just Ronaldo and I expect them to go far in this tournament. They'll start tonight by winning 2-0.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Day Three in France

Three days in and we're getting through the games now. Although we have seen some impressive performances, no one side has really stood out yet so it will be interesting to see if that caginess continues, or whether one nation will really shine over the next few days.

Yesterday's games saw one of the favourites and one many people's dark horses ultimately both get their expected three points. Neither Germany nor Croatia were completely convincing in their victories but a win is a win and it will be very surprising if either side don't progress to the next round.

I was probably expecting too much from the Croatia v Turkey match although it was in no way an uninteresting game. Luka Modric's wonderful volleyed goal separated the sides in the end but if Rakitic had coolly slotted home instead of falling over after a mazey dribble that took him from the halfway line to the Turkish penalty box, then we really would have had one for the highlight package.

Northern Ireland were steamrolled by Poland but still only lost 1-0 which will give them a bit of confidence going into their second match against Ukraine. Ajax striker Arkadiusz Milik scored the goal but with 18 shots compared to Northern Ireland's two they will feel they should have boosted their goal difference a little more.

It was dress down Sunday for Joachim Low and his team as they watched Germany buck the trend of the day and win by two clear goals. But we had to wait until injury time for Schweinsteiger to add to Mustafi's first half header. Ukraine played well in patches, although it is fair to say that they will be looking at the other two games for points in this group.

Other things I noticed yesterday...

  • Taking the practise to the extreme, Turkey's Arda Turan covered his mouth to talk to the Croatian captain as they walked out onto the pitch. Not exactly sure why footballers think they're minor Goodfellas characters but this is the first time I've witnessed it between opposing players
  • Jerome Boateng's goal line clearance was even better than Ben Davies' for Wales the other day. The way he re-arranged his feet to get the ball away at the same time as falling backwards was simply outstanding
  • Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans looks like an angry player and spent most of the match kicking the over-acting Robert Lewandowski. He plays like English players did abefore they worked out the nuances of the European game - and I'm all for it!
  • I was surprised to see that Verdan Corluka is still playing for Croatia. And I was even more surprised when I checked and saw that he is only 30. Nice to see he is planning for life after football by introducing his new range of hats during yesterday's match though
We have some really interesting matches today. First up is Spain v Czech Republic. I don't think Spain are anywhere near where they were a few years ago, although the exclusion of Costa from the squad will benefit them. I fancy a 'shock' 1-0 win for the Czechs though.

Ireland kick off their campaign against Sweden in the early evening match and although I'm sure Paris will be a sea of green I think Zlatan will power Sweden to victory. I'm going for 2-0.

The final game of the day should be a feast of football with Belgium taking on Italy. Will the much vaunted Belgian side show why they are many people's favourites? Or will the Juventus Italy defence keep them out? I expect both of these sides to ultimately go through but Belgium to have too much for Italy today - 1-0.

As you will no doubt be aware yesterday saw my first correct score prediction come true with Germany winning 2-0 against Ukraine. I, of course, fully expect all today's predictions to follow suit.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

European Championship Day Two

Where to begin? After 58 years Wales finally played again in a major international tournament and everything went just perfectly - kind of.

The level of nervous excitement in our house was off the scale but after Ben Davies had made a wondrous clearance to deny Hamsik, Gareth Bale benefited from some questionable goalkeeping to put Wales ahead. Bale actually didn't have the greatest of games but Wales proved that they are not a one man team but a side with amazing team spirit with the bonus of a football superstar who causes fear in opposing sides.

England, on the other hand, played well (athough nowhere near as well as ITV and Clive Tyldesley was making out) and were unlucky not to come away with three points. Obviously events off the field have dominated the news reports but on a purely football note, England should still get out of this group. I don't think Russia will.

The early game saw one of my dark horses fail to look anywhere near as good as I had predicted. Albania looked devoid of ideas apart from lumping it forward and although Switzerland hardly impressed either their early goal was enough for the win.

Here's some other things I noticed yesterday...

  • Switzerland's Johan Djourou has a permanently haunted face (possibly from spending so much time at Arsenal?)
  • Skrtel's elbow in Williams' face was disgusting. Have any of those extra officials ever made a decision in any game?
  • Is Peter Crouch now part of a Bee Gees tribute act? Those teeth!
  • Although it got lost in the events surrounding the match, Clive Tyldesley's "Justice for the England eleven" comment after the goal was amazingly crass - even for him and ITV

As for today's matches, I've got a feeling that Turkey v Croatia will be an absolute cracker. I'm not entirely convinced by Croatia but I think they will have just too much for Turkey. I'm going for a 2-1 Croatia win.

Northern Ireland qualifying was incredible in itself but I think they will have a really tough game against Poland today. Robert Lewandowski will be expecting to get some goals - and I think he will. I'm going for Poland 3 Northern Ireland 0.

The final match of the day is our first chance to see if Germany are going to live up to the pre-tournament hype. I don't expect Ukraine to put up much of a fight though. Germany to win 2-0.

It must be said that I have not got one of my score predictions right so far. Maybe today?