Dimitri Payet is simply everywhere – on the first pages of all sports newspapers, in every early all-star team of the tournament, on the lips of all football fans and, most importantly – in pretty much every single chunk of grass in France’s final third of the pitch. Some people expected him to turn out good at West Ham. Some people thought that 20 assists scored for Olympique de Marseille last year wasn’t a fluke. But nobody expected that, at the age of almost thirty, he will become an absolute game-changer, scoring beautiful winning goals, providing key crosses, rattling the crossbars with venomous long shots. When he was not around his team in a rather relaxing final group match against Switzerland – France looked like they couldn’t find their attacking mojo. And that was when two other, widely predicted Les Bleus’ leaders – Griezmann and Pogba – were both on the pitch…
Speaking of other ‘late bloomers’ – after a couple of disappointing tournaments, Wayne Rooney has finally delivered a performance everyone in England will be unanimously proud of. In a prestigious game against Wales, when England were trailing 0-1, he was the one to inspire a rather toothless team to go out there and turn this around. Hidden deep in the middle, he’d only make one touch inside the Welsh penalty area, but his impact on the build-up play was outstanding. He created five chances, took three shots and boasted 91% pass accuracy. If it wasn’t for one nutmeg received from Joe Allen – it would’ve been a perfect Thursday for the captain. Roy Hodgson must be glad – with Wazza in form and two bench strikers banging the crucial goals, England finally look like a team that has managed to sort out it’s issues. Potentially – at the cost of Harry Kane’s spot in the starting XI.
Unlike his English counterpart, Joachim Löw doesn’t seem like the man who would have any aces up his sleeve – other than the lads he’s been starting, of course. After leaving Karim Bellarabi at home and permanently benching the wonderkid Leroy Sane, Germany and their very predictable lineup looked fairly pedestrian so far. Against Poland, one of their historically ‘best customers’, Die Manschaft has managed to take 16 shots – but only three of those have forced Fabiański to make saves. It’s been a surprisingly comfortable game for the Poles, who even could’ve taken the lead had Arkadiusz Milik took the two chances he’s been given. Löw countered the apathy by giving chances to Andre Schürrle and Mario Gomez, but with only one shot between them, this change didn’t accomplish nearly as much as Hodgson’s inclusion of Vardy and Sturridge. Where is your cutting edge in front of goal, Jogi?
Everything in Its Right Place
The third favourites – Spain – have been asking themselves the same question. Until Friday. Against admittedly very poor Turkish team, Del Bosque’s armada has finally unleashed their offensive powers, using terrific skills of Nolito and David Silva to feed Alvaro Morata with easy tap-ins. It was probably the first, utterly one-sided game of EURO 2016; the only thing in question was how many goals the current title holders can put past Volkan Babacan. They ended up with three, but it could’ve been more, which probably proved once and for all that this team doesn’t need Diego Costa to get the job done. By the end of the game, even Gerard Pique was participating in the attacks – a feature than must be already a rather disturbing thought for Croatia’s manager, Ante Čačić. Tomorrow, his lads, upset by conceding a draw to Czechs, will try to put Spain to a bit more demanding test.
If all Croats are fuming over losing a 2-0 lead in the last game – what can be said about the Swedish fans? Despite being armed with one of the best strikers of this generation, Tre Kronor have produced arguably two most boring snoozefests of the tournament, drawing Ireland and narrowly losing to Italy. What’s even more depressing – after 180 minutes of football, Erik Hamrén’s team is yet to find a shot on target! Sadly enough, Zlatan is having just as bad time as the team around him – the best he could do so far were three won dribbles, five won headers, four missed shots and eight offsides. It didn’t even matter whether it was Marcus Berg or John Guidetti having his back – Ibrahimović doesn’t have nearly as much support from the wings as he gets at PSG and without it, he can’t do things by himself. Could it be that Manchester United, his new employers, are setting themselves up for a disappointment?
Fortunately for Ibra, nobody’s really discussing his poor form when there’s an even bigger fish punching below it’s weight. Against Iceland and Austria, Cristiano Ronaldo has piled up a staggering number of 20 shots – more than nine teams had in this tournament so far. This resulted with no goals, one wasted penalty, several penalty claims that have been rightly waved off by the referees and uncountable amounts of frustration amongst both Portugal’s supporters and CR7’s teammates. What was a disappointment against Iceland has turned into an actual nightmare against Austria, when three-time Ballon d’Or holder has done pretty much everything to secure the 0-0 result despite his team’s domination on the pitch. As it’s been suggested many times – this could’ve been an instant karma recoil after Cristiano’s rude comments about Iceland’s ‘small nation mentality’.
Two months ago, it was Italia who were expected to be a small nation in France. After all, Antonio Conte’s team has lost Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti to the injuries, which supposedly crippled their midfield for good. However, some new, ambitious faces have emerged in Azzurri’s midfield ever since. For Antonio Candreva, this is only the second big tournament so far, and he’s been taking it very seriously. Emanuele Giaccherini, a well-known club-to-club wanderer, has found his place in the middle of the park, with another out-of-position workhorse, Alessandro Florenzi. Even Éder, who had a disappointing end of the season after joining Inter, has come out alright and scored a later winner against Sweden. With them and an all-Juventus, super-experienced back four, Italians could easily march back where they ended up four years ago – right to the final.
Azzurri must be particularly happy with the nature of EURO 2016 so far. It’s been a heavily defensive struggle, partly due to the presence of many small teams that didn’t dare to play open football against some of the European powerhouses. The fact that only one 1-0 win could be enough to advance from the group has also contributed to the cagey ways many teams are embracing. Four years ago, the campaign that lasted for 31 games has resulted with 76 goals and the average return of 2.45 goals per game. We’re now 26-games deep into the new, expanded finals, and there have been only 48 goals so far. That’s only 1.85 goal per game – the worst average return since 1968, when only four teams entered the competition and Italy won one game though a coin toss. There’s still some hope for the better – but as it stands, the facts are quite overwhelming – we’ve had only one game with four goals in it…
…but it was Belgium, who were close to producing a second one. After an absolute stinker in the opening game, Marc Wilmots has come to his senses and fixed the unfortunate team selection, picking easily the better players than those who succumbed to Italy. He finally elected to field Moussa Dembélé ahead of Marouane Fellaini – and Dembélé did what he does best, surging forward with the ball and competing 100% of his thirty passes, until he picked up an injury 12 minutes into the second half. Meanwhile, new right-back, Thomas Meunier has assisted one of the goals and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco has offered many more options out wide. This was too much for hapless Ireland to handle – and Lukaku has quickly redeemed his previous performances by scoring a brace. I still don’t think Belgium will get very far in this competition – but at least they aren’t out of it from the start.
As we speak, one thing remains very much unclear – which four teams will be lucky enough to make the Round of 16 as the #3 of their respective groups. At the moment, the winning benchmark is being set by Albania’s three points – but it will surely go up while the games are progressing. Romania, Ukraine – those teams are already going home but there’s still a glimmer of hope for everyone else. On one condition: points, preferably big points have to be scored on the Matchday 3. This especially applies to Czech Republic and Sweden – two countries currently eliminated through the third-placed teams’ ranking. In the next two days, this will be definitely the closest battle in EURO 2016; a battle, which can easily be decided by very subtle goal differences. At the moment, it’s very much possible that we will watch the knockout stages of this competition without Ibrahimović and Ronaldo…
…will it happen, though? There are just 72 hours remaining until the answer!
*to celebrate the release of Radiohead’s new album, all of the subheadings here have been hijacked from Thom Yorke’s and Johnny Greenwood’s song titles. Happy listening!