Supporting Characters

Match-winner: Éder’s goal nicely summed up the tournament full of unlikely heroes.

Cristiano Ronaldo was supposed to be the main star of the EURO 2016 final. Instead, he limped off the pitch ten minutes into the game, lasted another quarter of an hour and finally succumbed to the knee injury he’s sustained after an early clash with Dimitri Payet. And even though he still attempted to steal the spotlight by bossing his team around from the sidelines – this wasn’t the evening of his indisputable brilliancy.

The man who accidentally caused CR7’s tears of desperation didn’t have the best game either. Unlike in West Ham or during the early stages of the tournament, Payet’s star was going down quickly as the game progressed and the tiredness started to creep in. His last meaningful action on the pitch came in the 51st minute, when he took on Renato Sanches and Cedric until the latter dispossessed him. Mediocre performance overall.

The third superstar on the pitch – Paul Pogba – had a better showing, but still quite unsatisfactory. Even though the Portuguese midfielders would routinely bounce off his massive self, the Juventus lad didn’t show anything that would warrant a 100 million bid Manchester United could be putting on his name. A lone, badly overhit shot taken 54 minutes into the contest has summed up his unimpressive efforts while going forward.

 

Earlier in France, we’ve seen Mesut Özil missing two penalties, one of which almost costed Germany the shootout against Italians. We’ve seen Thomas Mueller missing every single out of twenty shots he attempted and ending another European Championship without a single goal. We’ve seen Zlatan Ibrahimović ending his international career very quietly and Robert Lewandowski waiting for 272 minutes to finally get a big goal for his national team.

The list goes on and on… Romelu Lukaku has scored a brace against Ireland and has been utterly useless in all other four games Belgium got to play in the tournament. David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas both disappointed their manager, who gave them the nod ahead of up and coming names like Koke or Thiago. David Alaba had a short, bitter stint with Austria; Gareth Bale failed to score a single goal in the knock-out stages.

All these big names – and, on the other end of the spectrum…

Portugal started the tournament with Cédric Soares, José Fonte and Renato Sanches all very much nailed to the bench. It wasn’t until the vigorous second-half and extra time against Croatia that Fernando Santos has finally put his faith in those three lads, who permanently replaced Vieirinha, Ricardo Carvalho and the injured André Gomes. And when it was the time to face France in the final, those three supporting characters stepped up and delivered – again.

Relegated with Newcaslte, excellent with France – Sissoko is truly a football enigma.

The greatest threat they had to deal with was surprisingly Moussa Sissoko – the player, whose presence in the French national team used to be a subject of ridicule. Earlier this year, he’s been directly responsible for Newcastle United’s painful relegation from the Premier League. He’s gone 46 hours of football in 32 games without scoring a single goal! In group stages, he’s been only a back-up to N’Golo Kanté. Then, out of nowhere, he had a terrific 90 minutes against Iceland, a decent game in the semifinal and the last, dominant display at Saint-Denis, where he easily outperformed his more reputable teammates, completing 7 dribbles, 3 tackles, firing 5 shots and boasting 89% pass accuracy. Yet another lad has come out of the shadow and did something – and the fact that he probably just wanted to put himself in the shop window doesn’t change that.

And what about all those unlikely heroes from Wales? Regularly starting five players at the back, they’ve been fielding James Chester (only 13 games as a back-up defender at West Bromwich Albion), Chris Gunter (not even a Premier League footballer; mid-table in Championship with Reading), Ben Davies (back-up left-back to Danny Rose in Tottenham) and Neil Taylor (who, prior to this EURO, scored his last professional goal in a Conference game six years ago). And others? With 981 BPL minutes, midfielder Joe Ledley has been mostly a substitute for Crystal Palace; Joe Allen amassed only 524 minutes  for Liverpool. Yet, they are all dwarfed by the absolute pinnacle of a supporting character: Hal Robson-Kanu. The lad has scored his sensational goal against Belgium as a free agent, having left Reading in June. And he’s now the part of a team that eliminated #2 seeds according to FIFA rankings…

 

It really was a tournament of Unusual Suspects. Some of the most bizarrely successful players benefited from the misfortune of their famous colleagues. Had the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti been fit to play, it’s likely that Emmanuele Giaccherini wouldn’t even get a sniff of the French pitches this year. Germany’s Mario Gomez took his chance and broke into Die Mannschaft starting XI only after two dreadful, false #9 performances by his namesake – Götze. If it wasn’t for Mousa Dembélé’s injury against Ireland, there wouldn’t be a place for Radja Nainggolan in Belgium’s packed midfield. The Croats have managed to upset Spain when Marko Pjaca and Nikola Kalinić played ahead of Marcelo Brozović and Mario Mandžukić. Even an awful Turkish team got better when they included the youngster Emre Mor instead of much more reputable Hakan Çalhanoğlu. No matter where you’re looking: supporting cast all over the place.

Last but not least – let’s not forget about one man. The man, who neglected the impact of second-rate actors in his arsenal. The man, who single-handedly tried to turn this show into a big-name blockbuster. The man, who’s been gifted two good goals from the substitutes and still wouldn’t bench his first-choice striker in favour of an attacking tandem that turned around the match against Wales. The man who, in the critical moment, waited until the 60th minute to field his back-up ace and fielded another one only four minutes before the final whistle. The man himself: Roy Hodgson. Failure wouldn’t be so painful if it wasn’t for the fact that both Rashford and Vardy looked consistently brilliant for the past five or six months…

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