Very impressive, even if their opponents were disorganised and borderline disinterested.
There may not be a glitzy attacking name in Antonio Conte’s team but their spirit is immense, they were tactically slick and it will take quite an effort to break down that Juventus defence. Italy barely featured pre-tournament in discussions of potential champions, but critics who reckoned the azzurri were uninspiring and lacking distinction are hurriedly retracting their claims. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his cast of Swedish lieutenants are next – and once he can be silenced, Italy should ensure their progression with a game to spare.
Not as convincing as some may have expected on opening night but Didier Deschamps’ team found a way to win against obstinate opposition, a factor that was somewhat underplayed. They have the greatest depth, several players capable of producing a game-changing moment, illustrated by Dimitri Payet, and have previously thrived off home support. Les Bleus will, barring a horror show, be too strong for Albania and Switzerland, meaning an easier last 16 game. There can be no doubt they will go deep.
The world champions did enough to win but perhaps lacked the zip of Brazil 2014 and Poland and Ukraine in 2012. Still, they were one of only three sides to win by two goals or more and, as always, will be expected to improve as the tournament progresses. Were they playing within themselves on Sunday? It seemed so for long spells, despite flashes of brilliance – mostly from the inconsistent Toni Kroos. There are persistent concerns over an unfamiliar defence, but those can be offset by the world’s best goalkeeper serving as protection.
There was much chatter after the late win over Czech Republic – thanks to an unlikely source in Gerard Piqué – that Vicente del Bosque’s team are short on goals. While there is justification for concern over Álvaro Morata’s beige performance, he has proven at club level more than once he is capable of producing on the big occasion. Of more importance, chance creation against a team reluctant to cross the halfway line was obviously not an issue and they appeared as crisp and dominant in midfield as ever. It is worth remembering their history of starting tournaments slowly. Spain lost their opening game at the 2010 World Cup, and drew their first match at Euro 2012 – and they ended up winning both.
With the exception of France and Spain, is there a stronger midfield in the tournament? Probably not. Ante Cacic‘s team were a joy to watch against Turkey. Luka Modric was Luka Modric, a fine performance capped by a sumptuous winning goal, and Ivan Rakitic was a menace in the No10 role. It would be remiss to discount their aptitude elsewhere, too. Mario Mandzukic has the power to bully the best defences and Darijo Srna and Vedran Corluka occupy a strong defence. Could they re-live the 1998 World Cup in France, where they finished third?
It would be too easy to put the draw with Russia down as ill-fortune considering the time of their concession and utter dominance throughout the game, but Roy Hodgson’s team only had themselves to blame for missing so many chances. There was much to be positive about, though, aside from the profligacy, in particular the vibrancy of their first-half performance. England should still top the group, but how far they go beyond that remains hard to judge.
Far too strong for Northern Ireland, Adam Nawalka’s team should have won by more than a single goal. The 19-year-old midfielder Bartosz Kapustka controlled the game in midfield and it would be a safe bet to assume his time in the domestic league, with Cracovia, will come to an end this summer. Poland’s star man Robert Lewandowski, however, was muted, unable to get a sight at goal when those around him managed 18 attempts. He will hardly be as ineffective against Germany on Thursday night – a fixture he will relish.
Of little surprise to anybody, Gareth Bale was rather good but Chris Coleman’s team proved they are not merely about one man. Considering the increased pressure on England, it would not be a big surprise to see them get a result – especially after a concerted effort to let all and sundry know that there is a far greater expectation on their neighbours. Either way, Wales should find a way into the last 16 – which must be considered a success on the basis of this being their first tournament since 1958. Beyond that, the picture is not so clear – but a second place in Group B ensures a meeting with second place in Group F, perhaps the weakest pool of the six.
Earned a first opening win in a tournament but were not especially emphatic, Fabian Schär’s early winning goal coming courtesy of a goalkeeping howler. Struggling to break down 10 men, after Albania lost their captain late in the first half, the Swiss could easily have dropped two points if their opponents had had a player capable of finishing. Expect them to get out of the group behind France but they will need to make drastic improvements to go any further.
The biggest surprise thus far? Along with Albania and Northern Ireland, they were ante-post outsiders, and everything pointed to an opening defeat to a vaunted Austria. Instead the striker Adam Szalai, who had not scored for the Magyars for almost two years and could not find the net for two Bundesliga clubs last season, scored a wonderful team goal before a late counterattack earned only the third win by two goals or more. The last 16 beckons already. Ranking them 10th here may appear harsh but are they likely to repeat the trick?
Cristiano Ronaldo’s regular stares of disgust told the story. A level above almost every player in the world, he is several higher than most of his team-mates. Little wonder he was exasperated against Iceland, watching on as others in red dawdled. He was muted by his own lofty standards, an iffy performance summed up by a pair of injury-time free-kicks hitting the wall and a header straight into the goalkeeper’s arms, but the lack of clinical players around him meant Portugal failed to convert their dominance – almost 72% possession and 26 attempts – into victory. They should, however, still finish top of an open group that lacks the quality of the others.
Considering the pre-tournament expectations, there can be little argument they were the biggest disappointment from the opening set of games. Marc Wilmots has a wealth of talent at his disposal but the manager seems intent on misusing it. They should still make it out of the group on account of facing two inferior teams – but early evidence suggests they are a level below contending for the championship. Still, the Red Devils can scarcely perform any worse.
13) Republic of Ireland
An impressive first half in Saint Denis should have seen them ahead but they retreated after taking the lead early in the second period through that lovely Wes Hoolahan goal and were eventually punished, resulting in what seems like the country’s default result of 1-1. Martin O’Neill has already ensured progress on their disastrous 2012 campaign but they will need to beat Belgium or Italy to get through the tournament’s toughest group.
The 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland, in which Erik Hamren’s team failed to have a shot on target, showed their reliance on a single player is greater than any other team in France. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s importance to Sweden exceeds Gareth Bale’s to Wales and Cristiano Ronaldo’s to Portugal. Without him they would struggle great but thankfully for Sweden, the striker is gifted enough to change games single-handedly. If he is not at his best against Belgium and Italy, however, they will be going out.
Arda Turan, their key player, was not at his best against Croatia, evidently lacking sharpness after a season largely spent warming the bench at Camp Nou, but this is a squad with several bright young things, not least the substitute Emre Mor, a recent signing for Borussia Dortmund. They are realistically not going to threaten Spain in Nice on Friday night, so will face a shootout with Czech Republic for third place, assuming the Czechs also fall to Croatia.
What a fantastic story – proof that hard work and proper structuring behind the scenes can pay off in the face of adversity and a minuscule playing pool. Lars Lagerback’s team were outplayed against Portugal but the minnows crucially made their chance count to ensure a point. They displayed a wonderful, if expected, spirit throughout and frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo significantly. With Austria stuttering and Hungary hardly world beaters despite their good opening performance, the open nature of this group could see the fairytale extend by another chapter.
17) Czech Republic
They defended resolutely but it was hard to gauge their attacking threat to any degree due to 87 minutes of conservatism against Spain. Perhaps the most startling statistic from any game was that Petr Cech made more passes than any of his team-mates. They will need to attack against Croatia, who are a better team with a crafty midfield that should be able to pick holes, making their meeting with Turkey a battle for next best.
The frustrated reaction of their players, most strikingly Marko Arnautovic, in Bordeaux on Tuesday spoke volumes. Their first game was a letdown and they failed to perform. Considered a dark horse for the tournament outright, they fell short in almost every facet of the game against the hungrier Magyars. Plenty of improvements are required before Portugal on Saturday, though they may benefit from having a very winnable game last, against Iceland, which would likely still be enough to advance.
Four debutants in the team and it showed in a dismal first half against England. They improved in the second period, when the match could easily have been out of sight, but were still quite fortunate to earn a point. Thursday’s game against Slovakia appears decisive – lose that and their prospects (assuming their ‘supporters’ behave and keep them in the competition) will look bleak before the final game with Wales.
As expected from a team that conceded only twice in qualifying, they defended quite well against France – the hosts failed to register a shot on target until the 52nd minute – and considering neither Albania nor Switzerland were particularly impressive, could still progress to the last 16 with a solitary win. They face the former in their third group game, and are expected to frustrate the latter on Wednesday evening.
They did OK to stifle Germany for long spells but were forced to come out of their shell after falling behind, which was just as well for the neutral. The manager, Mykhailo Fomenko, had warned pre-match that “we are not adventurers” but when 1-0 down they had no option but to push a little further forward. Most dangerous from set pieces. They may, nonetheless, find a way to frustrate Poland in their final game.
Largely underwhelming. Marek Hamsik was lively and Robert Mak showed a couple of decent turns, but apart from a 15-minute spell in the second half Slovakia were inferior to Wales. Questions must be posed over their defence – Martin Skrtel and Jan Durica are among the slowest centre-half pairings in the tournament – and the goalkeeper, Matus Kozacik, is not one to inspire confidence. A toss-up whether they can finish above Russia.
The tournament debutants will not trouble France but could capitalise on the competition’s structural flaw with a win against Romania. Battled gamely with 10 men against Switzerland but were ponderous when in decent positions to equalise. Like most teams with restricted ability, they work hard. But that is unlikely to be enough against superior opposition.
24) Northern Ireland
The most limited team of all? Michael O’Neill’s side sought to frustrate and contain Poland but it was obvious within minutes that they were a grade below their opponents. Apart from Czech Republic (v Spain) and Ukraine (v Germany) they had the worst share of possession – and only had two shots. Meeting Ukraine on Thursday evening will be decisive, it is near inconceivable that they can defeat Germany in their final group game on Tuesday.
This article was written by Alan Smith, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 15th June 2016 08.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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