Euro 2016: Round 1 Review

After each round of matches in this year’s European Championship, I’m going to attempt to look back on each game. Some will have slightly more time and words dedicated to them than others.

This first report is almost exactly as it will appear on the final episode of my audio podcast Front Row, due out later this week, but for the sake of posterity, here it is slightly more timely than that.

It’s basically just a bit of fun. Seems a waste to spend so much time watching all these football matches and not do something productive with it. So, as France see off Albania 2-0 at the start of round 2, I’ll leave you with this summary and see you again on Sunday.

Euro 2016 kicked off on Friday with home nation France snatching victory over Romania in the final minute of the game, thanks to a wonder strike from midfield maestro Dimitri Payet. The talented West Ham midfielder switched the ball from right foot to left before bending a 20-yard strike past the diving goalkeeper to ensure Les Bleus started the tournament on the front foot. The emotional Frenchman left the pitch at the Stade de France to a standing ovation from the home fans, as emotion overwhelmed him and the tears started to flow.

The quality of football from the French may not have been the most beautiful on show during the week. Yet from the passion of players such as N’Golo Kanté, dominating in the centre of the pitch, to the flair of playmaker Payet, overshadowing teammate and Man Utd target Pogba, meant the game was as thrilling as an opening tournament match should be.

Matchday two began with a heated clash between Albania and Switzerland. The Swiss team – full of nationalised Albanian-born players – set the game up for a feisty affair with Albania’s captain, former Sunderland midfielder Lorik Cana, seeing red in the first half. But a goal from central defender Schär made sure of the win for Switzerland.

Later that afternoon, Wales made victory over Slovakia look like hard work, requiring an 81st minute header from substitute Hal Robson-Kanu to put Wales back in front after Slovakia’s Duda cancelled out Gareth Bales stunning free kick. England will not be looking forward to playing either team after an unconvincing second-half performance against Russia.

The three lions had the majority of possession in the game and created the most chances, fully deserving to take the lead in the 73rd minute through unlikely goalscorer Eric Dier smashing a free kick past Akinfeev. It was defensive naivety that left England ruing missed chances when Russia captain Berezutski looped an injury time header over Joe Hart’s outstretched arms. One point for England, but three points and top of group B for Wales.

It was the performances of Harry Kane leading the line, and captain Wayne Rooney deployed in midfield that were the big surprises from the match. The former barely had an influence on proceedings whilst the latter was behind all of England’s best play and was indeed unlucky not to get on the scoresheet with a thunderous shot.

It remains to be seen whether Kane and / or ineffective winger Raheem Sterling will retain their place for the Wales game on Thursday afternoon, with Milner expected to come into the side to help nullify the threat of Bale.

There have been few surprises elsewhere in the first round of matches. Luka Modric scored a stunning volley in Croatia’s 1-0 win over Turkey. A humdrum Germany comfortably put two past a hapless Ukraine.

Northern Ireland’s energetic performance was in vain as Poland beat them 1-0, with their neighbours the Republic of Ireland preventing Ibrahimovic’s Sweden from walking away with all three points after a 1-all draw.

Monday’s matches began much as they were expected to, with reigning champions Spain claiming a 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic’s sturdy defence without ever looking like convincing challengers for the championship.

Perhaps the biggest upsets have been 30-year absentees from international tournaments Hungary winning 2-0 against many people’s dark-horses Austria. Alaba, Arnautovic, Fuchs and co. could scarcely believe the result with the Hungarians clearly not overawed by the occasion.

Of course we also saw Italy batter the Belgians 2-0; the latter of whom came into the Euro’s as the bookies’ favourites. There was little evidence of that on display with captain Eden Hazard and his team rolling over to his future Chelsea manager Antonio Conte’s men with barely a whimper. Emanuele Giacherrini – a player who formerly couldn’t get a game at Sunderland – powered a shot past Courtois before Southampton’s target-man Graziano Pelle wrapped up the game with a superb volley into a virtually empty net with the last kick of the game.

And finally, it was a quiet night for Ronaldo on the pitch. The closest he came to sparing Portugal’s blushes was a late header in their 1-1 draw against Iceland on Tuesday, but it was hit straight at the keeper and meant an unlikely point went away with the smallest nation competing in France.

The less said about the hoo-ha made of the world’s highest paid sports star’s antics off the pitch, coming across as a sore loser with comments about Iceland parking the bus and not deserving of their place at the competition, the better.

Best players of round 1:

Goalkeeper: Yann Sommer (Switzerland)
Defender: Shkodran Mustafi (Germany)
Midfielder: Dimitri Payet (France)
Forward: Gareth Bale (Wales)

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