Euro 2016: No Quarters Given, Apart from One
Euro 2016 has been condemned for a goal-per-game ratio below Italia ’90, itself still thought the worst international tournament ever. The quarter-finals were an unexpected venue for the catch-up. Italia ’90 still wins by 2.21 to 2.15. Three goals, essentially. But Euro 2016 is winning everywhere else. The hosts have become semi-finalists with more style in 2016. While the “unlikely semi-finalist” contest is no contest. And not just in England, where football fans’ recent scramble for Welsh ancestry has resembled that for Irish passports in the “real world.”
Wales/Belgium is currently game of the tournament, especially when you consider what was at stake, and is certainly the best-dressed game. Wales’ kit is no-nonsense. In the 1976 Euro quarter-finals, their shirt-design replicated the godawful “Talbot” monstrosities which supplemented the indignity of playing for Coventry in the 1970s. (Did Terry Yorath join Coventry in 1976 so he could wear both?). BEING the 1970s was no excuse. And Belgium wore the best international football shirts…EVER. I was almost neutral about this quarter-final because of them, an inoffensive light blue, crossed resplendently with their flag’s colours in hoops. Fashion genius, I think…though you should see the state of MY clothes.
I also fancied Belgium to do better against Portugal. Initially, Belgium avoided the weaknesses of their hastily-assembled, suspension-hit defence by keeping the ball 60 yards away from them, after letting newbies Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku pass to each other for 30 seconds, giving them better tournament possession stats than Harry Kane. However, after Radja Nainggolan scored brilliantly, to momentarily distract from his resemblance to a punk peacock, Wales played like no Wales team since 1958. And it is hard to imagine even that side scaling the heights Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale etc scaled in dismantling Belgium.
The order of names matters. Cristiano bloody Ronaldo was merely one of the Portugal team which snuck past Poland on Thursday. Bale was one of the Welsh team which outplayed Belgium. But there was nothing “mere” about Bale and he was in plentiful company. When Denayer partnered Virgil Van Dijk in Celtic’s defence in 2014/15, Van Dijk was the better player. But not by much. Denayer was impressive, becoming PFA Scotland’s young player of the year. And he kept his national squad place after a year with Galatasaray. That meant nothing once Wales started. The tournament’s defining image may be Denayer whistling across the screen like someone chasing Buster Keaton down the wrong street as Hal Robson-Kanu morphed into Johan Cruyff for the right split-second and finished with the sort of aplomb John Hartson never quite managed.
Bale’s role too was summarised by this goal. He started the move with a lofted pass which landed on Ramsey’s bootlaces without the faux-blond breaking stride. But Ramsey’s and Robson-Kanu’s subsequent work was even better. Goal of the tournament to date but with Bale a supporting actor. Robbie Savage suggested we’d be talking about Robson-Kanu’s goal forever if Messi scored it. But I suspect we’ll be talking about it forever anyway. (And evidence for how unnatural a broadcaster Savage is, aside from being rubbish, came in the closing moments. Savage means it. But his semi-tearful commentary when Welsh victory was assured seemed forced and was uncomfortable listening). UEFA’s stats people gave Belgium one shot on target before Ashley Williams bullet-headed Wales’ equaliser, which was harsh on keeper Wayne Hennessy and left-back Neil Taylor who audibly blocked two goal-bound shots in quick succession early on. The stats people on bookings were sharper, alas. And Ramsey will be missed hugely, after being booked for a clearly-unintentional handball.
But Wales weathered early storms in each half, grateful that treetrunk Romelu Lukaku was playing in place of powerhouse Romelu Lukaku (grateful too that at least one presentable penalty shout went unheard). And they played some thrilling football. On quarter-final form, Ramsey has as many games left in this tournament as Ronaldo. Wales now have to counter the Uefa conspiracy to make preening prick Ronaldo the tournament’s star, a conspiracy started by the clearly-rigged coin-toss which has forced Wales to wear their “unlucky” second kit in the semis. And it is unlucky if you wore it losing to England in this tournament.
Against Poland, Ronaldo was as ordinary as a match which dissolved after a fine first half. As ordinary as his team-mates, with the exception of the dreadlocked energy-ball Renato Sanches. Oh… and, it pains me to admit, pantomime pillock Pepe, who was superb. Bobbie Lewandowski took one hundred seconds to banish his tournament goalscoring woes. But well though he played, at least while the game was any good, reminders from 200% colleague Edward Carter that “he scores in batches of five” (five in nine minutes as a Bayern Munich substitute in the Bundesliga last season) were top-grade wishful thinking.
ITV commentator Sam Matterface called Sanches’ equaliser a “banging hit.” (”matterface”: Ronaldo’s expression when he knows the camera’s on him). Unfortunately, the relevant bang was off defender Grzegorz Krychowiak’s knee. Without that, the game would have finished one-nil and we wouldn’t have to tolerate Ronaldo’s narcissism when Portugal win the tournament despite rather than because of him (it’ll happen). Lee Dixon was particularly miffed by the second-half inaction, which was only significantly punctuated by humorous Ronaldo misses (“not an easy chance,” Andy Townsend claimed as Ronaldo produced another air-shot…but it SO was…tee-hee). Dixon suggested the game go to penalties to ”put the players through some pain.” Bloody quarter-finalists, eh Lee? Unlike…
Extra-time wasn’t rotten. But it was close, livened up mostly by a pitch invader Matterface claimed was “heading for” you-know-who (no…NOT Portugal midfielder/member of the public Joao Mario). But replays showed him zig-zagging to avoid two-dozen stewards in laughably incompetent pursuit. Eight of the nine shoot-out penalties matched the first half, Jakub Blaszczykowski’s matched the rest. “Anybody got anything interesting to say?” asked ITV presenter, Harry Enfield…no…wait…Mark Pougatch, during extra-time’s half-time. “No,” chorused watching millions. Portugal through, despite playing exactly like a team managed by Inspector Wexford would. Hope they’re knackered after consecutive 120-minute matches.
Germany/Italy mirrored Portugal/Poland for 90 minutes. A “tactically fascinating” first half (Gary Lineker, taking the p*ss) followed by a proper second half between two “international heavyweights.” And an appalling shoot-out, which “Stereotypes ‘r’ us” labelled Germany’s worst-ever. Early entertainment came from BBC co-commentator Martin Keown’s various mispronunciations of Chiellini (six, I reckon… who knows how he’d have mangled “Giorgio”) and “injury-prone” Sami Khedira’s in-character first-half departure, damaging his groin after an Italian stood on his…foot.
Bastian Schweinsteiger lumbered on in Khedira’s stead, the phrase “the big players need to show up” losing something in translation. And he was the first half personified. Talent still intermittently visible but real “I’ve seen cheese turn quicker” stuff. Schweinsteiger netted before half-time but Keown’s suggestion that “the officials did well to spot that” reeked of sarcasm…although his other contributions suggested maybe not. “Do you think Zaza takes penalties?” was the most rhetorical question imaginable when commentator Guy Mowbray asked it as Chiellini was replaced late in extra-time. Keown answered. And “got to be hitting the target” was his gormless advice after one shoot-out miss.
“We said things would liven up… and they did,” Mowbray claimed at full-time, lying about the first bit. Thomas Mueller’s determination NOT to score in a Euros finals overpowered his talent again. Italy’s Alessandro Florenzi wasn’t to know that, though, and circus-acrobatically cleared Mueller’s 55th-minute shot…the plaudits continuing even when replays showed how wide Mueller’s effort was going. Keown urged dissenting Italians to calm down as consecutive decisions went against them…and who didn’t immediately recall Keown’s bug-eyed confrontation with Ruud Van Nistelrooy when he said that? And he and Mowbray discussed Italy “knowing how to commit a good foul” after Parolo kicked Bishop Brennan up the arse…no…wait…Mario Gomez. Not a “good” foul…at…all.
Thankfully, before they could dig any more holes, Ozil scored for Germany and Gomez should have scored again moments later, keeper Gianluigi Buffon wonderfully saving “Challini’s” last-ditch tackle (Incidentally, Buffon has transformed from far-right buffoon to fantastic sportsman during the tournament. Huge plaudits to him if it’s been genuine). However, nine minutes later Jerome Boateng waved his hands in the air, waved them like he just didn’t care…that he’d concede a penalty. And Leonardo Bonucci scored from the spot with a calm born of…blimey…never having taken a match penalty before. “Could you imagine Chris Smalling or Gary Cahill (doing that)?” asked 200% supremo Ian King. Well…I couldn’t imagine them scoring.
The TV bods insisted that extra-time was dreadful, despite considerable contrary evidence. Germany “played for penalties” by nearly scoring three times. Italy probably did play for penalties but had chances too. Penalties were dreadful, though. Germany ended their pre-shoot-out huddle with a collective blood-curdling scream which surely contributed to Ozil’s miss (if not Mueller’s inevitable failure). But Bonucci showed that he should stick to in-match penalties. Zaza’s 94-pace, six-yard run-up and penalty brought Wayne Sleep unexpectedly to mind. And Graziano Pelle showed the improvement in his game which Mowbray credited to “the Premier League” by…rolling his penalty yards wide. “Schweinsteiger” was the general reaction to his sky-high penalty before another Man Yoo Van Gaal-signing, Matteo Darmian, missed crucially. “Lots of money placed on Germany in Manchester bookies,” I noted when he came on. I surprise myself sometimes. German left-back Hector then multiplied work opportunities for Robert Webb-lookalikes by netting the winning spot-kick. Germany won at a cost. After Khedira’s umpteenth injury, the surprisingly-effective Gomez limped out of the tournament and centre-half Mats Hummels was carelessly yellow-carded out of contention on 90 minutes.
ITV suggested that France easily beat Iceland because they “learned from England.” No…really. The game was “a step too far” for Iceland, although they provided some fun all the way home. It couldn’t have been much fun when they rolled into half-time four-down. But they won the second half by the same score as they won the first half against England. There, of course, all comparisons ended. Iceland were tired. France were heavily-favoured by the tournament schedule after winning their group (just like, to pick examples purely at random, England in 1966 and 1996). Both showed after Iceland’s promising start was cut short by Olivier Giroud, ulp, outpacing their defence and netting. Yes, Olivier Giroud. He was later shown to be “half-a-boot” offside (Dixon). But still.
“Let’s see if the French have learned anything from our mistakes,” said Glenn Hoddle as Iceland, spookily, again won an attacking throw-in straight after conceding. They learned just one thing, it transpired. Don’t make them. Hoddle is seven-to-one joint-second-favourite (with Guus Hiddink, behind Jurgen Klinsmann) with some bookies to be next England manager; worth remembering when he suggested Iceland had defied pundits by not tiring because “they play in boxes.” France, meanwhile, “learned” to score again before Iceland could equalise, Paul Pogba hanging in the air “like Tommy Lawton”, as older fans might say, before heading home. And despite Clyde Tyldesley informing viewers that Iceland had come from two-nil down “in this very stadium” in a Euros qualifier in 1999, Pogba’s goal effectively ended the contest.
Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann (caught on-camera biting his nails pre-match) lunged for the Golden Boot with a goal apiece as half-time approached. But talk of record winning margins for Euro finals was suppressed by Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s 55th-minute goal, even though Giroud scored again moments later. “You have to put some swazz on it,” Hoddle noted of Payet’s free-kick for Giroud’s second goal, perhaps pre-empting future England team-talks. But some “urban dictionaries” (which are apparently a thing) suggest “swazz” is barely a noun. Seven-to-one. Joint-second-favourite. Oh…my…sides. Iceland deserved Birkir Bjarnasan’s second goal…and the genuinely rousing send-off from their huge stadium support. Unless Wales win it, Iceland may well be the “story” of Euro 2016.
Cop-out as it sounds, both semis are too close to call. If Wales/Portugal really is Bale/Ronaldo, what to use as a form guide? Ronaldo’s superiority for Real Madrid or Bale’s, arguably, in international football? Will Mueller finally score at a Euro finals? Will Germany miss Gomez or Hummels most? Will France stage a three-way battle for the Golden Boot? This could be a memorable tournament yet.
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