Euro 2020(1): Day Two – Made in Brent
The boos were roundly drowned out by the majority of the crowd at Wembley, which was probably about as much as we could have hoped for, considering everything. There is little more to be said on that particular matter. The FA, the manager, and the players have all made their positions on the matter of taking the knee perfectly clear, and there really is little more to be said on that particular subject. Those who do not wish to listen, who prefer their prejudices to understanding others, have made their decision. They had their chance, and do not deserve for their voices to be further amplified.
It probably helped the atmosphere that England started on the front foot. Within five minutes, Raheem Sterling fed the ball to Phil Foden, who managed to cut insode on the right hand side of the penalty area and curl a low shot around the goalkeeper which thudded out off the inside of the bottom of the post after having taken the slightest nick off the Croatian defender Gvardiol. The pace slowed – it had to, such was the heat – but there was little impression that this was because Croatia were using preternatural skills to control the tempo of the game. Most impressive of all was Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips, who was all poise, smart positioning, and intelligent passing, and although Croatia looked more comfortable in holding England at arm’s length until half-time, they seldom looked likely to create much more than this.
Eleven minutes into the second half, Phillips created the position from which the deadlock could be broken with a surging run from midfield that saw him wriggle between the twin pillars of the Croatian central defence before rolling the ball through to Raheem Sterling, who swept the ball past the oncoming goalkeeper. This was a goal created in Yorkshire but finished in Wembley’s own back yard. Sterling has come under the spotlight in recent months over his faltering form, but on this occasion he had the presence of mind to foresee Phillips’ intention and to be in the right place at the right time.
And that was… that. For all that was said about Croatia’s vast experience, once out on the pitch and facing down a younger team they looked, if anything, a little past their sell-by date by the end of this match. It’s a fine line between having bags of experience and merely being a little over the hill, and Croatia are going to have to improve in their next two matches if they are to demonstrate that have the former without being the latter.
England, meanwhile, have dodged the hyperbole that surrounds them to the best of their abilities. They made the best of their home advantage, played solidly enough that, even with the relatively narrow margin of a one goal lead, seldom looked like losing that lead, and there were no players who put in a truly bad shift or who had one of those momentary brain melts that do seem to occasionally afflict English players in major tournaments. Furthermore, if Croatia are – as was widely believed before the start of it all – the strongest team that they’ll have to play on their group matches, then this result is a giant step towards the next round. Only once in the past – 1982, to be precise – have England come through their group in a finals with three wins out of three. That this aspiration has survived their first group match in the Euros for the first time ever speaks volumes about their previous record in this competition.
Austria also managed to lay a ghost to rest yesterday afternoon, but they were still given plenty of food for thought by North Macedonia before scrambling to an ever so slightly flattering 3-1 win. It all looked as though it should be fairly straightforward for the team that regales in the magnificently generic nickname of “Das Team” after Stefan Lainer gave them the lead after eighteen minutes, but an equaliser from Goran Pandev – arbitrary 200% nickname, ‘The Old Man of the Sea’ – through a Macedonian cat amongst the Austrian chickens, and Austria duly laboured for fifty minutes before Michael Gregoritsch restored their lead, with Marko Arnautovic putting the result beyond doubt with a couple of minutes left to play.
Arnautovic’s goal was certainly worthy of note, for the celebrations that followed it if nothing else. Having rounded the goalkeeper and rolled the ball onto the empty goal, Arnautovic seemed absolutely infuriated by how easy the Macedonian defence had made things for him. Indeed, I’d anything, his open mouthed, shouting “celebration” (which, of anything, looked more like a denunciation than a celebration) called to mind the English press after their team has failed to win a game by seven clear goals. It’s tempting to say, “Never change, Marko”, but the very strong likelihood is that he wouldn’t be able to, even if he wanted to.
The evening game between the Netherlands and Ukraine didn’t promise too much, but it turned out to be the most enjoyable game for neutrals so far. There is something about those orange shirts that awakens the romantic in the football aficionado, and it looked as though they could be cruising to a comfortable win when two goals in seven minutes early in the second half from Georginho Wijnaldum and Wout Weghorst – Wijnaldum’s in particular was an object lesson in foresight, movement and finishing that aspiring young players would do well to watch over and over again – gave the Dutch a solid looking two goal lead.
This match, however, had plenty more in its locker. Sure enough, the Netherlands had been excellent and the fact that they were only two up was down to an inspired performance by the Ukraine goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan as anything else. Ukraine had, however, given as much as they’d gotten over the previous hour, and a match this accomplished deserved a third goal, scored for Ukraine by Andriy Yarmolenko with twelve minutes to play, to set up an appropriately grandstandish finish. Four minutes after their first goal, Roman Yaremchuk brought Ukraine level and it looked for all the world as though Dutch insecurity and carelessness had fundamentally torpedoed what had looked like a very strong start. With two minutes to play, though, Denzel Dumfries, whose magnificent name will be coming to the Premier League next season, should Everton have say in the matter, headed in from a corner to snatch a dramatic win for the home team.
Is this a better or worse way of wrapping up your first match than a slightly dour 1-0 win? Both Frank De Boer and Gareth Southgate may have strong opinions on this, but the overwhelming feeling to come from The Amsterdam Arena by the time of the final whistle last night was one of relief rather than anything else. Ukraine, meanwhile, may have been laid out on the pitch by the late winning goal against them, but they provided more than enough to demonstrate their capabilities, and should be capable of getting to the next round, even if their task is somewhat stiffer for that late Dutch goal.