Euro 2016 – First Round Review (Groups A-C)

Patrice Evra

Evra looks like he’ll need extra support

Group A
France 2-1 Romania – It can’t last for Evra

Dimitri Payet quite rightly received all the plaudits for his match winning performance, but Romania exposed what was anticipated as France’s biggest weakness.

Thirty-five-year-old, Patrice Evra, was guilty of conceding an avoidable penalty less than ten-minutes after Olivier Giroud had given France the lead. It was a slow and unnecessary attempt at a tackle by the Juventus left-back who was also caught out on several occasions during the game.

Whilst the French are blessed with attackers that have them as one of the tournament’s favourites, their lack of defensive options could prove telling. Lucas Digne is the only other natural left-back in Didier Deschamps squad but he’s only made 13 appearances for Les Bleus – 60 fewer than Evra.

The loss of Jeremy Mathieu – who can be deployed as a centre or left-back – to injury before the tournament began means Evra has little competition for his place. If France is going to win Euro 2016 and fulfill the predictions of many – myself included – then they’ll have to provide more support on the left or continue to rely on Payet’s magic.

Man of the Match: Dimitri Payet

 

Yann Sommer

Sommer prevented Albania from earning an improbable draw

Switzerland 1-0 Albania – Sommer saves Swiss

It was billed as the battle of the brothers as Granit Xhaka (Switzerland) took on older brother Taulant Xhaka (Albania). But whilst Mama Xhaka wore a half and half t-shirt in the crowd, the real battle was who could miss/save the most chances?

Fabian Schar rose above Marco Wolfi to give the Swiss a fifth-minute lead, which turned out to be the winner despite a number of good opportunities for both sides.

Albania came into the tournament having only scored seven goals in qualifying – three of which were awarded as part of a forfeited win against Serbia. It was no surprise then to see Armando Sadiku squander a couple of presentable openings with Switzerland’s Yann Sommer standing up to the striker’s efforts.

Those chances were all the more precious as Albania had to play with ten-men for nearly an hour of the game following captain and former Sunderland player, Lorik Cana’s sending off.

At the other end, Haris Seferovic showed he too could freeze in front of goal as he failed to put the game beyond reach. The Frankfurt forward found himself taking his frustrations out on a post, probably in an attempt to make the goal bigger.

The lack of conviction in Seferovic’s finishing suggests the raw talents of Basel’s 19-year-old Breel Embolo should be introduced from the start on Wednesday. Born in Cameroon, Embolo could help secure his adopted nation’s qualification to the last 16 with victory over Romania at the Parc des Princes.

Albania, meanwhile, need to take the positives from remaining competitive in the game despite the numerical disadvantage. In fact, the Eagles should have come away with a point when substitute Shkelzen Gashi was clean through in the dying minutes. Fortunately for Switzerland, Sommer was there to produce a very good save and protect his side’s slender lead.

Man of the Match: Yann Sommer

 

Wayne Rooney Eng

Rooney’s best performance at a tournament since Euro 2004 against Croatia

Group B
England 1-1 Russia – Suspect substitutions cost England victory

Russia’s captain Vasili Berezutski earned his side an unlikely and undeserved draw in injury-time to prevent England from finally winning an opening game at a European Championships.

Roy Hodgson’s side played with the sort of attacking intent not seen by England at a tournament since Euro 2004. Despite their performance, they were unable to break the deadlock until Eric Dier swept home a freekick – much to the surprise of many – with 20 minutes remaining.

It was minutes after the goal that Hodgson made his first sub, bringing on Jack Wilshere for man of the match Wayne Rooney. It was unexpected given how well captain Rooney had been playing, but it was what Hodgson didn’t do that drew criticism from a number of fans.

Even before Dier’s goal, England looked like they needed an injection of fresh legs as Russia got more of a foothold in the game. Raheem Sterling’s form has been poor leading up to the Championships but he still found himself starting on the left of a front-three. The Man City winger struggled to have any impact in the second period yet he remained on the field until the 87th minute before being replaced by James Milner.

Chasing a goal, Russia were going to have to push further forwards, which naturally creates more space in their defensive third. A perfect opportunity for a direct and pacey forward like Jamie Vard, particularly when that area of the pitch is marshaled by two centre-backs who in a month’s time will be 34 and 37 years old respectively.

Harry Kane was far from his best so having selected five strikers for the 23-man squad, you’d be forgiven for expecting one of Vardy, Sturridge or Rashford to make an appearance. None of them did and England paid the price for failing to put the game to bed, dropping two-points and adding further pressure to the Wales game on Thursday afternoon.

Man of the Match: Wayne Rooney

 

Gareth Bale Wales

Bale already off and running

Wales 2-1 Slovakia – Bale benefits from bad keeping

Goals ten minutes in and ten minutes from the end ensured Wales won their first ever game in the European Championships.

Gareth Bale’s freekick managed to deceive Matus Kozacik in the Slovakian goal to give the Dragons the lead. Following Romania and Albania, this was the third goalkeeping error from the tournament’s first four games as Kozacik wrong-footed himself to allow Bale’s shot past him.

Ondrej Duda equalised for Slovakia a minute after coming on as a substitute. But the Welsh had their own super sub when Hal Robson-Kanu managed to score the winner ten minutes after replacing Jonny Williams.

Joe Allen, put in a solid and composed performance worthy of earning man of the match. The Liverpool player regularly showcased his ability to anticipate opponents’  misplaced passes or poor control. The diminutive midfielder’s pressing game is key to triggering Wales’ quick counters with Bale leading the line.

Chris Coleman’s side will be full of confidence heading into the England encounter having already earned three-points. The format of this year’s tournament means four of the six third placed sides will progress to the last 16, thus taking the pressure off a Welsh side that appears to be built on a strong team spirit.

Man of the Match: Joe Allen

 

A Milik Poland

Milik celebrates his goal

Group C
Poland 1-0 Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland’s blunt attack exposed

Northern Ireland entered their first major tournament in 30 years with a 12 game unbeaten record. They qualified top of their group through a combination of resolute defending and efficient uses of set-plays. But their opponents, Poland, had Robert Lewandowski, arguably the best out and out striker at the tournament of which there are few.

Michael O’Neill’s starting eleven featured six defenders if you include utility player, Chris Baird. It was clear how the Green and White Army were going to approach this game and in terms of nullifying Lewandowski’s threat, it worked.

Unfortunately for them, as mentioned in the preview, Poland has another handy forward in Arkadiusz Milik. It was the Ajax man who got the only goal of the game but he could have scored more, benefitting from his strike partner occupying more than one defender.

Defeat leads Northern Ireland with a slim chance of qualifying, as they’ll probably need at least three-points from their remaining games against Ukraine and Germany. To do that, they’ll need to provide a far greater threat to the opposition’s goal than the two attempts registered against Poland. It was the joint-lowest total by any side in a European Championships since the finals expanded from four to eight teams in 1980.

Man of the Match: Arkadiusz Milik

 

Yevhen Konoplyanka Ukraine

Konoplyanka caused Germany’s defenders problems

Germany 2-0 Ukraine – Germany eventually Kroos to victory

Germany got their tournament off to a winning start following a two-goal win over Ukraine, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for the World Champions.

Like fellow favourites, France, the Germans have suffered injuries and a lack of options in defence leaving them weak in both full-backs and short in the centre as they await Mats Hummels return from injury.

Ukraine’s two strongest players just so happened to be wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko, which made for an entertaining first half.

Jerome Boateng and goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, ensured Germany maintained the lead Shkodran Mustafi had given them after 20 minutes by producing good saves and acrobatic goal line clearances.

The Ukrainians failed to create similar quality of chances in the second half as Germany displayed their experience by dictating matters, largely due to the impressive performance by Real Mardrid’s Toni Kroos who also set up the first goal.

As the clock ran down, public displays of personal hygiene faux pas enthusiast, Joachim Low watched his side show England how to see out a game. Cult hero, Bastian Schweinsteiger, killed the game when he finished off a counter-attack just a couple of minutes after coming on in injury-time.

But whilst Germany was impressive, they, like every other team in this competition, have clear weaknesses, which only bodes well for the spectators.

Man of the Match: Toni Kroos