After the excitement of Croatia’s stunning victory over Spain the previous evening, I didn’t really have high expectations for the final day of group games; I felt that Portugal would have to perform better after their first two disappointing games and that while Ireland would no doubt give it their best, having to beat Italy to qualify might just be beyond them, how wrong could I be?
It would probably be fair to say that Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t really enjoyed the tournament so far; his frustration saw him insult Iceland after the first game, virtually go into meltdown when he simply could not get himself on the scoresheet in the second and prior to this game he lobbed a reporter’s microphone into a lake when questioned upon his performance so far! It did however feel that at some point he would find his true form, he is simply too good a player not to.
The game between Portugal and Hungary started well enough but there was little indication of the excitement to come when midway through the first half Zoltan Gera, once of West Brom, controlled a poor clearance from a corner and fired a low half-volley through a defender’s legs and into the bottom right hand corner of the net. Hungary have been a real surprise package in this tournament, but even as they knocked the ball around in midfield to ‘ole’s’ from their mass of support, you had to feel that at some point Portugal would inevitably spring into life.
My wife and I were thoroughly enjoying watching Ronaldo continuing in his whining, complaining and having-the-whole-world against him role and we sent a message to the Hungarians fans we had met in Nice to let them know that we were thoroughly behind them and we hoped they could continue to really upset him. However three minutes before half-time the Real Madrid star finally got himself into the tournament, a sublime through-ball cut out four defenders and set up Nani to slot home the equalizer.
At 1-1 at half-time it felt like it was only a matter of time before Portugal would get a grip of the game and start to put Hungary to the sword, but amazingly just two minutes into the second half Dzsudzsak’s free kick deflected off the wall and into the net leaving Patricio with no chance whatsoever, 2-1 Hungary. The next quarter of an hour was an absolute whirlwind; Ronaldo deftly back-heel volleyed a cross from the right into the net and became the first player to score at four Euro finals tournaments. Nani very nearly gave Portugal the lead but couldn’t quite a reach a low ball across the 6-yard box, then Dzsudzsak did it again, firing a left foot shot that deflected off Nani and into the net after his original free-kick was charged down. Ronaldo levelled again seven minutes later when he nodded home a cross by Quaresma, introduced as a necessary sub. There was barely time to breathe let alone take your eyes off the screen!
Elek crashed a shot off the post for Hungary but at 3-3 with 20 minutes to go it almost seemed as if Portugal settled for what they had and the intensity of the match dropped. It ended 3-3 which meant that Hungary, amazingly, but completely deserved, topped the group. It seemed as if Portugal would finish second to set up an encounter with England in the Round of 16, a prospect I suspect no England fan was really relishing against a historic bogey-side, until news came through that Iceland had scored a late winner against Austria and not only secured qualification but second place in the group.
I used the time in between the matches to draw breath and get ready for Ireland against Italy. Only a win for Martin O’Neill’s men would suffice, which was no short order. Already safely through in first place the Italians made 8 changes to their side but still provided a formidable challenge.
Right from the whistle Ireland went for it, they played direct intense football that was reminiscent of the Jack Charlton days; some of the scenes in the penalty area with ongoing tussles between the Ireland forwards and the canny, snide even, Italian defenders were more reminiscent of the Six Nations. Still needs must, and the Irish continued to give it everything they had but just couldn’t find that killer ball that would lead to the goal they so desperately craved. It wasn’t exactly quality football but it was compelling viewing nonetheless.
Two minutes before the break Ireland should have had a penalty when McClean was barged over by Bernardeschi but the Romanian ref waved play on, despite having given similar fouls all over the pitch.
The second half started in much the same way as the first, an ongoing tussle between the Irish forward players and the Italian defenders, but as the half wore on Ireland started to tire and the intensity of their pressing and harrying dropped, as did the quality of their balls into the area.
O’Neill had to freshen things up and introduced first McGeady and the Hoolahan, but they just couldn’t find that killer pass. Then with just over five minutes to go Hoolahan went through on goal after a mistake in the Italian defence, surely this was it? The Norwich City man however fluffed his shot and the keeper eventually grabbed it on the rebound. I spent the next couple of moments slagging him off and suggesting that he had never been any good(!), until he picked up the ball on the right, curled a beauty of a cross into the area where his club mate Robbie Brady headed it home to spark scenes of pandemonium all around. What a way to atone for his miss!
Ireland saw it out and had secured a result to rank alongside those of 20 plus years ago; for those of us viewing at home it was a thrilling evening of football.
In the other match Belgium dispatched Sweden and put an end to Zlatan’s international career; the striker having announced Sweden’s last game at the tournament would be his last for them. I am pretty sure he hadn’t foreseen departing this early and without having scored.