With the start of the knockout phases and three matches per day, the intensity of the tournament went up a notch or two over the weekend, but my wife and I decided that the only way to spend the weekend was by watching all six games. First up was Poland and Switzerland, the game started in a lively manner and it seemed like it was going to be a cracker, but as the first half wore on the Swiss just didn’t seem to be at the races and it just felt like a matter of time before Poland would score. They finally did just over five minutes before the break when Blaszczykowski finished off a sweeping counter-attack.
Switzerland were much better in the second half as Poland seemed to fade, and they finally got themselves level with a stunning overhead kick from Shaqiri that was not so much a contender for goal of the tournament as the clear choice so far. Poland seemed to be on the ropes in extra time but the Swiss couldn’t find a winner and the game went to penalties. New Arsenal singing Granit Xhaka fired Switzerland’s second penalty hopelessly wide; no one else missed and Poland became the first team through to the quarter finals.
It was a slightly strange situation for the second match, in that Wales who had previously been seen as the underdogs went into their clash with Northern Ireland as the clear favourites with the expectation that they would get through. Our adopted Northern Ireland team gave it their best but always lacked a real goal threat; despite having largely been tightly marked, it was almost inevitably Gareth Bale that decided the tie when with quarter of an hour to go he played a low ball into the area which McAuley had no choice but to try and clear, but succeeded only in turning into his own net. It seemed like a cruel end for Northern Ireland but they can reflect on a tournament where they exceeded all expectations.
The final game of the day was largely a stalemate but just as we were anticipating the second penalty shoot-out of the day, Ronaldo forced a save from Subasic but Quaresma was on hand to tuck away the rebound and send Portugal through. I have to say I felt a bit disappointed for Croatia but at the same time they were nowhere near as good as they were in beating Spain.
The first game on Sunday got off to a shock start when Ireland were awarded a penalty for a push on Shane Long by Pogba after only two minutes; Brady the hero from Wednesday night duly dispatched the spot kick and Ireland were ahead. For the most part they held firm in the first half and managed to limit France’s threat. At half-time Deschamps realised he had to change something and replaced Kante with Koman, changing the system and playing Griezmann as a No 10. The impact was almost immediate and France looked much more dynamic in attack; they sealed the game with two goals in four minutes either side of the hour mark; both by Griezmann the first a header from a cross from Sagna, the second firing home a knock-down by Giroud. Ireland couldn’t muster a response and once Duffy was shown red after a foul on Griezmann on the edge of the area it always felt like the game was over.
Despite Ozil missing a penalty, the second Arsenal player to miss from the spot in as many days, Germany looked comfortable in beating Slovakia. They wasted little time and Boateng lashed home a volley from outside the area after only 7 minutes. Ozil’s miss came just before the quarter of an hour mark, but Gomez doubled their lead just before half-time after being set up by some clever footwork by Draxler. Draxler made it 3 midway through the second half as Germany cruised into the semi-final seemingly having had little trouble with the Slovakia defence that had proven such a problem for England.
The final game of the weekend saw Belgium end the Hungarian adventure in emphatic style. Three of their goals came in the final part of the match but they looked in control from Alderweireld’s 10th minute goal onwards. Eden Hazard in particular was the stand out player and he looked like the player he was in Chelsea’s title winning team in 2014/15; quite where he has been hiding for the last year or so is anyone’s guess!
With Belgium placed on the other side of the draw from France, Germany, Italy and/or Spain, they will fancy their chances of perhaps getting all the way to the final.
Tonight sees an intriguing match between Italy and Spain in a rematch of the Euro 2012 final; I suspect Spain will bounce back after their defeat to Croatia and should have too much for Italy but it should be interesting viewing.
The last game of the round sees England take on Iceland who will no doubt pose another ‘parked bus’ challenge for Hodgson’s stuttering attack. On a positive note they have been creating chances; whether they secure progression will be dependent on taking those chances, otherwise it could prove to be a long and frustrating evening.