Saturday was undoubtedly overshadowed by the terrible scenes in Marseille’s Old Port and, later, the famed Stade Velodrome itself — an all-too-vivid reminder that the violent elements of European football’s past are far from condemned to the pages of history.
But as for the football itself, the second day of the 2016 European Championship was nothing short of compelling, and offered hope that what some have predicted will be a bloated tournament, diluted of quality and sure to skew toward staid and defensive tactics, could prove anything but.
On paper, Roy Hodgson’s lineup for England’s Group B match versus Russia indicated an aggressive approach, with Eric Dier the only defensive midfielder by trade and an attacking midfield foursome — Dele Alli, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney — operating behind Harry Kane in his preferred role as a lone frontman.
On the pitch, it shaped up as a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 with Alli and, notably, Rooney operating as the two central midfielders working ahead of Dier, while Lallana and Sterling manned the flanks. The latter two had particularly mixed performances, though each shone brightest in the first half.
Sterling verged on the unplayable in the early stages of the game, with Russia struggling to handle the threat posed by his pace and control. Lallana’s touch, workrate and positioning was brilliant; he’s established himself as an indispensable big-game player for both club and country, the sort of two-way player you need out there when your opponents are no mugs and discipline is required.
But both fell short in the final third, where they failed to convert opportunities that could have put England well clear of their underwhelming opponents by halftime. Seeing how they are both attacking midfielders by trade, this is no small issue; Lallana, who has yet to score a goal for England, ended a brilliant piece of play in the 22nd minute with a shot from around 10 yards out that failed to hit the target, while Sterling on several occasions displayed the sort of indecision with the ball that reminded one of his age and relative inexperience.
England, however, were clearly the superior side on a day when their opponents looked to keep it tight and compact and yet — scoreline notwithstanding — failed miserably at the task. Russia’s personnel woes have been well-documented, with the midfield that helped guide them through qualifying decimated by injury, and they appeared unable to get any sort of build-up going in the first half.
They somehow made it to the halftime whistle with the game scoreless — a development that ensured the psychology of the contest remained on their side. Leonid Slutsky’s team came out with more purpose in the second half, with Russia’s midfield getting more involved on the ball and benefiting from sloppy passages of play by England.
The contest had grown more stretched by the time Eric Dier — who was terrific as the lone pivot ahead of Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill — put England up 1-0 in the 73rd minute with a wonderfully struck free kick that saw Igor Akinfeev once again exposed on the international stage. England had earned a deserved lead; surely they would see the match out now.
But the manner in which they went about doing so was all too indicative of traits that make Roy Hodgson such a polarizing figure (ask any Liverpool fan what they think of the guy) and frustrating character to have in charge of this most talented, oft-explosive England side. One could let slide the perplexing decision to let Harry Kane take the team’s corners — Hodgson clearly fancies Kane’s admittedly underrated delivery — and still be left with a manager who, when the chips are down, has continued to show an inclination to revert to a conservative, risk-averse approach that is a hindrance to his side’s youthful exuberance.
It’s not that the decision to sub Wayne Rooney for the tidy Jack Wilshere — a like-for-like replacement positionally, as far as Rooney’s role in the midfield three was concerned — was a glaring error, nor was Hodgson’s call to bring James Milner on for a struggling Sterling to see the game out. Unless you’re a resolute defensive football team (and this England side certainly is not that), the easiest way to protect a 1-0 lead is to make it a 2-0 lead. With the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy on the bench, Hodgson had ample options to make a change that would look to reassert England’s attacking dominance over proceedings.
He failed to take advantage of any of those options and Vasili Berezutski’s looping injury-time header ensured that England would pay the price for their manager’s timidity. The final whistle blew to end it at a score draw, and brought with it despicable scenes in the Stade Velodrome stands.
It promised to be a long night in Marseille. It promises to be a long five days before England meet Wales for a massive game in Lens.
The two Saturday contests that preceded the England – Russia match were altogether less tense affairs, but each was a testament to the positives provided by this year’s expanded 24-team format.
Wales made their first appearance at a major international tournament since 1958; they brought with them 25,000 supporters who crafted a red wall of noise at the new Stade de Bordeaux, delivering an unforgettable rendition of “Land of My Fathers” and savoring every minute of their side’s match against Slovakia like they’d waited 58 years for the privilege.
Barely three minutes had passed before Slovakia talisman Marek Hamsik took the ball off his Welsh counterpart, Gareth Bale, and drove all the way into the opposition area — beating Wales backup goalkeeper Danny Ward only to have his shot saved by a Ben Davies clearance. It was a massive piece of play, given the principals involved and the stage of the game at which it took place, but it wasn’t to be for Slovakia. Wales would make them pay within minutes.
Bale hit a gorgeous drive of a free kick, which Slovakia keeper Matus Kozacik should have done much better with, to put his side up 1-0 in the 10th minute. Wales proceeded to boss the game for the remainder of the first half, Joe Allen imperious in his distribution and playing like a man intent on earning himself a big move this summer.
Chris Coleman’s 3-4-3 system is a gamble that appears to be paying serious dividends, with Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Aaron Ramsey’s Bleach Job given freedom in central attacking positions and a squad filled with Premier League mainstays more than able to fill in the blanks. Slovakia seemed unable to cope throughout the first half, barely able to string together a single memorable piece of build-up play.
But like Russia later in the day, they came out with far more conviction in the second half, and Jan Kozak’s double change on the hour mark reaped instant rewards. Ondrej Duda scored within a minute of replacing Patrik Hrosovsky, dribbling at a Wales defense that had retreated deep within it own half and slotting a tidy finish past Ward.
Despite their captain Ashley Williams looking quite gimpy and Coleman throwing on Crystal Palace’s Joe Ledley as a substitute mere weeks after he’d suffered a broken leg, the Welsh persevered. Hal Robson-Kanu’s introduction around the 70th minute mark allowed Bale to drop slightly deeper, rather than spearheading the entire enterprise. The payoff came 10 minutes later with a scrappy move created by Ramsey and barely finished by Robson-Kanu, who saw his scuffed finish roll into the back of the net. Cue massive scenes in the Welsh end.
Slovakia probably feel like they deserved a point, but they simply didn’t do enough. Their squad (which loves itself a tattoo) is littered with formerly promising players who never came close to reaching their potential as professionals. Guys like Vladimir Weiss and Miroslav Stoch, former Man City and Chelsea youth products who presently ply their trade in Qatar and Turkey, respectively.
In the end, the contest featured five bookings in total — all of which belonged to the Slovaks. Martin Skrtel, who was lucky not to concede a penalty early on for an elbow to Jonny Williams’ head, was left squatting and staring off into the distance, surely considering the latest disappointment in a season that’s been full of them for the Liverpool man.
There was also disappointment for Albania, who met Switzerland at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens. Forget about a 58-year wait; this was the first time the Balkan nation had ever competed on an international stage like the Euros, and its first match would be against a country it has no shortage of ties with. One only needed to observe the handshakes and hugs in the tunnel to realize the extent to which the Albanian diaspora has found a home in Switzerland, and the close relationship between the two nations was inherent in the fact that two actual brothers — Granit and Taulant Xhaka — were competing on different sides.
It looked like it would be all Switzerland early on, with Fabian Schar scoring in the fifth minute off a beautiful Ricardo Rodriguez delivery from a corner. Keeping with one of the the day’s themes, Albania keeper Etrit Berisha should have done much better, making a mess of his effort to come out and claim the ball as Schar simply nodded it past him and into the net.
After Albania captain Lorik Cana succeeded in getting himself sent off with two yellow cards before the 36th minute, it appeared the remainder of the match would be a mere formality for a more talented Switzerland team. But Albania simply refused to die, staying in the contest until the bitter end and crafting several legitimate chances to equalize — none better than Shkelzen Gashi’s 87th minute opportunity when clear on goal.
But Swiss keeper Yann Sommer held his ground and made the save, and Switzerland secured an important three points ahead of their match versus Romania at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday.