The new 24 team format for the Euro’s is being blamed for some rather sterile football over the past week. Germany and Poland’s stalemate last Thursday was the beginning of four 0-0 draws in five days, including England’s soporific game against Slovakia.
Traditionalists are saying that losing two games and winning one, as in Northern Ireland’s case, makes a mockery of the competition. Michael O’Neill’s men fought valiantly to keep their losing margin against Germany to 1-0, but many are saying that defeats the whole point of what tournament football should be about.
I’m not so rigid in my thinking, there is a flip-side to this argument; the tournament is still alive for any team in the final group game who goes for the three points. Look at Ireland’s gutsy and thrilling 1-0 win over Italy and Hungary 3-3 Portugal, they have been the most entertaining games we’ve seen so far. Croatia’s 2-1 win over Spain saw them top the group and join the so called ‘easier side of the draw’ in what was probably the most satisfying and enjoyable game because of the technical quality and organisation of both teams, who could possibly meet again in the final.
Iceland’s late winner prevented Portugal from meeting England in the second round, who, as the received wisdom goes, would have attacked England and therefore this would leave Hodgson’s men with more spaces to exploit. As it stands we face Iceland, who will sit very deep in their own penalty box, defending for their lives. It’s not easy to break a team like this down, as England proved against Slovakia, Wales and Russia. The idea that a team attacking England would be to their benefit could be wishful thinking as it may just serve to expose the as yet untested defensive frailties. Russia had a go at England for only the final ten minutes of the match and Joe Hart and his back four looked very shaky. Wales and Slovakia didn’t even try.
When England beat Germany 3-2 in March it was seen as a new, exciting high-pressing England side based on the style of Tottenham Hotspur this season, but what has been forgotten is that Germany went 2-0 up, having sliced through our defence with relative ease. Having said all that, I would rather have played Portugal. If only for the promise of a proper fixture, an exciting match, some attacking football with a bit of tempo to it for Christ’s sake!
The story of this Euro’s has been the success of the smaller nations, and the electric atmosphere their jubilant fans create. Wales v N. Ireland on Saturday will surely be the pinnacle of this. The Northern Irish fans have been the most bonkers, bouncing up and down and singing for literally the entire 90 minutes. It may not be enough for them to see off the barnstorming threat of Bale and his Welsh compatriots though.
Spain v Italy is obviously the stand-out tie in the round of 16. A very tough one to call, it could go all the way to penalties.