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Euro 2016 contenders fail to stamp authority

Italy has it all to do to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
Expert
14th June, 2016
18

Pre-tournament, a select number of nations were lauded as contenders for Euro 2016. France and Germany were atop of the pile, with strangely, though inevitably, England thrown into the mix as an outside chance as well.

Belgium’s juicy list of individuals once again had fans and critics salivating, their number two FIFA status blinding many to the fact that this is a not a coherent, in-sync team on the pitch.

Spain, despite being defending champions and boasting a plethora of attacking talent, almost flew under the radar, but were still among the bookies’ favourites too.

At the end of the first round of group games however, none of these sides truly stamped their mark on the competition. In fact, until Monday there was little to get excited about full stop, with the tournament low on quality and filled with individual displays of brilliance rather than standout team performances.

Indeed, the two most impressive performances – without viewing this morning’s Group F clashes – came from a dark horse and a traditionally strong nation whose squad had been rated one of its worst in 50 years.

But first to the favourites, starting with hosts France, who stumbled to a 2-1 victory over Romania in a game they were expected to walk through. It was only thanks to a moment of magic from Dimitri Payet that the three points were sealed.

The team’s performance was nowhere near emphatic, but with a midfield of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kante, France will improve as the tournament ages.

Similarly, Germany got the job done against Ukraine, without being spectacular in a 2-0 win.

There were neat passages of play, Toni Kroos at his influential best in midfield, and their passing was controlled and at times mesmerising. But they lacked a presence up front as Mario Götze continued his horror season with a depressing display.

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Defence is still a huge concern for the world champions as well, with fullbacks Jonas Hector and Benedikt Höwedes struggling to deal with wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka. Ukraine should have converted one of many chances.

Yet this is classic Germany. Inconsistent during qualifying, uninspiring in warm-up friendlies but always turning up when it matters. A typical Turniermannschaft, as the Germans say.

England put in one of the best performances of the tournament, but unfortunately it only lasted for 45 minutes. Their first half against Russia showed exactly why many have been optimistic about their chances, due to a youthful line-up brimming with excitement.

The optimism did not last however, as England succumbed in classic England style – to a last-minute Russia equaliser. The quality is there, although Harry Kane looked worryingly jaded up front, but the mentality is still to emerge. And despite an encouraging performance from captain Wayne Rooney, England will not beat the top teams with the 30-year-old in midfield.

Spain were the next contender to enter the pitch and they were expected to make light work of the Czech Republic. They dominated possession, completed triple the amount of passes than their opponents, but struggled to find a way through a resolute Czech side.

Gerard Pique, recently subjected to unjust whistles from sections of Spain supporters, proved the difference with a foray up front. Opinion is divided whether there were more positives or negatives, but there was enough in this display to suggest Spain can overpower most teams.

The form of Andres Iniesta, at his scintillating best, is extremely promising for La Roja fans. All they need to find is that ruthless streak in attack.

Meanwhile, everyone’s dark horse Belgium, recently ranked world number one in the flawed FIFA rankings, provided scant evidence of justifying their pre-tournament tag.

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They fell to a highly organised and impressive Italy side in an enthralling contest which finished 2-0.

If ever a game was to prove the old sports adage ‘A champion team will always beat a team of champions’, this was it. It highlighted the importance of system and tactics over raw skill, and the crucial role a high-quality coach plays in the results business.

Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Alex Witsel, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois and Jan Vertonghen are just a few of the names peppering the Belgium team sheet, but the man in the dugout, Marc Wilmots, appears clueless how to get the best out of them.

While Belgium had their chances – Lukaku and substitute Divock Origi guilty of crucial misses – their performance was disjointed, lacking fluency and cohesion. The decision to push De Bruyne out wide, with Marouane Fellaini picked as No.10, was baffling.

In stark contrast was Italy’s boss, Antonio Conte.

The new Chelsea manager picked a squad many were calling the worst Italy team in 50 years, however his masterful approach to implementing 3-5-2 was beautiful to behold. Along with Croatia, Italy’s was the standout performance from the first round of games.

The defence was typically resolute, the world’s best ball-playing defender Leo Bonucci and the world’s greatest modern goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon marshalling the back-line to keep Belgium at bay. There were shaky moments, but overall Italy were characteristically tight.

More impressive was their transition from defence into attack, where they looked dangerous and produced two magical goals. Like Germany, Italy are a tournament team, and while a run to the final would appear unlikely, especially with an underwhelming midfield, they have done it before.

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Wilmots’ claim post-match that, “Italy specifically played on the counter-attack. They did not play real football”, was an outrageous statement, and one usually trotted out by managers who have been outmanoeuvred.

If that is Wilmot’s attitude, without realising the obvious flaws in his side, there is little hope Belgium will progress further than the round of 16. Predictions that this team could storm into the final look laughable now, just as they became two years ago in Brazil.

Instead, it is another dark horse in Croatia who have emerged favourably from the opening games. Aside from France, there is perhaps not a stronger midfield in the Euro than Hrvatska’s.

Ivan Rakitić, Luka Modrić and Milan Badelj combined with forward talents Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Perišić form a strong two-thirds. They may have only put one past Turkey, but it should have been three or four-nil. If Croatia can find their scoring boots, the status quo may have an outside challenger.

As it stands, none of the favourites have emerged in the opening rounds with their reputations increased. Spain, France and Germany look like they’re just warming up, England’s mentality has come under question, Belgium have looked like pretenders and Italy and Croatia have emerged as possible contenders.

Yet the opening round is historically a poor reference for future outcomes. The eventual winners rarely blow spectators away in their first match, and that perhaps is some comfort for the Euro 2016 competitors. Perhaps we will see Belgium resemble a coherent team, or maybe England will banish their tournament woes.

Spain lost their first game in South Africa and drew in Poland and Ukraine; they went on to lift both trophies. Two years ago Italy defeated England in an impressive opener in Brazil but didn’t even make it out of the group stages.

This tournament is yet to explode, with just 1.8 goals scored on average and, as mentioned, individuals deciding most of the big moments in place of superior team performances. However, the second round of games is highly anticipated, as do-or-die clashes come thick and fast.

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