The Nearly Men tells the fascinating stories of some of the most revered international football teams of all time.
Through the history of the World Cup there are many sides who thrilled us all with their elegance and style, or who revolutionised the game, only to fail when it mattered most. They are the teams that could, and in some cases perhaps should, have won the World Cup, yet remain memorable for what they did achieve as well as what they didn’t. They all left a lasting legacy, be that of unfulfilled potential, crushed dreams or the artistry they produced that could have seen them prevail. Their exploits and accomplishments are frequently hailed more than those of the winners.
The Nearly Men celebrates these teams: what made them great, what saw them fail, the legacy they left and why onlookers remember them so fondly. It is a tale of frustration and disappointment, but also of footballing beauty and lasting legacy, in homage to the kind of greatness that isn’t defined by victory.
(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. May 2022. Hardcover: 352 pages)
A rest day and a chance to reflect on the group stages. As usual my ability to predict results and outcomes remains as awful as usual – good job I don’t bet! My prediction that England wouldn’t make it out of the group never looked likely after an opening win over Croatia. Germany up next for the Three Lions next and fingers crossed it’s a positive performance with of course a win. Gareth Southgate has insisted that the cautious approach was to ensure progress into the last sixteen, will he now release the handbrake? Is the trouble that once you get into a style of playing is it difficult or even possible to change that mentality?
Who has impressed? Standout for me have been Italy – positive, fluid and solid at the back. They currently are my favourites. But the trouble with knockout football is that a big defensive display from the opposition in ninety minutes and extra-time and then anything can happen in the penalty shoot-out. Spain showed what they can do in their final game, and you can never write off a side that has Ronaldo in it, although Portugal have a tough tie up against Belgium. World Champions France weren’t at their fluid best, but in a difficult group emerged top and will more than fancy their chances against Switzerland.
Credit must also go to Wales and Denmark who meet in the opening game of the Round of 16, with the Welsh having to deal with the travel to Baku, then to Rome and back, and doing enough with a cracking win over Turkey to get through. Whatever happens in the rest of this competition, the awful on-pitch collapse of Christian Eriksen will always be the abiding memory of Euro2020. The Danes looked like exiting as they played their final group game without a point to their name, but a stunning 4-1 win over Russia propelled them into the knockout phase. It could be a very interesting encounter.
Of those leaving the tournament, the exit of Turkey and Poland must be considered shocks, whilst it was always going to be difficult for debutants Finland and North Macedonia. Scotland will be disappointed that they slipped out of the competition with a whimper rather than a bang, scoring just once and collecting just a solitary point. And Hungary were just six minutes from going through at the expense of Germany.
Other observations. Is it me or are the referees constantly in the way? There have been many occasions when they just seem to be too near the ball in play. I love the game, but I have been genuinely grateful for the two day break before the Round of 16. As I said in my Prologue, the tournament is too big and to have 36 games just to eliminate 8 teams, is just crazy. Given that, so far I’ve not been totally grabbed by the tournament and perhaps the competition will explode into life with the last sixteen.
Spain had come into the game on a wave of criticism, and it looked like it was just not going to be their day in the opening thirty minutes of the first-half. Alvaro Morata had his penalty saved on twelve minutes and other excellent chances went begging until a freakish own-goal opened the floodgates for the Spanish. After half an hour, Sarabia shot from distance, with his shot going straight up in the air off the crossbar. As it came down the Slovakian ‘keeper Martin Dubravka went to push the ball over the bar, but instead simply palmed it into his own net. It was the piece of luck that Spain needed, and they never looked back from that moment. Laporte headed home in time added on at the end of the first-half, with the rout completed with three second-half half goals, including yet another own-goal as Kucka shinned in on the goal-line in a melee in the box. Spain through in second-place edging out Slovakia, with them having to wait until the later kick-offs to find out that Croatia would be their opponents in the last sixteen.
A game which looked all over after an hour with two clinical finishes from Forsberg, sprang to life in the final thirty minutes. With the Swedish fans still celebrating the second goal, on fifty-nine minutes, two minutes later Lewandowski produced a special finish to reduce the deficit. The comeback was complete with six minutes remaining as the Poles looked for a winner that would give them a chance of progress. However, deep into time added-on, substitute Claesson ended Poland’s hopes as he jinked into the box to give the Swedes a dramatic 3-2 victory. Sweden top and a trip to Glasgow to take on Ukraine.
At 2-1 with six minutes remaining Germany were heading out, until Hungary were unable to clear the pressure from their box leaving Goretzka to drive home an equaliser. Hungary held the half-time advantage through Szalai, a lead they held until a mistake by Hungary’s ‘keeper Gulácsi gifted Germany an equaliser, as he came for a cross and got nowhere near it allowing Havertz to bundle the ball home from close range. The lead was short-lived as Schäfer bravely headed home as Neuer rushed out of his goal to put Hungary 2-1. But it wasn’t to be a fairy-tale ending for the Magyars, as the Germans got that important leveller to set-up a date with England at Wembley.
Group F: France (1) 2 – 2 (1) Portugal
Goal-scorer: Portugal – Ronaldo (30′ pen, 60’pen). France – Benzema (45’+2’ pen, 47′)
Puskas Arena, Budapest
Penalties galore in this one! Two for Portugal converted by Ronaldo (who else) which saw him equal Ali Daei’s record set (109 goals) with Iran between 1993 and 2006. Both were pretty nailed on penalties, whilst France could be said to have got a soft one, with Mbappe going down under what looked like a should-to-shoulder collision with the Portuguese defender. Benzema did the business from the spot just before the break and finished neatly just after half-time to put the French 2-1 up, until Ronaldo’s leveller from the pot on the hour mark. France’s best chance to win it produced a brilliant double-save from Rui Patricio, to deny Pogba and then Griezmann from the rebound. Both sides through with France top and a game against the Swiss, with Portugal facing Belgium in Spain. A truly incredible last day of group games.
After that dramatic evening, all that now know the last sixteen pairings, which are as follows:
Saturday 26 June 2021
Wales v Denmark (Johan Cruyff Arena, Amsterdam)
Italy v Austria (Wembley Stadium, London)
Sunday 27 June 2021
Netherlands v Czech Republic (Puskas Arena, Budapest)
Football is a results game and England’s first task was to qualify from the group and on that basis on paper that is what has happened. Top of the group, unbeaten in three games and no goals conceded. This was a decidedly better performance than that against Scotland and particularly in the first-half there was some genuinely positive play from Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and goal-scorer Raheem Sterling. Harry Kane drew another blank but was unlucky with his one genuine opportunity which Tomas Vaclik did well to save. The Czechs had their moments but huffed and puffed without much success and this result combined with the win for Croatia, saw the Czech Republic drop from top position to third but still make the last 16. England back at Wembley next week and await to see who visits the arch once the games conclude tonight. Whoever it is, it will be a proper test, unlike the phoney war of the group games.
This was a do or die game for both sides. The equation was a simple one, only a win would be good enough to have a chance of progress to the knockout phase. With my feet-up watching the England game, the biggest cheers of the night from the Wembley crowd (other than for England’s winner) was when news from Hampden Park filtered through every time Croatia scored. Despite home advantage the Scots maintained their record of never having progressed from the group stages of major finals. Vlasic opened the scoring for Croatia with McGregor getting the leveller to offer some hope for Scotland to set up a vital second period. However, it was Croatia who got the job done. Modric’s goal on sixty-two minutes can only be described as world-class, with a genius finish and fifteen minutes later the final nail in Scotland’s coffin was delivered by a flicked header from Perisic following a corner. 3-1 to Croatia, a result which saw them leapfrog into second spot and a trip to Copenhagen in the last 16.
So we reach the last group games and then a couple of days of no action, until the last sixteen games get underway on Saturday (26 June). Group E comes to its conclusion with Slovakia v Spain at La Cartuja in Seville, whilst Sweden take on Poland at the Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Slovakia only need a point against Spain to ensure their place in the last 16, whilst Spain will reach the knockout phase with a win but could also progress if they draw and Poland do not beat Sweden. It has been a strange couple of games so far for Spain, but surely they will win today? Sweden who top the group will maintain that with win over Poland, but a draw and results in the other game could see the drop to second spot. For Poland its all or nothing, with only victory over the Swedes enough to see them through
England will have their eyes on the games in Group F with the runners-up here the Three Lions opponents next week. Germany host Hungary at the Allianz Arena in Munich, whilst over in Budapest World Champions France play European Champions Portugal. Nothing is cut and dried in this group, and this is what each team needs to do to ensure they are not heading for the exits:
France will finish first if they win, or if they draw and Germany do not beat Hungary. If France lose and Hungary win, second place will be decided on overall goal difference.
Germany will go through if they win, or if they draw and France do not lose. Germany will finish first if they win and France do not. Germany will finish third if they draw and France lose, or if both Germany and Portugal lose.
Portugal qualify if they win, or if they draw and Germany lose. Portugal will finish first if they win and Germany do not. Portugal will finish fourth if they lose and Germany also lose.
Hungary will go through in second place if they win, and Portugal lose. If they win and France lose, second place will be decided on overall goal difference. Hungary will finish third if they win and the other game is drawn.
After all this I think the two-day break will be a welcome one for all!
Another 12 games played and a host of talking points from Coca-Cola-gate (other fizzy drinks – and water – are available) to the first 0-0 draw between England and Scotland in England. So here’s a look at some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the second round.
Goal of the round: Nothing quite to match Patrik Schik’s first-round effort this time out, though there were a couple of well-worked goals, including both of Wales’ goals against Turkey, Ronaldo’s tap-in after a perfect counter-attack against Germany and Kevin de Bruyne’s beautiful set-up for Thorgan Hazard. De Bruyne went one better with his winning strike against the Danes, but arguably Ivan Perisic’s strike against Croatia was the pick of the bunch. And on the subject of goals, both Patrick Schick and Cristiano Ronaldo picked up another goal apiece, to take their tallies to three each, but there’s a clear frontrunner for the Golden Boot at the moment – own goals. There had only been nine own goals in Euros history prior to this tournament, with the most at one tournament being the three scored in 2016. However, five own goals – over half of the total previously scored – have already been registered in the first two rounds of this year’s edition – including the opening goal of the tournament – with Portugal’s Ruben Dias and Raphael Guerreiro having the dubious honour of scoring two own goals in a single match for the first time in the tournament’s history. On a more positive note, Ronaldo’s third goal of the campaign saw him increase his Euros goals tally to 12 and edge just two away from Ali Daei’s international record, whilst this was also his 19th goal at World Cup and Euro Championships, equalling Miroslav Klose’s record. With a tricky match against France to close their group-stage account and keep their Euros ambitions alive, could Wednesday’s encounter be Ronaldo’s swansong at this tournament?
Standout team performance: There were a few standout performances across the round, not least from two of the three home nations, with Wales tapping back into the spirit of 2016 to see them earn a deserved victory against Turkey and all-but ensure qualification to the knockout round, whilst Scotland stepped up against the Auld Enemy to thwart England’s progress. After a dire start in Munich against France, Germany reminded everyone as to why they’re the most successful team in Euros history, with an impressive victory over Portugal, while both Belgium and Netherlands maintained their 100% start and eased into the Round of 16. However, my shout for team performance goes to Italy, who eased to another 3-0 win, becoming only the second team in the tournament’s history to begin the campaign with consecutive wins with margins of more than 3 goals. Despite not being on many people’s radars pre-tournament, Italy have in fact been on a very decent run, which has now seen them register 10 consecutive wins, and all of them without conceding a goal. They are 29 matches unbeaten, just one short of their record 30 matches between November 1935 and July 1939, and have scored some 80 goals. Defensive solidity is still at their core but they’ve added the deadly combination of goals – a team to watch surely.
Standout player performance: If ever a substitute changed a team’s fortunes, it was surely Kevin de Bruyne, who was introduced in the second-half when the Red Devils were 1-0 against Denmark and promptly cancelled out the deficit by calmly setting up Hazard. And just quarter of an hour later, he turned the game on its head with a beautifully struck shot to ease Belgium into the lead and through to the Round of 16. He exemplified the term ‘game-changer’. However, for me, Leonardo Spinazzola has been a revelation. A right-footed wing-back, he’s played the role to perfection on the front foot, always offering an outlet down the wing and often the furthest forward in the attack. Admittedly, he hasn’t been tested particularly defensively, but, as they say, attack is the best form of defence, and they don’t come more attacking in the wing-back role than Leonardo Spinazzola. Now 28, Spinazzola may just be at his peak, although if Chiellini and Bonucci are anything to go by, he should have another good 6–8 years yet.
Newcomers: I can’t mention newcomers without mentioning Billy Gilmour. Named ‘Star of the Match’ (a moniker I’m not even going to go into right now) against England, Gilmour once again proved his quality and maturity as he has done every time he’s stepped onto the pitch in the last twelve months. Despite being only 20, his schooling with the likes of Kante and Jorginho clearly shows, and his battle against team-mate Mason Mount was one of the highlights of the England-Scotland match. For me, though, Denzel Dumfries of the Netherlands, who has been named ‘Star of the Match’ (I know, I know) in both of the Oranje’s matches, has been mightily impressive, starring at right-back but scoring in both of the opening fixtures – and in scoring in his first two Euros games, he matched the feat that has only ever been achieved by one other player – Ruud van Nistelrooy – and again, I reiterate, he’s a right-back. Aged just 22, he’s already making waves, and I’m sure the Premier League scouts are out in force to prise him away from PSV. And when it comes to youngsters, Jude Bellingham’s reign as the youngest ever player at the Euros was over almost as soon as it began with Poland’s Kacper Kozlowski taking the record when he was introduced as a sub against Spain, aged 17 years and 246 days. Anyone feeling old yet?
Surprise packages: Hungary versus France was seen as a shoo-in for the reigning World Cup winners who had eased past Germany, just four days before. However, the 60,000 fans in Budapest and the Magyars didn’t get the memo, shocking Les Bleus by going ahead at the end of the first half. Hungary couldn’t hold on to the lead as Antoine Griezmann equalised on 66 minutes, but a team boasting the likes of Mbappe, Benzema and Pogba couldn’t find a way past a determined Hungary side. A side it must be said whose 3-0 defeat by Portugal hugely flattered their opponents, after Hungary had held out for 84 minutes. A draw against the tournament favourites was little more than the side deserved, and it keeps the so-called Group of Death wide open. Whilst Hungary have proved a welcome surprise, Spain have been the opposite, managing just two underwhelming draws and scoring one goal. It is a team that remains blessed with talent but one that has become predictable and somewhat stale. With a prodigy like Adama Traore on the bench, someone who can genuinely effect games and terrorise defences, it seems unfathomable that he hasn’t featured at all in this tournament, even if not as a starter, he is the ideal option from the bench. Currently sitting third in their group and with a final match against Slovakia to play, Spain still have it all to do to qualify, and they’re going to need more than they’ve shown so far to do it.
Moment: You might argue it comes to something when your moment of the round is the half-time entertainment, but then when that half-time entertainment is Micah Richards leading the karaoke it’s understandable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Micah Richards is TV Gold. And when there’s a stale 0-0 to try to cover in the fifteen-minute break, why not opt for a little sing-song instead? Ashley Williams and Alex Scott were the perfect sidekicks for Richards and if nothing else comes out of this Euros for the home nations, we may just have found our next Eurovision trio right there. Analysing matches is all well and good, but let’s be honest, we’re all there for the pundit shenanigans. Next up, Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Graeme Souness have a half-time rap battle. Okay, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
England: The concerns going into the tournament for England were all about defence and how on earth the Three Lions would cope without Harry Maguire. Blessed with perhaps the greatest array of attacking talent in a generation, the only questions about England’s front line was how to fit them all in. However, two games down and that has totally switched. The defence, marshalled it has to be said by Harry Maguire’s replacement Tyrone Mings, has kept two clean sheets and been largely untroubled, whilst a four-pronged attack has registered just one goal and didn’t record a single shot on target in the first half against Scotland. It felt as if this match brought England crashing back down to earth, against a Scotland side who were resolute and determined but who rank some forty places below their Auld Enemy. In many ways, it was a sort of throwback, an old-fashioned tussle of yore, with a few more multicoloured boots than in the past. It wasn’t particularly pretty, the good old Blighty weather didn’t let the side down, and the first twenty-five minutes was more about the foul count than the pass count, with some proper duels between Mings and Stones and Adams and Dykes, and Mason Mount and Billy Gilmour who seemed to forget they’re Chelsea teammates. Mount and Rice were arguably the best of a disappointing bunch, with another solid display by Mings and Jordan Pickford putting on a good performance. With one match to go, England’s fate will be decided against the Czech Republic and whilst it’s not all doom and gloom, there is definitely need for improvement, and maybe it’s time for a change to personnel and shape.
Goal-scorers: Hungary – Fiola (45’+2’). France – Griezmann (66′)
Puskas Arena, Budapest
This has been to date a tournament very low on shock results, but there was a sniff of one in Budapest when Hungary, who got hit with three late goals against Portugal, had World Champions France trailing at the break. The goal came in time added-on at the end of the half and was a quality one which was wildly celebrated by the full-house at the Puskas Arena. Fiola headed the ball into the path of Sallai, who returned it in a one-two which allowed Fiola to beat Pavard and Varane before finishing past Lloris. As for most of the Portugal game, Hungary were resolute, but their resistance was broken on sixty-six minutes. It was a goal that was more direct that those with the usual flair associated with Les Bleus, as Mbappe ran onto Lloris’ long kick down field playing in Griezmann who scored from just outside the six-yard box. Did France deserve to win this one? They had more possession and more shots, but that would have cruel on Hungary who for their battling qualities deserved a point.
Group F: Portugal (0) 2 – 4 (0) Germany
Goal-scorer: Portugal – Ronaldo (15′), Jota (67′). Germany – Rúben Dias (35’og), Guerreiro (39′ og), Havertz (51′), Gosens (60′)
Allianz Arena, Munich
What was I thinking? How could I doubt that Germany would lose this game and be on the edge of elimination from the competition? Well the first fifteen minutes made very interesting watching. Germany were out of the blocks and on fire and had a goal disallowed after a VAR review for offside. They then got caught on the break with Ronaldo tapping home from close range and from nowhere they were behind, and you began to wonder if this was not going to be Germany’s day. From there on in though it was all about Die Mannschaft as Portugal retreated and Germany poured forward. Then in the space of four minutes the game was turned on its head and in the process a record was created. On thirty-five minutes Portugal’s Rúben Dias shinned Gosens’ cross into his own net and four minutes later Guerreiro did the same as Kimmich cut the ball back into the Portugal six-yard box. The record created by this bizarre passage of play was that it was the first time at the European Championship Finals that two own-goals had been scored in a game. In fact, Euro2020 had produced more OG’s than previous tournaments. Into the second-half and it was more of the same from Germany, with Havertz making it 3-1 six minutes after the restart with a simple finish from Gosens cross. The provider turned goal-scorer on the hour mar, as he headed home Kimmich’s cross to make it 4-1 and you wondered if another 7-1 demolition (as over Brazil in the World Cup) was on the cards. It wasn’t to be as Portugal got what turned out to be a consolation from Jota on sixty-sevens minutes, giving the score a closeness that didn’t reflect Germany’s dominance. Write-off the Germans at your peril.
After another game where Spain dominated possession but only came away with a draw, many in the media seem to have hit the panic button as far as Luis Enrique’s side is concerned. We should though cast our minds back to 2016 in which Portugal only made it through to the knockout phase after three draws, before going on to lift the trophy. Yet the Spanish are not creating a great deal from all their ball retention, but you have to be ‘in it to win’ it and Spain will fancy their chances of progression as they face Slovakia in their final game. It all looked good on twenty-five minutes when Alvaro Morata scored from close range but only after a VAR review to send the Spaniards in at the break with a goal advantage. Poland though kept plugging away and with a talent such as Lewandowski in their side, he is always a threat. And so it proved nine minutes into the second-half as he rose to head home and level it at 1-1. That joy though looked to be short-lived as just four minutes later Spain were awarded a penalty. The Villarreal striker Moreno stepped up but put his spot-kick against the post with Morata unable to convert the rebound. As with the France v Hungary encounter did the ‘big’ side warrant a win based on their dominance of the game? Some will argue yes, but the simple fact is it’s a game all about goals and the history books will show it finished 1-1.
Today we reach the stage where teams find out if they need to pack their bags and head for the exits or prepare for the knockout phase as the last round of group games begin. Sensibly these days they kick-off at the same time so that no side has any advantage, or in the case of West Germany and Austria at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, allows any room for collusion. For older readers check out the Disgrace of Gijón – Wikipedia
Group A sees Wales travel to Rome and face Italy whilst the Swiss play Turkey in Baku. These final games are all about ‘ifs and buts’ For instance how do Italy approach the game having already qualified? Do they rest players or simply continue to build momentum with the same side? Do Wales look to play for a point?
The permutations are as follows, so you’ll need to read carefully!
if Wales draw with Italy they will finish second and play in their last 16 match in Amsterdam against Group B’s runners-up.
If they lose, Wales could still finish second. However, if they lose and Switzerland beat Turkey with a big enough change in goal difference the Welsh could finish third. However, four points would still almost certainly be enough to see them through to the last 16 as one of the tournament’s four best third-placed teams.
If Wales win they would win the group and play their next game at Wembley against Group C’s runners-up.
Both Switzerland and Turkey need to win their final Group A game to have any chance of reaching the last 16.
If Switzerland win Swiss they would need Wales to lose to Italy, with a swing of five on goal difference, to have any chance of finishing second. Four points might be enough with four third-placed teams going through.
If Turkey win they would have to hope that their three points were better than two the other third-placed teams. However, with their current goal difference of -5, it is likely they would need a big win over the Swiss for them to progress.
Given there was so much at stake for both sides, it was incredible to witness an opening half that was so devoid of action. Slovakia seemed content to sit back and take a point whilst the Swedes offered little and looked unlikely to make any sort of breakthrough. As a result I ditched this game at the break. From the highlights in the second period at least both ‘keepers were made to earn their money with Sweden’s Olsen reacting smartly to keep out Kucka’s effort, whilst at the other end as Dubravka produced a superb save to keep out Ludwig Augustinsson’s header. The Slovakian ‘keeper was then called into action again saving at his post as Isak went onto a slaloming run through the Slovakia defence and fires goalward. The defining moment arrived thirteen minutes from time, Isak flicked a ball onto Quaison who touched it on as Dubravka came out and collided with the Swedish player. The referee pointed to the spot. Now I’ve looked at it a few times and I think Dubravka is unlucky as he has to come out and can’t get out of the way of the players as the ‘keeper goes for the ball. However, Forsberg stepped up and coolly placed his kick home. The final round of games will see Slovakia play Spain whilst Sweden will face Poland, with a clearer picture of who needs what emerging after today’s encounter between Spain and Poland.
I’ll be honest and a say I wasn’t fully paying attention to this one, with the England game a nervous distraction. Suffice to say, Croatia put in a better display than they did against England with Perisic’s leveller early in the second-half showing the quality of the Inter Milan striker. The Czech Republic had led through Schick’s third goal of the competition after he earned the Czech’s a penalty eight minutes before the break. With a bloody nose from the foul, he sent Livakovic the wrong way earning himself top spot in the race for leading scorer at this early stage. The Czechs have one foot in the last sixteen with England up next, whilst Croatia know that only a victory against the Scots will give them a chance of progress.
Group D: England (0) 0 – 0 (0) Scotland
Wembley Stadium, London
Why are so many people surprised at the result? I said yesterday a point was likely which was exactly as it turned out. Whilst the heavens opened in the Wembley sky, the goals dried up on the pitch. Scotland failed to score for their second group game and England also drew a blank as Harry Kane looking decidedly off the pace was withdrawn for a second successive match. It wasn’t as dour as it could have been with genuine chances on both sides. And what a different game it would have been of any of them had been taken. As ever it was a reality check for England, with their pre-tournament betting as one of the favourites, laughable in the extreme, as they are simply not even amongst the best five teams at this competition. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and this was simply a bad day at the office, with the pressure of the Auld Enemy just too much for the players on the night. Tuesday will be a different game entirely and it will be intriguing to see if there are any changes for the Czech Republic. For now the Scotland game should be confined to the history pages and its onto the next challenge.
Today signals the end of the second round of games, which starts with Group F and Hungary hosting France at the Puskas Arena in Budapest and is followed by Germany in Munich who welcome Portugal to the Allianz Arena. Proceedings conclude with Spain hosting Poland in Seville.
Hungary will hope that home advantage has some benefit after the late collapse against Portugal, but it will be no easy task against a French side brimming with confidence after their win over Germany. Can’t see anything other than Les Bleus taking three points and progress to the last sixteen. Could Germany really be heading out of the competition? They will be in real danger if Ronaldo and Co. take all three points in Munich. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility and would be a sad way for Germany coach Joachim Low to end his stint in charge. Finishing up the day is the Spain v Poland clash. And it could be a very interesting one. Spain all possession and no finish against Sweden, with just a point and Poland undone by Slovakia with no points going into this game. Surely if the Spanish have the same possession again they will surely score? Stranger things have happened. A draw between these two would make for an intriguing last round of games. Things are starting to get interesting!
Goal-scorers: Guerreiro (84′), Ronaldo (87’ pen, 90+2’)
Puskas Arena, Budapest
Well as the clock wound and six minutes on the clock I was thinking that my pre-match prediction of a draw was looking pretty good. Portugal had been the better side and throw in a Ronaldo sitter of a miss before the break and you thought Hungary had earned a bit of luck to grab a point. And then it all changed. Eighty-fourth minute. A deflected ball into the box and Guerreiro’s less that convincing shot also took a deflection to wrongfoot ‘keeper Gulacasi and the ball bobbled in. 1-0 Portugal. Three minutes later Rafa Silva bursts into the box he is fouled by Willi Orban – penalty Portugal, Ronaldo steps up, thank you very much. 2-0 Portugal. Then for good measure in time added on, some magic from the Portuguese skipper, a lovely set of wall-passes, and Ronaldo dummies Gulacasi and slots home. From nowhere the reigning champions win 3-0. Love him or hate him, Ronaldo is one of the world’s best players of all time and the goals in this game made him the European Championship Finals leading scorer. His penalty took him to 10 goals equal with Platini and his 11th puts him clear. Who would bet against Ronaldo scoring even more before the competition ends?
Group E: France (0) 1 – 0 (0) Germany
Goal-scorer: Hummels (20’og)
Allianz Arena, Munich
Not sure why but found the game all a bit comedic. Whether it be the Greenpeace protestor who dropped into the stadium or Antonio Rudiger’s nuzzle into the back of Paul Pogba and subsequent grab of the Frenchman’s moobs, to the own-goal from Hummels who wonderfully shinned it into the top corner. There were also two goals to France which were chalked off by VAR in the second-half and then seemingly every effort on goal by Germany kicked into the ground in some form of weird skill competition. Germany weren’t though laughing at the whistle and have Portugal and Ronaldo next up. This is one interesting group.
So we hit the start of the Second round of group fixtures. Back to three games today.
The opener in the Krestovsky Stadium sees Russia with home advantage over Finland and hoping to get their first points on the board after their 3-0 loss to Belgium. The Finns won in Denmark 1-0, and it will be interesting to see how they approach this game. Do they look to take a point or go all out for a win, knowing that group favourites Belgium await them in their final fixture. Historically these neighbours have a troubled past, with Russia invading Finland during the Second World War so there could be a bit of spice in the encounter. In football terms, Russia hold the upper hand winning all four games between the countries. I thought Finland would be the weak link in this group but could instead turn out to be one of the surprise packages. I’ll stick my neck out and sat Finland to nick another 1-0 win.
Game two of the day sees Wales play Turkey in Baku, with the media suggesting this will be like a ‘home’ game for the Turks with a large following attending. Wales have that point from the encounter with the Swiss, whilst Turkey lost 3-0 in the opening game of the competition 3-0. I felt the Welsh looked tired for large parts of the match with Switzerland and worry that if they got behind today they could struggle. However, the Red Dragons are not a side to roll-over, and I think this one could end as a draw. Don’t expect a 6-4 game that occurred when these teams last met in a World Cup Qualifier!
Wednesday closes in Rome with Switzerland travelling to take on Italy who were quietly impressive in their win over Turkey. On that basis and the evidence of the Swiss in their draw with Wales, I can’t see anything other than an Italy win.
This was a game I would have attended if COVID hadn’t intervened. With a reduced capacity for 2021, UEFA held a ballot and I lost out unfortunately. So it was a day at work and meetings in Manchester. I had my laptop so thought great I’ll be able to watch the game on the way back to Leeds. Of course I had forgotten how poor the Wi-Fi can be as the train has to pass through various tunnels and the area around Marsden Moor. Subsequently it was nigh on impossible to make out much of the game – I resigned myself to the fact I was simply not meant to watch this fixture. By the time I reached home it was just in time to watch the last thirteen minutes, so had to settle for catching up on the highlights. It seems that there were chances on both sides, and the Czechs were simply more clinical. Scoring just before half-time is always a significant time for a side to take the lead and Schick was impressive to get behind his markers and plant his header away from the five of Marshall. If that was quality then his second seven minutes after the break will be one of the goals of the tournament, catching Marshall off his line from just inside the Scotland half. Attention in this group moves to Friday and the England v Scotland battle and an intriguing contest between the Czechs and the Croats.
Can this be considered the first shock result of the tournament? Poland ranked 21st in the FIFA list with Slovakia down in 36th position. Yes, I suppose we can. Slovakia were dangerous from the off and it was no surprise when they went ahead, although there was a touch of fortune about their goal on eighteen minutes. Robert Mak ran at the Polish defence and fired low, Wojciech Szczesny in goal got down to his right and pushed the ball onto the post, but it ricocheted off the prone ‘keeper and into the net. Slovakia held the advantage into the break and could have been further ahead. That lead was short-lived as within a minute of the restart Poland were level with a well worked move, and although Linetty didn’t connect cleanly it still found its way in. The game swung Slovakia’s way just after the hour mark after Krychowiak collected a second yellow card for a pretty soft foul leaving the Poles down to ten-men. Within seven minutes Slovakia went ahead, from a corner it was played to Skriniar close to the penalty spot and his sweetly struck finish beat Szczesny nestling in the bottom right corner. A famous victory for Slovakia which put them top of the group.
Group E: Spain (0) 0 – 0 (0) Sweden
La Cartuja, Seville
Yes a game that finished 0-0 but not a boring encounter by any means. The stats showed that Spain had 85% possession and had 17 shots to Sweden’s 4. Morata and Olmo had the best chances for Spain which were wasted, but credit must also go to Robin Olsen in the Swedes goal who made some smart saves. As so often in games like this where one side has so little of the ball, they are always dangerous on the break with Alexander Isak unlucky after a charging run into the box that saw his shot deflect off Spanish defender Marcos Llorente onto the post and into the arms of a relieved Unai Simon in the Spanish goal. Isak also created Sweden’s best second-half opportunity as he created a chance for Marcus Berg who wastefully fired wide. Spain will see it as two points dropped and will be desperate to beat Poland in their next game.
The first round of group matches concludes today with two games from Group F, with Hungary hosting current European champions at the Puskas Arena in Budapest and Germany welcoming France to the Allianz Arena in Munich.
Hungary and Portugal met in the group stage of the Finals in 2016. It was the last round of fixtures and turned out to be quite a game. Hungary were ahead three time in the game through Zoltan Gera, and a brace from Balazs Dzsudzsak, but each time were pegged back with goals from Nani and two from Ronaldo to ensure a 3-3 draw. It proved to be a vital point for Portugal as it enabled them to qualify to the knockout phase as one of the best third placed sides and of course went on to lift the trophy. This could be a cagey encounter and may well end as a draw.
France and Germany conclude Tuesday’s action in Munich, with their last meeting at Euro 2016 in the Semi-Finals, where Antoine Griezmann got a double to send the hosts through to the Final. Is there discount in the French camp after the recent Giroud and Mbappe spat in public, and will it impact Les Bleus performance? It’ll be a case of wait and see. Whilst this game doesn’t have the friction of a Germany v Netherland encounter, there is bound to be a bit of an edge between these two and for fans of a certain age, Harald Schumacher’s appalling foul (well assault) on Patrick Battiston at the 1982 World Cup which left the Frenchman without two teeth and three cracked ribs necessitating his requiring oxygen on the pitch, is not something easily forgotten. Don’t be surprised if this game ends as the second draw of the day.
In 2012, renown sportswriter and journalist, Anthony Clavane released a book titled, Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here, which focused on the exploration of, “the role of Jews in English football’s transformation from a working-class pursuit played in the crumbling arenas to a global entertainment industry”. He did so by looking at the stories of eleven key figures (although many others are detailed in the book), through three stages to illustrate the integration of Jews into English society.
this list of writing uncovering the influence of Jews in the global game is
David Bolchover’s, The Greatest Comeback
– From Genocide To Football Glory, which looks at the life of Bela
Guttmann, a name more likely to be recognised and revered in Portugal than
anywhere else in Europe. The reason for this, being that this player and
influential coach born in Budapest, went on to win two successive European Cups
in 1960/61 and 1961/62 with Lisbon based, Benfica.
Clavane’s book, Bolchover is not just focusing on the game of football and
there are wider issues explored. In the case of Guttmann’s story, each of the
eleven chapters is proceeded by some historical context which details the
persecution of Jews at various times and places around the world. Whilst
harrowing to read, the graphic details help the reader understand that Jews
have been targeted down the years, and not just in the Holocaust. As is
understandable from a Jewish author, Bolchover explores the hatred and
prejudice that Jews experienced through Guttmann’s life, and the timeline of
his football playing and coaching career.
professional career saw him playing from 1919 to 1933 chiefly as a midfielder,
winning the Hungarian title in 1919/20 with MTK Hungaria FC, the Austrian
Championship in 1920/21 with SC Hakoah Wien and the National Challenge Cup in
the USA with New York Hakoah in 1929. In addition, he earned six caps for
Hungary between 1921 and 1924. The Hakoah Wien side was considered to be a
force to be reckoned with and in touring the USA during 1926 drew large crowds
on an extensive tour. Once he finished playing, Guttmann turned to coaching,
taking charge of SC Hakoah Wien, Enschede, Hakoah Wien and Ujpest, in spells of
two years or less, which were to be symptomatic of his length of stays at Clubs
after the Second World War. At Ujpest he managed the side to the Hungarian
League title in 1938/39 and won the Mitropa Cup in 1939.
Bolchover’s book, the truth around Guttmann’s whereabouts during the Second
World War were unclear. However, the author discovers that Guttmann spent time
hidden in an attic of his brother-in-law’s in Ujpest and then was in a Labour
Camp. Resuming coaching with Vasas SC in Hungary in 1945, Guttmann went on to
work with another nineteen clubs, finishing at Porto in 1973 and a brief spell
in 1964 as Austrian National Coach. During that 28 spell he plied his trade in in
a nomadic journey through Hungary, Romania, Italy, Argentina, Cyprus, Brazil,
Portugal, Uruguay, Switzerland, Greece and Austria; winning trophies with
Ujpest, Sao Paulo, Porto and Benfica.
this story about a coach influential in the development of the 4-2-4 playing
system, doesn’t hold back in reflecting the darker side of Guttmann’s
character, for which Bolchover is to be commended. Details of his involvement
in a hit-and-run death in Milan in 1955 are laid out for the reader as is the
gambling problem that Guttmann had, which the author contends may have been
part of the reason why the coach went on working until he was 74. Guttmann was
also very much a man who demanded that things by his players and Directors were
done his way, and in the cases where this didn’t occur he walked away or was
removed from his roles at Honved, AC Milan and Benfica.
Amongst a book that it is a recommended read (and rightly nominated in the 2017 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Short-list), is a telling story about how little Guttmann was recognised in England and indeed the parochialism in the English game. In 1962 after leaving Benfica and having won a second successive European Cup, he had “two firm offers for his services…both from teams whose name began with a ‘P’. There was Penarol, the best club team in the world, reigning champions of Uruguay and South America and holders of the Intercontinental Cup…and there was Port Vale, having just finished twelfth in the Third Division of the English League.”
incredible career, an incredible character and no ordinary read about a coach
who was an influence on the way the game is played today and a survivor of the
worst genocide in history.