Euro ramblings – First Round Review by Jade Craddock

With the first round of group matches now completed, Euro 2020 is shaping up nicely, with plenty to reflect on – the good, the bad and the downright bizarre (Antonio Rudiger nibbling Paul Pogba – that’s not a phrase I thought I’d be writing pre-tournament, but there you have it) – so here’s my first-round review.

Goal of the round: Scotland fans, look away now, but in truth it’s hard to look beyond Patrik Schick’s curling effort from just inside the Scottish half for the Czech Republic. The 25-year-old may not have been a household name before the tournament, but he’s catapulted himself to Euros fame surely with that goal, which will join the likes of Gazza and Van Basten in being wheeled out every four years. Andriy Yarmolenko can count himself unlucky that his goal against the Netherlands was upstaged by Schick.

Standout team performance: Belgium and Italy both looked impressive and untroubled in their first-round matches against Russia and Turkey respectively. Perhaps not the toughest opposition in either case, but as the saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you, and the Red Devils and the Azzurri both did so convincingly. Credit, too, to Slovakia – seeming minnows of the tournament who produced a disciplined, effective performance against Poland, to top a group which also includes Spain and Sweden after the first round.

Standout player performance: While Romelu Lukaku and Kalvin Phillips both had strong starts for Belgium and England respectively, there’s one man that continues to dominate on whatever stage he graces – N’Golo Kante. Ask any fan if they’d take Kante in their team and I imagine not one refusal. In fact, it got me wondering, in the way my brain is wont to do, whether I’d prefer a team of Kantes or a team of Ronaldos. The jury is out, but one thing’s for sure, I’d bite your hand off for even one Kante – actually, I wonder if that was what Rudiger was doing to Pogba, but he decided to bite his neck instead of his hand? And when it comes to standout players, it would be impossible not to mention Denmark captain, Simon Kjaer, and his speedy reaction, empathetic response and strong leadership in the face of the most challenging circumstances. If Kante is the Euros general, Kjaer is its absolute commander.

Surprise packages: Whilst Slovakia perhaps brought about the first round’s biggest surprise, Germany may have offered a different kind of surprise in being well below par. Maybe it was just a first-game anomaly, but Joachim Low will need to turn his side around quickly if they’re to progress out of this year’s ‘Group of Death’. As for players, Breel Embolo and Leonardo Spinazzola were both new names to me and impressed in their first outings, but it’s hard to judge either players or teams on one performance and, who knows, they may have peaked (or in Germany’s case dipped) too soon.

Newcomers: North Macedonia played their first ever game in a major tournament, having qualified for the Euros through a play-off against Kosovo. The Lynxes may have lost their first outing 3-1 to Austria, but nevertheless it was a significant moment in the nation’s footballing history, and who other than North Macedonia’s captain, top scorer and top appearance-maker of all time, Goran Pandev, to bag the country’s first ever tournament goal, becoming the second-oldest scorer in the history of the Euros in doing so. North Macedonia face two further tough tests against Ukraine and the Netherlands, but they’ve already made history, so why not once more? Off the pitch, both Nigel de Jong and Emma Hayes have proved to be impressive acquisitions on the media front, as too has Hal Robson Kanu.

VAR: Yes, I’ve said it, those dreaded three letters that have been the plague of the Premier League for the last few months. So imagine my surprise that VAR doesn’t only seem to be working effectively at the Euros, but it’s hardly even been noticeable. Naturally, now that I’ve written this, the second round is bound to be inundated with VAR controversies, but so far so good, and we’ve managed to get through a whole week unscathed, without discussing armpits or waiting an eternity for decisions to be made that can be seen in seconds. This is VAR as it’s intended to be, but, let’s be honest, we’re all still waiting for the first calamity.

England: A nation waited in expectation, or perhaps with pessimism, as England’s campaign got underway against Croatia. But a 1-0 victory was enough to get fans charting England’s route to the final – after all, we’ve never won an opening game at the Euros before, surely, this is fate?! Or perhaps it was just a disciplined England team beating a subpar Croatia team? Either way, England did the job required of them and a three-point first-round haul was all that could be asked of from the first outing in what was generally an untroubled day at the office for the Three Lions. It’s too early to judge just where England stand on the back of this one performance, but, in truth, there was little in the first-round performances across the board that would give Southgate much cause for concern at this stage.

Moment of the round: The defining and most uplifting moment of the first round came out of its darkest moment, when, in the aftermath of Christian Eriksen’s collapse, Danish and Finnish fans united in chanting his name. It was both a remarkably poignant and spontaneous show of the best side of football amongst the grief, despair and disbelief. We love football for goals, for surprises, for standout performances, but we also love it for the power to connect and bring people together.