PARIS, June 27, 2016 – Finally, a more positive reality is beginning to emerge after all the low-scoring negativity which bedevilled the group stage of Euro 2016.
The European Championship had been expanded from 16 to 24 teams for reasons which all appeared to owe more to issues of politics and finance than the health and image of the game of football.
Predictably the goals-per-game average in an unmemorable group stage slumped below 2:0 for the first time in a major tournament and the early second-round matches were hardly encouraging with one penalties decider (for Poland) and two 1-0 victories (for Wales and Portugal).
Day two of the second round, however, brought indications of better days to come with established powers such as hosts France and world champions Germany raising their games and world No2 Belgium finally living up to the hype which has surrounded them over the past two years.
Next up on stage will be England (against the minnows of Iceland) and the most attractive match-up of the finals between Italy and holders Spain in the Stade de France.
Didier Deschamps’s France defeated the Irish Republic 2-1 in Lyon only after overcoming the shock of conceding a second-minute penalty, clipped home off keeper Hugo Lloris’s left-hand post by Robbie Brady.
Martin O’Neill’s disciplined, well-organised and hard-working Irishmen held Les Bleusat bay until half-time. However France ramped up the tempo even higher the break until Antoine Griezmann stamped his class on the duel.
The Atletico Madrid forward struck twice in four minutes to turn the scoreline around before his pace then drew a trip which resulted in the Irish being doomed to play out the rest of losing battle with only 10 men through the expulsion of central defender Shane Duffy.
With France now in total control the only remaining mystery was how they did not increase their lead. Griezmann wasted two chances to claim a hat-trick and Andre-Pierre Gignac, substituting for Giroud, came close four times – one shot clipping the top of keeper Darren Randolph’s crossbar.
Somehow the Irish held on but, outnumbered, they could never threaten to finish the match with a goal, as they had begun it.
World Cup-holders Germany had none of the problems encountered by France in dismissing Slovakia 3-0 in Lille with first-half goals from Jerome Boateng – only his second for his country – and Mario Gomez. Julian Draxler, who had provided the assist for Gomez, scored the third himself with a second-half volley.
The three-goal margin barely reflected the balance of the winners’ domination. Coach Joachim Low’s men could even afford to ride an early penalty miss by Mesut Ozil. They were troubled only rarely by opponents who spent almost all the match in the apparent grip of stage fright.
Slovakia had recovered from a goal down to beat the World Cup-holders 3-1 in Augsburg in a warm-up friendly last month but whatever they may have learned from the victory had apparently gone right out of their heads.
Thus Germany remain in pursuit of emulating the examples of their own 1970s team as well as France and Spain in holding both world and European titles simutaneously. It will be far from easy. Germany’s quarter-final rivals, for example, will be Italy or Spain.
Theirs is by far the toughest side of the tournament draw. The other half may be considered an invitation for Belgium to achieve the status on the pitch which they have commanded over the past few years in the FIFA world rankings.
Belgium will face Gareth Bale’s Wales in the quarter-finals after the inspiration of Eden Hazard sparked their dismissal of Hungary in Toulouse. The Red Devils won 4-0 with three goals in the last 12 minutes after the Magyar outsiders made them work all the way despite conceding what could have been a morale-wrecking early goal to Toby Alderweireld.
In the closing stages Chelsea winger Hazard laid on goal No2 for newly-arrived substitute Michy Batshuayi and then struck a superb solo second on the counter-attack. Coach Marc Wilmots’s choice of substitutes was further vindicated when Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco ran away to score the fourth goal in the last minute.
Wilmots, explaining Hazard’s long-awaited resurgence, said: “I told Eden that I wanted him to score a goal by cutting inside. He wasn’t close enough to the goal and he needs to have fun when he’s out on the pitch.
“A captain can’t always do his talking with his mouth sometimes you have to do your talking with your feet and that’s what he did today.” Not only Hazard.
Quarter-finals – Thursday: Poland v Portugal (Marseille). Friday: Wales v Belgium (Lille). Saturday: Germany v Italy or Spain (Bordeaux). Sunday: France v England or Iceland (Saint-Denis)