Wednesday
Jul132016

France fall at the final hurdle

When France kicked off the opening game of Euro 2016 on June 10th, David Cameron was the prime minister, the UK was still very much part of the EU and Roy Hodgson was confident that England could build on their perfect 10 wins from 10 qualifying record to make a real mark in Euro 2016.

England’s final friendly before leaving for France was an unconvincing 1-0 victory against a very ordinary looking Portugal team at Wembley. I was there that night and if anyone had said that I’d just seen the soon to be European Champions in action, I’d have advised them to get some help!  

But that’s exactly how it turned out. Portugal, the only team to qualify from the group stages without winning a game, finished third in Group F only to find that France, England, Spain, Germany and Italy had all ended up in the other half of the draw. They took full advantage of their good fortune and beat Croatia (after extra time), Poland (on penalties) and (finally winning a game inside 90’) Wales to get to the final. Faced with a packed Stade de France cheering on the team who had just beaten Germany in the semi finals, Portugal managed to upset both the odds and their hosts with a 1-0 win after extra time.

The game began badly for them when their captain and star man Cristiano Ronaldo was forced to leave the field after 25 minutes with a knee injury. Far from leaving them dispirited, their captain’s absence seemed to increase Portugal’s determination not to let France spoil their record of just one goal conceded in the knockout stages. Not for the first time, the big game was not a great game and the two sides largely cancelled each other out. Golden boot winner (with six goals) Antione Griezemann forced a good save from Portuguese ‘keeper Rui Patricio and also missed the best chance of the goalless 90’ when he put a header over the bar from six yards out. Substitute Gignac hit the post for France after a clever turn had left the otherwise excellent Pepe floundering, while at the other end, a free kick from Rafael Guerreiro hit the French bar.

The 15th European Championship final was eventually decided by an unlikely match winner. Substitute Eder, who is on loan at French club Lille after an unsuccessful spell at Swansea, found some space 25 yards from goal and beat Hugo Lloris with a powerful right footed drive in to the bottom left hand corner of the net. With Ronaldo barking encouragement at his team mates from the sidelines, Portugal held firm for the remaining 10 minutes to claim their first ever major trophy.

As I look back on the first European Championship finals to feature 24 teams, I will remember the amazing performances of Iceland and Wales who reached the quarter and semi finals respectively and the big disappointment of watching England lose to Iceland after taking a 1-0 lead after just four minutes. Here are some of my other memories. In words…..

  • Romania almost holding France to a draw in the first game.
  • Poor Will Grigg not getting a single minute of game time despite being made famous by the “Will Grigg’s on fire” song.
  • Hungary winning their group – forcing eventual winners Portugal in to third place.
  • The all pervasive “please don’t take me home” song.
  • The Icelandic “clap and roar” which I’m sure will be copied across Europe next season.
  • The feelings of apprehension as we drove to Lens, hearing about trouble involving England fans in Lille the night before.
  • The brief feeling of optimism after watching Daniel Sturridge hit the late winner for England against Wales in Lens.
  • Almost all the fans – except the Russians – behaving well and having a great time, especially the men and women in green from Northern and Southern Ireland.
  • The end of the international careers of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Petr Cech.
  • Tears of sadness and joy for Cristiano Ronaldo as Portugal won their first ever major trophy.
  • Marek Hamsik’s terrific right footed curler against Russia – my goal of the tournament.

…and in pictures

In Lens for England v Wales

in the BBC studios in Paris with Dan Walker, Martin Keown, Danny Murphy and Jermaine Jenas watching Poland v Switzerland

In the Parc des Princes for Wales v Northern Ireland

Taking in the sights and sounds of Paris

In the fan zone in front of the Eiffel Tower ahead of the France v Ireland game

A lot has changed in a month! As Portugal return home to Lisbon with the Henri Delauney trophy, David Cameron and Roy Hodgson are both looking for their next challenge while the new Prime Minister, Theresa May and new England manager (whoever that may be) are left with the unenviable tasks of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU and trying to rebuild a shattered England team in time to secure qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

That’s all from me for this tournament. I’m heading off to Austria with the Chelsea FC disability team on Friday but I’ll be back with my Saturday afternoon sports show on Meridian 107 FM at the start of the new football season in August.

Will Stubley, Meridian 107 FM

Tuesday
Jul122016

Semi Finals

And so it is time for the semi finals. The first game saw Wales take on Portugal. This was the biggest game in Welsh football history. Reaching the semi final in their first major tournament since 1958 was more than their fans could have asked for. And they were quietly confident having just beaten Belgium 3-1 in the last round. Portugal however had just beaten Poland on penalties and with Ronaldo looking to win his first major trophy with Portugal. The Welsh knew that they would certainly be tough opponents.           

The game was relatively even, Wales having an early chance with Bale firing the ball over from just inside the box after Joe Ledley picked him out from a corner. Bale had another opportunity to score but couldn’t take it - after breaking away on a counter attack, unfortunately, he put his shot straight at goalkeeper, Patricio. 

The first goal came just after half time when Ronaldo rose above everyone to head Portugal in front, from a corner. Some slack defending allowed Portugal to get their second goal just three minutes later, when a scuffed shot from Ronaldo dribbled into the box and fell to Nani - who was played onside by the Welsh defence who were too slow when moving up - and steered it  past Hennessey. And so that was it for Wales! The game finished 2-0 to Portugal who will go on to face France in the final on Sunday. But for Wales, reaching the semi final in their first major tournament since 1958 is definitely something they and their fans can be proud of.   

The second game saw hosts France take on world champions Germany. France had the first chance of the game when Griezmann played a quick one two with Matuidi to unlock the German defence but the shot wasn’t powerful enough to beat Neuer. The Germans then went on to have a good spell of possession and created a few chances of their own with Can forcing a good save out of Loris with a half volley.

The first goal came in stoppage time at the end of the first half when Schweinstiger was judged to have used his hand to clear the ball away from a French corner and they were given a penalty.  Griezmann stepped up and beat Neuer to give the French a 1-0 lead just before half time. Germany had chances to equalize in the second half -  Kimmich hit the post with a shot from just outside the penalty area. But a mistake at the back allowed Pogba to steal the ball from Kimmich just inside the penalty area and cross it in for Griezmann to get his sixth goal of the tournament so far. This put France 2-0 up and left the Germans with a lot to do if they wanted to reach the final. Germany then piled on the pressure and could have got a goal back when a header forced Loris to make a great save diving to his left to claw the ball away. And that was that!  The hosts, France, went through to face Portugal in the final.     

And so that is it - after nearly a month of football we are down to our two finalists, the host nation, France vs Portugal, who managed to make it to the semi finals before winning a game in 90 minutes  

I’ll be back after the final with my last Euro 2016 blog with my review of the match. Will it be Ronaldo’s tournament at last or will France’s home advantage prove too powerful?  

Will Stubley, Meridian 107 FM      

Monday
Jul042016

End of the road for Iceland but Wales march on

As I travelled back from Paris last Sunday, having watched Wales beat Northern Ireland in the last 16, I was quietly confident of returning a week later to see England take on hosts France in the last eight in the Stade de France. I was brought back down to earth with a bump as England crashed out to Iceland the next day and, as my ticket was only valid if England qualified, I had to make do with watching the quarter finals from the comfort of my armchair.

The first game saw Portugal take on Poland. This was a very close match which saw Lewandowski get his first goal of the tournament after five games to give Poland the lead after just two minutes, when he converted a cross from just outside the six yard box. However that goal was later cancelled out by Sanches whose shot from the edge of the area deflected past Fabianski to give the Portuguese the equalizer.

Both teams had opportunities to score in the second half with Cedric flashing a shot wide for Portugal and Milik for Poland having a close range header saved by Patricio.

The game finished 1-1 after extra time and was decided by a penalty shootout. After Blaszczykowski’s penalty was saved, it came down to Quaresma, once of Chelsea, to try to send Portugal through to the semi final. He stepped up and scored, putting the ball into the top left corner. The Polish keeper got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out.            

The following day saw the last remaining home nation Wales take on Belgium, a team ranked second in the world. The Belgians had a lot of early chances and took the lead after 13 minutes when Nianggolan fired a shot into the top left hand corner of the goal to give the Belgians the lead. It was a shot that left the Wales goalkeeper Hennessey grasping at thin air as the ball flew past him. Wales had a spell of pressure which saw Courtois forced to make a decent save from Neil Taylor’s shot from the edge of the six yard box. Their efforts were rewarded when captain Ashley Williams headed the ball home from a corner. 

In the second half Wales exposed weaknesses in the Belgian defence - who had regular starters Vermalen, Vertongen and Kompany all absent through injury or suspension – by scoring a further two unanswered goals. The first was a superb turn and shot by out of contract centre forward Hal Robson-Kanu and the second was a towering header by substitute Sam Vokes. Hazard and de Bruyne were unable to repeat the magic of their last 16 rout of Hungary and the 3-1 win put Wales though to their first ever semi final in a major tournament. They now meet Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday but will have to manage without Ben Davies and Aaron Ramsey who both picked up their second bookings of the tournament and will be suspended.

Two teams more familiar with the latter stages of major tournaments met in Bordeaux on Saturday. World champions Germany lined up against Italy knowing that they had never beaten the Azzuri in a major championship. They looked to have broken this jinx when Mesut Ozil put them ahead just after the hour mark but an inexplicable handball from Boateng gave Bonucci the chance to draw Italy level from the penalty spot. The game went in to extra time but neither side was able to force a winner and it ended 1-1 after 120 minutes. Germany had not missed a single penalty in a shoot out since the 1982 World Cup but they managed to miss three of their first five spot kicks with Muller, Ozil, Schweinsteiger all failing to hit the target. Fortunately for them, Italy also missed three of their five penalties and the shoot out went to sudden death.  Germany’s Jonas Hector took advantage of Matteo Darmian’s miss and converted the 18th kick of this marathon shoot-out to maintain their 40 year unbeaten run in penalty shoot outs.

Finally France were given the opportunity to see if they could succeed where Holland, Portugal and England had failed and halt Iceland’s progress in Euro 2016. Cheered on by the vast majority of the 80,000 crowd in the Stade de France on a wet Sunday evening in Paris, the hosts went two nil up inside the first 20 minutes with goals from Giroud and Pogba. They doubled their advantage before half time when Payet fired in a left foot shot from the edge of the area and Griezmann put a deft chip over the Icelandic ‘keeper Halldorsson after being put clear by Giroud’s clever flick.

4-0 down at half time, it looked like Iceland could be humiliated but they fought with typical pride in the second half and managed to score twice through Sigthorsson and Bjarnasson to give their fans something to cheer. But France never looked like being seriously threatened and Giroud added his second of the game in the 59th minute to make the final score 5-2 and set up a semi final clash with Germany in Marseille on Thursday. This was the highest scoring game of the tournament so far with seven goals, eclipsing Portugal’s 3-3 draw with Hungary.

So now we are down to four teams. Lots of people would have backed France and Germany to make it through to the semi finals and many would have backed Portugal to do the same but very few would have predicted that the team from Wales would have joined them. The absence of Ben Davies and (especially) Aaron Ramsey will be a big blow for Wales but I fancy them to make the final by beating a Portugal side who have yet to win a single game in this tournament in normal time. In the other game, I think Germany will be too strong for France. The World champions have only conceded one goal in the whole tournament and even that was a penalty. France have looked vulnerable from set pieces and I think that will be their undoing.

I’ll be back with my next Euro 2016 blog with my review of the semi finals and my predictions for the Wales v Germany final on Sunday!

Will Stubley, Meridian 107 FM. 

Friday
Jul012016

A welcome in the Parc des Princes but not so nice in Nice

I caught the Eurostar to Paris on Saturday in order to witness the first ever all British tie in the knockout stages of the European Championship. Before making my way to the Parc des Princes, I stopped off at the BBC’s studios by the Eiffel Tower to see their set up for this tournament. As I arrived, the BBC team were watching Poland take on Switzerland in the opening knockout game. The game finished 1-1 after extra time, with the Poles winning the penalty shoot out 5-4 to become the first team to make it through to the quarter finals. I picked up some handy tips from the BBC presenter Dan Walker and the three pundits who were analysing the game.

I had hoped to be watching England face Northern Ireland in the second game of the day but Wales beat us to top spot in Group B so it was them, not England who lined up against the Ulstermen in Paris.

Me in the BBC’s Euro 2016 studios with presenter Dan Walker in the background and (from right to left) Jermaine Jenas, Danny Murphy and Martin Keown.

I expected Wales to win this game quite easily after their convincing 3-0 win against Russia in their final group game but it was Northern Ireland who had the better of the first half and they managed to test Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey with some powerful long range shooting. But in the end it was the Welsh who headed into their first quarter final since the 1958 World Cup when Gareth Bale’s cross from the left was deflected in to his own net by Gareth McCauley for the only goal of the game.

The Parc des Princes, Paris, just before the Wales v Northern Ireland last 16 game.

After the game and a bite to eat in a restaurant near Notre Dame Cathedral, I looked for somewhere to watch the third and final game of the day, which featured Portugal against Croatia. The fan-zone was full, so I ended up in a nearby café along with a handful of Welsh, Dutch and Australian fans. The Portuguese were the only team to get to the last 16 without winning a game in group stages and it looked like they were heading for their fourth draw in four games until Ricardo Quaresma headed the ball home after Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot had been parried by Croatian ‘keeper Danijel Subasic. Quaresma’s winning goal game just three minutes before the end of extra time and saved the players from the ordeal of the penalty shoot out.

After a good night’s sleep in a Montmartre hotel and a hearty brunch at a café near the Sacre Coeur, I joined thousands of Parisians who were unable to get a ticket to see the France take on the Republic of Ireland in Lyon. They were all heading for the next best thing, the Parc de Champs de Mars fan-zone, in shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The locals didn’t have much to cheer about as Ireland took a shock lead through a Robbie Brady penalty in the second minute of the game. Despite having the bulk of the possession the French couldn’t find an equalizer and it was still 1-0 to the Irish at half time. A major upset looked to be a real possibility until Antoine Griezmann scored twice in four minutes to put the hosts ahead. He was denied a hat-trick when brought down by a desperate tackle from Shane Duffy who was given a red card for preventing a clear goal scoring opportunity. The 10 men of Ireland fought to the last but it was the French who went through to the last eight with a 2-1 win.

In the Paris fan-zone before the France v Ireland game

In the other two games on Sunday, Belgium recorded the biggest win of the tournament so far with a comprehensive 4-0 win against Hungary and Germany were equally impressive in knocking out Slovakia, with goals from Jerome Boateng, Mario Gomez and Julian Draxler giving them a 3-0 win. The reigning world champions are in ominous form and have yet to concede a goal in this tournament.

I left Paris on Sunday evening, knowing that England would be playing there next week, against the hosts in the Stade de France, if they could overcome Iceland in Nice the following evening. I had already got tickets for the quarter final if England qualified and looked forward with some confidence to a return trip to Paris in seven days’ time.

Much as I would have loved to travel to the south of France to witness England take on the team from a country who’s entire population of 330,000 is roughly the equivalent of Croydon’s, I had to make do with settling down in front of the TV at home. Before England took the field, I watched Italy beat defending champions Spain 2-0 in what I consider to be the best performance of the tournament so far. Goals from Chiellini and a late second from Graziano Pelle gave them a deserved win and they have another difficult tie to look forward to, against Germany in Bordeaux on Saturday. I think the winner of that game will win the tournament.

Form the best performance of the tournament to the worst….

England got off to a perfect start against Iceland when Raheem Sterling was tripped in the box as he ran on to Daniel Sturridge’s excellent pass and Wayne Rooney scored his 53rd goal for England when he converted the penalty. Surely this would settle any pre-match nerves and allow England’s collection of players from Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester United to show their class against a collection of players from teams such as Swansea, Charlton and Cardiff. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen as Iceland hit back with two goals in 12 minutes to take a lead that there were able to hold without any real difficulty. England looked increasingly desperate as the game wore on and never looked like getting the equalizer that would have forced extra time.

Manager, Roy Hodgson resigned immediately after the game and England are now in disarray just two months before they start the qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup with a trip to Slovakia on September 4th.

There has been lots written about the reasons for England’s failure in this tournament. Here’s where I think they went wrong:

  • Changing formations and line ups throughout the friendlies running up to the tournament and during the tournament itself.
  • Picking unfit, out of form players such as Milner, Sterling and Wilshere instead of fit and in-form players like Drinkwater, Townsend and Defoe.
  • Playing Rooney, Alli, Sturridge and Vardy out of position
  • Making six changes for the game against Slovakia after beating Wales.
  • Failing to bring Marcus Rashford on until four minutes from the end of the Iceland game.            

Coming back to the tournament there are still some great games to look forward to over the next few days. Wales will take heart from the fact that they played Belgium twice in the qualifying group and didn’t lose either game and could well progress to the semi-finals. I think Portugal will struggle against Poland this match could well go to extra time and penalties. I fancy Italy to beat Germany and surely Iceland will not be able to repeat their heroics of the previous round when they come up against France in Paris on Sunday.

Here’s the quarter final draw in full:

  • Poland v Portugal on Thursday in Marseille
  • Wales v Belgium on Friday in Lille
  • Germany v Italy on Saturday in Bordeaux
  • France v Iceland on Sunday in the Stade de France, Paris

With England now out of the tournament I don’t have any further trips to France planned but I will continue to write my Euro 2016 blog and will do the next instalment after the quarter finals.

Will Stubley, Meridian 107 FM.

Thursday
Jun232016

Now for the knockout stage 

We are now left with two days to catch our breath after 13 consecutive days of Euro 2016 group stage action containing 36 games and yielding 69 goals. We now know of which 16 teams are going through to the knock out stages and the eight who are on their way home.

In Group A, France finished top after a 0-0 draw with Switzerland and although Albania beat Romania 1-0, it wasn’t enough to see them through in third place due to a dramatic late winner for Ireland against Italy on Wednesday evening. Switzerland finished as runners up with 5 points.

Wales finished as Group B winners after a convincing 3-0 win against Russia and England could only manage the runner-up position after being held to a 0-0 draw with Slovakia. Slovakia went through as one of the best 3rd place teams and Russia were eliminated.

Germany and Poland finished Group C level on seven points with Germany topping the group on goal difference and Poland going through in second place. Northern Ireland went through as one of the best third place teams thanks to their earlier 2-0 win over Ukraine, who were the only team to lose all three group games, failing to score a single goal in the tournament.

On to Group D and Croatia came from a goal down to beat reigning champions Spain 2-1 and claim top spot. Spain had to make do with second place while Turkey were eliminated despite a 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic, who also go home.

Italy were already assured of top place in Group E after two wins from their first two games so they were able to rest most of their first choice XI in their final group game against the Republic of Ireland. The Irishmen took full advantage with a late Robbie Brady goal ensuring qualification to the knock out stages for the first time in their history. Their 1-0 win over Italy was also their first victory in a Euro finals since they beat England by the same score-line in Stuttgart in 1988. Belgium finished second with a 1-0 win over Sweden, a game which marked the end of Sweden’s involvement in Euro 2016 and the end of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international career.

Iceland’s dramatic injury time winner against Austria was enough to secure second place in Group F and a last 16 match against England in Nice on Monday. Hungary drew 3-3 with Portugal to confirm their place as surprise group winners while Cristiano Ronaldo’s side crept through as one of the best third place teams without winning a game.

Here’s the last 16 draw in full 

  • Switzerland v Poland
  • Croatia v Portugal
  • Wales v Northern Ireland
  • Hungary v Belgium
  • Germany v Slovakia
  • Italy v Spain
  • France v Ireland
  • England v Iceland

The fact that no team won all three of their group games says to me that there is no clear favourite in this tournament. England will hope that they can find their goal-scoring touch to see off a strong Iceland team and France, Germany and Belgium will all be confident of making further progress. Croatia v Portugal and Switzerland v Poland look too close to call while Spain’s failure to win their group means that they or Italy will be knocked out over the weekend.

Britain is guaranteed at least one quarter finalist with Wales facing Northern Ireland in Paris and that’s the game I’ll be going to on Saturday. I’m also planning to watch France take on Ireland from the fan-zone under the Eiffel Tower on Sunday afternoon and I’ll report back on my trip to Paris - and the rest of the last 16 games – in my next blog.

Will Stubley, Meridian 107 FM.