Euro 2016 has not been without its problems thus far. The actions of a significant number of dunderheaded bozos in Marseille and the travel chaos which has affected the whole of France almost makes me pleased to be watching the tournament from the safety of my sofa rather than live and in person.
There’s been plenty to enjoy too of course. Dimitri Payet’s wonder goal and subsequent tears on opening night, Jerome Boateng’s physics defying goal line clearance, David Guetta (just kidding.) Here are five things which caught the eye on the opening weekend.
Bale’s heroics leaves Giggs asking, what if?
Gareth Bale’s free kick opener for Wales against Slovakia owed as much to the shoddy positioning of Slovakia keeper Matus Kozacik as it did to the Real Madrid man’s brilliance. Nonetheless, the goal again underlined the critical importance of the world’s most expensive player to Chris Coleman’s team. Their top scorer by a country mile in qualifying, Bale clearly loves playing for and making history with his country. A penny for the thoughts of Ryan Giggs then. Giggs seemed to regard international football as a pain rather than a pleasure, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Maybe on Saturday it dawned on the Manchester United legend that had he taken his international responsibilities just a little more seriously, he could have enjoyed the same national hero status as Bale. Maybe he’s not bothered. If ever a man was enthral to Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s Giggs. Maybe though, now Wales are enjoying tangible success, he will regret not sharing Bale’s attitude to playing for his country.
Alli belongs on the big stage
The horror of events in the stands and on the streets of Marseille obviously stole the focus from the actual match between England and Russia on Saturday. As frustrating an evening as it turned out to be on the pitch for England, there were still plenty of positives for Roy Hodgson and co to take from the draw. One of those plus points was the maturity and composure shown by Dele Alli. Always available to receive the ball, ludicrously comfortable with it at his feet, Alli surely proved beyond doubt that he belongs on this grand stage. It’s worth remembering that the 20 year old only made his senior England debut in October last year. If he can maintain his current form (which won’t be easy,) he can realistically hope to equal or even surpass Steven Gerrard’s England record of appearing at six major finals.
Northern Ireland must be bold
Of the three home nations in action over the weekend, Northern Ireland provided the biggest disappointment. Whilst it’s right to acknowledge that this is a squad of players plucked from places as obscure as Fleetwood Town and Hamilton Academical, Michael O’Neil must have been left scratching his head wondering where the fearless, swashbuckling team he led to qualification in such impressive fashion had gone on Sunday. Northern Ireland failed to register a shot in target in defeat to Poland and star man Kyle Lafferty admitted post-match that he and his team mates had been “overawed” by the occasion. They now face a must win game against Ukraine in Lyon on Thursday. They must make sure they don’t leave France with regrets.
Croatia can go all the way
What a goal that was from Luka Modric to win the game for Croatia against Turkey. The mercurial midfielder probably doesn’t score as many as he ought to (Sunday’s goal was his 11th in 91 caps for his country) but he is a genuinely world class footballer. Croatia have several of those in their ranks with Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic adding to their star power and the likes of Ivan Perisic and Darijo Srna offering experience and quality too. Croatia made it all the way to the semi-finals the last time they were in France (eventually finishing third at World Cup ’98,) it doesn’t seem fanciful to think that they could go one better this time.
Germany did what Germany do
Poor in the run up to the tournament, missing key men through injury, things didn’t look good for world champions Germany heading into their opening Group C encounter with Ukraine. Then they went and won 2-0, a victory more comfortable than the score line suggests. Bastian Schweinsteiger, so rotten for Manchester United last season, stepped off the bench to seal the victory late on, then preceded to amble off on the slowest celebratory slog to the touchline in the history of football. They might not be quite the same team as 2014 but let’s not kid ourselves – Germany will be there or thereabouts when the tournament climaxes. Death, taxes and a Mannschaft who win relentlessly. Life’s three certainties.