Alexander M Gross

Literature | Language | Culture

EURO 2016

The UEFA European Championship took place in June and July 2016 in France.

A diary of the tournament, with match reports of every game, was a precursor to Engrossed in Football. Some of the best reports are featured here.

Portugal 1-0 France (aet) - Saint-Denis
Sunday 10 July

Portugal are champions of EURO 2016

Portugal secured a first major title against the odds tonight, with a winning goal in the second period of extra time from substitute striker Éder. The newly-crowned European champions had to overcome the early loss to injury of their star player Cristiano Ronaldo to finally beat France in a competitive match and claim the trophy. France, meanwhile, missed the opportunity to win a third major tournament on home soil, and a fourth overall, with a disappointing performance in the national stadium in Saint-Denis.

Les Bleus started the match with a fierce intensity, pinning back their opponents and looking to play up towards the frontmen, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, during an error-strewn opening phase for the Portuguese. Nine minutes in, Pepe lost the ball near the touchline to Dimitri Payet, who quickly looked for Griezmann with a floated high ball towards the penalty area. With Pepe out of position, William Carvalho was left to deal with the danger, but Payet's pass drifted over him and onto the head of the diminutive Atlético Madrid forward. Griezmann had already scored headed goals at this tournament against Albania and the Republic of Ireland, but on this occasion his excellent effort was well saved by Rui Patrício.

The chance came shortly after Payet's challenge on Ronaldo, which would come to define this final in such an unexpected manner. Payet's robust, though legal, early tackle left Ronaldo in a heap clutching his left knee, and although the Portugal captain endeavoured to play through the pain, he eventually had to be replaced on 25 minutes. It seemed a devastating blow to the underdogs, and fans from both sides applauded as Ronaldo was stretchered off, this final an obviously poorer occasion for his absence. In adversity, the dogged and disciplined Portuguese soon began to counter the French threat, quietening the home support and keeping the score level with three first-half saves from Patrício.

Didier Deschamps will take a hefty portion of the blame for this excruciating defeat

Another fine chance fell for Griezmann on 65 minutes, but this time he was culpable for a missed header from just six yards out. The pinpoint cross was supplied by Kingsley Coman, who surprisingly replaced Payet on the hour mark. The early withdrawal of his most creative talent was one of several questionable decisions taken by coach Didier Deschamps tonight, and he will take a hefty portion of the blame for this excruciating defeat. Most glaringly of all, Paul Pogba played in front of the defence alongside Blaise Matuidi, in a role that inhibited his undoubted attacking talents on the night when they were needed most. While lesser lights such as Moussa Sissoko thrived, the biggest talents at Deschamps's disposal - Pogba, Payet, and Griezmann - were arguably all wasted in a disjointed system or replaced prematurely.

Ten minutes from full time, Portugal's best chance forced a double save from Hugo Lloris, who desperately palmed away Nani's cross-cum-shot before saving Ricardo Quaresma's attempted scissor kick from the rebound. At the other end, the outstanding Patrício was finally beaten in the final seconds of normal time, when substitute André-Pierre Gignac looked certain to win the trophy for the hosts with an inspired moment of individual brilliance, only to see his finish rebound off the post. Gignac received Patrice Evra's cross on the edge of the six-yard box with his back to goal and closely marked by Pepe, but a split-second later Pepe was on the floor and the ball passed through the goalkeeper's legs and onto the woodwork. Small margins.

The near miss meant that the European Championship final would require an additional period of play for the sixth time. These two nations had only met three times previously in a competitive setting, all of those semi-finals, and two decided in extra time. Michel Platini had settled the 1984 European Championship semi-final with a last-gasp winner at the end of 120 minutes in Marseille, and Zinedine Zidane scored a golden goal from the penalty spot to take Les Bleus into the final of EURO 2000, also just minutes from the end of extra time. This time around, in the showpiece final, it was Portugal's turn to settle the contest as a penalty shoot-out beckoned.

The Portuguese had an opportunity to break the deadlock in yet another diffident extra time period for these championships, when on 107 minutes they were awarded a free kick 24 yards from goal. The resultant set piece was bound to be unpredictable for Lloris, with the now indisposed Ronaldo having insisted on taking all of Portugal's free kicks at the tournament thus far. Further subterfuge saw Quaresma, the likely replacement taker, leave the ball for left-back Raphael Guerreiro, who duly struck the crossbar with Lloris straining to reach. Just two minutes later, Portugal found the breakthrough with what turned out to be a stunning winner.

Quaresma and João Moutinho combined on the left side and the ball found its way to Éder, who was seemingly well marshalled by centre-backs Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti. But Éder's sheer strength allowed him to break free and find space to unleash a right-footed shot from nigh on 30 yards, which beat a despairing dive from Lloris to hit the back of the net. Ronaldo, back on the sidelines and acting as a de facto assistant manager, led the wild celebrations as Portugal sensed a historic first title within their grasp. Only after this shocking turn of events did Deschamps introduce the pacy Anthony Martial, but it was too late, and a Portugal side that has thrived on grinding out results throughout EURO 2016 hung on to seal a famous, unexpected win.

France faltered when it mattered most tonight, but before an inevitable revisionism takes hold, their impressive run to this final should be acknowledged. After an indifferent group phase that was salvaged by late goals, an apparent turning point was the half-time interval of the last-16 tie with the Republic of Ireland, from which Les Bleus emerged with a renewed urgency. Griezmann notched five goals in the five halves of football which followed, firing his team to tonight's final past the world champions on a rousing night in Marseille. France had just two full days to recover from last Thursday's momentous semi-final against Germany, and they never looked able to reproduce that level of performance at Stade de France tonight.

The reflected glare of the Henri Delaunay trophy is enough to obscure all criticism

For Portugal, it is a first major title that will be celebrated long into the Lisbon night, without a care in the world for detractors who may point to the lack of a landmark performance at these championships. In the expanded format of this tournament, Portugal are champions of Europe after qualifying in third place from Group F, and after winning only a single game in 90 minutes, the 2-0 semi-final success over Wales. For now, however, the reflected glare of the Henri Delaunay trophy, lifted by Ronaldo in Paris tonight, is enough to obscure all criticism.

Germany 0-2 France - Marseille
Thursday 07 July

Two goals from Antoine Griezmann fired France into a third European Championship final against Portugal on Sunday evening in Paris. The Atlético Madrid striker now looks certain to claim the EURO 2016 golden boot after a slow start in the group phase of this tournament. Griezmann scored a crucial second-half brace in the last-16 tie with the Republic of Ireland, as well as a delightful chip in the quarter-final win over Iceland. Against Germany tonight, he scored from the penalty spot on the stroke of half time before capitalising on a rare Manuel Neuer mistake on 72 minutes to secure a famous victory for France.

Michel Platini's "most beautiful game"

This was an emotive night for the host nation in the refurbished Stade Vélodrome in Marseille. Not since the days of Just Fontaine in 1958, when France claimed third place in the World Cup with four goals from the great man, had Les Bleus beaten Germany in a major tournament. In the 1982 World Cup semi-final in Seville, Michel Platini's "most beautiful game" ended with elimination on penalties, but the night is engrained in French minds because of the heinous challenge on Patrick Battiston by goalkeeper Harald "Toni" Schumacher. Four years later in Guadalajara, Platini and France again exited the World Cup in a semi-final against Germany, and in 2014 in Brazil it was the same story, albeit at the quarter-final stage in Rio de Janeiro.

This, then, was a night for France to exorcise its footballing demons, and before referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded a controversial penalty at the end of the first half, a late-night thriller against the world champions looked likely. In the cauldron of Marseille, France started fast and played with an intensity that was lacking in the early matches of their campaign. But Germany soon grew into the game and dominated possession as had been expected, with full-backs Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich playing high up the pitch and providing plenty of width. After deploying a back three to match Italy in the quarter-final, coach Joachim Löw reverted to the habitual 4-2-3-1 system he had used previously in the tournament. Emre Can replaced the injured Sami Khedira in defensive midfield, while Thomas Müller led the line for the first time at these championships in the absence of Mario Gomez.

France once again fielded Griezmann playing off the target man Olivier Giroud, with Moussa Sissoko retained in midfield after impressive displays against Switzerland and Iceland. Shortly before the penalty award, France had the best chance to open the scoring when Jerome Boateng missed a header at halfway to give Giroud a clear run at goal, but the Arsenal forward's eminent lack of pace allowed Benedikt Höwedes, in for the suspended Mats Hummels, to make a superb recovering tackle inside the penalty area. Minutes later at a corner, Bastian Schweinsteiger raised both arms when challenging for the ball with Patrice Evra, and Rizzoli belatedly awarded a penalty for handball. Griezmann scored with ease, and it was a crushing blow right on half time for Germany, who had otherwise come to command the game with 64% of first-half possession.

But any feelings of injustice at the first goal were negated by the self-inflicted nature of the second. With Griezmann furrowing busily in attack down the right channel, four German players were drawn to the scene as the ball was passed to Giroud. Upon winning possession, Schweinsteiger made the initial error of passing across his own penalty area to attempt to play his side out of trouble, and Höwedes could only look for Kimmich with a similarly risky ball as the French pressed eagerly. Harried by Matuidi, a mistake from the young Bayern Munich defender was as good as inevitable, and his poor touch allowed Paul Pogba to steal the ball on the left edge of the six-yard box. Pogba's trickery made a mockery of substitute defender Shkodran Mustafi, and his subsequent cross was palmed by Neuer only into the feet of Griezmann, who was waiting on the penalty spot to double France's lead with a simple finish.

Les Bleus appear to have hit form at the right time in this tournament

In the dying minutes, Hugo Lloris underlined his value to this French side with a reaction save from a header from just eight yards out by Kimmich. This was a match that undeniably turned on the penalty award, and the half dozen saves from Lloris, together with the Germans' costly inability to find a cutting edge, ensured that it was a night for France, and Griezmann, to savour. Les Bleus appear to have hit form at the right time in this tournament, and they return to the capital on Sunday with a chance to win their fourth major international title, and a third on home soil.

Germany 1-1 Italy - Bordeaux
Saturday 02 July

Germany win 6-5 on penalties

On a night of high drama and utmost tension in Bordeaux, Germany eliminated Italy by means of a tortuous penalty shoot-out of 18 spot kicks. With eight World Cup wins between the two nations, this is one of the heavyweight contests of international football, and neither combatant was able to land a knockout blow within 120 minutes tonight. Famously, Germany had never yet prevailed against Angstgegner Italy in eight competitive matches dating back to the 1962 World Cup in Chile. On this occasion it took the worst penalty shoot-out - in statistical terms - of European Championship and World Cup history to separate the sides and send the Germans through to a Marseille semi-final with either France or Iceland on Thursday.

Left-back Jonas Hector scored the winning penalty after an unprecedented seven misses from the spot, with various attempts saved, skied, shanked, or stopped by the goal frame. Although Italy's fourth miss by Matteo Darmian proved decisive, Graziano Pellè and substitute Simone Zaza in particular will want to avoid replays of their own attempts. Zaza was brought on at the very end of extra time with the single task of converting his penalty in the shoot-out, but an absurd and ostentatious run-up led only to an awful miss. Shortly after, with the opportunity to extend Italy's lead in the shoot-out to 3-1, Pellè appeared to taunt the Bayern Munich goalkeeper with a gesture suggestive of a Panenka penalty. The method of casually dinking the ball over the goalkeeper takes its name from Antonín Panenka, whose impudent spot kick won the 1976 European Championship final in Belgrade for Czechoslovakia, against Germany. It was of course an attempted bluff from Pellè, but he dragged his shot well wide of Neuer's right-hand post to allow Julian Draxler to level the scores with the following penalty. After Leanardo Bonucci then saw his effort saved by Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger with Germany's fifth penalty had the chance to settle the contest, but his shocking miss led to another six successful spot kicks before Darmian stepped up for his fateful turn.

The match itself was one of heightened tactical intrigue, particularly as favourites Germany had adapted their formation to match Antonio Conte's system - imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Coach Joachim Löw sprung a surprise with a back three, erstwhile full-backs Hector and Joshua Kimmich deployed as wing-backs higher up the pitch. The change allowed Germany to press Italy's wing-backs Mattia de Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi, who had caused damage in the last-16 win over Spain. With the two sides cancelling each other out in midfield, and with the dangerous Jerome Boateng also well nullified by Italy's disciplined frontmen, it was left to Mats Hummels to create openings with long diagonal balls from the back. On one such occasion in the first half he found Schweinsteiger in the penalty area, but the Manchester United midfielder's headed goal was ruled out for offside. Italy's best chance of the first half came from the exact move that had yielded the opening goal against Belgium in Lyon three weeks ago, a long ball from Bonucci to find Emanuele Giaccherini behind the opposition backline. Giaccherini's cutback eventually found Stefano Sturaro, whose deflected shot flashed agonisingly wide of Neuer's right-hand post.

The deadlock was broken on 65 minutes, when Mario Gomez drifted to the left flank and played a clever through ball for the advancing Hector. Mesut Özil ghosted in to direct Hector's deflected cross past Gianluigi Buffon from seven yards out. For the first time, Conte was forced to react and the Azzurri had begun to play their way back into the game when, on 78 minutes, Boateng did his best impression of an Olympic gymnast in the area, conceding a penalty with a needless handball. Bonucci was the surprise penalty taker, and he struck it low and hard inside Neuer's left-hand post to equalise.

With the scores level and the two teams so well matched, penalties always looked likely and the extra time period produced just one attempt on target from each side. A late booking for Hummels rules him out of the semi-final, while injuries for Gomez and Sami Khedira, both substituted tonight, will also concern Löw ahead of Thursday night. For the Italians, dubbed by their home press as the worst squad sent to a major tournament in fifty years, this was a valiant and painful exit from a tournament in which they have impressed with memorable victories over Belgium and Spain. As for many before them, penalties against the Germans proved a bridge too far.

England 1-2 Iceland - Nice
Monday 27 June

Iceland are through to the quarter-finals of EURO 2016 after beating England in Nice. For all the talk of population sizes and footballing pedigree, the Icelanders were deserving winners tonight, and they have a second tournament win in their history just five days after breaking new ground with a last-minute goal against Austria at Stade de France. They will now return to that stadium to face the hosts on Sunday night, and will have nothing to fear if they play with the intensity and collective discipline which they showed here. For England, it is another disastrous failure and early exit. Ever since finding themselves unexpectedly in arrears after 18 minutes, England's players were bereft of composure and struggled to create meaningful opportunities. It is a defeat that cuts deeply not only because of the stature of the opposition, but particularly because England were afforded the perfect start and failed completely to capitalise. 

Manager Roy Hodgson broadly reverted to the starting lineup that had begun the tournament against Russia, with Daniel Sturridge replacing Adam Lallana. Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane were restored despite having shown little evidence of form and confidence during a group stage in which England recorded just one win, against Wales in Lens. Yet the selection looked as though it might be vindicated early on, when Sturridge with an accurate long pass found Sterling on a clever run behind the defence, and the Manchester City winger was brought down by goalkeeper Hannes Haldorsson for a penalty. Captain Wayne Rooney scored from the spot to give his side the lead just four minutes in. England had ostensibly overcome the major obstacle of the evening, which was to break the deadlock against obdurate, defensive opponents who were limited in attack, something they had failed to do against Slovakia in Saint-Étienne. 

England were essentially faced with organised and dedicated exponents of the traditional English game, and it inexcusably caught them off guard

Yet limited though Iceland may be, they proved too much for England in the minutes following Rooney's opener. Seconds after, parity was restored when Iceland scored from a long throw on the right flank, a carbon copy of their opener against Austria. On that occasion the flick on was turned home by Jon Bodvarsson, and here it was centre-back Ragnar Sigurdsson that was left unattended by Kyle Walker to poke home the equaliser. Twelve minutes later England were behind, succumbing to a neat passing move on the edge of the penalty area. All Icelandic players involved in the move were afforded time and space to pick out a pass, and Gary Cahill stood off Kolbeinn Sigthorsson as he shaped to shoot from 16 yards. Nonetheless, the effort should have been saved by Joe Hart, whose part in Gareth Bale's free-kick goal in Lens immediately came to mind. It was all the more galling as Iceland's simple and honest approach, which relies on collective effort and physicality, ought to be meat and drink for an England side so often maligned for lacking the subtlety and ball-playing technique of their continental counterparts. Here England were essentially faced with organised and dedicated exponents of the traditional English game, and it inexcusably caught them off guard. 

England were shell-shocked, and needed to re-group by making positive, attacking changes at the interval, much in the way that Didier Deschamps has done for France on several occasions in this tournament. But Hodgson's only response was the introduction of Jack Wilshere, who was clearly short of match fitness and had already failed to impress in a 56-minute stint against Slovakia. Jamie Vardy replaced Sterling on the hour mark, but Hodgson inexplicably dithered until three minutes from full time to introduce the teenager Marcus Rashford, who duly ran at Iceland's defence and looked to create last-minute opportunities for an equaliser. It was too late, and an abject second half where England simply lacked the composure to string basic passes together ended with desperate attempts to score from range or from set pieces. It all played out to a backdrop of disenchanted, enraged England supporters, who were surely witnessing one of England's most ignominious footballing defeats. The jubilant Icelanders have already extended their expected stay in France by ten days, and a similarly spirited and disciplined performance against the hosts could well see them progress further still.

Italy 2-0 Spain - Saint-Denis
Monday 27 June

The Azzurri produced another tactical masterclass against the reigning European champions to set up a mouthwatering quarter-final against Germany on Saturday in Bordeaux. Prior to today, Spain had not lost a knockout game at a major tournament since World Cup elimination at the hands of Zinedine Zidane's France in Hannover ten years ago. La Roja's global dominance effectively began with a penalty shoot-out victory over the Italians at EURO 2008, and it reached its apotheosis in the 4-0 demolition of Italy at the final in Kiev four years later. 

At Stade de France today, Antonio Conte's men were out for revenge, and eager also to prove that an impressive opening win over Belgium in Lyon two weeks ago was no anomaly. After so many changes for the final group match against the Republic of Ireland, Conte's only deviations today from that first match were in the wing-back positions, where Mattia de Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi replaced Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva. Álvaro Morata again led the line for Spain, and here he faced his club defence of the last two seasons, the Juventus back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini, in front of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. In a captivating first half, Conte's midfield nullified Sergio Busquets and stopped Spain from implementing their famous passing game. Instead, Italy played largely on the front foot and matched their opponents in possession and passing, a remarkable achievement against Vicente del Bosque's side. 

Graziano Pellè demonstrated his aerial domination early in the contest, forcing an outstanding low save from David de Gea after just eight minutes. Two minutes later, Juanfran was beaten in the air and the ball was knocked down for Emanuele Giaccherini, whose bold attempt at a bicycle kick was pushed on to the post by De Gea. Spain were caught cold by the Italians' high press, and could barely get a foothold in the opening stages. On 31 minutes Sergio Ramos lost his latest battle with Pellè, conceding a free kick 25 yards from goal. The low drive from Éder was parried by De Gea, and Giorgio Chiellini, who had stood in the defensive wall, was there to stab home a second rebound for the deserved opening goal. De Gea will have been disappointed not to hold the initial shot, but he proved his worth again just before half time when he extended fully to push Giaccherini's curling effort from just inside the box over the bar. It was De Gea's third crucial intervention in a first half where the intensity and attacking intent of the Azzurri had overwhelmed the favourites. Veteran Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz replaced Nolito at the break, as Spain changed to a two-man frontline to battle the Juventus back three. 

In the second half it was Buffon's turn to step up and preserve the lead, as Spain grew into the contest and searched for an equaliser. Yet Italy were still a threat on the counter attack, with Pellè putting Éder through on goal with a deft flick on 54 minutes. De Gea again prevented what would surely have been a fatal blow to Spain. Buffon saved long-range efforts from Iniesta and Piqué as the pressure steadily grew but Spain were restricted to shots from outside the penalty area. Buffon's best save came just two minutes from full time, as the desperate Spaniards poured forwards and De Gea sent a long ball into the danger area. Barzagli miscued his header and the ball fell into the path of Piqué, who strained to direct it towards goal with his right foot. Buffon saved low to his right, matching De Gea with his fifth save on a day of impressive goalkeeping. 

All that remained was for Italy to crown a magnificent victory, just as they had against Belgium in Lyon, with a last-minute goal from Pellè. In injury time, substitute Lorenzo Insigne hit a long diagonal pass to find Darmian, who squared for the Southampton striker to send Italy in to the quarter-finals, and to end the era of Spanish dominance in Europe that began eight years ago in Vienna.

Gross, A. M.
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