Ukraine v France (QF)(Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 13)

Bloody near perfection

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“Benoît? How’s everything going?” I hold the phone to my ear, straining to block out the peripheral noise on the other end and hear Cheyrou’s reply.

“WE’LL FUCKING KILL ‘EM!” He screams abruptly, cutting through the noise like a hot knife through… Thin air. I sigh.

“It’s a friendly, Benoît. A friendly. Remember? We don’t need-“

“COME ON!” He screeches, “BRING ME THEIR FUCKING HEADS!” The remark is followed up by the ominous sound of glass smashing.

“Keep me updated, won’t you.” I say, secretly hoping that he won’t. I can tell from the distant yells and Wilhelm screams that Benoît’s already abandoned our conversation and started one of his trademark pre-match team talks, so I hang up. From somewhere in front of me I hear a tut and look up to see my assistant, watching me from my hotel room doorway. “Do you not have your own room?” I ask.

“I told you so.” Bechkoura’s shit eating grin is tinged with false sympathy. He lifts a big red apple to his mouth, breathes on it for some reason and then takes a huge bite, before continuing through a mouthful of it’s flesh. “I told you what’d happen if you left Benoît Cheyrou in charge of pre-season. People will die, Franjo.”

“Benoît’s all talk.” I reply, unconvincingly.

“I’m just saying. I would’ve done a much better job of…”

“You’ve ‘just said’ that a number of times, David,” I make little mocking quotation marks with my fingers. “And I keep ‘just telling’ you that you’re here with me, aren’t you. So how on Earth do you reckon you’d conduct Auxerre’s pre-season from Italy, you fucking waffle?”

Bechkoura opens his mouth ready to speak, but then decides against it.

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I’m doing a bit more rotation today for France’s Quarter Final match against Ukraine. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m underestimating them as I’m certainly not, but Antoine Griezmann could do with another rest after bagging a brace against Spain, Rabiot could too and Raphaël Varane’s been our only ever-present outfield player so far and so could definitely benefit from catching his breath. Neal Maupay, Corentin Tolisso and Aymeric Laporte replace the trio.

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I tell you what I could do without: An injury to Kylian Mbappé. 8 minutes in he takes a cheeky elbow to the ribs, but after assessment from the physio’s he’s deemed fit to play on. Hang in there, you brilliant and apparently fragile thing.

A few minutes later I’m struck with that familiar sense of dread when Kovalenko sends a pass between Laporte and Umtiti and Maxim Tankov steals in ahead of the latter to gather the ball on the edge of our box. The striker, who I touted as a possible Golden Boot winner before the tournament but who has yet to find the net, looks up and picks his spot. With a swing of his boot, the ball skids away off the turf and nestles with prickling inevitability in the bottom corner of Leo Gauthier’s net.

Why now, Maxim? Why against us? Straight from kick off a French attack breaks down and Ukraine counter, allowing the prick to have another go. Collecting the ball in his own half and surging at our defence, Tankov runs straight past Umtiti, then Laporte, then skips past Sidibé for good measure. He drills another shot towards the bottom corner from 12 yards, but this time Gauthier proves equal to it, parrying the ball behind for a corner. A few seconds later Zinchenko swings the ball in and Kovalenko rises highest to head towards goal, but Gauthier saves well again, allowing us to finally clear our lines.

In the 17th minute, we shake off our early oppression and have a go ourselves, with the bruised but unbroken Kylian Mbappé switching the ball from left to right to Neal Maupay, who sends a cross into the 6 yard box where Mbappé arrives quite unmarked to head us level.

We head towards half time as the dominant team but 20 minutes after our equalising goal, Ukraine strike again: Umtiti spectacularly fails to clear Yarmolenko’s cross and merely boots the ball to Zinchenko 12 yards out. Zinchenko smashes a shot against the far post, but the ball rebounds and hits Gauthier on the back before bobbling into the net. 5 minutes later though we draw level once again and again Neal Maupay plays a major part, this time dribbling through the centre of the pitch and finding Sidibé on the right, who’s charging forwards on the overlap. Sidibé whips a lovely cross into the 6 yard box and Corentin Tolisso of all people gets on the end of it to side foot a volley past Shevchenko from close range.

After a quick pep talk we head out for the second half at 2-2, but the scoreline changes within 2 minutes thanks to Ukraine’s Kovalenko, although not in the way you’d expect. Tolisso’s low cross deflects off the midfielder’s foot and wrong foots Shevchenko before finding the net to put us ahead.

Just minutes later we get a nice little boost when Coman brings the ball out of the air in Ukraine’s box only to be clumsily tripped by Boryachuk. The referee points to the spot and Mbappé, eager to dispel the myth that he’s a bad penalty taker after the one he sneaked in during the Group Stage, hammers the ball into the top right corner to put us 4-2 ahead.

I’m obviously still wary of Ukraine’s threat, despite the quiet 40 minutes or so that Tankov’s had since his goal, but I decide to rest a few more players ahead of the Semi-Final we should now be playing against Germany or Belgium. Lemar replaces the injured-ish Mbappé, Abi Sissako comes on in place of Tiémoué Bakayoko and Paul Pogba hands his captain’s armband over to Aymeric Laporte as he heads to the bench to be replaced by Lamine Fomba, who makes his tournament debut.

Within 12 minutes of kicking off the second half level, the scoreline’s stretched to 5-2 courtesy of a beautiful one-touch move. Sissako to Coman, then on to Lemar. The winger taps the ball straight into the path of Sidibé, who bursts uncharacteristically into the box from the right wing. Sidibé takes a touch to get him into the 6 yard box and slides a shot beyond Shevchenko and into the far bottom corner. It’s a beautiful move and a well deserved goal for a superb footballer.

With 70 minutes on the clock, we’re cruising comfortably and rather satisfyingly past a tough Ukrainian side and I’m happy. I’m even happier 2 minutes later though, when Lucas Digne, one of our main creators in the last couple of matches, drifts a cross into our opposition’s box from the left and Lamine bloody Fomba arrives at the near post to half-volley in his first France goal from 8 yards. What a lad.

2 minutes from the end we put the cherry on top: Another break from Digne down the left wing, another cross this time to the penalty spot and Abi Sissako guides the ball into the far bottom corner on the half volley. Sissako, beaming from ear to ear, sprints over to Lamine Fomba, who picks his team mate up before they’re joined by the rest of the team.

Although I feel for Ukraine and think they’ve had an impressive tournament, I’ll go back to the hotel a happy man tonight having sent them home. A 7-2 French win and a goal each for my Auxerre boys, while Cheyrou’s l’AJA took a 1-0 friendly win over Westerlo. Bloody near perfection.

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Second Round Roundup & Quarter Final Preview (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 12)

By Don Collins

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< Euro 24 Part 11

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Ah, knockout football: The point in an international tournament in which the gaps between matches grow longer and the World collectively tries to remember what we did with our time before we had a constant stream of football on which to gorge ourselves. 8 Second Round matches have been played, 30 goals have been scored and the Quarter Final ties have been finalised.

I’m Don Collins. Let’s tuck in.

Germany v Romania

Germany have recovered spectacularly from a faltering start to the tournament and are now seen as favourites by some. They continued their dominant streak at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi by thumping a Romanian side who until now had had a very good and dignified tournament. Wilske Dimmier opened the scoring after just 6 minutes, strolling unchallenged through the centre of the park and placing a shot into Ionut Radu’s bottom corner. 2 more German goals seemed to put the game to bed either side of half time, with Christopher Dieckmann blasting one in from the edge of the box in injury time and Dimmer toe poking in his 2nd from 12 yards within minutes of the restart. The Germans continued to enjoy complete domination and after scoring at the start of the first half, the end of the first half and the start of the second half, it seemed only fitting that substitute Patrick Fulz turned his marker in second half injury time and clipped the 4th goal of the day past Radu.

Romania, the first victims of the Second Round, can still leave Euro 24 with their heads held high, having lost only to extremely good teams in the Netherlands and Germany. Germany now seem unstoppable though and will be confident of further victories whoever they meet in the Quarters.

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Turkey v Ukraine

One of the more intriguing ties of the round was at the Stadio Della Vittoria, where Turkey and Ukraine went head to head in a meeting between 2 sides who had so far outperformed their pre-tournament expectations. The match was dominated largely by Ukraine, while Turkey disappointingly resorted to focussing kicking their opponents rather than the ball. It took until the 72nd minute for the deadlock to be broken though when Mykola Sharapenko hoofed the ball upfield to start a Ukrainian counter attack. Substitute Alexey Sukhov then switched play from right to left, Andriy Yarmolenko slipped it down the line and Victor Kovalenko slid Ukraine into the lead. 5 minutes later things went from bad to worse for Turkey and specifically for centre back Selahattin Yildirim, who tried to smash the ball clear of his own half but only succeeded in hitting it against Kovalenko, after which it bounced through for Sukhov, who drilled in Ukraine’s 2nd. Yildirim then got caught flat footed by a long ball over the top and Sukhov sprinted past him to latch on, leaving the defender no option in his mind other than hauling the pacy striker to the floor and receiving a 2nd yellow card and a red for a professional foul. Sukhov then wrapped up the scoring with 5 minutes to go, volleying in Andriy Boryachuk’s cross to send Ukraine hurtling through to the Quarter Finals.

Turkey, who came into the tournament as one of the outsiders in their group, will be disappointed with how their Euro 24 adventure ended given how well it started. They were taken apart by Ukraine, who deservedly progress and who are one of only 3 nations remaining to have won all 4 of their matches.

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Belgium v Denmark

Denmark, who went through to the Second Round with the worst record of all the qualifying 3rd placed sides, had a real job on their hands when they took on Group D’s rampant Belgium side. Like in the Danes’ match against France, they were dominated entirely throughout the match but kept it fairly tight, only conceding the first goal of the game at the start of the second half. It was a painful one to watch after seeing such a hearty defensive performance, originating from Youri Tielemans’ lofted pass into the Danish box which Mads Roerslev tried and categorically failed to head back to goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow. He found Divock Origi instead, who was all alone 6 yards from goal and who promptly smashed the ball into the net to break the deadlock. The second goal was superb and again Tielemans was the creator, releasing Origi in space down the right channel. Origi chipped a cross in first time from the right byline and Mo Hamoudan arrived to volley the ball in at the far post. Danish substitute Wessam Abou Ali injected some creativity and drive into his side as they struggled to claw themselves back into the game, picking up the ball on the half way line and surging through the Belgian midfield, before sliding it through for Marco Ramkilde, who hammered past Thibaut Courtois from 8 yards. They failed to find an equaliser though as Belgium picked up another well earned win and progressed to the Quarters.

Belgium, along with Ukraine, have won all 4 matches so far and although the win was their narrowest so far, their domination was clear throughout. They now have their sights firmly set on going all the way to the final, while Denmark exit. The Danes can afford to be fairly proud, despite losing 3 out of their 4 matches and beating only Georgia. They found themselves in a tough group E and fought hard against both France and Belgium, but just lacked the quality to see them any further.

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Netherlands v Sweden

In yet another 1st v 3rd tie between Group A’s Netherlands and Group D’s Sweden, the odds were stacked firmly against the Scandinavians as the Dutch looked to continue their scintillating Group Stage form. The tournament’s joint top scorer Thomas Buitink opened the scoring for the Netherlands just 8 minutes in, curling past Jim Lindau after a clever reverse pass from Tom Watson set him in on goal. Robin Holmgren rose to meet Mattias Svanberg’s cross after 20 minutes and sent a looping header past Jeroen Zoet to equalise for the Swedes, but just 10 minutes later they were behind again, this time with Buitink crossing low into the box for Watson, who poked his side back into the lead from close range. Sweden were fortunate to be just a single goal behind at half time against the dominant Dutch, but that was soon corrected after the restart when Thomas Buitink laid the ball off for who else but Wesley Hoedt on the edge of the Swedish box. The centre back hammered a shot past Lindau, eventually sealing his side’s progression to the next round.

Like their fellow Scandinavians Denmark, Sweden can be proud to have reached the Second Round in the first place, coming through a tough Group D and giving their fans some memorable moments to take home with them, but it’s the Netherlands who’ll march on, having won 4 matches out of 4 and looking as likely as anyone to go all the way.

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Scotland v Norway

And fare thee weel, my only Luve and fare thee weel, a while,
And I will come again, my Luve, tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

Aye right… I cannae dae it. If wan bastart has the same steel in his een as Angus, it’s Ørjan Nyland. Twice denied Gauld, 2 penalties saved. We stuid agin him, proud Nyland’s airmie, but we cudnae send him hamewart tae think again. Get yesel tae fuck, Ørjan, ya wee fanny. Ya daft wee bastart, ye killed the dream! I cannae dae it, John! I CANNAE FUCKIN’ DAE IT! SQUARE GO, NYLAND! I’LL TAK THAE NORWEGIANS AW ON, THE WEE CU…

Editor’s Note: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen! Due to an incredibly sudden bout of flu, Don Collins has been escorted from the premises by armed security personnel and is unable to continue writing this article, so you’re stuck with me, John Hutchison, for the remainder.

Scotland gave as good as they got really against Group C’s winners Norway at the Stadio San Paolo, but in the end neither side was able to find a goal in 120 minutes of football. Ørjan Nyland did indeed pull off a couple of spectacular saves to deny Ryan Gauld in extra time and then went on to secure his place in the hearts of the Norwegian public by saving penalties from Aitchison and McGinn in the shootout, allowing Fredrik Midtsjø to score the decisive penalty and send his nation through at the Scots’ expense. Norway will be quietly confident after outperforming expectations so far, winning 3 out of their 4 Euro 24 matches.

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Spain v France

Well look who’s decided to turn up! France have arrived, ladies and gentleman and good guests that they are, they’ve brought over a vintage 2024 bottle of Spanish tears for us to enjoy throughout the remainder of the tournament. The majority of the first half at the San Siro was dominated by the French and they almost went into the break with a 2 goal cushion to show for it after an Antoine Griezmann header and a close range finish from Kingsley Coman put them in the driving seat. Asier Villalibre clawed back some hope for Spain on the stroke of half time with a driven finish, but it didn’t take long for France to reopen the gap between the sides after the restart. Griezmann and Coman both secured braces as France played some really silky football, with the former curling past De Gea and the latter poking home a 4th goal from close range, but then the Spanish tragedy turned into something of a comedy when David De Gea nonchalantly dropped the ball at his feet and gifted it to Paul Pogba, who tapped in France’s 5th. Villalibre scored a consolation goal soon after courtesy of some dubious French defending, but then Nabil Fekir blasted the ball in with mere minutes to go to complete the scoring in a resounding victory.

Franjo’s France will go through to the Quarter Finals with some confidence, having finally started to show some of the quality that we’d expected before the tournament began. Marcelino’s Spain however are on their way home. Their opening day victory over Switzerland promised much, but their subsequent narrow victory over Scotland, toothless defeat against Serbia and absolute gubbing at the hands of the French mean that some serious questions will be asked about the future of the National side.

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Italy v England

The hosts were given a tough Second Round draw against Group E winners England after only managing a 2nd place finish in their group, but expectations on the exciting young Italian side were high nonetheless. The English continued their stellar group form against the dominant Italians, opening the scoring through Dele Alli, who strolled through the centre of the park and blasted the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma just before the half hour. Harry Kane secured the win on the hour when he converted a penalty that he himself had won when Riccardo Mansueto tripped him in the box.

Hype is suddenly building around Eddie Howe’s side as apart from the last half hour against France in their Group E opening game, they’re yet to concede a goal and have won their last 3 matches in a row. Italy though exit their own tournament at the Second Round and will be sickeningly disappointed with their overall performance. Wins against Poland and Sweden will take a backseat in the post-exit analysis by media and fans, while their failure to compete against Belgium and England will be the focus of the discussion. With the exciting young generation of players that they have, Italy could and should have gone farther.

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Serbia v Portugal

The final match of the Second Round was played at the Juventus Stadium, where Group F runners up Serbia took on Group B runners up Portugal. The Serbians came into the match after not exactly setting their group alight, but had remained unbeaten all the same with a win against Spain the standout performance. Portugal were huge favourites after qualifying comfortably from their group and showed early signs that the scoreline would be suitably comfortable when Gelson Martins opened the scoring 5 minutes in, intercepting a poor backpass by Milorad Stevanovic and drilling the ball low past Predrag Rajkovic. Only a few minutes later though, Serbia equalised when Save Petrov burst down the right wing and whipped in a cross that Dejan Lukic half volleyed past Diogo Costa, but then with a quarter of an hour gone the Portuguese retook their advantage: Bruma raced away on the counter after a Serbian corner was cleared and ran almost the entire length of the pitch with the ball at his feet before chipping it across for Gelson Martins, who tucked in his 2nd. Gelson turned provider before half time when he tore down the right and floated a cross straight onto the head of Gonçalo Guedes at the near post, who nodded in his side’s 3rd, but Serbia turned the pressure on again in the second half when Lukic’s corner was flapped at by Costa and the loose ball fell to substitute Mihajlo Pantovic, who smashed in his first international goal to make it 3-2. The scoreline was precarious until the 89th minute, when Gelson crossed for Guedes once more and the striker was hauled to the ground by Milos Stojanovic. The referee pointed to the spot and booked the defender and the honour of wrapping up Portugal’s place in the Quarter Final fell to João Mario, who blasted the ball into the bottom left from 12 yards.

Serbia will be happy with their tournament, having stayed in with a chance right up until the final minute and eventually losing to a Portuguese side with a lot of quality. Like so many others in the final 8, Portugal will have their sights set on winning it all after a strong showing so far.

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The time for slip ups is very much over! We’ve said goodbye to some good teams in the last few days: Condolences to Romania, Denmark, Turkey, Sweden, Scotland, Spain, Italy and Serbia as our pool of potential Euro 24 winners is whittled down from 16 to 8.

We’ve just got time for a peek at the Quarter Final draw.

Germany v Belgium

Potentially one of the matches of the tournament? 2 juggernauts that have been talked up more than most as potential winners will meet in the first Quarter Final match. Germany and Belgium have both been free-scoring so far and this one could go either way.

Ukraine v France

This could be interesting. Uncharitably labelled as the easiest draw that World Champions and pre-tournament favourites France could have been handed, we are well past the point now of thinking that Ukraine are a soft touch. The Ukrainians have conceded just 1 goal in 4 matches and that defensive resolve will surely be tested by a French team that have just remembered where the net is. France have shown that they absolutely have defensive frailties for Ukraine to exploit though.

Norway v England

England are in superb form, but they should not underestimate a Norway side that have been going about their business quietly but effectively. The Scandinavians will be looking to complete a United Kingdom double after sending Scotland packing but will be definite underdogs for this one.

Netherlands v Portugal

The final Quarter Final match is between the seemingly unstoppable Netherlands and the virtually unstoppable Portuguese. Another 2 sides that have ambitions of winning the Euros; This one should be a doozy.

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16 teams have become 8, now 8 will become 4. I might see you afterwards to pick through the bones of what could be 4 extremely entertaining matches, or I might not. It depends whether Don gets his……… Flu……… Under control. Bye for now.

Euro 24 Part 13 >

Spain v France (SR)(Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 11)

Una cerveza por favor

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< Euro 24 Part 10

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“Did they not have any of that pulled pork?” Asks Bechkoura, giving the impression that he has no interest whatsoever in the answer.

“To beat the Spanish…” I ponder out loud, through a mouthful of food, “One must think like the Spanish. One must eat, drink and breathe as the Spanish do.” I spoon another mouthful of rice into my mouth.

“Right. So paella and a beer.”

“Una cerveza.” I correct him.

“Paella and… Una cerveza. This is your plan to reach the Quarters, is it?”

“It’s San Miguel.” I clarify, spraying rice over the table. “And I’ll thank you not to question my methods, Bechkoura. Have I mentioned in the last few days that-“

“Yes.” Bechkoura snarls, through gritted teeth. “You have mentioned your Pro License. Many more times than was necessary, actually.”

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“As the only pro in the room that holds a Pro License,” I purr, spraying yet more rice across the room, “I will decide what is an appropriate number of times to mention my current status as Pro License holder, thank you. So por favor… Fuck off.”

Bechkoura glares. Then sighs. Then leaves.

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Don Collins miraculously made quite an interesting point in his roundup the other day, I’m not sure if you caught it. As much flack as I’m now receiving on a daily basis for France’s performances, Spain haven’t been that great themselves in Euro 24. They lost against Serbia, which… Fine, they played a second string, but they just scraped past Scotland! Scotland! I’d say that we’ve given a far better showing than them so far, so my plan remains the same as always: Project Renaissance is our system, scoring more than Spain is our goal. Now with a Pro License holder at the helm, what could possibly go wrong?

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3 of the players that were rested against Denmark come back into the side today: Adrien Rabiot replaces Corentin Tolisso in midfield, Paul Pogba replaces Thomas Lemar, who I must admit I’ve been disappointed in during the group stage and Antoine Griezmann replaces Neal Maupay up top. I considered giving Moussa Dembélé his first start of the tournament but I think he’ll be most useful as an if-needed impact sub again. Aymeric Laporte stays on the bench though as I was fairly pleased with Samuel Umtiti and want to give him another game to see if he keeps impressing.

“Watch Morata like a fucking hawk.” I stress to Umtiti before we head out for kick off. “He’s played 1 match, scored 2 goals and he’ll be chomping at the bit to show Marcelino he should’ve played more.” Umtiti nods stoically. “Like a fucking hawk.” I repeat, for effect.

“Caw.” Grins the centre back.

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Although I’ve definitely learned over the last few games that the first 10 minutes of European Championship football matches can be deceiving, I have to say I’m buoyed by our start. Our first good chance comes in the 9th minute when we work the ball marvellously through the middle of the park and Griezmann receives it on the edge of the Spanish area, drawing a centre back away to make room for Paul Pogba before laying the ball off for him in space. Pogba stabs a shot goalwards but it’s straight down the throat of De Gea, who catches it comfortably.

Another chance comes our way 2 minutes later and again, it’s a good move through the centre that creates it. This time, Pogba looks up 30 yards from goal and sprays the ball out to Digne on the left wing. The left back’s cross is deflected and bounces back to Rabiot, who shoots low and hard from the edge of the area and forces a good save from De Gea down to his right.

2 minutes after that, we’re really piling the pressure on, penning Spain back into their half as we dominante. Mbappé picks up the ball in the left channel, spots Digne once again bombing past Bellerin releases him with a good pass along the floor. Digne controls the ball and turns inside, causing the pursuing Bellerin to run past him and then curls a right footed cross in towards the far post. Griezmann races Toni lato to the ball… Griezmann gets there first… GRIEZMANN!

My fist hammers the air as pandemonium takes over the 80,000 strong crowd at the San Siro. I feel like I could punch a whole straight through the ozone layer, melting all the ice in the world single handedly. This is what I wanted. This is what France can do. It’s a beautiful finish by Griezmann, who beat PSG’s Lato for pace and then guided a header back across goal, perfectly under De Gea into the far bottom corner of the net. But it’s our overall play that I’m most happy with. I’d rate our performance in the first 13 minutes as 11/10. We’ve arrived. Fucking finally.

Inevitably, we’re nearly pegged back within 10 minutes when Villalibre plays a clever pass beyond Umtiti, allowing Morata to run through on goal and hammer a shot against the foot of the post. I’ll ‘Caw’ you, sunshine. “LIKE A FUCKING HAWK!” I scream, prompting an apologetic raised hand from Umtiti and a very peculiar look from my opposite number Marcelino.

10 minutes from the break, we win a corner. Kylian Mbappé runs over, swings a deep cross towards the far post and Bakayoko rises above Jorge Meré to nod it down. Suddenly Coman’s there in acres of space! Criminally unmarked 6 yards out! KINGSLEY COMAN – POKES IT HOME! A wide smile creeps across my face as Coman sprints past some euphoric French fans. 2-0. I see De Gea arguing with Meré. I see Marcelino arguing with his backroom staff. We’ve bloody got them. If we can take a 2 goal lead in at half time, we’ve bloody got them.

As the clock ticks over into injury time, Alvaro Morata receives the ball and curls a great pass over the top of our defence. Villalibre sprints after it, as does Varane, but the Spanish striker gets there first. He shakes off Varane, bares down on goal and drills a low shot past Gauthier and into the net. Of course he does.

I said after the Georgia game that France up to that point had felt, for lack of a better work, precarious. No situation has fitted that word more perfectly than the atmosphere in the dressing room when we head in for half time at 2-1. I feel like I’m walking on brilliant egg shells. The good feeling that we cultivated for precisely 45 minutes seems to have drained away in the couple more that were added on. I’ve never fully bought into the old saying that “2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline” as I think it’s very situational. Yes, in some cases 2-0 can lead to players taking their eye off the ball, or growing overly confident and becoming complacent, but I think in the majority of cases 2-0 just reflects that one side has had a comfortably better game than the other and if anything, the cushion just compounds the trailing side’s sense of hopelessness, making a comeback even less likely. This however seems to be one of those situations where 2-0 really was dangerous. We looked good. No, we looked brilliant. After 3 games of mediocrity we looked like we’d finally hit our stride and I think it was almost that sense of relief and the fact that we were so close to being able to regroup at the break that cost us our hard earned momentum. We did take our eyes off the ball and now in the opposite changing room, Marcelino will be full of praise and encouragement. He’ll be saying “You’ve got them scared”. He’ll be saying “Just keep going” and “You can do this”.

In the end I keep my team talk to 3 words: “Keep playing beautifully.” I reckon if they keep doing that, if they put the result out of their minds and keep playing the way they have been, the result will surely follow.

8 minutes after the restart, my brilliant French bastards oblige. An excellent one-touch move comprised of 7 passes and 8 touches of the ball ends up with Mbappé 25 yards out. One again he slides the ball through to Lucas Digne, who’s bombing into the left hand side of the box and then tees it up for Antoine Griezmann, who takes a touch and sweeps his shot beyond De Gea’s fingertips for 3-1.

There’s commotion on the Spanish bench as Marcelino goes into panic mode. Pablo Fornais and Germán Ramos are replaced by Sergi Roberto and Álex Grimaldo, then Sergi Samper replaces Abraham Perez just minutes later. I can’t help smirking. The scarers have once again become the scarees. Just seconds after Samper’s introduction, we get another chance too when Adrien Rabiot pokes a through ball into the path of Kingsley Coman. Spain’s defence is in shambles as Coman darts through towards the 6 yard box – And slots the ball under De Gea. 4-1. It’s 4-1 and it’s so fucking beautiful!

I suddenly realise that while Spain have used up all 3 substitutes, I’m yet to make any myself. I look down the bench and tell Fekir and Tolisso to warm up. Mbappé and Bakayoko soon make way as both could do with a rest, although for some reason I’m still reluctant to admit that we’ve got the win tied up. Fekir takes the lone striker role while Griezmann will join Coman on wing rotation duty. 10 minutes later, the score remains 4-1 and I opt to rest Sidibé too, bringing on Upamecano and shifting Tolisso over to right back, while Upa replaces him in midfield.

And then, with 17 minutes of the match to play, it happens: Surely the headline moment in the coming days and weeks and the moment that the people of France will talk about fondly years and decades from now when recounting today’s events. Griezmann swings a corner in and De Gea rises to pluck it out of the air. As the players disperse, anticipating a long kick upfield, the goalie drops the ball at his feet – And is promptly robbed by Paul Pogba, who places it into his Manchester United teammate’s empty net. I laugh. I try not to, but between a frustrating Group Stage, the murmurs of my sacking that’ve been steadily building in volume throughout the fans and media and my combined senses of sheer relief and disbelief, I can’t help it. I laugh my arse off as Paul Pogba sprints away to celebrate shamelessly with his compatriots.

A few minutes later we concede a second goal, but it does nothing to alter my mood even though it’s a bit of a defensive cock up on our part: We win a free kick just inside our own half and Varane takes it quickly – Too quickly, blasting the ball against Adrien Rabiot’s thigh and causing it to bounce straight back into the path of Villalibre. The striker shrugs off Varane again and runs in on goal before placing the ball into the top right corner of Gauthier’s net from 12 yards.

As the game edges towards it’s conclusion, we keep battering on the door looking for another goal. Kingsley Coman’s desperate to complete his hat trick and has 2 shots in quick succession blocked by team mates Fekir and Umtiti following a corner, but then within a minute of those chances a fine pass from Paul Pogba finds Nabil Fekir just inside the box and the Real Madrid man lashes the ball past De Gea on the turn.

Stick a fork in Spain, lads. They are decisively and irreparably done. If this had been a boxing match, the referee would’ve called it half an hour ago, but it wasn’t. It was a football match lasting 90 glorious minutes and I enjoyed every second. I have never felt more vindicated as I watch the Tricolores once again wave proudly all around me. We were electric. We were magnificent.

The Renaissance is finally in full swing and I dare anyone to try and stop it.

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Euro 24 Part 12 >

Group Stage Roundup 3 & Second Round Preview (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 10)

By Don Collins

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 9

My Short Stories WordPress

Where on Earth have you been?!

If you’re reading this then you’re in need of a catch up on an incredible round of action from Euro 2024 in which 12 matches were played, 48 goals were scored, 2 players netted hat tricks of penalties, 8 national teams made the long trip home (1 of whom failed to find the net in any of their 3 matches) and a further 10 joined the 6 already qualified nations in the Second Round, which begs the question: Just what have you been doing over the last few days that was so bloody important you could miss it?!

Never mind, I forgive you. My name’s Don Collins. Let’s read all about it.

Group A

Netherlands v Romania

The Dutch and the Romanians stepped onto the pitch of the Stadio San Nicola secure in their progression from the Group Stage, but also sure that at least one of them would lose their 100% record in the tournament so far in the proceeding 90 minutes. Neither side had even conceded a goal before kick off, which some claimed would make this a dull tie, devoid of action and stakes.

When Romania’s Florin Tanase curled a free kick in off the bar after half an hour however, he opened the scoring in what became a hard fought, high scoring thriller of a match between 2 sides determined to top Group A. Striker Razvan Marin certainly played his part either side of half time, first felling Jorrit Hendrix in the box in first half injury time, conceding a penalty that Thomas Buitink slotted in and then regaining Romania the lead 20 seconds after the break when his volley deflected in off Virgil Van Dijk. The unflappable Dutch were level again within minutes though, with Vincent Janssen meeting a Jetro Willems cross and forcing a save from Ionut Radut before tapping in on the rebound. With 20 minutes to play the match could’ve gone either way, but Romania were the architects of their own downfall, startlingly giving away 2 more penalties within a 5 minute period. Thomas Buitink and Vincent Janssen were brought down by Dan Berci and Raul Negoita respectively and Buitink stepped up to complete a hat trick of spot kicks, putting the result and their status as Group A winners beyond doubt.

Netherlands: – 1st (Group A Winners)

Romania: – 2nd (Qualified for Second Round)

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Russia v Northern Ireland

Both Russia and Northern Ireland knew that they’d need two things to progress from the Group Stage: 3 points and a metric tonne of luck. Even if either side won, they’d need two of the other 3rd placed teams in the other groups to have a worse or even points tally and a horrible goal difference.

The Russians dominated the match but were kept at bay for 70 minutes at the Stadio Della Vittoria by a Northern Ireland side that to their credit, has refused to give up throughout the Group Stage. Tragically for the tournament’s underdogs though, Brendan Moore clattered Russian substitute Nikita Ovchinnikov in the box following a 71st minute corner and Alexey Gasilin finally gave the dominant side the lead from the spot, scoring his nation’s first goal of Euro 2024. Russia made sure in the final knockings when Roman Zobnin slotted Andrey Makagonov through on goal and the substitute blasted in his first for his country, but the euphoria that sent the crowd into frenzy wouldn’t last more than a few days. Their 3 points and goal difference of -2 would turn out to be level with another team in the tournament and while Northern Ireland suffer the humiliation of jetting off home from Bari Karol Wojtyła Airport without even scoring a goal, Russia were dealt the agonising blow of being eliminated on goals scored.

Russia: – 3rd (Eliminated)

Northern Ireland: – 4th (Eliminated)

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Group B

FYR Macedonia v Ukraine

Macedonia and Ukraine had had very different starts to their Group B campaigns. The Macedonians were yet to score but had shipped goals, while the Ukrainians were yet to concede and had scored just enough to secure early qualification for the Second Round. Macedonia knew that a win by 3 goals would at least see them rise above Russia in the race to qualify from 3rd place, providing that the Czech Republic lost fairly heavily to Portugal. Like so many teams, they needed a miracle at the Juventus Stadium.

After the Netherlands and Russia scored a combined 4 penalties in the first 2 matches of the round, it was no surprise to see this match get underway with another: Ukraine’s Alexey Ivanov was fouled by Stefan Andric just after the half hour and the Ukrainian right back and stand-in skipper Valeriy Luchkevych buried the resulting penalty in the top right corner. Macedonian heads dropped afterwards and the World seemed to write them off as an eliminated side, but then there was hope: Blagojce Filipovski found Martin Momirovski on the edge of the box, the striker picked his spot and squeezed a shot past Mykyta Schevchenko at his near post. It was quite possibly the biggest shock of the competition so far: The impenetrable Ukrainian defence had been broken by the toothless Macedonian attack. Game on. The neutrals watched on hoping that the second half of the match could contain the miracle that Macedonia were praying for, but sadly, it did not. Things very quickly went South when a second penalty was given away in the 54th minute, with Danila Babaev dragged to the floor by Macedonian substitute Saso Aliji. Luchkevych’s second spot kick was a carbon copy of his first; An emphatic finish to the top right. Stefan Andric received his marching orders just minutes later, tripping Maxim Tankov and earning a second yellow, but thankfully the foul was outside the box so at least Macedonia hadn’t conceded another penalty. Not for another 2 minutes, anyway. Before the hour mark, Filipovski seemed to lose his bloody mind and slid in off the ball on poor Babaev following a Ukrainian corner. The only miracle was that somehow Macedonia weren’t reduced to 9 men and indeed that Filipovski wasn’t even shown a yellow card, as the referee deemed a 3rd penalty punishment enough. One of the most unlikely hat tricks of the tournament was then completed when Ukraine’s right back Luchkevych stepped up and buried the ball in the bottom left, in stark contrast to his first two spot kicks. The cherry was put on top of Ukraine’s Group B clean sweep when Olexandr Zinchenko received the ball from Dmitry Petrenko 10 minutes from time and slotted it deftly into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.

Macedonia’s only shot of the match and only goal of the tournament will be remembered fondly, unlike the rest of their Euro 24 experience, while Ukraine march on, seen by many now as a possible dark horse.

FYR Macedonia: – 4th (Eliminated)

Ukraine: – 1st (Group B Winners)

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Portugal v Czech Republic

Portugal and the Czech Republic kicked off in Messena’s Stadio San Filippo level on 3 points, a goal difference of 1 and 2 goals scored, knowing that although a loss might see them scrape through and a draw would probably do, a win would guarantee 2nd place in Group B and progression to the Second Round.

It’s fair to say Portugal rose to this challenge most effectively. Renato Sanches teed up João Mario for a 20 yard half volley into the top corner after quarter of an hour and before half time they’d built themselves a 2 goal cushion through André Silva, who slotted in after Bruma squared the ball into the box from the left channel. The Czechs continued to flail in the second half as the Portuguese turned the knife. A long Diogo Dalot throw from the right was flapped at by goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik and Silva flicked the ball on for substitute Gelson Martins, who was unmarked at the far post to volley in his country’s 3rd. With 20 minutes to play, any hopes of a comeback were squashed when Renato Sanches picked out sub João Carvalho in acres of space 25 yards out. Carvalho took a touch and smashed the ball into the top right corner to complete a resounding victory. The only downside for the Portuguese was an André Silva injury 5 minutes from time, which has since been confirmed as a broken foot that’ll keep him sidelined for the rest of the Euros and then some.

Portugal will stroll through to the second round with Ukraine though, while the Czech Republic will rue their defensive collapse. A 1-0 loss would have seen them progress, but now with a goal difference of -3, they slide below even Russia in the 3rd place race. Czechia are eliminated on goal difference.

Portugal: 3rd -> 2nd (Qualified for Second Round)

Czech Republic: 2nd -> 3rd (Eliminated)

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Group C

Croatia v Norway

Norway, on 3 points before the final game, had assurance that 3 more would see them through to the Second Round. Croatia on the other hand, had no points and could only hope. They needed the win and they needed Turkey to beat Germany. Then they needed some kind of mathematical miracle to see them progress.

Norway came out for the match like a bullet from a gun. After 4 minutes, Vidar Holm squared for Jørgan Strand Larsen, who curled in the opener from 20 yards, then 7 minutes later Tin Jedvaj slid in on Iver Fossum, only succeeding in knocking the ball over to Holm, who drove low into the bottom corner. Croatia scraped back a glimpse of that hope in the 20th minute, when Marko Pjaca found himself on the end of a Nikola Vlasik through ball and placed a shot beyond Rossbach, but within 5 minutes the Norwegians struck again: Jonas Svensson’s low cross from the right was met by Vidar Holm in the 6 yard box and he restored his country’s cushion. A deceptively even match was finished off when that man Holm flicked on a long ball from Tobias Svendsen and Oddbjørn Thoresen ran through to complete the 4-1 scoreline with a placed finish.

Norway will be exceptionally happy with their showing in the Group Stage: Wins against the pre-tournament Group C favourites Germany and Norway have won them the group and given them a good platform to build on. As even as the match was in terms of chances though, make no mistake: Euro 24 has been a catastrophic failure for Croatia. 0 points. 3 goals scored. 10 conceded. Marko Pjaca has put in some good performances and will leave with his head held high, but that’s about the only takeaway in a hugely disappointing Group Stage for the Croatians.

Croatia: – 4th (Eliminated)

Norway: 2nd -> 1st (Group C Winners)

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Turkey v Germany

Turkey took to the Stadio Olympico pitch bidding for a Group C clean sweep, having qualified with a match to spare in one of the biggest surprises of the Euros so far. Germany knew that despite the result between Croatia and Norway, a win would take them through.

The Germans’ win over Croatia built some momentum and they certainly brought that with them for this match. They were ahead within 20 minutes when PSG midfielder and Germany skipper Silvio Cvitanovic laid the ball off for Wilske Dimmier, who stroked it into the net beautifully from the edge of the box. Christopher Dieckmann, infuriated that his country had scored a goal without his contribution, then set about putting that right by picking the ball up 10 yards inside his own half and powering through towards the Turkish net at full speed. He skipped past Mehmet Niyaz, he surged past Yigithan Güveli, he reached the edge of the 6 yard box and he poked the ball past Akyüz. With 7 minutes still to go before the break, Dieckmann added a 3rd for Germany, receiving the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the area and curling a shot into the corner on the turn. Dieckmann’s been one of the players of the tournament so far and after another classy performance, it seems he’s still got more to give.

Turkey will be… Well, not disappointed exactly. They’ll be irked to have finished in 3rd place after such a promising start to the Group Stage. Now joined by 2 more of their group on 6 points, Turkey’s 0-3 loss to the Germans swaps the two teams’ goal differences, with Turkey’s finishing on 0 and Germany’s on 3. Norway’s goal difference of 4 clinches them the top spot, but all 3 sides will be decently pleased with their final positions.

Turkey: 1st -> 3rd (Qualified for Second Round)

Germany: 3rd -> 2nd (Qualified for Second Round)

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Group D

Italy v Sweden

The hosts were under a mountain of pressure at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi in a match that could send them through or send them home. Italy and Sweden started the match almost equal, both with 3 points but with the Swedes having a goal difference 1 better than their counterparts. Both sides knew that they would progress even with a loss (Within reason) as Italy would need to lose by 2 or 3 goals depending on goals scored to slip below Russia in the 3rd place race, while Sweden would need to lose by 3 or 4.

What resulted though was a hard fought match, with both sides vying to pick up the 3 points that’d send their fans home happy. Italy took the lead 27 minutes in when Gianluigi Cacioppini’s byline cross was volleyed in at the near post by Federico Chiesa, but on the hour mark Sweden equalised following a superb flowing move. Jonas Claesson’s clever pass split the defence and allowed Saed Haksabanovic to wriggle free through the left channel, after which he pulled it back for Jordan Larsson, son of Swedish legend Henrik, who got himself ahead of Luca Cesana to tap the ball home from close range. The Swedish fans were in jubilant mood right up until the 89th minute, when a sustained period of Italian pressure finally broke their resolve. Substitute Filippo Melegoni swung in a cross from the left, Chiesa held the ball up on the penalty spot and laid it off for young substitute Alessandro D’Innocenzo, who swiped in his first international goal in dramatic fashion on only his 2nd appearance for the national side.

The late drama and euphoria that D’Innocenzo’s goal created will surely buy Italy some much needed breathing room and good grace with their fans and media, who had been unimpressed with their loss against the Belgians. Sweden will be gutted to record their 2nd loss in 3 matches, especially so late on, but progression from one of the toughest groups at the tournament is still guaranteed and they should be proud of that.

Italy: 3rd -> 2nd (Qualified for Second Round)

Sweden: 2nd -> 3rd (Qualified for Second Round)

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Poland v Belgium

Poland’s chances of survival would have been low even if their last match hadn’t been against one of the most in-form sides at the tournament. Belgium, having already swept aside both Sweden and Italy, came to the Stadio Artemio Franchi expecting to record 3 wins out of 3 and put their opponents out of their Euro 24 misery.

It was Poland though who came tearing out of the traps, with Arkadiusz Milk rattling the bar with a powerful header after 7 minutes and then Kamil Padzik volleying in the opener from 6 yards just minutes later, after Stéphan Vandamme failed to reach a Kamil Joziwak cross. The Belgians hit back 10 minutes later when a defence splitting pass from Youri Tielemans released Mo Hamoudah, who was hacked down by Jan Bednarek close inside the box. Tieleman’s penalty kick was precise into the top left and the game was level once again. The Belgian fans howled for blood but again, Poland refused to roll over. After the half hour, Polish captain Jaroslaw Budzyn broke down the right wing, made a fool of Jordan Lukaku with some slick footwork and then squared the ball for Milik, who slid it into the corner from 10 yards to restore his side’s lead. Whether it was embarrassment, a half time dose of the hairdryer treatment or just grim determination, something got into Belgium for the second half. Tielemans’ lofted ball forward 5 minutes after the break was headed weakly away by Mateusz Wieteska as he collided with his outrushing goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski, which allowed Kevin De Bruyne to cushion the ball down for Hamoudan, who tucked the ball into the empty net to equalise. 5 minutes later, the turnaround was completed when De Bruyne rose above Bednarek to flick the ball into the path of Divock Origi, who ran clean through and clipped the ball past the beaten Dragowski. From then on the match was only going to finish one way. After the hour mark a Tielemans free kick deflected into the net off the Polish wall and then Hamoudan wrapped up the scoring with a crisp finish from Origi’s low cross.

So after early promise from Poland, Belgium complete their clean sweep of Group C and the Polish head home. It’s a shame really that we were just beginning to see the best of the Polish offensive line as their tournament ended, but the fact remains that their defence is quite appalling, especially Jan Bednarek, who’ll take unwanted attention away from this match as he was at the heart of almost every Belgian goal. Belgium on the other hand are now a force to be reckoned with. With memories of Canada 22 rapidly fading in the rear view mirror, they’ve really got a chance of making something of this tournament.

Poland: – 4th (Eliminated)

Belgium: – 1st (Group D Winners)

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Group E

Denmark v France

Denmark were hoping that France would be happy with sharing the spoils at the Stadio San Nicola, as a draw would see both sides comfortably through to the Second Round. France however were looking for a comfortable win after accusations that their previous results, a 2-2 draw with England and an uneasy 3-1 win over Georgia, were not up to scratch.

As penalties are all the rage at the minute, France got in on the action early when Thomas Delaney unceremoniously and needlessly bundled Lucas Digne to the ground after Vestergaard had already cleared a French corner. Kylian Mbappé’s spot kick was unconvincing but found the net thanks to some equally poor handling by Michaelsen and France took the lead. The Danes equalised against the run of play with the half hour approaching when Cornelius’ low cross was turned in by Kasper Dolberg, leaving the scores level at half time, much to the chagrin of the French fans. Both sides went close in the second half although France continued to dominate, with Kingsley Coman and Kylian Mbappé both heading against the woodwork and Leo Gauthier forced into a couple of superb saves by Dolberg and Ramkilde, but the scores stayed level. But then with under 20 minutes to play, the French finally found the winning goal when Neal Maupay’s looping effort crashed back off the bar to be tucked in by Raphaël Varane.

That result will do little to ease expectations or the building pressure on WT Franco, but for Denmark, it’s just enough. Their refusal to lose by more than a single goal leaves them on 3 points with a goal difference of -2. They progress through to the Second Round by the virtue of having scored 2 more goals than Russia.

Denmark: – 3rd (Qualified for Second Round)

France: – 2nd (Qualified for Second Round)

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Georgia v England

At the start of the match, only a thrashing at the hands of Georgia and a Denmark victory over France would prevent England from progressing to the Second Round, while only a thrashing over England and a France victory over Denmark would give Georgia any hope of qualification.

Georgia dominated the ball during the pair’s encounter at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris but came away with little to show for it as England hit them incisively time and time again. The English opened the scoring through Oliver Webb’s chipped ball to Marcus Rashford, who volleyed it in from the penalty spot. Rashford doubled his tally after half an hour after an absolutely superb flat pass down the right channel from Ross Barkley released Harry Kane, who then pulled it back from the byline and gave the United man an easy finish. Half time came and went, then in the 55th minute Kane headed down a lofted pass from Lewis Cook, allowing Rashford to bring the ball under control and then complete his hat trick in style, blasting into the bottom corner from the edge of the Georgian box. After the hour mark he struck once more too. Kane switched the play to Ed Lynes, who charged down the left wing leaving Solomon Kverkvella for dead and then whipped in a cross, which Rashford volleyed in from close range.

Out of nowhere, Marcus Rashford’s tally of 4 goals in a dominant win over Georgia has put him into the Golden Boot conversation as England sail comfortably through to the Second Round as Group E Winners. Georgia however head home, having just lacked the quality to compete in a tough group.

Georgia: – 4th (Eliminated)

England: – 1st (Group E Winners)

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Group F

Spain v Serbia

Spain and Serbia will have gone into their tie at the Stadio San Paolo with very different mentalities, with Spain having made several changes having already won Group F with 6 points, while Serbia lagged behind them in 2nd place and with only 2.

In all honesty the result was not as much of a shock as it should have been. Spain didn’t really get out of second gear as they allowed Serbia to dominate the ball for large periods and eventually sneak the winning goal when substitute Sava Petrov chipped in a free kick that was glanced into the net by fellow sub Nemanja Antonov, who had been on the pitch for under 2 minutes. The match itself was scrappy, it was slow and it was just what Serbia wanted and needed as they secured 2nd place. The Spanish won’t be too bothered about the result itself as they’ve been able to rest key players, but their substitute Koké coming off with a hip injury that’ll end his tournament in the 89th minute certainly left a sour taste in the mouth.

Spain: – 1st (Group F Winners)

Serbia: – 2nd (Qualified for Second Round)

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Switzerland v Scotland

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear and the rocks melt wi’ the sun,
I will luve thee still, my dear, while the sands o’ life shall run.

The eagle eyed among you will have noticed that only 3 3rd placed teams have qualified so far and that Spain and Serbia finished 1st and 2nd in Group F. With all of the other groups’ matches already played, Switzerland and Scotland met in front of a crowd of over 80,000 at the San Siro on a point apiece, knowing that 3 points would take either side through to the Second Round as either the 2nd or 3rd placed side in Group F.

I’ve prepared a wee poem of my own if ye’ll indulge me:

When thon wee fanny Tarashaj put baw intae the net,

We Scots began tae greet fur ‘nother twa year ae regret.

The thistles stairtit deein’ an’ auld Nevis ‘gan tae shrink,

But aff came Strachan’s michty gloves tae drag us fae the brink.

Markie Broon scored fae the spot tae square it aw awa,

Thon fanny Shani struck once mair tae lead us at the break.

We tholed the songs, insults an’ aw, oor sodgers focht along,

We niver let oor laddies think oor hope in them had gone.

Aye right, thae Swiss an’ Tarashaj can get thaesels tae fuck,

Fur hawpin’ agin hawp that brave Scotland hud gien up.

‘Cause while thair fans were hootin’, Davey levelled up the game,

Then Jackie stuck a boot in fur tae send thae bastarts hame.

I warned ye that thon baw wud drap, I warned ye we’d reply,

I warned thae Swiss an’ Serbians an’ Spaniards that we’d rise.

Thay shudae kent tae pack thair pokes the moment thay hud seen,

The tartan army mairchin’ an’ the steel in Gunnie’s een.

Switzerland: – 4th (Eliminated)

Scotland: – 3rd (Qualified for Second Round)

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So there we have it! Your final 16 is:

The Netherlands, Romania, Ukraine, Portugal, Norway, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, England, France, Denmark, Spain, Serbia and Scotland.

Condolences to Russia, Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, FYR Macedonia, Croatia, Poland, Georgia and Switzerland.

But we can’t leave it there. Who’s facing who in the Second Round? Which clashes of the titans can we look forward to? I’m glad you ask…

Second Round Preview

Germany (2nd Group C) v Romania (2nd Group A)

Two sides that have picked up 6 points from their 3 Group Stage matches go head to head in the first of our Second Round ties. The momentum is with Germany however, who lost their opening tie against Norway but have since recorded comfortable wins over Croatia and Turkey, while Romania won their opening 2 matches against Northern Ireland and Russia without conceding, before losing precious momentum against the Netherlands in their last Group match.

Best Players So Far

Germany striker Christopher Dieckmann had a quiet start to the tournament but has exploded in the subsequent matches, scoring 5 goals, registering 1 assist and picking up 2 Player of the Match awards against Croatia and Turkey. Romania’s goals have been fewer than Germany’s and they’ve also been spread more evenly between their forward line, but Florin Tanase has impressed me most, registering a superb free kick goal and an assist so far.

Belgium (1st Group D) v Denmark (3rd Group E)

Belgium have torn through each nation they’ve come up against so far and Denmark, the lowest ranked of the 3rd place qualifiers, will just hope they can hold on for a penalty shootout, or shut up shop and sneak a late winner. The Danes have picked up just one win against Georgia but they put in a strong, resilient performance against France and that will give them hope.

Best Players So Far

Youri Tielemans has put in some excellent performances for Belgium so far, pulling the strings for his side and scoring 4 goals, albeit 3 from the spot. The player that’s impressed me even more though is Mohamed Hamoudan, who scored 3 goals and assisted 1 as his side dominated Group D. No Danish players have shone that brightly thus far, but I’ll say that Pierre-Emerick Højbjerg has been their best player. Along with midfield partner Thomas Delaney, Højbjerg has been consistently solid in the centre of the park and clinches my vote by virtue of not having given away a ridiculous penalty against France.

Turkey (3rd Group C) v Ukraine (1st Group B)

I had an inkling that Turkey would in fact beat Germany to become the 4th side to keep a 100% record throughout the Group Stage and I have to say, I do wish that this was a meeting between 2 teams that had won every match so far. As it is though, Turkey have suffered their first blip of an otherwise very promising tournament, while Ukraine have been getting the job done quite efficiently. Ukraine will certainly be the favourites, but Turkey have already shown that they are no pushovers.

Best Players So Far

Emre Günal has been excellent so far for Turkey, scoring one goal and assisting another, while no doubt counting himself unlucky to have picked up only one Player of the Match award against Norway. For Ukraine, goalkeeper Mykyta Shevchenko certainly deserves a mention for solid performances throughout the group stage, beaten just once against Macedonia, but how can I not give the honour of best player to their captain-for-the-day and hat trick scoring right back Valeriy Luchkevych? Solid performances again and a great story. Taras Stepanenko will be wondering when he’ll get that armband back.

Spain (1st Group F) v France (2nd Group E)

This one really leaps off the page, doesn’t it? Group F winners Spain against Group E runners up France. We’ve certainly seen glimpses of what both teams can do – Spain in the 2nd half against Switzerland, France in the last half hour against England, but for me both of these sides have been fairly disappointing so far. Yes they’ve qualified, but France struggled to beat Georgia and Denmark, while Spain scraped past Scotland and lost to Serbia. This could be a magnificent game of football, or it could be very forgettable. It depends which versions of the sides turn up.

Best Player So Far

Hector Bellerin stands out as one of the best Spanish performers, laying on a couple of goals for his team mates as well as remaining solid in the matches that he’s played (Thankfully he was left out of the Serbia tie), although it mystifies me why we’ve seen so little of Alvaro Morata, who scored a brace and laid on a goal in the opening match and who we haven’t seen since. For France, I’d have to give the honour to Paul Pogba. The captain scored 3 times in the 2 matches he played, winning the Player of the Match award against Georgia.

Scotland (3rd Group F) v Norway (1st Group C)

Scotland have already made me proud. 3rd place in Group F and progression to the Second Round is a feat in itself and for me, I think they would’ve climbed to 2nd if Spain hadn’t made so many changes for their final match and handed the win to Serbia. Norway will be tough opposition, losing only to Turkey in the Group Stage and showing their quality by piling the misery onto Croatia.

Best Players So Far

Angus Gunn for Scotland, obviously. For Norway, obviously you have to look at Vidar Holm for his contribution to the aforementioned dismantling of Croatia, but for me I’ve been impressed by Iver Fossum, who’s been a rock in the centre of midfield and has chipped in with a goal to boot.

Italy (2nd Group D) v England (1st Group E)

I’ll be getting the popcorn out for this one. Italy, aside from the disappointing result against Belgium, have been very good. England have also been very good. Both sides have quality players throughout and both sides are mostly putting in the performances to match.

Best Players So Far

I was disappointed to see Yuri Brugger dropped for Italy’s crucial second match after such a staggeringly impressive opening game, but actually when he came back into the side against Sweden he looked like a shadow of the player I saw against Poland. Most players have been fairly solid throughout the Group Stage, but in the absence of any one standout player, captain Gianluigi Donnarumma gets my vote for a string of steady performances. I’d also like to be the first to offer my condolences to my own twitter feed as I’m going to overlook Marcus Rashford for England’s best player so far despite his 4 goals against Georgia. I’m looking at players who’ve impressed me throughout the Group Stages and I reckon it’s a tie between Harry Kane and young Oliver Webb, who’ve each scored 2 goals, set up another 2 and have put in some exquisite performances.

Netherlands (1st Group A) v Sweden (3rd Group D)

The Netherlands have been so dominant right from the start that I rather think they’re being overlooked throughout Europe as people gravitate towards the likes of Belgium and Germany as likely winners. The Netherlands look like an absolute bohemoth though and in an admittedly quite soft group, they’ve qualified at a canter. I think we’re yet to see the best of them. Sweden on the other hand will have been hoping for an easier draw as they’ve lost both matches they’ve played against “better” sides. They’ll find it tough.

Best Players So Far

It’s difficult to look past Thomas Buitink for the Netherlands. He’s the joint top scorer in the Euros so far with Christopher Dieckmann and although 3 of his goals have come from penalties, he’s also shown his quality by assisting 2 more. 3 more if you include the penalty he won himself. For Sweden, Linus Wahlqvist deserves a mention for his admirable displays at the back, but Saed Haksabanovic gets my vote for scoring one, assisting one and putting in consistently good displays from the left wing.

Serbia (2nd Group F) v Portugal (2nd Group B)

Serbia are still a bit of an unknown quantity to me if I’m honest, despite having watched all 3 of their matches. They spent 90 minutes kicking the shins of Scotland players and drew, then they spent 90 minutes kicking the shins of Switzerland players and drew, then they spent 90 minute not kicking the shins of Spain’s 2nd string and won. I suppose my advice to them would be… Stop kicking people’s shins, you psychopaths. Shin kicking aside, Portugal will fancy their chances here. The only time they failed to comfortably win a Group Stage match was against Ukraine, a match in which they dominated everything except the scoreline and conceded from Ukraine’s only shot on target.

Best Players So Far

There’s not exactly a long list of players that’ve performed consistently well for Serbia. We may as well throw a dart at a list of names… Predrag Rajkovic? Sure, why not. Goalkeeper, captain, solid, only conceded once. For Portugal, the list is slightly longer and although I admit that João Mario’s 2 wonder goals nearly swayed me, I’m going for Renato Sanches. He’s been absolutely superb and for my money, one of the best players at the tournament so far. No goals and 3 assists to his name, but he’s been pulling strings constantly to keep his side ticking over.

That’ll be the Second Round, then. I’ll see you bright and early the morning after the last match for a full dissection.

Denmark v France (GS3)(Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 9)

Let’s finally show the World who we are and what the French can do.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 8

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“You have gone mad!” Bechkoura shouts, almost knocking a potted plant over as he paces furiously across the floor of my hotel room. “You have lost your mind. No Pogba? No Griezmann? No Laporte or Rabiot? That’s the entire spine of the team!”

“And they are knackered.” I reply calmly, not looking up from the barbecue pulled pork baguette and chips that the nice concierge lady was kind of enough to bring me. “They need a break.”

“Have you seen what the press are saying about you?” He snorts. “We need to win! We need our best players or you’re out on your ridiculous metal arse!”

“I’m out of a job if we don’t win the Euros full stop; dropping points against Denmark wouldn’t change anything.” I glare at him now, my mouth covered in BBQ sauce. “We’ll still go through with a draw, but we won’t just get a draw because we’re France and we’ve got depth haven’t we, you clod. The lads coming in will do a job.”

“While your captain and the tournament’s joint top scorer sits on the bench with your vice-captain, your best ball winner and your best defender.” He clarifies.

“Did that concierge bring any salt up?”

Bechkoura sighs as he so often does. It’s a sigh that reflects his resignation to the fact that there is no changing my mind on this. It’s music to my ears.

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Obviously I want the 3 points today. Obviously. Denmark aren’t to be taken lightly though and I honestly think it’ll be a tall order to better England’s result against Georgia, a match that’s kicking off alongside our own at 8PM. Like Bechkoura ham-handedly alluded to, I’m leaving out Laporte, Rabiot, Pogba and Griezmann as they’re in need of a break and I want them fresh for the Second Round. I didn’t want to take too many players out though because there’s still a danger of Denmark beating us, in which case it’d be possible that we wouldn’t be going through at all.

Umtiti, Tolisso and Maupay come in as like for like replacements for Laporte, Rabiot and Griezmann, while Kingsley Coman replaces Pogba and takes one of the interchangeable wide roles, allowing Thomas Lemar to move into the central Pogba role. Kylian Mbappé takes the captain’s armband for the day and I’ll be hoping he shows his leadership credentials by taking us to a comfortable win. I’ve also taken a note out of England’s book from their match against the Danes and we’re going to tweak Renaissance slightly to play slightly more patiently, retaining possession and playing the ball out from the back, before trying to pick Denmark apart in the final third with short, sharp passes.

“Let’s not go behind today”, I grin to the assembled team. “And let’s not just scrape through. Let’s finally show the World who we are and what the French can do.” The squad roar their approval and we make our way out of Stadio San Nicola’s away changing room, studs click-clacking against the floor as we stride out towards the pitch.

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I’m optimistic and that optimism is quickly vindicated when we get our first chance: Straight from kick off we start zipping the ball across the turf and a 9 pass move ends up with Corentin Tolisso 25 yards from goal. He shoots, but the ball grazes the top of the crossbar as the French fans applaud the effort.

8 minutes in, the Danes go close too when Dolberg plays a nice one-two with his strike partner Cornelius before opening up his body on the edge of the box and trying to curl a shot into the far bottom corner, but Gauthier anticipates it well and makes a comfortable catch. We go up the other end and within a minute, win a corner. Lemar’s delivery is decent, but Lucas Digne’s the nearest man and has no chance against the 12 foot wall that is Vestergaard. Just then though, Thomas Delaney makes a very silly decision: As Vestergaard heads the ball effortlessly away, Delaney throws his arms forward and shoves Digne to the ground. There’s a very short, very silent pause and then the referee blows his whistle and runs over, pointing towards the penalty spot. Mbappé picks the ball up and walks straight over to the spot, almost daring his teammates to ask to take it. None do. Cappé Mbappé places the ball down, counts his steps back, waits for the whistle, runs up – And scores. It’s a close one. He goes almost straight down the middle and Michaelsen doesn’t move, but the keeper can’t get a strong enough hand to the ball to keep it out. I’ll take it though. 1-0 after 10 minutes.

It quickly becomes apparent that Denmark aren’t about to lie down and let us rack up a big scoreline to rival England for the top spot in the group, as they stay very defensively strong over the next 15 or so minutes. And then they go and do something that really annoys me: They equalise. 27 minutes into the match, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg hits a good pass down the right channel and Cornelius has the beating of Umtiti, reaching the ball first close to the right byline. He slides a pass across to the edge of the 6 yard box where Dolberg’s waiting to drill past Gauthier. 1-1. They almost actually take the lead before the break despite our incredible dominance throughout the half, when an Eriksen corner is flicked on by Dolberg at the near post and headed just over the top from 6 yards by that man Vestergaard. The ball lands safely on the roof of the net, but I’m not impressed as we trudge down the tunnel with the scores all square.

I decide to make a change for the second half: Thomas Lemar has had no joy at all filling in for Pogba, which I think is more to do with the fact that the Danes are so compact in the centre of their final third than any real failing of Thomas’. They’re also obviously very physical, so Moussa Dembélé replaces Lemar to inject a bit more physicality of our own and will link up with Maupay in a target man/poacher (Or big man/little man if you prefer) combination at the top of a 4-2-4.

In the 52nd minute, Sidibé plays a one-two with Tolisso from a right sided throw in level with the Danish box and then lobs in a high cross towards the back stick. Tiémoué Bakayoko gets up from midfield to nod the ball back across goal and Kingsley Coman arrives on the 6 yard box, stooping to head it against the post. For fucks sake. The chance doesn’t end there though – Sidibé retrieves the loose ball and we work it around. It finally ends up with Lucas Digne on the edge of the area and the full back has a pop, but Christensen throws his body in the way to deflect the shot wide.

2 minutes later, there’s action down the other end again. Coman gives away a free kick in a dangerous position, out on the left wing and level with our own box. Højbjerg chips it in towards the near post, Kasper Dolberg loses his marker Umtiti and gets his head to the ball, turning towards the top corner of the goal, but a superb flying save by Gauthier denies the Danes their second goal. He catches the resulting corner too as the fans applaud once more, then starts a counter attack. A long ball to Coman, a slid pass onto the right wing for Sidibé, a cross straight down that corridor between goalkeeper and defence. Cappé Mbappé loses Roerslev and gets there – MBAPPÉ – heads against the underside of the bar from 6 yards. Get me Varane’s water bottle.

With just 35 minutes now left to play, I make another change. Bakayoko looks leggy after running himself into the ground for us over the last 2 and a half games, so Sissako comes on to replace him. He looks unphased as he strides onto the pitch, which goes without saying. Good lad, Abi.

Just after the hour mark, the Danes come forward again through Cornelius on the left wing. He turns inside Varane and crosses for Ramkilde, who hits a really sweetly struck volley, but Leo Gauthier dives across again to tip the ball away. This lad’s really earning that number 1 shirt.

20 minutes to go now and we win another corner. In the absence of Lemar, Mbappé goes across and swings the ball into the box. Vestergaard routinely rises above everyone around him to head the ball clear, but it falls to Neal Maupay all alone, 25 yards from goal. He’s got time. He’s got space. Come on Neal. Maupay takes a touch, steadies himself and hammers a looping shot – Against the fucking bar! I start to howl in frustration, but the ball falls straight down into the 6 yard box, where Raphaël bloody Varane tucks it away. 2-1.

My scream turns into a cheer, filled with undertones of panic and relief. Bechkoura’s kept me updated on England’s match and let’s just say that 1st place is well beyond our reach at this point, so I decide to shut up shop. Lamine Fomba replaces Kylian Mbappé, who hands his armband to Tolisso as we debut Project: Barricade, a defensive 4-1-4-1 that I’ve used a hundred times but that now has a more French name. The Auxerre boys will provide the legs in midfield while Maupay acts as a makeshift right midfielder.

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The changes work. Apart from a Coman potshot in the 89th minute that misses the target reasonably comfortably, the action’s over. We’ve taken 41 shots and 2 of them have gone in, we’ve hit the woodwork 8 times in the tournament so far, but we’ve qualified, taking 2nd place in Group E and we’ve done it unbeaten. Surely we can take some comfort in that.

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Euro 24 Part 10 >

Group Stage Roundup 2 (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 8)

By Don Collins

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 7

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Game week 2 is over. Another 12 matches played, 34 more goals scored and 6 nations have bagged themselves a place in the next round with a game to spare. One team’s even won their group already!

I’m Don Collins. Let’s catch you all up.

Group A

Russia 0 – 1 Romania

Romania kicked off another game week with another win at the Stadio Olympico as they, one of only three nations yet to concede, secured safe passage through to the Second Round against Russia, one of five nations yet to score. The match failed to find any sort of flow as the Russians resorted to constant fouling, but after 35 long minutes a defence splitting pass from Florin Tanase set Florin Andone through on goal. The Juve man made no mistake, slipping in what proved to be the only goal of the game.

As I alluded to before, the win sees Romania through comfortably and their final Group match against the Netherlands will be something of a damp squib, while Russia need to hammer Northern Ireland in their next match and pray that they can scrape through as one of the 4 best 3rd placed teams.

Russia: 4th -> 3rd

Romania: – 2nd (Qualified for Second Round)

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Northern Ireland 0 – 4 Netherlands

It’s not looking good, Northern Ireland fans. In another meeting between a nation yet to concede and one yet to score, The Netherlands tore the Northern Irish asunder at the Stadio San Paolo. The silky Dutch side ran rampant as their opponents failed even to register a shot on target and they were ahead within 8 minutes when Anwar El Ghazi curled in a 20 yard free kick to begin the match in style. The Northern Irish held firm and denied a second goal for a good long while, but after Rodney Brown’s 2nd yellow card for stupidly dragging back Marco Van Ginkel, they capitulated. Van Ginkel himself doubled his side’s advantage with a powerful shot from the edge of the box, then substitute Dutch captain Davy Klaassen bagged a 3rd with a superb clipped shot into the top corner. The cherry on top came in the final knockings when Martin Winchester stomped on Thomas Buitink’s leg, giving away a penalty that another sub Vincent Janssen converted down the middle.

In a way, these two sides are the extremes of their Group mates Romania and Russia. While Romania are comfortably through to the Second Round, the Netherlands are very comfortably through and while Russia will find it very difficult to scrape through, Northern Ireland are absolutely fu… Er… Full of pessimism about their chances.

Netherlands: – 1st (Qualified for Second Round)

Northern Ireland: 3rd -> 4th

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Group B

Czech Republic 2 – 0 FYR Macedonia

Two sides that lost their opening games of the tournament met at the Stadio San Nicola in the hopes of kick starting their tournaments. It was Czechia who bagged their first points and indeed goals of Euro 24 against a Macedonian side who put up a good fight but were ultimately well beaten. Macedonian centre back Aleksandar Damcevski turned Vaclav Dudl’s cross into his own net just 5 minutes in and although his side came close a few times to equalising, Vladimir Bilek’s looped cross was volleyed in by Vaclav Cerny to put the Czechs’ win beyond doubt, most likely along with Macedonia’s exit from the tournament.

Both sides will end their Group Stages with unenviable ties, with Czechia facing up against Portugal while Macedonia, another side yet to register a goal so far, take on Ukraine.

Czech Republic: 3rd -> 2nd

FYR Macedonia: – 4th

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Portugal 0 – 1 Ukraine

You’ve got to hand it to Ukraine. There’s no messing about in that camp: 2 matches, 2 goals, 2 wins. A packed crowd turned out at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi to see the top 2 nations in Group B go head to head and were treated to something of a giant killing, as despite Portugal’s undeniable dominance the Ukrainians came out the victors. An hour into the match, Portugal’s half time substitute centre back Rúben Semedo had a brain fart almost on par with Raphaël Varane’s last week and gifted the ball to Alexey Sukhov on the edge of his box. Sukhov didn’t hesitate, taking the ball and placing it firmly beyond Diogo Costa. The goal proved to be Ukraine’s only shot on target, but it was all they needed.

Ukraine are fairly likely to make a clean sweep of the Group Stage as they meet pointless, goalless Macedonia next. Ukraine are yet to concede, so it’d be quite a shock for them to start in that match. Portugal meanwhile will go head to head with the Czech Republic, with the sides now on 3 points each. As the sides have had the exact same results against the other 2 nations, which places Czechia 2nd on alphabetic order, a draw will not be enough to see Portugal into the automatic qualification places. The pressure is suddenly on for José Barros’ men.

Portugal: 1st -> 3rd

Ukraine: 2nd -> 1st (Qualified for Second Round)

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Group C

Turkey 2 – 1 Norway

The two supposed underdogs of Group C upended the tables last week against Croatia and Germany, turning the spotlight upon themselves in what turned out to be a real battle at Stadio San Paolo. Both sides showed themselves as willing to play dirty to take the top spot in the group and there were fouls aplenty throughout the match, but 2 goals inside more or less the first 10 minutes of the second half gave Turkey the lead and eventually the win. The first came courtesy of Enes Ünal after a whipped cross from Emre Günal and the second was scored by substitute Kerem Demirbay, who received the ball from Hayri Yilmaz on the right hand side of the box and shot straight towards Norwegian goalkeeper Ørjan Nyland, but the stopper’s view was obscured by centre back Markus Hagen and by time he saw the ball, he could only watch as it flew past him into the net. Norway did threaten a comeback just 5 minutes later when 2 of their substitutes combined, with Ronny Rossbach releasing Rafik Zekhnini behind the Turkish defence and the latter sliding the ball under Volkan Babacan, but they couldn’t muster a second goal against what was in fairness a dominant Turkey team.

The win takes Turkey up to the top of Group C on 6 points, which qualifies them for the Second Round but oddly, doesn’t necessarily secure them a place in the top 2. The Turkish take on Germany in their final group game while Norway face Croatia, which means that it’s entirely possible for Turkey, Germany and Norway to finish on 6 points apiece. In this eventuality though, all 3 teams would qualify for the Second Round as whoever occupied the 3rd placed spot would go through as one of the 4 best. Norway and Germany will certainly want to win those matches as anything less could possibly spell the end of their tournament.

Turkey: 2nd -> 1st (Qualified for Second Round)

Norway: 1st -> 2nd

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Germany 4 – 2 Croatia

After a disappointing first match against Norway, Joachim Löwe’s Germany have arrived. In front of an 80,000 strong crowd at the San Siro they and Croatia started at breakneck pace, both sides trying to jumpstart their faltering Group Stage campaigns. Josip Brekalo opened the scoring inside 3 minutes with a shimmy and a shot that deflected in off Maurício Badzinski’s outstretched leg, but within a minute of the restart Bayern Munich star Christopher Dieckmann strolled infield from the left wing and drilled low past Lovre Kalinic. Dieckmann then set up the next goal over half an hour later, poking the ball through for Richard Farnbacher to blast into the net and before half time Dieckmann was set up by Wilske Dillman inside the box. He lashed the ball on the turn with his left foot, giving the keeper no chance and compounding Croatian misery after such a promising start. The starlet wasn’t finished there though: On the hour, Stefan Andrich brought Silvio Cvitanovic’s lobbed pass out of the air beautifully, pulled the ball back from the left byline and Dieckmann arrived to slot it home, completing a well deserved hat trick. Marko Pjaca, one of few Croatians to come out of the Group Stage with any credit so far, registered his second assist of the day 10 minutes from the end, finishing off a Croatian counter attack with a drilled cross, which substitute Bruno Petkovic turned into the net.

Germany will feel like they need to turn this result into form now and face a vital game against surprise package Turkey next, while Croatia go up against Norway. It’s entirely possible by the way for Croatia to sneak into the next round, despite not picking up a point so far. If Turkey complete a clean sweep (And bagging a fair few goals wouldn’t hurt) against Germany, while Croatia obliterate Norway, they could swing the goal difference their way and finish 2nd, or at least 3rd, which might be enough. It’s a big ask though from a side that’s so far disappointed.

Germany: 4th -> 3rd

Croatia: 3rd -> 4th

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Group D

Belgium 3 – 1 Italy

What started as a jubilant crowd at the Juventus Stadium became silenced incredibly quickly as the host nation fell to their first defeat of the tournament. Hopes were high in Italy after comfortably seeing off Poland in their first match, but it took Belgium’s Mohamed Hamoudan just 20 seconds to nod his team into the lead after Divock Origi’s fantastic dribble and floated cross handed him the chance on a plate. Hamoudan then set up Andreas Pereira in the 34th minute, laying the ball off so that his team mate could wallop a phenomenal postage stamp shot beyond Gianluigi Donnarumma from 30 yards. The Italians went into half time with some hope when a 41st minute cross from Federico Chiesa bounced off Wout Faes’ foot, rebounded off the post, off Thibaut Courtois and then wriggled into the net, but the match was beyond them almost immediately after coming out for the second half when Luca Cesena sent Leander Dendocker tumbling in the box and Youri Tielemans drove the Belgians’ third goal straight down the centre from the penalty spot.

Belgium will join Romania, the Netherlands, Ukraine and Turkey in the Second Round with what seems will be their easiest match against struggling Poland still to play, so a clean sweep could be on the cards. Italy meanwhile now have to endure an absolutely crucial match against Sweden, who like them sit on 3 points but have superior goal difference, in a battle for 2nd place. Going out in the Group Stages of their own tournament would be seen as unacceptable, so the Italians had better up their game for that one.

Belgium: – 1st (Qualified for Second Round)

Italy: 2nd -> 3rd

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Poland 0 – 3 Sweden

Both Poland and Sweden were disappointing in their first matches but at least had the excuse of playing superior teams. Losing this match however would prove to be catastrophic for either side’s hopes of progression. The match, held at Stadio Luigi Ferraris, started slowly and seemed to be heading for half time goalless until the pressure upon the Polish box began to build. After a period of immense defensive resilience where Poland’s defence were forced to clear cross after cross after cross, they were eventually broken when Alexander Isak received the ball from wide and squared for Robin Holmgren, who slotted in the game’s opening goal. Poland certainly came out for the second half with a renewed sense of fight about them, but it manifested itself in an unhelpful manner when Karol Linetty shoved Mattias Svanberg to the ground following a Swedish corner. The referee pointed to the spot and Sead Haksabanovic stepped up to take the kick. Bartlomiej Dragowski dived the right way but the City man’s effort was too powerful and the Swedes doubled their lead. Polish heads dropped from that point and just 7 minutes later, Holmgren teed up Simon Tibbling, who toe poked the ball powerfully into the top corner from 20 yards, securing a glossy win.

Sweden will go into their next match hoping for similar joy against the Italians, but they’ll know the scorned hosts will put up more of a fight. Poland meanwhile are all but mathematically eliminated. To survive they’d need to beat tournament dark horses Belgium pretty handily and they’d also need the Sweden v Italy match not to end in a draw. In that scenario they could in theory sneak through as the 3rd place team, rising above the loser of that match on goal difference. It’s too tall an order though, surely.

Poland: 3rd -> 4th

Sweden: 4th -> 2nd

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Group E

England 3 – 0 Denmark

Denmark will have been over the moon to have held first place in Group E above England and France, but they were brought back down to Earth and then some by a superb England performance. The Danes dominated parts of the meeting at the Stadio San Filippo and set up in what looked like an extremely defensively solid 4-4-2, but Eddie Howe’s men took them apart with their methodical possession football, a far cry from the quick counter attacking style they employed against France. Dele Alli opened the scoring in a not so methodical fashion though, driving forwards into a congested Denmark half and letting fly from 25 yards 9 minutes in to give the English the lead. Any Danish hopes of regrouping at half time were ended in the 42nd minute too when a lovely short passing move ended with Ross Barkley tapping the ball through for Harry Kane, who drilled a second past Frederik Rønnow. The game was put to bed 15 minutes from time when Oliver Webb, who was employed as a right winger and impressed throughout, sent a cross into the box and Southampton’s Ed Lynes popped up at the far side to head in his country’s third.

England move up to take Denmark’s throne at the top of Group E, with the Danes plummeting to 3rd below France. England are now very much in the driving seat with a game against the pointless but fairly resilient Georgia in the offing, while Denmark can look forward to a match against WT Franjo’s unconvincing France side. They’ll need a win to climb above the French but a draw could well see them through as one of the qualifying third placed sides.

England: 2nd -> 1st

Denmark: 1st -> 3rd

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Georgia 1 – 3 France

In what for a while looked set to be one of the round’s shock results, a spirited Georgia side nearly managed to nick a result at the Stadio Artemio Franchi against France, a side that had thumped them twice in qualification. Things looked bleak for the Georgians when star man Giorgi Arabidze was taken off with an injury in the 12th minute, but only a few minutes later Giorgi Kvilitaia sent a shot soaring over Lionel Gauthier to open the scoring. As much as the French then huffed and puffed, they couldn’t manage to blow Georgia’s house down and went into half time trailing for the second match in a row. After what I’m sure were a few choice words from their manager, France responded almost immediately after the restart through Paul Pogba’s questionably onside placed shot and from then on things got a little more comfortable for the World Champions. Kylian Mbappé tapped in a cross from Lucas Digne 10 minutes later and Paul Pogba again had the last word with a powerful close range shot to the roof of the net.

Georgia, like a few other sides in this tournament, need a miracle to stay in with a chance of progression. They need to beat England in their final match and to hope that France beat Denmark by enough goals that they can slide into 3rd place, after which they’d have to hope that there are 2 worse 3rd placed teams in the tournament. France on the other hand are playing mainly for pride at this point. They’ve not lived up to their billing so far and rumours are circulating that Franjo may well pay with his job if his side don’t up their game. Although a point will see them through to the Second Round, their match against Denmark is must win as far as the fans are concerned. France also trail 1st placed England by a single goal’s difference, so the more comfortably they beat the Danes, the better.

Georgia: – 4th

France: 3rd -> 2nd

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Group F

Switzerland 1 – 1 Serbia

“Ill tempered” doesn’t quite do this one justice. Switzerland’s meeting with Serbia was halted by the referee so often that it quite resembled the more rugby-inspired brand of football they play across the pond. Inevitably the match’s first big moment resulted from Denis Zakaria wrestling Marko Grujic to the ground inside the Swiss penalty box on the stroke of half time, resulting in a spot kick that Jovan Nisic converted confidently, sending Roman Bürki the wrong way to give the Serbians the lead. A late equaliser was found by Real Madrid’s Noah Okafor, who blasted the ball in from 8 yards after Arnel Kalac’s low pass somehow found it’s way through a packed Serbian penalty area. Less than a minute after the game was restarted though, half time Swiss substitute hacked Nemanja Maksimovic down with two feet and received his marching orders. It just felt right that this one finished with a red card, to be honest.

Serbia are probably the worst placed of all the 2nd placed sides at the tournament, currently sitting on 2 points with a difficult match against Spain still to come. Switzerland on the other hand are probably the best placed of all the 4th placed sides and with my neutral hat on, still have every chance of qualifying for the Second Round. They’re equal on points with the michty Scottish, but aye, we’ll no mak it easy fae them.

Switzerland: – 4th

Serbia: 3rd -> 2nd

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Scotland 0 – 1 Spain

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, so deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear, till a’ the seas gang dry.

Aye right, thae Spaniards can get tae fuck. Aye they scored but if thon galoot Alcácer’d keeked up and saw the steel in Gunn’s een, he widae shat whaur he stauned, man. Strachan’s michty tartan army cudae scored but the haill game we cudnae hit the goal even though De Gea’s a wee fanny wha disnae hae the same steel. Aye right, Angus Gunn cud batter the manky ersehole wi wan haun, square go.

Thae Spanish wan the Group, but thon baw wull drap.

Scotland: 2nd -> 3rd

Spain: – 1st (Group F Winners)

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I’ll be back at the end of the Group Stage as we find out who joins Romania, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Turkey, Belgium and Spain in the Second Round, as well as which 8 nations will be leaving after the groups. I’ll see you then.

Euro 24 Part 9 >

Georgia v France (GS2)(Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 7)

“Let them have it!”

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 6

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“These lads will be crying into their matsoni this morning, having to face us again.” Some of the faces staring at me from the changing room benches wear looks of confusion.

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“Matsoni, boss?” Asks Bechkoura.

“It’s Georgian yoghurt Bechkoura.” I snap. “Read a fucking book.” I turn back to the squad. “4-0 at home, 6-2 away. Those are our last 2 results against the Georgians. The 3 points in this match are non-negotiable, but I want you to aim higher than that. I want us to put down a proper marker here and show the rest of Europe that we are a team to be feared.” The lads’ looks of confusion turn to excitement, a true eagerness for the match ahead. “Kylian,” I turn to our star man. “Hat tricks in those last 2 games, let’s have another today shall we?”

“Yes boss”, he grins.

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“Denmark beat these 2-0,” I shout, “Can we do better than that?” A cheer of approval fills the changing room. “Let them have it!”

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We go against Georgia’s 4-4-2 unchanged after our dramatic draw against England. On reflection, I reckon we did enough to win that match and were unlucky to come away with just a point. We hit the woodwork three times and conceded from an uncharacteristic howler from Varane after all. Although Sidibé and Digne underperformed at full back as England attacked down the flanks and Lemar and Griezmann both had fairly poor games, this is still my full strength team and I’m hoping they’ll all kick start their tournaments with a big win and good performances to boot.

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We go agonisingly close early on. Within 40 seconds, Kylian Mbappé has a ridiculous amount of space as he saunters into the Georgian half and uses it to full effect, powering towards the penalty area with the ball. He reaches the edge of the box virtually unchallenged and unleashes a shot towards the top right corner, but Levan Sopromadze dives excellently to tip the ball against the post.

Both sides go close shortly afterwards. First Lemar sends Sidibé running down the right wing with a searching ball, which the full back then drills towards Griezmann at the near post. Griezmann shoots first time, but it’s a disappointing effort and straight into Sopromadze’s grateful gloves. Down the other end, Arabidze turns Raphaël Varane inside out with some fancy footwork before having a pop at our goal, but again it’s straight at the keeper and Gauthier catches comfortably.  In the 12th minute, Georgia receive an absolute hammer blow: Their main man Giorgi Arabidze, the only player to show any sort of promise so far, is stretchered off with a suspected foot injury. The defiantly positive Georgian crowd give their talisman a raucous round of applause as he’s replaced by Valeri Qazaishvili. If Georgia posed any threat up to this point, if they had any hope of snatching a result, it surely leaves the pitch with Arabidze.

And then it happens. Just 3 minutes after the substitution, Qazaishvili lays the ball off for Giorgi Kvilitaia, who uses his left foot to guide the ball onto his right, before unleashing a tremendous lob from 20 yards. As I watch with mouth agape, the ball floats through the air, beyond the helpless Leo Gauthier and flies perfectly into the top left corner of the France net. For the second time this week, numbness and an acute sense of dread course through my veins as I watch the team in white flock to the edge of the pitch, celebrating taking the lead against France. Against us. Against me. 0-1. I suppose we’re going to do this whole fucking tournament the hard way.

France lay siege to the Georgian goal for the next half hour, but do not manage to find an equaliser before the ref blows for half time. The closest we come is just before the half hour mark when Sidibé stabs a cross in to the back post, Griezmann rises well to nod the ball down and Bakayoko tries a volley from 8 yards, but Gogia throws himself in the way to deflect the effort just wide.

“Again!” I groan, pacing in front of the benches. “Again we’re behind at the fucking break! And to Georgia!” As I move my hands up towards my head to run them through my hair, Raphaël Varane reflexively jerks the hand holding his battered water bottle away from me. “Look, I do not want to scrape through this group. I do not want us having to come from behind every single match to grab a draw. Do any of you?” My question’s greeted by silence. “Sort it out.” I sigh wearily.

Like England, Georgia make the decision to change to a 4-1-4-1 at the break, with Levan Samkharadze replacing stalwart of the national side Jano as a defensive midfielder. The first chance of the half goes to us though when Mbappé passes the ball inside from the left for Antoine Griezmann, who takes a touch and slides a nice pass through for Captain Pogba. Pogba strides into the Georgia box and places the ball firmly into the bottom corner to put us level. I don’t even feel relief as the ball nestles in the back of the net because my first impression is that our skipper was offside, but the goal stands and we’re back in the game.

The one way traffic from the end of the first half continues throughout much of the second and by the 65th minute we’re finally ahead. As our opponents pack their own penalty box we’re forced down the wings and when Digne gets the ball during one such attack, he fizzes it across the face of goal from the left byline. Kylian Mbappé arrives and taps it in at the far post to give us the lead for the first time in the tournament.

A few minutes later Thomas Lemar and Adrien Rabiot are both brought off as I look to introduce some fresh legs into the team. They’ve both been solid if a little bit underwhelming today and I’m hoping that Coman and Sissako will take us up a level and allow us to add some gloss to a generally disappointing afternoon of football. It’s Georgia that threaten with about 10 minutes to go though and it’s Qazaishvili, the man who’s yet to start a game for our opponents but already has 2 assists to his name, that creates the chance with a superb ball over the top. Aymeric Laporte falls asleep and allows Kvilitaia to bare down on goal and shoot, but Gauthier raises a strong hand to bat the ball away.

In the 81st minute, Mbappé switches the ball to Sidibé, who in contrast to the last match has been one of our better performers today and a good outlet down the right. Sidibé rolls it down the line for Kingsley Coman, who squares it into the 6 yard box for Pogba. Our captain draws his right boot back and slams the ball into the roof of the net from close range. 3-1. After having to fight back again, we at last look like we’re going to take 3 points from this match. Georgia, despite 2 surprisingly resilient performances, look like they’re going home after all.

Mendy gets a run out for the last 10 minutes as Georgia roll the dice and try to find a way to save themselves from elimination. They put together a couple of good moves in the dying minutes, with Gauthier forced into flying saves to deny Qazaishvili after good passes from Samkharadze and Gogia, but we hold on. 3-1.

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I won’t lie, I’m still pretty fucking gutted. Again, I have nothing against Georgia. The thrashings we handed them during qualification for this tournament were very therapeutic and helped me to get past that time they beat me as Liechtenstein boss. But “We hold on” shouldn’t be a phrase I have to use today. We’ve underperformed.

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And I know, I know. At the end of the day, we’ve picked up the 3 points I wanted and with England beating Denmark, we’re 2nd on goal difference and will qualify from the Group Stage with a point from our last match. That’s good and it could be much worse. I get that. But still… It feels like we’re wasting our potential as a top team. I want to see free-scoring beautiful football. That’s what I’ve always wanted from this France team and at the minute it’s all very… I don’t know… Precarious.

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It’s like I’ve trained a dog to talk and invited everyone in the neighbourhood round to see my amazing talking dog, but when the moment’s finally come and I’ve told him to talk, as the crowd of onlookers watch and murmur excitedly, the amazing talking dog’s taken a massive shit right in the middle of the kitchen floor. It’s still impressive afterwards when he says “I’m sorry I took a shit in the middle of the kitchen floor”, but nobody’s really paying attention anymore because all anyone can smell is amazing talking dogshit.

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Euro 24 Part 8 >