Eamonn Sweeney: The viewers' guide to the best of this week's Euro 2016 action
In a civilised society football fans would be given a form of compassionate leave during a major finals. Workplaces and schools would be closed in the afternoon for the month of the European Championships, phone lines disconnected during match hours and visits to houses at those times would be punishable by a custodial sentence which would expire when the final ball in the tournament was kicked.
Sadly, we have not reached this state of enlightenment, and what is called ‘normal life’ will be expected to continue while the feast of football unfolds. Work will have to be done and the occasional conversation engaged in with people who don’t realise how important it is not to miss a single second of the tournament. So it may be necessary to prioritise to a certain extent. To aid you in doing so, here are the unmissable games of the first week.
Category A: Absolutely Unmissable
There are no circumstances under which these games can be missed. Disconnect the phone and any family members who may interrupt your viewing. Look up the symptoms of gastroenteritis in case you’re expected to work. If the house goes on fire, keep looking at the television until the ball goes out of play then make a dash for next door or the nearest building unlikely to be consumed by the conflagration.
1 Republic of Ireland v Sweden
If you think I was being a bit OTT above, think of what it would be like to miss this one. There’s nothing quite like the sense of occasion which attends the opening match of an Irish major finals campaign. To top it all, we have a decent chance of winning this. Sweden have Zlatan Ibrahimovic but he didn’t score in his previous two games against us and his supporting cast is relatively prosaic. They stuttered to third place in their moderately difficult qualifying group before scraping past Denmark 4-3 on aggregate. Both our group and play-off campaigns were more impressive than Sweden’s. There’s a good chance we’ll win this — which would be only our fourth ever win at a major finals. Who’d want to miss that?
2 Republic of Ireland v Belgium
The country should be rightly awash with Euro Fever by the time this one comes around. Even in the unlikely event we’ve lost to Sweden, the kind of disillusionment which set in after the opening day defeat to Croatia four years ago won’t have set in yet — given that the new format means no one’s going to be eliminated after a mere two games. If we’ve won, we’ll be going into this one knowing that a point will be enough to propel us into the play-offs. So this could be a red-letter day. And, being objective about it, this match also provides the opportunity to see the wonderfully skilful Belgians — Hazard, De Bruyne, Vertonghen and Napoli’s pint-sized Dries Mertens, who might well be one of the surprise stars of the tournament. But who’s going to be objective about it?
3 Wales v England
Who doesn’t love a local derby? And, as we know ourselves, for one of the smaller countries from these islands, there’s nothing quite like beating England. Having done it often enough in rugby, Wales now have the chance to do it in the sport where their last victory over England came in 1984, when Mark Hughes secured a 1-0 win at Wrexham in the old home international series. This match may be taking place in the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens, rather than the Racecourse Ground, but it should have a lot of that old home international feeling about it. On paper, England look far superior, as superior as they looked going into their match against Ireland in Stuttgart 26 years ago. They have everything to lose in this one, while Wales will be playing for immortality. It could be a classic.
4 Northern Ireland v Poland
Only a partitionist of the most spectacular stripe could do anything except root wholeheartedly for the North, whose qualification represented one of the finest achievements ever by an Irish manager. A look at the humble antecedents of some of their key men might lead you to fear for them against a Polish side which possesses the best out-and-out striker in the tournament in the person of Robert Lewandowski. Yet Poland were watery enough on the road in qualification, taking two points out of six against the Republic and Scotland and seeming rattled by the direct approach Michael O’Neill’s men will look to replicate in Nice this evening. The head still says Poland, but the heart takes courage from the fact that Northern Ireland are wonderfully difficult to beat — their 12-game unbeaten record is the best of any side at the tournament.
5 Portugal v Iceland
The greatest European footballer of his generation takes on the unlikeliest side ever to make it to these finals. But not the least talented. Iceland managed to beat Holland home and away and have a realistic chance of making the last 16. They will carry the good wishes of every neutral into this game, but it’ll also be fascinating to see how Portugal are going. They’re probably the best nation never to win this trophy and arguably threw away chances to do so in 2004 and 2012, while their semi-final defeats by France in 1984 and 2000 are two of the greatest games in tournament history. Their attractive, flowing football should make them a fans’ favourite, but the presence of Pepe — who is to cynicism what Cristiano Ronaldo is to goalscoring — in their line-up will ensure that this match plays like a classic clash of good versus evil. God knows what treats the toothy thespian has in store for us over the next few weeks. Come on Iceland.
Category B: Unmissable
Exceptions may be made in the case of earthquakes and similar natural disasters, or family funerals where attendance could result in the inheritance of life-changing amounts of money. Maybe. Use your judgement. Don’t be too harsh on yourself.
6 Spain v Czech Republic
There’s nothing in modern football quite like the sight of a Spanish team in full flow, and after basically taking time off to recharge their batteries at the last World Cup, chances are they’ll be their old selves at this tournament. This is a squad so strong that Diego Costa, Santi Cazorla or Juan Mata, who’d all be easily the best player on several teams at the tournament, couldn’t even make it. Their opponents tend to err on the side of entertainment, a qualifying campaign which showcased a fluent attacking game and a ropey defensive one was summed up by the 3-2 win in Amsterdam which enabled them to top Group A. So there should be plenty of room for Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva to do their extremely attractive thing and take your mind off the pre-Irish match nerves.
7 Iceland v Hungary
Iceland will be hoping to get something from their opener against Portugal, but the game against Hungary is the one they’ll have been targeting. A win here would set them on the road to qualification for the last 16, and it’s hardly beyond the bounds of possibility against a Hungarian team who finished third in their group behind Northern Ireland and Romania and looked notably toothless, with just 11 goals from 10 games. The Magyars, who will be coming into this off the back of the Hapsburg Empire derby with Austria, are in a major tournament finals for the first time since 1986. Given their tradition, it’s good to see them back — so there should be a feel-good factor for whoever wins this one. But there is something irresistible about the thought of Iceland and Ireland making it through within a few hours of each other.
8 Belgium v Italy
Yes, it’s a crucial watch because of the bearing it will have on the Republic of Ireland’s qualification hopes, but it’s also an intriguing clash of opposites. Belgium are young, exciting and on the way up. Italy are old, dogged and apparently in decline. If Belgium are characterised by the flair of Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens, the heart of the Italian team is their back five, four of them from Juventus and three of them over 30. Belgium scored 24 goals when topping their qualifying group, while Italy conceded just seven while topping theirs. Italy are the type of team this Belgian side will have to beat if they are to fulfil the predictions about their future greatness. Belgium are the type of side Italy take pleasure in confounding. This will be intense.
9 Northern Ireland v Ukraine
This may be the one Michael O’Neill really fancies. Whereas Poland were the top scorers in the group stages with 33 goals, the Ukrainians managed just 14 and rely heavily on Dynamo Kiev’s very dangerous Andriy Yarmolenko for attacking inspiration. A traditionally parsimonious lot, Ukraine will also regard this game as their big chance. With two cautious sides playing for high stakes it is unlikely that this will provide a feast of sparkling football. It may well turn out to be our old friend ‘grimly compelling’. But it could also turn out to be a very big day for the other Irish team — although, of course, international success has probably never been as important for a Ukrainian team before. Whether they thrive or wilt under the pressure remains to be seen. Hard to begrudge them a good run, either.
10 Turkey v Croatia
This should get things moving very nicely. Two of the most technically accomplished nations who also happen to be two of the most enigmatic. Victory will put the winners in pole position to qualify while, with Spain still to come, the losers will be facing an uphill battle. Turkey are often described as sleeping giants and they snoozed through a fair bit of the qualifying campaign, getting thumped 3-0 in Iceland and being twice held to a draw by Latvia.
However, no one finished better than them as they beat the Czech Republic, Holland and Iceland on the trot without conceding a goal. As they showed in 2008, Turkey can be terrific if they build up a head of steam. Arda Turan was outstanding in that tournament and, if he has never fully lived up to that promise, the Barcelona midfielder can still make a big impact in France. Croatia have even better midfielders in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, with Mario Mandzukic up front, and are the most dangerous dark horse in the tournament. A heavyweight contest looms at the Parc des Princes.
Of course, ideally you’ll see every game. But, in the event that you need to regain brownie points with employers, loved ones, et al, Wednesday — with its not particularly interesting triple bill of Romania-Switzerland, France-Albania and Russia-Slovakia — might be the best day to pull the ‘ah, that oul’ football, sure there are more important things going on’ routine before returning forgiven and refreshed to the fray the following day.
Then again, it’ll be interesting to see what the French are like, and the Slovaks might cause a shock, and . . .
Sunday Indo Sport