Thursday 14 December 2017

Cat melodeon, an all-time stinker

In a dissapointing tournament, Gareth Bales provided an inspiring example of how one
great player can lift a moderate team. Photo: PA
In a dissapointing tournament, Gareth Bales provided an inspiring example of how one great player can lift a moderate team. Photo: PA

Eamonn Sweeney

So what were the 2016 European Championships like then? To use a technical term popular in rural Sligo, cat melodeon.

The American poet John Berryman once wrote, "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so." A lot of us felt that way about this tournament and hoped against hope things might get better. But this will go down as one of the all-time stinkers. The goals per game average was the lowest since 1996 and even that doesn't tell the full dispiriting story. France, Wales and some of the other minnows made things more interesting but by and large this was an ordeal.

What was the best game?

The quarter-final where Wales beat Belgium 3-1 was the high point in terms of emotion and excitement. Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes scored very different goals which had a kind of formal perfection in common. Wales played so well that night they would have beaten anyone. France have been by far the most entertaining team in the tournament and all of their knockout stage games were worth watching. The crazy 3-3 draw between Hungary and Portugal was the best match of the group stages.

What was the worst game?

There are so many to choose from but generations as yet unborn will regard the Portugal v Croatia meeting in the round of 16 as a kind of apotheosis of the very boring match. It was the first game in championship history without a single shot on target in 90 minutes. As the game moved into overtime, TV3's anchorman asked Harry Redknapp if there'd be goals in extra time. "I don't even think there'll be a shot on target," came the rueful answer. The Hungarian game aside, throughout the tournament Portugal were to tedium what France were to excitement.

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Who was the best player?

Antoine Griezmann, who dominated the second stages of the tournament like Mario Kempes did in the 1978 World Cup. Skipping impishly round the pitch as though performing some modern dance piece, the Atletico Madrid striker bore witness for the power of individual improvisation in a too often regimented game. Only Michel Platini in 1984 has scored more goals at a finals.

Gareth Bale is next in line after providing an inspiring example of how one great player can lift a moderate team. Pepe's superb displays at the back did a lot to steer Portugal through, even if he missed the semi-final. The tireless Jonas Hector of Germany was the best full-back and Poland's Lukasz Fabianski the best keeper. Biggest flops? David Alaba, Robert Lewandowski and the inevitable Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Who were the biggest overachievers?

Wales. Reaching the semi-finals having gone into the tournament as the third lowest ranked of the bottom seeds was an extraordinary achievement in itself. But to do it playing such sparkling attacking football that you end up as the tournament's second highest scorers, unless Portugal get two or more tonight, makes Chris Coleman the manager of the tournament.

Iceland weren't far behind and both Irelands can also be proud of exceeding expectations, not least by their valiant efforts in the round of 16 games.

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Who were the biggest flops?

Tempting to say England, and their loss to Iceland was undoubtedly a humiliation. But at least they made the knockout stages. Instead the booby prize has to go to Russia, second seeds who looked the worst side in the whole thing with the exception of the truly appalling Ukrainians. Austria, the hipster pick as dark horses beforehand, also departed winless at the bottom of their group. And Spain's loss to Italy meant their great era ended with a whimper.

How did we do?

Very well. Oddly enough it isn't the last-gasp win over a second string Italy which stands up best now, it's that terrific display against France in Lyon, not least because we held a rampant home side scoreless for almost half an hour after being reduced to ten men. Martin O'Neill confirmed himself as the right man for the job, while Robbie Brady had one of the finest campaigns ever enjoyed by an Irish player at a major championships. Our big weakness remains an inability to pass the ball well enough: only Iceland and Northern Ireland had lower pass completion ratings. Wales, with a pretty similar bunch of players, did much better in this regard. That's the next step.

Who'll win the final?

France. And if they do they will be outstanding champions: they're already within one goal of the all-time scoring record set by Platini's French side of 1984. A Portugal victory on the other hand would make the championships more depressing still. Doigts crossed.

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