Day seven of the European Championships saw the football taken back into the Poland and the nation was still recovering from the euphoria of a 1-1 draw with Russia in Group A and the battering that it took from the rioting fans of Russia and Poland prior to kick-off. Gdansk was a more harmonious place to be that Warsaw it seemed in the pre-match reports and in the crowd which saw Irish and Spanish inside the PGE Arena in Gdansk.
The two sets of supporters which were dotted around the arena were pictured singing and dancing, not kicking and screaming when contrasted with the Polish capital. A largely Spanish dominated affair was the evening kick-off and nothing was sealed thanks to Croatia and Italy’s draw in Poznan earlier in the evening.
A draw seemed a likely result to which was a very even match, the first half was dictated largely by the Italians and as the half-time break was approaching, it seemed Croatia had ridden the worst of the storm. However, on 39 minutes, a timid foul on Mario Balotelli led to the opener which came from the magic right foot of Andrea Pirlo which Croat goalie Pletikosa.
Pletikosa had previously thwarted Claudio Marchisio with a fantastic double save earlier in the first half and thanks to the keeper had reduced their arrears to just the one. The second half belonged to Croatia though. Luka Modric looked inspiring in the middle of the park with Pranjic on the left, contrasted with a poor Nikica Jelavic up front.
It was the Everton forward’s strike partner who would restore the deficit with twenty minutes remaining on the clock though as Mario Mandzukic added to the two he netted on Sunday with a drilled close range effort which even Gianluigi Buffon couldn’t keep out. It was in fact Croatia who made the late running but couldn’t seal their qualification with a win and with a match to spare.
Croatia were definitely not over the line in terms of knockout stage qualification as they still had the sternest test of Group C awaiting them in the European and World champions in Spain.
Spain weren’t at their best in the opener against Italy but against the Republic of Ireland dominated the match much to the expectation of Europe. An early goal from Fernando Torres threatened an onslaught in the first half, an onslaught which never came, much to Spain’s pressing and determination.
Spain’s delicate build-up play was too much for the likes of Richard Dunne and Keith Andrews with the former’s mistake leading to Torres’ drilled effort in the 4th minute. Much to the amazement and relief of the large Irish contingent in Gdansk, they held out until half-time without conceding a second.
As Ireland were fatigued, the world champions pounced and within a few minutes of the restart, David Silva’s cute finish into the bottom corner doubled Spain’s advantage which had ultimately knocked out the tournament’s first nation in Ireland. Fernando Torres added another before the conclusion before substitute Cesc Fabregas doubled his tournament tally, firing in a rocketed effort off the post which completed the Spanish rout at 4-0, leaving the Group wide open.
Friday came and England had their second bite at the cherry at a group stage win at this summer’s European Championship. Hodgson and co. travelled to Kiev to face Sweden and a win would knock the Swedes out of the tournament thanks to a French win over Ukraine in Donetsk earlier in the evening.
Nobody was expecting the same tactics to be deployed for their second match, a more attacking display was expected from Hodgson’s previous three showings as England manager which were very cagey encounters. Hodgson kept his undefeated streak and England notched up three points but uncomfortably in the end after what seemed like a cruise of a first half.
Andy Carroll who replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to partner eventual match winner Danny Welbeck up front got the first goal needed to kickstart England’s campaign properly in the Ukrainian capital city. Carroll’s goal mirrored Lescott’s against France as it saw a deep cross from Steven Gerrard find the number 9’s head, the header too powerful for Andreas Isaksson who was stranded on the goal line.
The threat that was promised from Zlatan Ibrahimovic never came as the Milan striker was vacant up front in the opening half. However, just like in the opening group fixture, England couldn’t hold onto their lead for long and from a set piece Olof Mellberg found himself clear on goal and despite their best efforts, Joe Hart or Glen Johnson couldn’t thwart the former Villa defender with the goal going down as an own goal for the Liverpool full-back.
England, who had never beaten Sweden in a competitive fixture had 40 minutes to rectify this and on the hour things went further downhill as Olof Mellberg converted another set piece just prior to the hour mark. This put serious pressure on England to perform as they ideally needed two goals in the last half an hour when Roy Hodgson’s England had never scored more than one goal in a match.
Ashley Young and James Milner on the wings were uninspiring and lacked the cutting edge that they could potentially give to England. Oxlade-Chamberlain was overlooked as Theo Walcott was flung into the action, replacing Milner and within a couple of touches found himself curling a 25 yard strike into the back of the net.
Isaksson’s positioning deceived the audience into believing a deflection had occurred when his loss of balance cost the Scandinavians the advantage in the game. To take up an ideal position going into the final game, England needed a third to complete the topsy-turvy match.
It seemed as though the chances spurned from John Terry and Steven Gerrard late on would come back to bite England as Sweden enjoyed longer spells of pressure. However, it was that man Walcott provided the inspiration for the match winning moment too; he picked up the ball 30 yards out before driving beyond the Swedish full-back, clipping the ball towards Welbeck who had his back to goal.
The Manchester United striker innovatively got his heel on the ball and it squirmed beyond the goalkeeper to give England the winner with just ten minutes left on the clock. The England bench containing the likes of Gary Neville and Ray Clemence shot out of the dugout, celebrating with Roy Hodgson as his inspired substitution changed the course of the match and perhaps the group.
Like England, France got their winning start in the second match ensuring that the two nations occupied the qualification places. Ideally, the objective for Tuesday’s fixtures would be to avoid Spain in the draw for the quarter finals, which meant matching their group position after their Group C encounter with Croatia in Gdansk.
The two sides had to wait an hour before entering the fray as a violent thunderstorm halted the match for 55 minutes. When the sides came back onto the field of play in the Donbass Arena, both sides lacked cutting edge with Philippe Mexes’ header being the best chance for either side in the first half.
However, Jeremy Menez who replaced Florent Malouda from the first match provided the turning point that France desperately needed against the co-hosts, Ukraine. Menez’s strike was coupled with Newcastle playmaker, Yohan Cabaye’s strike just moments later meant that France would walk into their final group tie with Sweden the destiny of the group in their hands due to goal difference.