Many of the pre-tournament favorites failed to find top form in their opening matches.
Although the soccer has, at times, been good and entertaining, it doesn’t quite have the feel of a European Championship yet. The atmosphere in the partly-empty stadiums has been tepid, or come across that way over the television anyway. But most of all, the big teams aren’t playing real big just yet.
The England-France game reflected an opening round of games that was marked by feeble performances from all of the serious contenders. If each team’s opening game at a major tournament such as this one is typically slowed by nerves and caution, these were scarred by shoddy attacking, an outright lack of form or something more sinister: appeasement. Of the three pre-tournament favorites – Germany, Spain and the Netherlands – in particular, no team has yet stood up and announced a serious candidacy for the European championship.
France utterly dominated the English, who under Roy Hodgson seem content to lean on brawn and “bottle” (a vague English footballing term for commitment and courage), as opposed to skill. England got its goal off – what else? – a set piece and sat back, even after it lost the lead. France got an equalizer and stopped concerning itself with the scoreboard, losing all urgency to knock in another and contenting itself with zipping the ball around.
The Netherlands rolled out an offense badly out of sync against Denmark on Saturday. They churned out plenty of chances, but they were lost to faulty finishing emanating from the otherwise ironclad boots of Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. Having robbed themselves of the margin of error their wobbly defense badly needs, they went down 1-0 in the biggest upset yet.
Just as out of sync were the Germans, the popular choice to dethrone the Spanish. Like the Dutch, they had no trouble of any kind getting into Portugal’s third on Saturday, only to squander their efforts with a poor cross or finish soon thereafter. Their opponents, whom they would beat 1-0, who are also considered a contender by many, were simply lethargic absent their lauded wing play.
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Spain, in its Sunday jostle with Italy, fielded six central midfielders in two banks without any proper forwards so as to negate Italy’s strong midfield. But Italy, looking to stop the Spanish tiki taka machinery, stacked its own midfield with defensive minders. In the end, the two simply canceled each other out with their mutual negativity and the game never opened up until both sides started adding forwards in the late going, settling for another 1-1 tie.
So why all these miscarriages of football? What is the cause of this tournament’s false start?
There are a few plausible explanations for the Polish and Ukrainian skies being entirely devoid of fireworks. There’s bad form, of course, an occupational hazard of the soccer player. There’s fatigue from the club season, as all the key people in the aforementioned teams fought long and hard continental campaigns.
More likely yet is that in three of four groups, the two best teams in the group (and I consciously don’t count the Netherlands among them) played each other in their opening games. They did so safe in the knowledge that if they implicitly agreed to a draw, they would both advance provided they did the business against their lesser foes. This, perhaps more than anything, would explain why the tournament’s most exciting games took place between Russia and the Czech Republic; Croatia and Ireland; and Ukraine and Sweden.
This suspension of gratification, however, should ensure that these favorites, with lots left to do to hoist the big silver urn, will need to set their remaining group games alight, setting things off properly at last.