Back in my predictions post that I wrote just before the Euros started, I made some last minute changes to my picks because I second guessed myself when push came to shove and I panicked. I'm not proud of this, but it happened and the best that can be done is to own up to it. Occasionally, these types of last minute changes are good. You finally talk yourself into that underdog who might put it all together to make a run, or maybe you decide to give that team of aging veterans the benefit of the doubt due to the years of experience, and it pays off huge as they prove the doubters wrong and put it all together on a triumphant run. Other times, you switch two picks at the last minute and your new choices turn out to be the only two teams that have been mathematically eliminated from progressing after just the second round of games have been completed. Yes, I did decide to pick Ireland and Sweden as upset picks, casting aside a much more exciting (and homophobic) than I anticipated Italian team as well as a food poisoned but still feisty Ukraine. Granted my "Holland in the finals" pick isn't looking sparkling right now either, but at least that was born of conviction and belief, unlike the last minute substitutions that were made. But this is what can happen in soccer. It is by nature an unpredictable and chaotic sport, so there's only so much I can complain about. You've heard my "woe is me" tale and my mea culpa, so perhaps we should just move on to Group D action.
France vs Ukraine
France had an interesting test against one of the home sides in this tournament in Ukraine, and I don't believe it is out of line to say that they not only passed, but did so well enough to make themselves the odds on favorites to win Group D. Against England, France were the better team, holding most of the possession, but were not incisive enough. Though it's the first game and though it's against a long standing rival like England, it would have been nice to see them really make an effort to take the win (since it truly was there for the taking) rather than make sure they didn't lose. For the first half an hour or so against Ukraine, it didn't look like they had shrugged off their case of the Spains. They were still a little too comfortable simply to have possession and weren't looking dangerous in the attacking third. Later in the first half they started to push forward more and had some chances, but with the score 0-0 at halftime it looked like this could be one of those games where a team controls the ball without putting it in and then loses on a goal against the run of play. Perhaps Ukraine had the same impression because they came out more aggressive at the start of the second half and really worked themselves into the game, taking away more of France's possession and beginning to look dangerous. Maybe this was what undid Ukraine or maybe France finally put in the type of chance they'd had earlier in the match, but Jeremy Menez scored the first goal for France by cutting inside and then megging the defender to score at the near post. Just minutes later it was Johan Cabaye making it 2-0 with a low strike that just made it under both the defender's foot and the keeper's hand. From there on out it was smooth sailing for the French as they jumped to the top of the Group D standings and control their destiny for the quarterfinals.
It is easy to call France the best team in Group D after winning one game and leading the group, but it has more to do with their form than their standing. France is good on the ball, has the speed to counter if they cannot hold possession, and has the finishing to score goals with limited chances. Against Sweden, they should again dominate possession so their versatility isn't as important, but if they advance to the quarterfinals they will most likely play Italy or Spain and then they would be playing without the ball much more. When it comes to goal scoring and countering with speed, I don't think this is a problem. Where they do have a weakness, however, is at the back. It hasn't been notably bad so far, but I don't know that I would trust Phillippe Mexes and Adil Rami to hold up for an entire match against sustained pressure. The good news is that Yann M'Vila looks to be fit again, coming on as a sub against Ukraine. Perhaps that stability in the defensive midfield will be what they need to go far in this tournament, but first they have to do their job and finish off the Swedes.
England vs Sweden
Speaking of finishing of the Swedes... wow, what a crazy game. Not exactly a stellar defensive affair so please don't try to convince me of England's gritty performance, but there was some fantastic finishing to appreciate. The game was generally an open one and rather than a boring middle third battle with sloppy passing to drag down the talent level, it was a sloppy game all over which led to a good many chances or exciting half chances. Both teams enjoyed periods of the game when they were in the ascendancy but it was England that came through in the end thanks in large part to the introduction of Theo Walcott. The game was broken up by who had the upper hand and it basically went like so:
Minute 1-20: Complete free for all, no idea who is "better" right now. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who is always mentioned in my notes as ZLATAN, perhaps with additional exclamation points) is trying to take charge and isn't getting a whole lot of help from Johan Elmander, Rasmus Elm, or really anyone.
21-45: Andy Carroll with a brilliant header off of a cross whipped in by Steven Gerrard and England are firmly in control. The goal has given them life and they're the more dangerous team.
46-60: This was alllllllll Sweden. First they get the goal from Olof Mellberg off of a scramble following a free kick by ZLATAN, then they get an own goal by Glen Johnson (which is really unfair as Joe Hart saved Mellberg's shot directly into Johnson; not much he could do) to take a 2-1 lead. While the England goal gave them life, the Sweden goal(s) gave them belief. Such the more dangerous team during this stretch.
61-90: THEO WALCOTT CHANGED EVERYTHING!! Yes that sounds more like British tabloid headlines than actual reporting, but it's true. His pace was the difference maker in the second half and he epitomized the "impact sub" role. His goal wasn't emblematic of the way he plays as it was a shot from the top of the box following a free kick scramble, but the game winner certainly was. Theo received the ball on the edge of the box, split the two defenders who were trying to close him down in order to get to the endline, then got a cross back in front of goal. Here's the bit of magic. The ball was slightly behind Danny Welbeck so he turned his back to goal and picked the cross out of the air with a backheel. I can't emphasize this enough. Just watch. It was an absolutely brilliant finish and now it sets up England for a showdown with Ukraine to see who moves on.
With two rounds in, Group D looks like this:
France - 4 Points
England - 4 Points
Ukraine - 3 Points
Sweden - 0 Points
France are all but clear to go through as Sweden would need to beat them pretty badly for the French to fall behind Ukraine or England on the goal differential tiebreaker, but they will be well advised to actually show up for the match and stomp Sweden, both for momentum and avoiding playing Spain in the next round. England vs Ukraine should be a very interesting match. England are nowhere near as defensively sound as some want to think and Ukraine can be quite dangerous in their attacking end. As good as Welbeck and Carroll were at finishing against Sweden, I don't think it will happen again. Though England only need a draw, I think Ukraine finds a way to steal a win, even on a one time counter. Either way, the last day of the group should be very, very interesting. Check back tomorrow for analysis on a (hopefully) crazy last day of Group A.