Friday Group D took center stage and provided us with the France we expected and the thriller between England and Sweden that we had hoped for. Crazy weather, crazy turns of event, unlikely scorers, unlikely goals; Friday had it all. Rebecca Black would have been proud.
France vs Ukraine
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France v Ukraine got off to a stormy start, with rain dousing the pitch in absolute sheets, lightning ripping across the sky. The match was postponed after 4 minutes and both teams retreated to the shelter of the locker room to wait out the storm. When they finally resumed, France stepped to the fore, playing a fluid, attacking football that flowed through Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, about whom, more in a minute. Ukraine struggled to get the ball to their young playmakers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplianka, and the match saw the outsanding work rate of Andriy Shevchenko rewarded with a one true chance on goal, a one touch touch strike that was beaten away by French keeper Hugo Lloris.
France’s dominance came with some controversy, though; after a good offside call ruled out a Jeremy Menez strike, the player was booked and should have seen a second card just before the half for a violent foul in the ceneter cricle on Yevhen Selin. He escaped justice and frustration and it paid off; when Benzema slid him a pass in the box, he cut back and slotted home near post to put France up 1-0.
His play completely justified Laurent Blanc’s decision to play him in lieu of Chelsea winger Flourent Malouda; Menez had several chances on goal and was dangerous (literally) all night. Just three minutes later, the deep lying Benzema collected the ball and slid an inch perfect 20 yard pass to Yohan Cabaye, who gathered the ball and scored. 2-0 and there was no way back for Ukraine as France maintained possession and kept pressing their technical advantage.
In my post about the France v England match, I noted that Benzema seemed to be playing too deep to threaten the goal, and that was the case again against Ukraine, but this time, the decision paid off because of the runs of Ribery, Cabaye and Menez. It seems antithetical to have one of the best target strikers in the world playing in the hole behind, well, no one, but it’s a new day for strikers; slide back in the midfield and play deep, feeding the attack instead of leading it. In this case, it worked like a charm and Benzema was excellent in drawing defenders deep and beating them with quick, creative, precise passing. His play and movement have been phenomenal; it’s only a matter of time before he scores.
Benzema is excellent.
As for Ukraine, well, it is tough to watch the hosts struggle but the pace and technical ability of France were too much on the day. Watching Franck Ribery kick the ball down the line and sprint past Ukrainian wingers who were trying deperately to keep up, you knew that France were on another level as athletes. The best team won and there is no shame in that. With three points in hand and Wayne Rooney coming back for England with the anticipation of a tag team wrestler clearing the ring with violent abandon, it does not look good for Ukraine. Still, win and they are in. All to play for.
England v Sweden
Well that was fun. England beat Sweden 3-2 in a pulsating match that saw a Danny Welbeck falling backheel goal in the 78th minute claw England back from 2-1 down to win and eliminate Sweden (nooooo!) from the knockout stages. I think the goals tell the story of this match, so let’s watch it unfold… in Arabic, with amazing goal calls, which, always awesome.
I have been hard on Roy Hodgson on this blog, mostly because I think he stinks as a manager; I had to endure one of the worst six month stretches of my life as a football fan watching him sign shitty players and play atrocious football with my club team Liverpool. So, I am completely biased against him, can’t stand him, am amazed by fair-mined people who have given him a chance and the benefit of the doubt; are you crazy, folks? This is Roy Hodgson! And yet. Hodgson on the day did a great job of targeting Sweden’s weaknesses (aerial defense and speed) with his player selection and substitutions, and every move seemed to pay off. Starting Andy Carroll? A headed goal for 1-0. Bringing on Theo Walcott for the once again utterly crap James Milner? Goal and assist for the winner. Well done, Roy. You can’t argue with that at all. This was much better from England, who played against type and showed toughness and skill (take a bow, Danny Welbeck) in earning a win. Three goals and a come from behind win? Roy Hodgson, for this day, I eat my words. Well done.
Moment in the sun.
And yet… Sweden! Guh! Two goals from Olof Mellberg, which, amazing. But Sweden played like Bizarro England and this match ended up looking like an English club match, which played perfectly into England’s hands. England are always going to struggle against strong, technical teams who can keep the ball (see France), but Sweden could not play that way and instead made a huge sacrifice to their own quality. The issue was the positioning of Rasmus Elm and Kim Kallstrom, two decent players who were outclassed by their opposite numbers, and how they interchanged with the true genius on the pitch last night, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Instead of pushing Zlatan to get up the field, near the goal, where he is briliant, Sweden played him in the hole and he played deep, putting ball after ball into Elm and Kallstrom in the attack, neither of whom, it should be noted, is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. WHo would you rather have bearing down on goal? The issue is that Elm and Kallstrom needed help against Gerrard and Scott Parker, and so Zlatan cam deep to help out and, more often than not, ended up a mile from goal.
The way Sweden deployed Zlatan reminded me of watching Lionel Messi in the 2010 World Cup, collecting the ball at the center circle and being urged to “make something happen”, then struggling to do so. Zlatan is not a natural #10, he has the skill and the drive, but he does not have the positional know how; he does not bomb forward in the attack, making plays near the box. But there he is, miles from goal, playing the ball wide to a winger and then walking up the pitch knowing the attack has passed him by and that, even if he hauled ass into the box, he would never get a return ball.
I was literally going crazy watching him. Look at Zlatan’s return so far; a tap in from one yard in front of goal when he was pushed forward and an assist from a busted set piece to Olof Mellberg from the edge of the penalty area. You know where Zlatan is not making plays and scoring goals? From deep balls through the middle. The lack of a natural #10 in the CAM role, the role Steven Gerrard has been dominating for England, has cost Sweden the best use of its best player. Make no mistake, even at his languid, frustrating pace in this match, Ibrahimovic was one of the two best players on the pitch. Had he been able to lead the attack from an advanced position with a CAM behind him, it might have been so different for Sweden. But they didn’t, he wasn’t and now they are headed home in disappointment again. Is it a lack of players or does Zlatan prefer to walk back and forth, ten yards from either side of the center circle for the majority of the match? Not sure. Either way, Sweden are headed home. What might have been…
The final day of Group D should be a good one; everyone except Sweden will want to win and then, even they will want to go down in glory over France. This is the first time in history that every match in the final Group stage will have an impact on who goes through, which only underlines what a great Tournament this has been so far. Get your “picture in picture” ready on the TV; the simultaneous Group finales are pure excitement!