Over the last several days, a series of flat 0-0 draws in marquee games on the field – paired with incessant fan misbehavior off the field – considerably deflated the mood surrounding the 2016 European Championships in France.
Concerns over security, the format allowing progression for four third-placed teams, and an almost-bizarre lack of goal-scoring drama left the tournament in dire need of a shakeup.
And on Tuesday, that’s exactly what it got.
Vicente del Bosque, perhaps mindful of the reception granted Roy Hodgson after his rotated England team, failed to beat Slovakia yesterday, named an unchanged eleven for the Spanish – who needed just a point against Croatia to win the group.
Spain started well enough – Alvaro Morata giving them the lead less than ten minutes in – but Croatia, missing Luka Modric through injury and resting Mario Mandzukic, didn’t fold.
They were level just before halftime through Nikola Kalinic, still in the game after Danijel Subasic – with the aid of a head start off the line and a tip from Modric – saved Sergio Ramos’ penalty, and moved to ecstasy when Ivan Perisic’s classic counter-attacking goal won the game in the final minutes.
Turkey, full of personality, came good when it absolutely had to – the country’s legendary flair for the dramatic rekindled by the prospect of another group finale against the Czech Republic.
Eight years ago, the Turks and Czechs combined for one of the great games in the history of this competition – with Turkey storming back from two goals down in the second half to win 3-2 in extra time and secure progression to the quarterfinal.
This time around, the indomitable Fatih Terim’s team was driven by several key figures. Arda Turan silenced his critics with a mature display; likewise striker Burak Yilmaz with a performance full of passion.
But Terim’s biggest call was handing a first start of the tournament to year-old Emre Mor, who standing at 5’6, looks like one of the biggest talents we’ve seen yet in this competition.
With Turkey, the prayer is often the expectation – most often with the expectation is the prayer. This team is probably going through, and will be an extremely dangerous prospect in the next round.
Both games carried with them huge ramifications for teams both directly and indirectly involved.
Earlier in the day, the heroic goalkeeping display from Michael McGovern ensured that Northern Ireland’s margin of defeat against Germany was a very respectable one – and when the results came in from the late matches, it meant that Michael O’Neill’s team, against every odd, advanced to the Round of 16.
On the other side of the coin, however, Turkey’s victory – and namely their second goal from Ozan Tufan – could spell the end for upstart Albania’s hopes of reaching the next stage.
The headlines, though, will be carried by Spain’s sudden wobble. Installed by some bookmakers as the favorite to win the tournament after their dismantling of Turkey, La Roja haven’t just lost – they’ve failed to win their group.
It’s all conspired for a murderer’s row of a knockout draw: Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and England – with Portugal possibly to come – all thrown in together in the same half of the bracket.
And before we even get to the possibility of England against France or Spain against Germany in potential quarterfinals, we get del Bosque’s against Italy at the Stade de France next Monday in the Round of 16.
ESPN’s Bob Ley remarked that Perisic’s goal “remade reality for Spain.” He couldn’t have been more right. It was the country’s first loss at a European Championship Finals since 2004. Beyond that, Kalinic’s equalizer was the team’s first goal conceded at the Euros in eight games.
The Spanish have problems. Not just the upcoming match with Italy, but problems in their camp as well. The buildup to this match saw Pedro threaten walking out on the team if his playing time didn’t increase, while David De Gea, embroiled in a serious legal matter, had a dreadful night.
On the other side of the draw, opportunity knocks. Wales, Croatia, Poland, and especially Belgium – despite their hugely disappointing start to this tournament – are all licking their lips with the possibility of making the final in the second week of July. No team from that section has ever won a major tournament title.
To make the day even better, there was no significant trouble off the field. The Turkish fans threw flares onto the field after their second goal against the Czechs, but there were no disturbances in Bordeaux where trouble was rumored to be on the horizon.
In the lackluster draws and dour tactics of the last several days, we’d seen the downsides of a 24-team tournament. Tuesday, we saw the upsides.
The game between Turkey and the Czech Republic would have been all but academic if third-place teams couldn’t have progressed, while the Northern Ireland vs. Germany game would have been similarly low-stakes.
Instead, at this tournament, each game matters. At this tournament, a team like Northern Ireland can go through. These days, and the weeks to follow, should be the pay-off for enduring the competition’s slow start.
Now, urgency is paramount. The margins, as both Spain and England can attest, are incredibly thin.
Wednesday promises plenty as well. All four teams are alive in Group F, with only Hungary assured of a place in the knockout round, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic could be playing his final game for Sweden against Belgium in Group E.
Elsewhere in that group, Ireland can progress with a win over an Italian team with nothing to play for. Anything short of victory, and the Republic will be the only team in this tournament from the British Isles not to advance.
After a suspect start, Euro 2016 is finally heating up.
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