MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Biff! Kapow! Crunch! Ouch!
Belgium's win over Portugal in the last 16 may have looked like a football match, but don't be deceived. This was something much simpler. Much more primal. This was that old kids' toy, the Rock' Em Sock' Em Robots, the red team and the off-turquoise green team standing still and exchanging blows — literally, in Pepe's case — until one of their heads came off.
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At least, we can all agree this was not a clever football match. There were bad decisions being made from the start, and tired decisions being made from about ten minutes in. The pitch was a pudding and the air was heavy and the technical areas, this being a ground with an athletics track, were inappropriately large. Almost grotesque. How to take any manager seriously as he toddles around, tiny, insignificant inside such a vast empty space?
But it was a very good football match, by the end. The forty-odd minutes before the goal were cagey and even a little dull, but once Belgium were ahead the game tilted perfectly. The team that can't really defend had something to look after, and the team that can't really attack had to take the initiative. There's a lot to be said for football teams playing to their weaknesses. It makes for excellent television.
And Belgium held on but they paid for it. Kevin De Bruyne, off injured, limping and shaking his head. Eden Hazard — you know, Thorgan's brother — clutching his hamstring and frowning. Perhaps we're overthinking things here, but the fact that Roberto Martínez only made three of his permitted five substitutions — and two of those after 87 minutes — might to suggest a certain lack of faith in his squad.
Or perhaps he was just caught up in the moment. It was that kind of game. Sporadic in quality but slathered in that thick nervous tension that oozes out of tournament football, once the group stages are over and everything starts to matter.
We'll find out today just how expensive this victory was, but to the Warm-Up's eyes, neither De Bruyne nor Hazard Sr. looked like players with any tournament left in them. There is, then, a pointed contrast with their next opponents, Italy, who have turned up with a squad and are making the absolute most of it. We can only imagine a slight, fleeting smile dancing across Roberto Mancini's lips. Nothing to do with the game, mind. That's always how we imagine him.
But where there's Lukaku, there's hope. Even on this sweaty swamp of a pitch, even without a real scoring chance, he gave his team precious breathing space: collecting the ball, running the angles, eating up valuable seconds. Hazard, Jr's goal was wonderful but it's the sight of Lukaku, hands on knees in the Portuguese penalty area, puffing out his cheeks and then hauling himself back into position for another pass, that defines this Belgian victory.
And if you want an image to define Portugal's defeat, it's a free choice between Pepe steaming in late — but always on brand — to collect his booking with a smile, and Bruno Fernandes blamming the ball high and wide and ugly from 25 yards out, while his teammates looked on in weary bemusement. It would probably be unfair to call this a bad performance: they hit the post and they had their chances. But with the exception of Renato Sanches, delightful once again, this team looked a whole lot less than the sum of its parts. And that's why this trophy will be going somewhere else this year.
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But not to the Netherlands. If the late game was a slugfest, then the earlier tie was a triumph for organisation over… over… over whatever Frank De Boer thinks he was up to. The Czech Republic rode out a tricky first ten minutes and then stifled their opponents. Turns out that the approach which saw the Dutch through the group stage, chaotic but exciting, just looks a complete mess when they can't get hold of the ball.
It was a triumph, too, for for clarity of thinking. The game pivoted on 30 seconds in which two Dutch players, one at either end of the pitch, made two very bad decisions and between them paid a very heavy price. Donyell Malen tried to go around the goalkeeper, and failed. And Matthijs De Ligt tried to play like a goalkeeper, and unfortunately for him he succeeded.
De Ligt has since publicly taken the burden onto himself — "We lost the match because of what I did" — but we're more inclined to share things around a bit. Sensibly put together teams are able to adjust when their plans don't come together, and adjust further when they have a man sent off. The Netherlands threatened neither at any point.
Since we're looking for illustrative moments, take the second Czech goal. Tomáš Holeš, already man of the match, spots the path of a breaking ball well before Gini Wijnaldum and bursts through into a large De Ligt-shaped gap in central defence. He's going to shoot. Of course he's going to shoot. Apart from anything else, he's earned the shot, and there's not a soul in the Czech Republic would grudge it.
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And then his touch is a little heavy and sends him a little wide and so he defies expectations, defies the natural order of things, and squares it inside for Patrik Schick, arriving at just the right moment. It won't win goal of the tournament. But if you want an example of a group of footballers knowing their jobs, reading the game, and making good decisions under pressure, this was a thing of precise and quiet perfection.
Away from the pitch, England's Luke Shaw has finally done it. A good season of form and fitness have given him the strength to press the big red button marked "Shut It, José".
He likes some, he doesn’t like others and I fell into the category where he didn’t like me. I tried as hard as I could to get back on to his side but it never worked out, no matter what I did. There is no hiding that we didn’t get on. I think he was a brilliant manager but, you know, the past is the past. It is time to move on. I am trying to move on but, obviously, he can’t. He continuously talks about me, which I find quite strange. Even some of the lads have said: ‘What’s his problem?’ and: ‘Why does he keep talking?’ He just needs to move on. Hopefully he can find his peace with that and finally move on and stop worrying about me. Clearly I am in his head a lot and he clearly thinks about me a lot.
Lots to enjoy there, and it's pretty clear that Shaw has a point. Management by humiliation and division is bad enough when it works; at Old Trafford, all Jose Mourinho ended up doing was making his left-back miserable and everybody else confused. It felt weird at the time, and Shaw's subsequent resurgence has rendered it entirely ridiculous.
Of course, chances are Mourinho will hit back at some point. He doesn't seem the type to graciously let things slide. But whatever he says, he'll have to go some to match the calm brutality of "I think he was a brilliant manager but, you know, the past is the past. It is time to move on." Shaw could play for another ten years, and win trophy after trophy, but he's never going to hit anything quite that well again.
IN OTHER NEWS
Absolutely delightful free-kick here. Look at that arc. That dip.
Happy birthday to Stéphane Chapuisat, Switzerland and Borussia Dortmund legend. Fun fact: he once appeared on a Tajikistani postage stamp. Nobody really knows why. Not even Chapuisat.
The Dutch are heading home — there will be no repeat of Euro '88. So why not spend some time looking back at Marco Van Basten, and that goal, in the company of FourFourTwo's Gary Parkinson.
In the contemporary micro-shorted fashion, his legs could look spindly; in fact, they were slim but strong like a concert pianist’s fingers. Ringo Starr once said of Billy Preston, the only guest musician ever to receive a co-credit on a Beatles record: "He never put his fingers in the wrong place." Van Basten had the same relationship with a football.
More Euros! More! More! Send these footballers back out into the sunshine and make them run around again! First it's Croatia against Spain, then France take on Switzerland. Winner gets to keep the Alps.
While we all wait for Ben Snowball to receive the commemorative stamp he clearly deserves, we can enjoy his Warm-Up tomorrow.
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