Euro 2016 has brought, in no particular order of importance, spectacular goals, a minor upset, violence on the streets, fireworks in the stands, and eight United players in action. While most of the games have been tight in the opening round of fixtures, there have already been some decisive performances from Reds in France… and a couple of ex-United stars that have caught the eye.
In the opening fixture Anthony Martial was left out of a French side that beat Romania 2-1 in Stade de France. Deschamps’ selection was a minor surprise given Martial’s spectacular form for United this season and his involvement with Les Bleus throughout the past year, although his nominal replacement, Dimitri Payet, not only scored a spectacular winner but was roundly considered man of the match. Martial emerged from the bench for a very low-key 20-minute cameo, but could yet feature in France’s second match against Albania at Stade Vélodrome on Wednesday. Antoine Griezmann is under pressure after an ineffective performance on the right. Indeed, France’s victory came after a largely unconvincing performance. Morgan Schneiderlin was an unused substitute.
Meanwhile, in Marseille Wayne Rooney’s England team was held to a draw with Russia after a very late Vasili Berezutski equaliser. Rooney started in a central midfield role, making 47 successful passes, creating two chances, and hitting the target with two shots – widely regarded as one of the England captain’s better performances in the role. Rooney has the tendency to over-elaborate – delivering too many ineffective Hollywood-balls while displaying a long-held positional indiscipline. None of the above was true in Marseille.
Chris Smalling started at the back in the same fixture, with the central defender winning nine aerials, and completing 86 per cent of his passes. It was a solid defensive performance from a certain starter, although Smalling will face a greater challenge as England meet Gareth Bale’s Wales in Lille on Thursday. Marcus Rashford was an unused substitute and is seemingly behind Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vary for a place in the team. The United striker may not see any action at Euro 2016.
In Lille Bastian Schweinsteiger scored after coming on as a substitute as World Champions Germany beat Ukraine 2-0. It was less comfortable than the result otherwise suggest, despite an early goal and an outstanding performance from Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos in central midfield. Schweinsteiger has not played since 20 March because of a knee injury but scored two minutes into stoppage time with the crispest of half-volleys. The 31-year-old is unlikely to start, but remains a talismanic presence for Germany team that is far less secure than the one that won the World Cup in Brazil two years ago.
In the same group Paddy McNair was on the losing side as Northern Ireland went down 1-0 to Poland in Nice. The United defender started the match in an odd role on the right side of a midfield three as the Irish sought to contain. Norn Iron struggled to translate Plan A into a more attacking Plan B to disappoint more than 10,000 travelling fans. McNair was substitute at half-time after a largely forgettable performance, while ex-Red Johnny Evans completed the full 90 at the back. Northern Ireland face Ukraine at Stade des Lumières on Thursday.
In Lyon Matteo Darmian and Marouane Fellaini met as Italy pulled off a surprise to beat a much-fancied Belgium side. On paper the Belgians possess more talent, especially in attack, but it was Antonio Conte’s side that controlled the game from the off. This was vintage Italy, offering far more than a solid defensive and nick-a-goal-on-the-break performance. It is a much derided Azzuri, but one in this form that could go far. Darmian started out of position as Italy’s left wing-back before being substituted for the more attack-minded Milan full-back Mattia De Sciglio on the hour.
Fellaini proved to be a the usual nuisance, especially as Belgium opened up in the second half. The seven chances created by the midfielder, mostly from knock-downs in the area, are second only to the eight fashioned by France’s Payet at this stage of the competition. Different, but effective. Still, Fellaini’s presence also contributed to Belgium’s remarkable lack of fluidity through central midfield, with the United player losing possession 18 per cent of the time and creating little on the ground.
On the other side of the group, former Red John O’Shea kept prospective recruit Zlatan Ibrahimovic quiet for most of the 90 as Republic of Ireland drew with Sweden in Paris. Despite a tidy defensive performance from the Irishman Zlatan managed to skip around the 35-year-old defender to create Sweden’s second-half equaliser. It was a rare blot on O’Shea’s otherwise commendable performance. Former United youth teamer Robbie Brady also started the game in at Stade de France.
Meanwhile, in Group D David de Gea started for Spain, despite manager Vincente del Bosque’s dithering over Iker Casillas’ potential involvement and a sex scandal developing in the Spanish press. The United stopper made a smart early save from Vladimir Darida as Spain beat the Czech Republic 1-0 in Toulouse. Former Red Gerard Pique headed home with just three minutes to go as Spain struggled to break down a stubborn opponent. The Spanish will need much more than this in fixtures to come if a repeat of the World Cup’s disappointing early exit is not to follow. Still, de Gea has seemingly – and finally – permanently claimed the number one jersey, some four years into Casillas’ spectacular drop-off in form.
Finally, in Group F former United wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani featured as Portugal drew with Iceland in Saint-Etienne. Nani scored Portugal’s opener at the near post, before the Selecção were pegged back by the islanders – although much of the narrative will rightly focus on Portugal’s failings. Iceland is home to just over 300,000 people – around 10 per cent of whom attended the match in France’s Massif Central. Already one of the stories of the championships.