Euro 2004: First Round, Group B, Day 1

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
June 13th, 2004 • 7:22 am

My oh my. This was almost as good as the Euro 2000 final! In fact, it was strangely similar… and bodes well for France for the rest of the tournament. Maybe they’ve finally broken that weird spell under which they had been since the 2002 World Cup, with that failure to deliver in a big occasion. And boy did they deliver tonight.

It looked like it was going all wrong again for most of the game, however… France dominated the first half, yet were one goal behind after that great goal by Lampard from a poorly conceded free-kick well taken by Beckham. In the second half, France dominated again, but appeared unable to really create clear-cut chances.

Then the first major piece of drama occurred. Somehow Rooney broke through and was heading towards goal with what was going to be a glorious chance for him. Silvestre committed a horrendous foul on him and really deserved to be sent off rather than just yellow carded, and there was absolutely no doubt that it was a penalty. In the replay, you could actually read the word “Putain…” on Silvestre’s lips. He knew he had committed a major blunder, which could cost France the game and possibly the tournament, in light of what happened in 2002.

Then Beckham takes the penalty, and… Barthez proves all his critics wrong by producing a wonderful save! It wasn’t a poorly struck penalty, but Barthez guessed right, and proved that he was indeed still the man for the big occasion, in spite of what happened recently in the final of the UEFA Cup with Marseille against Valencia, where he was sent off.

In retrospect, this was obviously the turning point in the game. But for most of the rest of the half, it looked like it didn’t make any difference. France did gather a bit of momentum following the saved penalty, but then the game was interrupted by a lengthy injury break, with Barthez’s nose bleeding following a weird bounce that sent the ball flying directly into his face. After that, the game returned to the same pattern of France dominating the possession but not really creating anything.

The clock reached 90 minutes, and somewhat surprisingly, there were only 3 minutes of added time. (With all the substitutions and the injury break, it should have been at least 4.)

Then it all happened. France won a free kick on the edge of the English box, but on the wrong side for Thierry Henry. Zidane takes it, and produces an unstoppable shot that leaves James frozen on his line. It’s mayhem in the stands behind the English goal, where the French supporters are amassed.

While we recovered from this delightful surprise, I jokingly said to my wife that now, all we needed was a solo run by Thierry Henry punctuated by a superb goal to cap it all off. Little did I know… Well, it didn’t happen exactly that way, but almost! Gerrard made a very foolish pass back to his keeper, and Henry, who just happened to be in the vicinity — as always, — reacts in a flash and runs for goal. James has absolutely no choice but to try and stop him with a body tackle, but of course he fails to do it legally, and a penalty is inevitably awarded, as well as the predictable yellow card for the keeper. (There is this untold rule that a penalty award and a yellow card is already bad enough for the losing team, even though technically the keeper is the last defender and should be sent off.)

I wondered if Thierry was going to take it — but when I saw him run away from the goal and towards the fans to celebrate the penalty he’d just won, I sensed that he wanted to stay away from it this time. And up stepped Zizou, of course. Not one to lose his cool in such occasions, he produced a perfect kick — and it was all over for England.

With two goals in stoppage time (91′ and 93′), France produced the unthinkable, something on par with their performance in the Euro 2000 final against Italy, or with Manchester United’s reversal of fortune in the dying seconds of that Champions’ League final against Bayern Munich in 1999. (The 2nd goal in the Euro 2000 final actually came in extra time as a golden goal, which is not quite the same as scoring twice in 2 minutes.)

Football is not for the faint-hearted! Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something like happens, and the history books need to be rewritten yet again.

OK, it’s only the beginning of the tournament, and it’s only a first round win — which doesn’t mean anything just yet. But if the rest of the competition is as exciting as these first two days, it should be a terrific three weeks, whether you are a neutral football fan or not. (But who is, really?)

Now, there were still reasons to worry about this French team today. It was a source of concern to see that they were so ineffectual, in spite of all their possession and dominance. And neither of these two goals came from open play. Thierry Henry in particular still appears unable to reproduce his club form at the international level in big occasions. Will this victory finally provide the jolt that he needs? It remains to be seen… Hopefully Croatia and Switzerland won’t be as effective when it comes to shutting him off. It’s true that starting the competition against England wasn’t the best thing for him, with so many English players that know him so well: Campbell, Cole, Lampard, Scholes, etc. We’ll see.

The other group game (Croatia 0 – Switzerland 0) today was the first example of uninteresting matches at the international level. Let’s hope that there aren’t too many of those. But a draw is of course good for France, who are already the sole leaders in their group and only need another win to ensure their qualification for the next round. And it was good to see another referee not afraid to give a fully deserved red card for two bookable offenses. Speaking of cards… Pires was the only French player to get one today, which is good (because he’s not very likely to get many of them and risk a suspension), but yet another sign things haven’t clicked just yet for Arsenal players (Henry, Vieira, Pires) at this level. Maybe they’ll have their moments in the next couple of weeks.

2 Responses to “Euro 2004: First Round, Group B, Day 1”

  1. jim says:

    france delivered? i would say they were gifted those two goals. they surprisingly lack the ideas to break thru a solid defence formed from the arsenal backbone, guess being teammates campbell and cole know what they need to do to stop henry and pires from roaming like they do in club games.

    two mistakes – two goals. its a wonderful game.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Delivering means just that: getting the result. And they did. I think I did qualify my judgment :).

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