France 2 – Romania 1
The 2016 Euros kicked off with a rather tense opener in Paris, with the host nation looking less than dominant in a game many expected them to seize. Luckily for France, it had Dimitri Payet on its side.
Payet was brilliant and would have been the man of the match even had the game ended in a draw. His stunning strike to give France the win was the capper on a sensational and inspired night of football. In what was essentially his debut for France on the big stage, Payet was the driving force for the hosts, racking up an assist on Olivier Giroud’s opening goal and nearly creating another with a beautiful cross that found the foot of Paul Pogba on the volley.
Pogba wasn’t quite as dominant as he should have been against a Romania side with no answer for him in the midfield, but Payet picked up the slack and N’Golo Kante continued his sensational Premier League winning form by bossing the middle of the park. Payet’s winner also sheltered Antoine Griezmann from some criticism. Griezmann’s last competitive match was the Champions League Final against Real Madrid. After missing a critical penalty in that match, Griezmann seemed to lack confidence in front of goal against Romania, squandering a pair of chances that should have been goals.
Despite a pair of underwhelming efforts from two of its stars, France is well on its way past the group stage, and it has two more games to sharpen up before the pressure on them amps to the max.
Switzerland 1 – Albania 0
The Albanians will feel they deserved at least a point after their strong defensive showing against the Swiss. Despite having its captain, central defender Lorik Cana, sent off 10 minutes before halftime, Albania kept its shape for the entirety of the match, even when manager Gianni De Biasi made offensive substitutions in the final 20 minutes.
Albania created a handful of delicious chances on the counter, but its strikers were not up to par. Swiss keeper Yann Sommer had a man of the match performance and made several key saves, but Armando Sadiku and Shkelzen Gashi made his job easier by putting in poor attempts in one-on-one situations.
The Swiss were far from convincing in this game and tactically I think they were inferior to a 10-man Albanian side. Albanian’s solid defense kept danger man Xherdan Shaqiri from creating much in open play (though he did assist the game’s only goal on a set piece) and fullbacks Stephan Lichsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, critical elements of Switzerland’s attack, did not factor into play.
Playing against his brother Taulant, new Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was the most impressive outfield player on the pitch, controlling the game with a game-high 116 passes. Xhaka is going to dominate the middle of the park for the Gunners in a few months, but if the Swiss are going to get the most out of him in the Euros, they will need their wide players to provide him with more dangerous options going forward.
Wales 2 – Slovakia 1
It should come as no surprise that a Gareth Bale free kick helped Wales take all three points in its first major tournament game in more than 50 years. Bale was less than spectacular in open play, as one might expect with much of the defense’s attention being on him (and Martin Skrtel’s experience defending him), but his trademarked knuckleball free kick was enough of a contribution to spur on his country.
Slovakia were game in this match, though. Had Marek Hamsik’s early effort on goal been a bit more precise, this would have been a much different game. Slovakia did tie the game when Ondrej Duda came off the bench in the 61st minute and scored less than 30 seconds after subbing in, but Welsh substitute Hal Robson-Kanu rescued the three points with a fortunate strike in the 81st minute.
Wales might be extremely reliant on Bale’s brilliance, but with Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen supporting him in the midfield and what looked a sturdy three centerback alignment, it is on its way to having a quarterfinal berth.
England 1 – Russia 1
After going 10-0 in its qualifying group and with some promising young talent coming off strong seasons in the Premier League, England entered this tournament as one of the teams to watch. The Lions might not be ready to challenge Germany, France or Spain for the trophy this year, but the foundation is being built for a World Cup contender.
England’s opening match against Russia, however, was proof that the team is still not reliable on the big stage. Although the Lions dominated possession against Russia and were minutes away from three points, overall England were underwhelming and its infamous tendency to giveaway games reared its ugly head. Eric Dier scored a wonderful free kick that should have sealed a win for England, but Russia tied the game one minute into added time.
Russia were not good in this game. It relied heavily on lumped through balls to Artem Dzyuba, who had a poor game, and it didn’t get enough from Aleksandr Kokorin, who I think is Russia’s best player. But England gave Russia a chance by failing to create chance for the majority of the match. Wayne Rooney looked good in his new midfield role, but I think Ross Barkley and Jamie Vardy should be preferred to Adam Lallana and Dele Alli.
England should still be a sure thing to get past the group stage, but if it can’t generate more on the attack than it did against Russia, Wales might end up on top of Group B.