Big couple of matches today, as England and France came face to face and co-hosts Ukraine played against Sweden. These two matches could have gone either way, but overall were pretty entertaining and fast-paced - and best of all, we have yet to see a goal-less draw. With today's matches, every team in Euro 2012 has now made an appearance, and we can start to get a picture of how the tournament is likely to go.
But first, a few quick thoughts on the matches: this was England's first competitive match under new manager Roy Hodgson, and France's first since their abysmal behavior in South Africa in 2010, so it was always going to be an interesting one, from an academic viewpoint if nothing else. That it ended in a 1-1 draw is probably fair, as neither team was excellent. I'd say the French were just a bit better, in terms of mounting attacks on the English goal, but England did well to keep its shape and hold France to the draw. And more to the point, they did well to repulse the niggling (and sometimes more blatant) fouls thrown their way by France's Franck Ribéry, who should have been booked at some point.
England is a pretty frustrating team to watch, though, because they are so much less than the sum of their parts. It is a team that boasts some truly world-class players (although a few of them weren't on the pitch today due to suspension) but that can't seem to translate that form into success in the international game. I remember when people blamed this on the manager; but I've been following England long enough to think that it's probably the players.
Without going into a long dissertation on the failings of the current English generation, it's sufficient to say that they just aren't imaginative enough at this level: too many times during today's match, England's back four and midfield were strung out in lines of four just in front of their own goal, with the forwards stranded way off in the French half, on the off-chance that a clearance might find them and they could pluckily slot the ball home. Compared to some of the better-organized teams in this tournament, every English attack consisted of two or three white shirts facing off against a flurry of blue shirts, while the French somehow were able to pour more players into the English box whenever they went on the attack.
England still doesn't seem to have gotten over winning the World Cup 46 years ago without the use of wingers. but despite protestations that the players don't understand the 4-5-1 formation, it's time someone stopped to teach them, because otherwise English fans will be doomed to the eternal quarter-final exit on penalties.
On a happier note, the game I'd been slightly dreading, Ukraine-Sweden, turned out to be a much more positive affair, ending 2-1 to the co-hosts. Ukraine have participated in some of football's worst games (notably against Switzerland at the 2006 World Cup), while Sweden always seem to qualify for tournaments without making any particular mark. In fairness, this match looked like it would be one of those games, until Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring. Andriy Shevchenko replied with two of his own, which was enough to sustain the home side until the end, particularly a pretty nervy last ten minutes.
Ibrahimovic and Shevchenko make a nice contrast, actually - both can be called "talismanic", having come from countries outside the usual circle of successful teams; both also made their names in Italy, but I'd say the similarities end there. While not quite as nuts as Italy's Mario Balotelli, Ibrahimovic can fairly be called a loose cannon; he also suffers from a serious case of big-game nerves. I've rarely seen him produce a result in big games (with the natural caveat that these big games I watch him in are usually Champions League matches), yet he's still well-regarded. And in fairness, he did well to break the deadlock tonight.
On the other hand, Shevchenko's not really known for off-field antics, having spent the better part of a decade quietly slamming home goals to win games for AC Milan. What tarnished his reputation was his move to Chelsea in 2006 - he left a team that was better suited to his abilities, for one that, while effective as a unit, had no place in it for natural talent. This may seem harsh on Chelsea, but I really don't understand how else to explain why the likes of Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu and Michael Ballack also failed to make their mark there.
So it was a nice surprise to see Shevchenko pop up again tonight, playing for his country and scoring two important goals. More than that, it was heartening to see how happy he and the rest of the Ukrainian team were when it ended - from the celebrations you'd have thought they'd just won the whole tournament. Without getting too sentimental, it's good to see that these games mean something to the players, beyond a chance to increase their asking price in the August transfer window.
As for what comes next, Ukraine are now in pole position, so unless things go drastically wrong I'd expect them to make it to the next round. The more difficult question will be whether England or France join them - neither team was stellar today, but they also weren't so abject that I can point to them necessarily failing to progress. And somehow I expect the French to beat Ukraine in the next match, if only because it was France who spoiled South Africa's party in 2010 by knocking out the hosts.
So it's time for a little break now - I'll be back on Friday with a quick rundown of the second set of matches, by which time a few teams will have booked their passage to the second round. With luck, the next few days will provide as good a set of games as we've had so far.