Sports

Italy Surprises, Irish Antics, and Ronaldo: The Euro 2016 Review

With the first round of fixtures now complete, Euro 2016 is starting to take shape. In the past few days we’ve seen Italian steel, a jaded Zlatan and Irish fans enjoying the craic.

by Will Magee
Jun 15 2016, 2:10pm

EPA Images/Etienne Laurent

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

With the first round of group game fixtures now complete, the fates of the 24 teams at Euro 2016 are starting to take shape. There have been encouraging wins, disappointing defeats and semi-acceptable draws for the various different sides contesting the tournament. Meanwhile, off the pitch, the fans' taste for beating each other round the head with plastic chairs seems to have abated somewhat.

If anything, the last couple have days have been characterised by peace, love and culturally harmonious dance offs amongst supporters. That's what we want to see at the Euros, lads. More where that came from, and less of the balaclavas and chair throwing and stamping on each other's heads while filming it on a GoPro.

Anyway, here's our latest Euro 2016 review.

VIVA L'ITALIA!

Italy players celebrate after beating Belgium // EPA Images/Sergey Dolzhenko

When we think of the classic, archetypal Italy side, we need look no further than the 2006 World Cup. The team that went on to lift the Jules Rimet that year featured Gianluigi Buffon betweens the sticks, with an impenetrable defensive pairing of Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi in front of him. Francesco Totti and Gennaro Gattuso provided the grit in the midfield, Andrea Pirlo served as the creative mastermind, while up front the Azzuri had the luxury of choosing between Filippo Inzaghi, Luca Toni and the lethal Alessandro Del Piero. From front to back, it was a team of incomparable cohesion, spirit and resolve.

Now, Antonio Conte is forced to field a strike force of Graziano Pelle and Emanuele Giaccherini. The former is an adequate, semi-reliable forward, while the latter has spent the last couple of the seasons on the fringes at Sunderland. Conte's midfield boasts the unexceptional talents of Marco Parolo and Antonio Candreva, while his defence is shored up by an ageing Andrea Barzagli and an out-of-form Matteo Darmian.

Italy's Euro 2016 squad certainly isn't the most accomplished. Nonetheless, their 2-0 win over Belgium showed that they've lost none of the steeliness on which their national team has always thrived.

You don't want to mess with these lads // EPA Images/Yuri Kochetkov

While Belgium have been massively overhyped over the last few years – more on that in a moment – Italy's deficiencies have been widely disparaged. None of the criticism mattered on Monday night, however, when the clever, well-organised and hungry-looking Azzuri went toe-to-toe with their Belgian counterparts, and comfortably came out on top.

Conte has clearly drilled the side in such a manner that they can operate as more than the sum of their parts. If they continue to perform like they did against Belgium, they could be unheralded challengers for the final come July 10.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF ROMELU LUKAKU

Lukaku struggled on Monday night // EPA Images/Yuri Kochetkov

Oh, Romelu. Whatever are we going to do with you? Much like the Belgium team as a whole, Lukaku has been praised to the heavens over the last few seasons while achieving very little of quantifiable value. Despite showing excellent domestic form in fits and bursts – and being linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe as a result – doubts over his focus and concentration remain.

Indeed – if the Italy match is anything to go by – those doubts appear to be well founded.

Hemmed in by a canny Italian back line and outmuscled by Giorgio Chiellini in particular, Lukaku looked maddeningly ineffective at times. Ambling about the pitch, wandering offside as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne laboured to create chances for him, it was no surprise to see him substituted for Divock Origi with 20 minutes left on the clock. If Marc Wilmots chooses to start Origi for Saturday's game against the Republic of Ireland, Lukaku can have few complaints.

What's going on with Big Rom? // EPA Images/CJ Gunther

For a player with boundless natural talent, Lukaku's performances can be remarkably underwhelming. Unrealised talent was the story of Belgium's 2014 World Cup and, as things stand, there are few signs that Euro 2016 will be any different.

CRAIC TO THE FUTURE

Ireland fans in the Stade de France // EPA Images/Filip Singer

When we suggested that Republic of Ireland fans had come to the Euros solely for the sake of the craic, we were lambasted. There were widespread accusations of lazy stereotyping, while some claimed that we were underestimating the best Irish team for decades. At one point, we were pretty sure we were veering into "stick it up your bollocks" territory, and that we were about to inspire a repeat of the Saipan incident on social media.

Now, though, we have been fully vindicated. We have reviewed a huge amount of video evidence over the last few days, and can confirm that the Boys in Green are indeed here for the craic.

While Martin O'Neill's men are yet to show whether or not they can make their mark at Euro 2016, Republic of Ireland fans are demolishing the tournament when it comes to antics. Here they all are now, all the lads, belting out Dancing Queen with their Swedish counterparts and generally having a fucking great time.

While England and Russia supporters are busy karate chopping each other in the moobs, Irish fans are practising their synchronised dance moves to everyone's favourite Westlife songs. Whatever happens on the pitch, the Republic's tournament will be remembered as a succession of Now That's What I Call Music! classics, a whole lot of dad dancing and an extensive tour of Paris' best Irish pubs as recommended by TripAdvisor.

Irish fans are just as susceptible to antisocial public nudity as their English cousins, of course. Still, this clip seems like an exercise in cheerful, collectively endorsed stripping, as opposed to a solo mission to jump arse-first into Marseille harbour.

After watching this footage, nobody can deny that the Boys in Green are all about the craic. We're sorry if that seems like a stereotype, but that's just the way it is.

ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC, FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE

Zlatan cuddles John O'Shea for warmth // EPA Images/Etienne Laurent

While Sweden managed to salvage a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland on Monday, it was anything but convincing. The team is at something of a low ebb at the moment and, as such, they looked to the talismanic influence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at every given opportunity. As the game wore on, however, this started to look like something of a burden for the 34-year-old.

For a man who's used to playing his club football amongst a veritable constellation of international stars, it must feel a tad frustrating to end up relying on Seb Larsson and Kim Källström for service. That's the cross that Ibrahimovic has to bear, unfortunately.

When he wasn't dropping back to orchestrate play himself, Zlatan looked distinctly isolated as Sweden's main striker. He became a fortress of solitude as the game wore on, bombarded from all sides by slightly mistimed passes from his conspicuously inferior teammates.

Zlatan, cold, alone, but never afraid // EPA Images/Georgi Licovski

If Sweden are going to get past the group stage, someone needs to help Zlatan carry the load. Who's going to volunteer, then, lads? Martin Olsson? Ah, forget it.

THE MAGNANIMITY OF CRISTIANO RONALDO

Cristiano Ronaldo simply cannot stand a plucky underdog // EPA Images/Miguel A. Lopes

When plucky little Iceland secured a draw against Portugal on Tuesday evening, they made history. Come the final whistle, plucky little Iceland – with roughly nine tenths of their population inside the stadium – had secured their first ever point at the European Championships. Here they were, plucky little Iceland, standing up to the might of Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and coming away from the encounter unscathed.

So how did Ronaldo react to this humbling experience? Well, with all the magnanimity and sportsmanship of William Zabka in The Karate Kid, he stormed off the pitch without shaking anyone's hand and proceeded to moan about Iceland's unseemly refusal to let Portugal batter them.

"Iceland didn't try anything," he said after the match. "I thought they'd won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don't try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition."

The absolute cheek of Iceland, refusing to be tonked 4-0 // EPA Images/Robert Ghement

So, there we have it. If Iceland fans thought they were going to win Euro 2016, their expectations will have to be revised. If the players are going to persist in defending successfully, their campaign is going to be a complete disaster. If they refuse to be slaughtered by far superior sides, they'll have done their country a terrible disservice. For shame, Iceland. For shame.

@W_F_Magee

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