The Euro 2016 group stages are over and sixteen teams have confirmed their places in the knockout stages.
Here, we look at five of the best goals to be scored in the opening two weeks of the tournament.
DIMITRI PAYET (FRANCE v ROMANIA)
The opening match produced one of the best strikes from the host nation as Payet cut in from the right and fired a left-footed shot into the top corner for an 89th-minute winner.
LUKA MODRIC (CROATIA v TURKEY)
The Real Madrid midfielder struck the only goal of the game and it was a blinder, a dropping volley hit on the run from 25 yards.
EMANUELE GIACCHERINI (ITALY v BELGIUM)
Not the most spectacular goal seen in France so far but Leonardo Bonucci’s vision and superb execution to pick out Giaccherini 45 yards away was brilliant in itself, allowing the Sunderland winger to kill it with his left foot and tuck away the goal with his right.
WES HOOLAHAN (IRELAND v SWEDEN)
The Norwich midfielder displayed excellent technique to keep control of his 16-yard half-volley from Seamus Coleman’s cross, clipping a curling shot just inside the post.
CRISTIANO RONALDO (PORTUGAL v HUNGARY)
The Real Madrid star turned up when his country needed him the most, producing an exquisite backheel flick behind his standing leg to divert Joao Maria’s right-wing cross.
LILLE, France — Twenty-two years after Ray Houghton’s volley secured the most famous result in Ireland’s history at World Cup ‘94, Robbie Brady produced a moment that Ireland fans will be talking about two decades from now.
Back in ‘94, Italy were defeated 1-0 in New York and history repeated itself in Lille on Wednesday, the Azzurri downed by Brady’s second-half header. A whole generation of supporters who previously relied on YouTube videos and the nostalgia of their parents to relive Houghton’s strike now have their own memory to treasure.
A historic night at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy saw Ireland reach the European Championship knockout stage for the first time, putting to bed the demons of an embarrassing winless campaign at Euro 2012, which had been rounded off by a dismal 2-0 defeat to the Italians.
Where Giovanni Trapattoni’s side had whimpered in Poznan, Martin O’Neill’s side roared. O’Neill’s reputation is more a man motivator than a tactical tinkerman but after urging his players to be “heroes” before the game, he showed real bravery himself with his team selection, making four changes from the side battered by Belgium.
The desire Ireland showed certainly verged on the superhuman at times, many of the players limping through the mixed zone after the game having, as a number of them put it, “left everything out on the pitch.” Ireland were galvanised, unrecognisable from the team that surrendered to Belgium and unafraid to take the game to Italy. Seamus Coleman’s foul after 20 seconds was an indication of the physicality of things to come – the challenge very much out the school of ‘let him know you’re there, son’.
There were fine displays all over the field, from Shane Duffy’s towering presence at centre-half to the marauding forays of Seamus Coleman and the fearless, direct running of James McClean that reminded of the player who once terrified Premier League defences when he first broke through at Sunderland.
Jeff Hendrick’s swashbuckling showing was particularly eye-catching, the wavy-haired midfielder looking a little like Luka Modric in performance as well as appearance such was the influence he exerted as Ireland’s chief ball-player. After the game he had tears in his eyes and a little later he stood in front of journalists with a beer in one hand, pizza in the other – every inch the have-a-go hero.
It was about time Ireland’s players stepped into the spotlight. The fans have been attracting plenty of attention at Euro 2016 so far, the much-loved travelling Irish contingent delighting all and sundry with their random acts of kindness and generally genial disposition. But this was a night when those on the pitch finally justified the tireless support shown for them off it, the significance of the result certainly not lost on the squad.
“The fans are always brilliant,” Shane Long told Sport360 after the game. “They’re a credit to Ireland and after the game today when all the Italian fans left, it still felt full in there. I’m sure they’ll enjoy tonight and hopefully in 20 years time they’ll remember this game.
“It’s hard for me to remember ’94 – I was only six or seven years old. Obviously the 2002 World Cup was good as well, with Robbie [Keane] scoring against Germany – there are a few memories but it seems like a long time ago. There are a lot of young fans out there who have only seen videos but haven’t experienced it.
“My nephews were there today to experience it, my whole family were there – it’s amazing to be part of tonight – it’s a great feeling now but we’ve got to move on tomorrow and focus on the France game. It’d be a shame to have a result like this and not make it count on Sunday.”
Having already had to play Italy and Belgium, it will now be on to Les Bleus for the Irish, and a shot at redemption after Thierry Henry’s infamous handball denied them in the qualification play-off for the 2010 World Cup. One feels certain that the incident would have brought up in the privacy of the Irish dressing-room, but the public face is one of refusal to dwell on the past.
“No-one’s been talking about it [the handball] tonight in the dressing room,” said Stephen Ward. “It was a long time ago. Everyone of us has respect for France as a team with some unbelievable players. We’ll have to be on our game, it’s going to be tough for us but what a reward for tonight, playing the host nation. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Now the emerald wave flows south to Paris for Ireland’s first knockout match at a major championship since Spain eliminated them from the 2002 World Cup at the last-16 stage. The supporters’ patience and passion has finally been rewarded; it is up to O’Neill’s men to ensure that victory over Italy is not a once-in-a-lifetime moment for this new generation of Irish fans.
Scores of Welsh football fans may have been content with simply reaching Euro 2016, but that type of thinking should now be jettisoned from their thoughts. They’ve outperformed their Group B rivals to qualify for the last 16 as winners, doing so in style and on merit.
Bar a timid performance against England, Wales were the best team in the group.
Key to Welsh ambitions from here is that they are in the favourable half of the draw. They’ve avoided England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Beat Northern Ireland and they will have a combination of Switzerland, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, Hungary or Belgium standing between them and a spot in the final. Ambitious? Hugely. Impossible? Absolutely not.
With Gareth Bale spearheading their ambitions they will fancy their chances against any of those teams.
Victory in the last 16 will likely set up a last eight tie with Belgium. The Red Devils, for all their enviable individual talent, still have question marks over their temperament and ability to act cohesively – something that has been intrinsic to Wales’ form in the last two years.
Recent history is also in Wales’ favour. They drew 0-0 during Euro 2016 qualifying in Belgium before Bale earned a 1-0 victory at a rocking Cardiff City Stadium last June. Victory likely sets up a semi-final clash with Croatia and their embarrassment of midfield riches.
Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic versus Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley is a mouthwatering prospect. Ante Cacic’s side impressed against Spain. Faced with beating them for a place in the final, however, is an eminently more achievable feat than beating one of the powerhouse nations.
Wales are not Germany, Spain, France, Italy or England. But what they have is a world class superstar in Bale, complimented by an able supporting cast who know he is the leading man, are comfortable with that and content to play their part – aware he can lead them to greatness.
Another significant factor is their key players have shown up in France. Bale is the tournament’s joint-leading scorer, netting in every group game. Ramsey and Allen have marauded across midfield, passing opponents off the pitch and unlocking defences. They’ve also worked tirelessly patrolling a back line for whom Ashley Williams has been a rock.
Questions were asked after the England defeat but the captain snapped back, tackling and blocking anything that moved against Russia. Even Neil Taylor chose the tournament to score his first goal in six years, evidence that every player is aware they stand on the verge of history and know they must seize the moment.
Win Saturday and they will emulate the side containing John Charles, Terry Medwin, and Jack Kelsey that reached the last eight at the 1958 World Cup.
A third reason for them to believe is the spirit within the squad, something harnessed by the late Gary Speed when he took charge. The man who started this journey died before his project was finished.
Despite taking on what seemed a poisoned chalice, Coleman has fostered an indomitable spirit among his squad. We’re about to see just how strong their spirit is.
The country’s adopted motto from qualifying of ‘Together Stronger’ will need to come to the fore now more than it ever has over the last two years.
A nation is daring to dream and who can blame them? The country has been waiting a long time for a sporting fairytale to come true. There’s no reason why it has to end just yet.