Almost ten weeks before the European Championship finals in France the hosts proved to be in brilliant shape with two victories. Germany’s group opponents Northern Ireland are now undefeated in ten matches; England’s counterparts Wales failed to register a win. Austria and Switzerland also had mixed results.
The reigning World Cup champions took centre stage during the international matches over the Easter weekend. The German team participated in two spectacular games against their arch rivals England and Italy – but convinced only with a historic 4-1 victory over the Azzurri in Munich, their first win against the Italians for two decades. “German lesson for Italy without pride and dignity”, read the headline of “Corriere dello Sport”, while “Tuttosport” drew the conclusion: “The sky over Munich seems to have collapsed on Italy. 90 nightmare minutes, test failed”.
Such headlines were not forthcoming from the German point of view after an earlier 3-2 loss to England. National coach Joachim Loew’s team suffered a sobering defeat despite being 2-0 up, and were criticised heavily afterwards. In England, however, enthusiasm reigned when the best team during the qualifications rousingly turned the match around. The confidence of playing a successful 2016 European Championship after the weak performance at the 2014 World Cup promptly grew with goals scored by Harry Kane (61st), new national favourite Jamie Vardy (74th) and Eric Dier (90th+1).
“This was almost the best performance during my term”, rejoiced coach Roy Hodgson, who has been at the helm since May 2012. “We played brilliantly, we had many opportunities and could have scored even more goals“, Kane said. “Roy’s Lions roar back”, was the headline in “The Sun”. And “The Daily Telegraph” recognised the strong performance against a German team, in which Loew had experimented defensively: “A glorious night for Hodgson’s courageous, revitalised team and undoubtedly the greatest hour in the past four years”.
The English confirmed their superiorityduring the European Championship qualification when they registered ten wins in ten matches. But contrary to the Germans, who got back on track with the gala performance against Italy, the English fell off piste in their following match. Despite taking a 1-0 lead they lost at Wembley Stadium 2-1 to the Netherlands, who did not qualify for the EURO finals in France.
The group opponents of these two great football nations at the finals, to take place from June 10 to July 10, also tested their situations – and several times against each other. Wales, counterparts of England in Group B, played two teams from the German Group C. They lost 1-0 in Ukraine and drew 1-1 with Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish, third preliminary round opponents of Germany in France, were more successful -- achieving a 1-0 over Slovakia, also England opponents in Group B, on Easter Monday. This leaves them undefeated in ten matches.
Two and a half months prior to the EURO kick-off, hosts France also proved in brilliant shape with two victories. First they achieved a 3-2 victory against the 2014 World Cup bronze medallists Netherlands in Amsterdam. Before and during the match the late Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff, who had died the day before, was commemorated. The second encounter for the French, on the Tuesday after Easter, was also emotional as the Equipe Tricolore played their first home match at St. Denis following the dreadful terror attacks in Paris on November 13. The EURO hosts defeated Russia 4-2, England’s opponents in the finals. Switzerland, like France in Group A, remained without a win. A 1-0 defeat in Ireland was followed by a 2-0 loss against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The title holders are also short of EURO shape. Spain, the European champions of the past two tournaments, managed only a 1-1 draw with Italy in a repeat of the 2012 European final. The Spaniards (Group D) then drew 0-0 with finals participants Romania.
The top teams in Groups E and F, Belgium and Portugal, met each other – with the better outcome for Portugal. Thanks to a Cristiano Ronaldo goal the Portuguese beat the presently rated world’s top team 2-1 at Leiria. The match had been relocated from Brussels to Portugal after the terror attacks in the Belgian capital. But as they previously lost 1-0 to Bulgaria, the Portuguese could not be completely happy with their friendlies. EURO group rivals Austria had a similar experience, when their 2-1 win against Albania was followed by an unfortunate 2-1 defeat against Turkey. Striker Marko Arnautović of Stoke City is still optimistic for the tournament, however: “Our confidence hasn’t suffered. If a team comes here and crushes us we would have to do something. But that hasn’t happened yet”.