Austria v North Macedonia at Euro 2020 had everything you could possibly want from a group-stage game. We certainly enjoyed it.
Austria v North Macedonia was an absolutely cracking slice of tournament football, perfect fare for those recovering from what was a strangely nerveless and relaxing England opener with another burger or a couple more cold ones.
Home Nations stress and big names like your Italys and your Belgiums laying down markers are all well and good, but this is the sort of game that can truly elevate the major tournament group stage. Even the absence of a ‘home’ team is something of a novelty in this continent-trotting event.
And the other crucial ingredients for this sort of game were all there: two, let’s be fair, unfancied teams; a match that, at any other time other than in the midst of tournament fever, you would make no effort whatsoever to watch (don’t lie, you wouldn’t); a smattering of genuinely elite players among the journeymen; a couple of players who either do or have played in the Premier League; someone who you can’t quite believe is still playing international football at what must be approaching 700 years of age. This game had the lot. We enjoyed it immensely.
And then – and these are the two most important things of all – it layered all that with a couple of properly brilliant goals and a comically slapstick one. There is quite literally nothing better to do with your life at 5pm on a sunny Sunday afternoon than to sit back and just be able to enjoy a game like this in a state of gloriously stress-free relaxation.
Obviously that’s not true for the countries involved, both of them chasing a first ever win in the tournament, but for neutrals this was lovely stuff.
Austria’s three goals all fit the bill perfectly for neutral entertainment, the first and second being beautifully set up by Austria’s two best players, Marcel Sabitzer and David Alaba (whose Real Madrid move and subsequent wage was mentioned approximately 27 times on commentary as though the Spanish giants had plucked him from the Austrian third division and changed his life rather than signing him from actual Bayern Munich where he has won 27 pots), while their third was scored by an archetypal mercurial hothead from a random episode of Premier League Years in Marko Arnautovic. For bonus points, he appeared to be genuinely furious about it all after sealing the win for Austria, who now find themselves firmly on course for the last 16 as a result.
But let’s not pretend that any of that lot was the real story here. No, that was the equaliser for North Macedonia that for so long threatened to deny Austria the opening win they absolutely had to take from this game. It was a wonderful calamity, with Austria’s keeper adding a wonderful layer of physical comedy to proceedings by spinning round just desperately looking for the ball even as Goran Pandev slotted it home to spark delirium.
Goran Pandev. Now that is lovely stuff. Somehow – despite appearances and a 20-year career – he is still only actually 37 but that doesn’t matter. He has quite simply been around forever. As England strains under the weight of a million “Euro 96, 25 years on” features it is absolutely tremendous to see a Euro 2020 goal being scored by someone who has played international football against David Seaman.
It’s the goal of the tournament; it’s the game of the tournament. Nothing will beat them. Okay, something probably will. If we’re honest, we’ll have probably forgotten this game by the time England lose to Portugal on penalties in the last 16 and certainly by the time France lift the trophy. But right now it’s delivered absolutely everything and more one can ask from a major tournament group-stage game.