England’s defence, France being good, Georgia – five things we got wrong about Euro 2024

Dave Tickner
France striker Kylian Mbappe, Croatia midfielder Luka Modric and England defender Marc Guehi
The best of these players at Euro 2024 is at Crystal Palace

We’ve got a few things right about these Euros.

Germany have, alas, been as good as we feared they might. Switzerland are doing a bang-up job as our Dark Horses, cleverly conceding a late equaliser against said Germans to keep themselves both that crucial distance below the radar while also sliding sneakily into the easier half of the draw – although don’t let Ollie Holt hear you say it.

But we’re big enough and ugly enough to admit we had plenty of assumptions about this event that, after 36 of the 51 games have eliminated precisely eight of the 24 teams, are not yet coming to pass.

Here are five of the buggers.

 

1. England’s problem was the defence
No fears about England going forward, were there? Hmm? World-class talent everywhere you look up there. Top-scorer from the Bundesliga! Player of the year from the Barclays! Jude Bellingham! Starboy!

And don’t even get us started on that bench depth. Yes, that was all going to be fine. The goals would flow.

But that defence? Nightmare. Every one of them untested, out of form, out of favour or some combination of the above.

And yet, three games in, England have scored precisely two goals while being entirely untroubled at the back.

Marc Guehi has emerged as one of the group stage’s standout players, in accordance with the prophecy, and he and John Stones look like they’ve been doing this for years. Jordan Pickford has barely made a save, and the one goal England have conceded was a 25-yarder that went in off the inside of the post.

Now there is a fairly compelling counter-argument here that England’s problem still has been the defence, but that it’s manifesting further forward. That England are so worried about their perceived defensive frailty that they’ve sacrificed attacking endeavour to paper over those cracks.

There’s logic to it. But if you could go back in time three weeks and tell yourself we’d be talking seriously about whether we need to drop Bellingham and that Guehi was our best player you’d believe your future self to have somehow got horribly muddled up by the whole time-travel caper, which to be fair must be a bit of a head-f*** when you think about it.

Even using this ungodly power to talk to your past self about the impressive Euro 2024 efforts of a Crystal Palace centre-back point to a brain unravelling.

 

2. France would be brilliant
Got the lot, haven’t they? Brilliant starting XI, brilliant second XI, legit bona fide global superstar in Kylian Mbappe. These boys are going to take some stopping, we thought.

Turns out at this point they take very little stopping. Even Poland, the easiest European team to play at a major tournament apart from Scotland, managed it.

Their only goals so far have been an own goal and a penalty. They have, and we don’t say this lightly, been every bit as shonky as England. They look tidy enough at the back, sure, but going forward it’s a ponderous, sludgy mess determinedly extracting far, far less than the sum of its parts.

Didier Deschamps is just Gareth Southgate but with a Kylian Mbappe. They may well still win it, but it will be despite themselves and despite the manager, and we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether we’re talking about France or England there.

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3. Group E would be drab
It looked the most boring group to us. Belgium are a not particularly exciting top seed; no longer the potential winners of the Golden Generation, but surely too competent to sufficiently balls it up and make it interesting, with Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine a trio of worthy teams alongside them fighting for the minor placings.

Wrong. Slovakia beat Belgium in the first proper shock of the tournament, throwing the group wide open with the eventual result of it closing up so perfectly that everyone ended up with four points.

Romania were thrillingly good against Ukraine, Belgium appear to have taken on the French tournament mantle of occasionally just collapsing in a mess of infighting and squabbles.

The group was so good that even a convenient 1-1 draw between Romania and Slovakia on the final day – a result that perfectly suited both teams – was played out in such blood-and-thunder fashion as to render even the merest hint of collusion talk a non-starter.

This was no draw of convenience, just a thoroughly entertaining to and fro that happened to end all square.

And it’s also been the group to feature one of our very favourite recurring bits of the whole tournament; the wonderfully well worked ‘Romelu Lukaku scores a bunch of goals but VAR disallows them for reasons small and tw*tty’.

It was probably our favourite group of the lot, in the end. Goes to show, doesn’t it? Don’t know what exactly. But definitely something.

 

4. We couldn’t love Luka Modric more than we already did
Which was so, so much. We loved him at Spurs, we loved him when Real Madrid fans said he was sh*t and we loved him when he won the Ballon d’Or. We love him.

Wonderful player, obviously, but also carries with him that indefinable Andy Murray quality of being a mortal sharing the stage with gods. He is the Murray to the Federer and Nadal of Messi and Ronaldo. We’re also, incidentally, not remotely prepared for a summer that could see Modric retire from international football and Murray finally accepting what his body has been telling him for several years. Especially with Jimmy Anderson going as well.

But back to the main point: we were pretty sure we loved Luka Modric as much as it was possible to love a Croatian playmaker who doesn’t look anything like as much like her off Corrie as bantersmiths would have you believe.

Then came the Italy game and we don’t mind admitting it slightly broke us. From missing the penalty, to the emotion after scoring soon afterwards, to his response to being substituted being handing the armband to Ivan Perisic alongside some enthusiastic encouragement, to spending the rest of the game sat in his kit living every pass, tackle and clearance and issuing instructions like he had instantly and seamlessly become part of the coaching staff.

Then came Italy’s equaliser that ultimately sent Croatia out of the competition, and that genuinely harrowing picture of Modric, face drawn, eyes puffy, head on Mars, having to pose for UEFA with the man-of-the-match trophy. Imagine if that really is how his spectacular international career ends.

 

5. Georgia
Obviously.

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