Iceland are heroes, Ronaldo's a sore loser
Minnows do so well that Ronaldo turns into a boor
REPORTING FROM ST ETIENNE
When Uefa decided to expand the 2016 European Championship Finals to 24 teams, there were those who sneered scornfully and said another eight nations would diminish the tournament.
Too many minnows, not enough quality, a purely money exercise were three of many criticisms.
Yet, with the first round of group matches complete, there is a case for saying the decision was totally justified.
Okay, Northern Ireland seemed to freeze somewhat against the Poles, but 10-man Albania deserved at least a point against Switzerland.
No story has been bigger than what Iceland, the smallest nation ever to reach the Finals and roared on by around two per cent of their 330,000 population, achieved here yesterday.
Of course, one round of games means little in the scheme of things.
But what Iceland proved is that with prodigious homework, a bit of luck and a good dose of canny tactical planning, anything is possible.
You can have all the individual stars in the world but if you don't put them together as a team, you will often struggle.
Which makes Cristiano Ronaldo's churlish comments afterwards all the more disappointing.
Yes, Portugal had 27 goal attempts - 10 on target - to Iceland's four.
Yes, on the balance of play they should have won easily. Yes, Iceland rode their luck.
But how were they supposed to approach it?
They are not the first team to defend deep and snatch a goal on the counter-attack.
Didn't Greece at times do likewise in 2004 and go on to win the tournament?
"Iceland didn't try anything," moaned the Portuguese captain afterwards, with the petulance of a child.
"They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. I thought they'd won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable."
No it wasn't.
Iceland simply played to their strengths: Endeavour, spirit and organisation.
And despite having just 27.7 per cent of possession overall, they took their chance against a defence that has traditionally been Portugal's weak point, when Birkir Bjarnason caught right back Vieirinha hopelessly out of position and lashed home Johann Gudmundsson's cross to cancel out Luis Nani's opener.
Just in case Ronaldo had forgotten, Iceland reached the Finals with two games to spare and in the process ensured that Holland, one of the traditional giants of European football, missed out.
Was it pretty?
But the fact is that the gap is narrowing, in Iceland's case largely because of a highly intensive coaching set-up back home of which many established European teams would be envious.
"Our defending was fantastic: We were really organised and worked really hard.
"Apart from one or two situations, we were really focused and it was a total team victory for us," said Iceland's joint coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, whose team in the main reined in Ronaldo just as the Republic of Ireland had done with another world superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic 24 hours earlier.
"You can't ask one player to stop guys like Cristiano Ronaldo. It's unfair to put a player to mark him, so it has to be a team effort.
"There were a lot of players that were responsible for Ronaldo, and luckily he didn't have many chances."
And that's what it's all about - teamwork. Which is exactly what Portugal, so talented individually, need to focus on if, as expected, they are to go deep into the tournament.
In all probability, the great man, who now shares Luis Figo's record of 127 caps, will come good in the coming days.
A Euros or World Cup medal is the only thing missing from Ronaldo's bulging trophy cabinet.
But this was Iceland's night - complete with their wondrous, scary Viking chant - and no one should begrudge them their moment of history.
5 Big games over the past 42 years
GERMANY v POLAND:
Poland's talented strike duo can hurt world champions Germany, says Gary Lim
Germany favourites, but the Lewandowski-Milik partnership can punish their brittle defence
GERMANY v POLAND
(Tomorrow, 2.50am, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
The Stade de France is readying itself for a stellar collision.
The Germany-Poland football rivalry is one steeped in history and soaked in emotion.
This is one high-stakes encounter, with the winners guaranteed passage to the knockout stages of Euro 2016.
Between the two countries, there is no love lost.
Eight years ago, prior to their Euro 2008 clash, Poland coach Leo Beenhakker had to apologise after a local newspaper depicted an image of him holding the severed heads of Germany coach Joachim Loew and then captain Michael Ballack.
Even if their previous encounters were as one-sided as they come, the bad blood never let up.
Now, though, Poland can sense a football revival.
They came to France having broken the hex of having never beaten the Germans - they finally defeated them for the first time during a Euro 2016 qualifier.
They have striker extraordinaire, Robert Lewandowski.
They also have Arkadiusz Milik, the 22-year-old Ajax Amsterdam forward touted as one of the world's most exciting young strikers who looks set to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious compatriot.
Together, they have been mentioned in some quarters as potentially the most lethal strike duo in the tournament.
They will spearhead a Polish side set to test the durability of a suspect German defence in Paris tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Adam Nawalka's side will go into battle confident of their own chances and their ability to puncture the resistance of their deadly rivals.
Lewandowski finished top scorer of the Euro 2016 qualifiers (13 goals) and the German Bundesliga (30 goals).
The Bayern Munich ace knows many of tomorrow's opponents like the back of his hand, having plied his trade in Germany for the last six years.
His inability to get off the mark in Poland's opening 1-0 win over Northern Ireland was an exception rather than the rule.
Milik, operating in a slightly more withdrawn role than Lewandowski, took up the slack.
He fired in the only goal of the game to get Poland off to a winning start.
Germany, too, will remember Milik, who carved his name in their memory on that fateful night in Warsaw two years ago.
It was his opening goal which set Poland on their way to a famous 2-0 victory - it remains their only win over their neighbours in 20 attempts.
Germany's Loew will have a lot more to deal with than his infamous scratch-and-sniff habit.
Despite beating Ukraine 2-0 in their opening group match, they looked fragile at the back.
The makeshift central defensive partnership of Shkodran Mustafi and Jerome Boateng didn't work out well.
Fullbacks Jonas Hector and Benedikt Hoewedes didn't appear convincing as well against quick wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
Centre back Mats Hummels took his place alongside Boateng during training on Tuesday, and Loew will be hoping that he is fit enough to replace Mustafi and restore confidence in their backline.
The Poles smell vulnerability in the world champions.
A thriller in Paris awaits.
Familiarity breeds confidence for Lewandowski
The Bayern star knows his German opponents too well
They plan to attack
Where 'battle of Britain' will be won
The Three Lions boast the better players, but they're not all playing in their natural positions. The Welsh are the underdogs, but Gareth Bale insists they have a psychological edge over England, despite not beating the next-door neighbours since 1984. Which side will triumph? NEIL HUMPHREYS examines where the Group B game will be won or lost
England's Rooney and Wales' Bale set to decide 'Battle of Britain'
Rooney and Bale both know that victory offers personal triumph
ENGLAND v WALES
(Tonight, 8.50pm, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
Only four years separate Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale, but there is a lifetime between them.
England's weary gunslinger has come to represent all that is allegedly wrong with the Three Lions.
He is the last member of the overindulged Golden Generation, the rusty remnant of a star-spangled collection of PlayStation cover models who fell for their own hype.
Bale is no less famous or wealthy, but he has slyly positioned himself as the spirited embodiment of the plucky Welsh underdogs.
Apparently, he even has more national pride than anyone in the England dressing room. He said so earlier this week.
He is willing to sacrifice body and soul for little old Wales against those big, belligerent bullies from across the border.
Bale's comments really were clever. He presented the Welsh as the adorable minnows with hearts on sleeves and tongues flapping as they prepare to win over hopeless romantics everywhere.
In tonight's Group B encounter, Wales are hungry usurpers ready to topple those money-minded giants of the English Premier League, whose passion was long ago diluted and distracted by too many pound signs.
The simple narrative suggests its Bale's pony-tailed Red Dragon against Rooney's wheezing, balding Lion King, but that wouldn't be entirely fair.
Bale will be 27 next month and recently completed a decade in top-flight football and Rooney is still only 30.
More importantly, the England captain is close to pulling off a stunning metamorphosis, by making himself irreplaceable.
Jack Wilshere managed a rueful grin yesterday when asked if he bore any resentment towards his captain, the interloper who had stolen the Arsenal star's natural position in central midfield.
Wilshere insisted there was no malice. Rooney had earned his shot against Wales on merit. He reads the game and passes better than any other candidate for the deep-lying role.
England's success now depends on Rooney's ability, along with Eric Dier, to serve as silicone, closing gaps between the lines and joining the two together.
When the skipper was substituted against Russia, the fissures in midfield reappeared. England looked disjointed and threw away victory.
Roy Hodgson won't make the same mistake twice.
For Rooney, the fixture offers vindication. For Bale, it's about validation.
As global superstars and national torchbearers, they share the same end goal. Only the journey was different.
Bale carries the burden of a small country's wildest dreams. For many jaded England followers, Rooney was the burden that haunted a nation's nightmares.
After three years at Real Madrid, Bale strives to penetrate that stubborn EPL and Three Lions bubble. He's neither English nor playing in the EPL. He's out of sight, out of mind, a talented, but neglected afterthought.
Beating England would fix that.
He'd be a thorn in the sides of Englishmen for decades, a name to be spoken only in whispers, the Dragon who slew the Three Lions.
Rooney, on the other hand, seeks not recognition, but redemption.
Fifty years of hurt make English sympathy for their misfiring millionaires hard to come by.
Every week, there are 300,000 reasons to treat Rooney like no other England captain in history, to savage him on social media and punish him for the perceived sins of a greedy league gone mad.
The criticisms are excessive and often undeserved, but Hodgson's misguided loyalty in persisting with a striker whose pace deserted him years ago only triggered further resentment.
And unlike Bale, Rooney is everywhere - an easy, accessible target to kick whenever he or his team are down.
If nothing else, his prodigious talent deserves a more fitting finale.
Beating Wales would achieve that.
He'd be the Lion who finally lived up to the potential at Euro 2004, coming full circle 12 years later and meeting, for the first time, the expectations of his cynical countrymen.
And on this occasion, there are no shackles, tactically or psychologically, for either footballer.
With Hal Robson-Kanu expected to start on the bench again, Bale should take on "false nine" responsibilities. He can roam where he pleases.
Rooney will again nestle in behind the front three. Without the scoring pressures of a conventional striker, he can also roam where he pleases.
Creative freedom offers both the promise of victory and a lasting legacy.
Bale and Rooney are already known to millions, with their faces familiar in every football city.
But if they deliver tonight, they'll never be forgotten where it matters most. At home.
England have got a lot of attacking talent, but I don't think what they've got is anything like we've got in Gareth. Gareth's on a different level — he is just such a special player.
— Wales defender James Chester
By the numbers
This will be the 102nd time that England and Wales have played each other, although this is the first time they have met in the Finals of a major tournament. England have won 66 matches, Wales 14 and there have been 21 draws.