Northern Ireland certainly provided some food for thought when selecting the best from Match-day Two’s round of action, after several put in huge performances in a historic first major tournament victory for 36 years against Ukraine in Lyon.
Michael O’Neill’s side are therefore well represented in the Match-day Two XI, but in a round of fixtures where some of the tournament favourites stood out and others toiled; who else makes the cut this week?[separator type=”thin”]
Coach: Michael O’Neill (Northern Ireland)
After a blunt display from his team in their opening 1-0 defeat to Poland in Nice, O’Neill took a real gamble with five changes to his team including two major surprises.
Top scorer in qualifying Kyle Lafferty was dropped to the bench to make way for QPR’s Conor Washington, and Jonny Evans was redeployed in the unfamiliar left-back position.
The move proved a masterstroke, as Northern Ireland put in a fantastic defensive display and constantly looked a threat going forward, particularly showing their authority from set-piece situations.
O’Neill’s game-plan was perfect, and he masterminded a historic 2-0 victory over Ukraine, a first major tournament victory for Northern Ireland since they toppled host-nation Spain at the 1982 World Cup.
The perfect tonic after their opening defeat, and it was made all the sweeter as one of O’Neill’s substitutes Niall McGinn came off the bench to kill the game with the vital second goal right at the death.
A faultless afternoon, a perfect blueprint for victory and a deserved place in the dugout to lead the Matchday Two squad.[separator type=”thin”]
Goalkeeper: Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland)
Of all the goalkeeping performances worthy of consideration in Match-day Two, Michael McGovern’s is the one to get the nod.
He looked calm and assured in goal and wasn’t a bystander to the action throughout the match either, getting his body behind a strong Yaroslav Rakitskiy shot before the break and pulled off a critical save late on to preserve Northern Ireland’s lead before McGinn killed the game.
Right-Back: Juanfran (Spain)
The Atlético Madrid right-back seems to have put the pain of his Champions League Final penalty miss behind him after this fantastic display in international colours.
He managed to get up and down the right flank proficiently and his deliveries were spot-on for the majority of the match, which proved enough to pip Kyle Walker to the jersey.
As eager to get back as he was to burst forward and join the attack, his dynamic play overlapping his winger adds a new dimension to the Spanish attack.
Centre-Back: Arlind Ajeti (Albania)
The Frosinone defender recovered well from an early miscue to shackle France’s forwards in a superb performance, with a string of blocks, tackles, interceptions and clearances.
He nullified the threat of Olivier Giroud up front and rendered Dimitri Payet ineffective in the Number Ten role throughout the first half.
Albania capitulated after he was withdrawn with concussion to lose 0-2, severely missing his calming influence in their rear-guard.
A bold performance against a quality French attack merits a place in this team, and he is unfortunate that his team couldn’t see out the result in his absence.
Centre-Back: Gareth McAuley (Northern Ireland)
West Bromwich Albion’s McAuley was a constant set-piece menace to the Ukrainian defence during Northern Ireland’s 2-0 victory and put in a solid defensive display to help his team.
This was before he made himself a hero just after the break, breaking the deadlock with a towering header from Oliver Norwood’s free-kick to propel the green and white army into the lead.
It was Northern Ireland’s first major tournament goal since the 1986 World Cup, and having put in a man-of-the-match performance and made history to boot, it is nigh impossible to overlook McAuley here.
Left-Back: Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland)
Switched to an unfamiliar role on the left of the back four, Jonny Evans’ performance didn’t give the impression that he was a man out of position.
He was a class act at left-back, winning important challenges and distributing the ball well, besides neutralising Ukraine’s right-wing live wire Andriy Yarmolenko.
He stood out compared to other more regular left sided defenders across the week’s fixtures and fully merits his place in the team.[separator type=”thin”]
Right-Centre-Midfield: Wayne Rooney (England)
The England captain was the coolest man in Lens during his country’s crucial Group B win over British rivals Wales.
Deployed on the right side of a narrow three-man midfield, the Manchester United stalwart looks far closer to his potent best and he ran the show against the Welsh with an exhibition of pinpoint passing and switches of play.
Having taken over set-piece duty from Harry Kane, his deliveries always spelled danger for the Wales defence and he had a huge impact in lifting his team when they needed picking up.
His influence will be vital for England’s Euro 2016 hopes.
Centre-Midfield: Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
The mercurial Iniesta makes the cut for the second round in a row after another superb display for the defending champions in their 3-0 drubbing of Turkey.
He pulled all the strings in midfield for the second game running, with three key passes and a match-high of 99 completed passes, 78 in the Turkish half of the field.
It was a masterful display from the whole Spanish team in the most dominant display of Euro 2016 so far, and Iniesta was once more at the heart of it, and fully merits his place in the XI.
Left-Centre-Midfield: Jamie Ward (Northern Ireland)
Nottingham Forest’s pacey winger completes the Northern Irish contingency in Match-day Two’s squad.
He was a threat to the Ukrainian defence throughout their match in probably his best performance yet for his country.
He was a nuisance down the left flank and always had right-back Fedetskiy looking over his shoulder.
A sterling display and a deserved place in the side.
Central-Attacking-Midfield: Marek Hamšík (Slovakia)
In a masterclass performance, Hamšík set up Slovakia’s first goal before scoring a beauty of a second, curling in a powerful shot which cannoned in off the woodwork after Vladimir Weiss’ pass from a short corner.
Just as he did in Slovakia’s opening defeat to Wales, he touched the ball more times than any of his teammates, also making more passes and winning possession on twelve occasions.
He proved once again that he is Slovakia’s key man and he was instrumental in leading his country to their first win at a European Championship.
He was the lynchpin in all of Slovakia’s creativity, and his coach Ján Kozák heaped on the praise after his latest performance, declaring the Napoli midfielder as “ready to play for a very big club”.[separator type=”thin”]
Centre-Forward: Alvaro Morata (Spain)
After a toothless opening performance against the Czechs, Juve’s Morata looked a different player as he bagged a brace in Spain’s 3-0 demolition of Turkey.
His first was an immaculate header into the top corner from Nolito’s pass over the top, and his second a composed finish after Jordi Alba squared the ball across goal.
He showed good movement throughout the game and was constantly a handful for the Turkish defence getting in behind.
Having found their ruthless streak at Euro 2016, maintaining his goalscoring form will be important for Spain if they are to keep their cutting edge intact and retain their European crown.
Centre-Forward: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
Lukaku looked a shadow of the player he has been at times for Everton this season in an underwhelming opening defeat to Italy where the whole Belgian team tactically, technically and in terms of organisation, fell drastically short.
With no goals in eleven games for club or country, and his place in the Red Devils’ starting eleven under threat, Lukaku promptly set about silencing his critics, putting his wasteful performance against Italy behind him to score a brace in Belgium’s 3-0 demolition of the Republic of Ireland.
After an ineffective opening 45 minutes, he was fed by Kevin De Bruyne moments into the second half and placed the ball back across goal and into the corner; Belgium’s first goal at the European Championships for 16 years.
He then showed composure to finish off some great build-up play by Eden Hazard for his second and Belgium’s third later in the game.
With two-well executed finishes, coach Marc Wilmots will be hoping his striker has rediscovered his goal-scoring touch, for Belgian hopes in France may well depend on Lukaku’s capacity to perform as he did in the second half against the Irish on a consistent basis.
He played a big part in Belgium’s record-equalling biggest win at a major tournament (since their 3-0 win over El Salvador at the World Cup in 1970) and fully merits his place up top in the Match-day Two XI.[separator type=”thin”]
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