A Group Stage to Remember
PARIS, France. June 24, 2016. The great exhibition of the tournament known worldwide as the UEFA European Championships has been unfolding in a very interesting fashion. Wednesday marked the end of group stage fixtures, and the knockout matches will commence tomorrow as the tournament unfolds. It’s safe to say that just when we think we’ve seen it all, just another late spark of brilliance, another beautiful finish, another goal, makes us wonder if the word impossible is just an idea. Of the 69 goals scored thus far, 20 have been scored on or after the 76’ minute mark, and 15 have been past the 86’ mark, of which over half were decisive game winners. From France’s central attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet’s 88th minute curler stunning Romania, to Iceland’s fairytale finish that sent Austria home in the 92nd minute, this tournament has been anything but predictable. Questions have been posed, and doubts are on the rise, threatening to undermine the big names in Europe. And the knockout rounds haven’t even begun.
Group A: France, Switzerland, Albania, Romania
Opening the play for the Euro, the hosts played Romania on their familiar turf in Stade de France. After being up by Forward Olivier Giroud’s header, Romania stunned the exuberant crowd with a penalty after a defensive blunder by left back Patrice Evra. The host nation would remain tied until the 88th minute, when Dimitri Payet beat the keeper and netted a left footed laser that would win them the game. Although not a particularly bad overall performance, France was questionable throughout group play. Late goals snatched by Antoine Griezmann against Albania and Dimitri Payet against Romania led to criticism and doubt. Why is one of the best teams in the world, while playing on their home turf, struggling to beat these seemingly easy opponents? A goalless draw with Switzerland yielded more skepticism about the nation’s ability to produce results as a team. Poor performances by young stars in Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann in the tournament opener caused Manager Didier Deschamps to leave them out of the starting eleven for the second fixture. A young and very talented France squad that was in contention for the World Cup in 2014 has not yet brought any notable or convincing performances. The question is, will they? Although recording two wins, a draw, and thereby advancing to the round of 16, France have not turned any heads. They will face the Republic of Ireland in Lyon tomorrow. Second in the group also advancing to the round of 16 are Switzerland, who drew against France and Romania whilst besting Albania. Carried by Arsenal’s young Granit Xhaka in the midfield and Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri on the wing, they will face Poland. The takeaways from this group? France has a lot on the line and need to clean up their act, and although seeming somewhat inefficient, Switzerland have been driven by two-time man of the match winner Xhaka.
Group B: Wales, England, Slovakia, Russia
Both disappointment and joy afflicted the nations of Group B. Russia and Slovakia were sent packing, each with two losses and a draw. The Welsh national team proved their mettle, lead by Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, coming out top of the of the group table. Although handed a tough loss by their English rivals in the last minute of injury time courtesy of Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, Wales silenced doubters by being in contention with England and defeating Russia with ease. Although scoring a late game winner versus Slovakia, Wales’ top class play against England and Russia proved that the team was finding their chemistry, and find it they did. Key performances by a Welsh midfield powerhouse in Liverpool’s Joe Allen and Ramsey and pinpoint accuracy by Bale’s free kicks played a very important role in their victories. Bale is tied for top scorer of the tournament with 3 goals, while his teammate Ramsey’s two assists lead the table. Per their results, the question of whether or not they are an underdog has now developed into whether or not they are the top dogs as they face Northern Ireland in the near future. A very joyous week for Wales; they have proved themselves a top contender for the cup. However, England does not partake in the elation. Expecting a first place finish, they came up short and wound up advancing, but disappointed. Similar to France, England is yet another world class team with many rising young stars and experienced players. With such talent comes great expectations, but unfortunately allowing Russia’s late equalizer and failing to find the back of the net against Slovakia cost them a first place finish. Much to the disdain of their country, England needs to up their game and produce results in the upcoming match against a much-underrated Iceland team in the knockout round on Monday. A tight and compact Slovakian defense lead by Martin Skrtel conceded three goals in their three matches, earning them a spot as a third-place qualifying team. They will face a very capable and in-form Germany on Sunday.
Group C: Germany, Poland, Northern Ireland, Ukraine
With all eyes on the world champions in Group C, it would be very easy to ignore the other teams in the group. Yet this is another group with three teams advancing in Germany, Poland, and Northern Ireland (yes, Northern Ireland). Poland successfully drew with Germany, and took second place in the group with two one-nil victories over Northern Ireland and Ukraine. Seemingly just another European country to have qualified for the tournament, Poland is not to be underestimated. With their attack spearheaded by Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, midfield carried by Dortmund’s Jakub Blaszczykowski, and goalkeepers Fabianski and Szczesny, the Polish possess the best of both experience and talent. Poland is yet another seemingly harmless country to watch out for as they prepare to take on Switzerland. On the other end, the first place German squad rolled over Ukraine with Shkodran Mustafi’s header and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s half volley. By far the most convincing team in the tournament, Germany boasts a 91% pass success rate with the most ball possession averaging 65% each game. With names like Kroos, Ozil, Khedira, and Gotze, the Germans have a very adept midfield line. Skilled on the ball and highly proficient passers, they are the very essence of the world-class talent that brought home the world cup in Brazil. Their back line has yet to concede a goal, credit to Manuel Neuer keeping his net untouched. Ukraine came close though, only to be denied by a goal line clearance by Bayern center back Jerome Boateng. The pace, creativity, and teamwork brought to the Euro by the German squad is very difficult to match, and will prove a tough obstacle for Iceland to overcome. Another underestimated team embodied by Northern Ireland will advance to the next stage, due in large part to their defense, allowing only two goals shared by Germany and Poland. The Northern Irish easily defeated the unlucky Ukraine with a two-nil scoreline, sending them home. Being a belittled and undervalued team, they are another squad to watch out for as they take on Wales.
Group D: Croatia, Spain, Turkey, Czech Republic
Group D boasted four top-notch teams. Czech Republic and Turkey failed to advance as a result of digging themselves into deep holes in the first couple matches. Turkey‘s overall performance was extremely disappointing, especially for a nation with some of the top talents playing in clubs all across Europe. They failed to live up to their results in the 2008 Euro for a second straight time in a row, failing to advance past the group stage in 2012 and 2016. It seems as though Croatia did not forget the 122nd minute equalizer from Turkey that would later send them home in penalty kicks in the knockout round back in 2008. The Turks struggled against Croatia, but were utterly outplayed and suffered a one-nil defeat. Taking another beat down from Spain by 3 goals to none seemed to seal Turkey’s elimination, and although beating Czech Republic two-nil, they could not erase their horrendous performance. Meanwhile, Spain and Croatia battled for first and second place. The Spaniards cruising over the Turkish came as no surprise, playing their quick tiki-taka passing style of play that earned them a 93% passing success rate and an average 61% ball possession overall. However, they struggled to find the back of the net against Czech Republic until Barcelona center back Gerard Pique’s 89th minute header beat goalkeeper Petr Cech. Almost guaranteed the top of the group, the Spaniards struck early with Alvaro Morata’s run rewarded by an assist for Cesc Fabregas. Soon after, Croatian striker Nicola Kalinic netted a lovely tap in goal past Spain’s David De Gea. However, a missed penalty by Spanish skipper Sergio Ramos would prove to be their downfall. A lung-busting run down the left wing by Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic ending in a strike beating De Gea on his near post secured the win (and first place spot) for Croatia. But we have to wonder, how will Spain fair in the upcoming match against a rising Italy? Their only convincing victory was against an uncoordinated Turkish side. On the other hand, Croatia has proved their worth after tying a questionable Czech team, with victories over both Turkey and Spain. Carried by a relentless midfield stuffed with stars such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Ivan Perisic, the Croatians are a dangerous team that will prove a difficult test for Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal tomorrow.
Group E: Italy, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden
The end result of the Group E fixtures ended with a farewell to a legend. Failing to perform, Sweden exited the tournament without a victory. Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic played his final international cap for the Swedish, and bade them farewell. A shame really, with Sweden handed two one-nil losses from Belgium and Italy while tying Ireland a goal apiece. Losing their star striker and undoubtedly the greatest player in Swedish history, one would’ve hoped to have Ibracadabra leave on a good note. Sadly that was not the case. Meanwhile, the Italians will face a tough opponent in Spain, by far the best fixture pitting one European giant against another. Italy stunned a surprised a Vincent Kompany-less Belgium with two unanswered goals and a win against the 2nd ranked team in the world. This came as a surprise to many; Italy had been criticized for bringing the “weakest” team yet to any major tournament. Silencing the haters, Italy proceeded to fend off Sweden and Ibra by a goal; but was shocked by an 88th minute header from Ireland’s Robbie Brady. One might say that it was indeed the luck of the Irish, but they are not a side to be underestimated or trifled with. Facing off against France in the first knockout match tomorrow, we can’t help but wonder if the Irish will be vengeful for Thierry Henry’s handball that lead to a goal which destroyed Ireland’s dreams of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Following the thrashing they received from Italy, a very disappointed Belgium would prove their mettle with a three-nil rout of Ireland, and a wonder strike from midfielder Radja Nainggolan to put Sweden away. Belgium look to be a squad that has found their form, and may contend for the championship with their skill, ability and depth. Although missing Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, Belgium has a solid back line anchored by center backs Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen, not to mention a world class keeper in Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois. A very capable midfield powered by names such as Kevin de Bruyne, Axel Witsel, and Eden Hazard will seek to supply a stacked forward line in Romelu Lukaku, young Divock Origi, and Christian Benteke. They are definitely a team to watch as they prepare to face Hungary on Sunday.
Group F: Hungary, Iceland, Portugal, Austria
Full of surprises and emotions, it’s very easy to just see Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo when glancing at Group F. However, although packing a world class squad, Portugal struggled greatly. Disappointment festered as they drew with David Alaba and Austria, and again with an underdog Iceland. Frustration for Ronaldo was put on display against Hungary. Constantly staying down a goal, Cristiano Ronaldo was visibly distraught after the Hungarians went up three-two. However, they were able to clinch a tie and advance to the knockout round in third place thanks to Ronaldo’s pair of goals. One would think that with such a blend of both young and seasoned talent, Portugal would surely come out on top. Especially while they boast 89% pass success rate and ball possession averaging 61%. However, the goals allowed by the Portuguese confirm that the defense anchored by Real Madrid center back Pepe has to do better. Hungary, having proved their prowess and earning first in the group will face Belgium, while Portugal face a resilient Croatian team. The biggest surprise that left fans all over the world speechless was the performance put on by Iceland. A population of about 330,000, a rumored 8% of the population made up the Iceland fans at the championships. Drawing against Hungary and Portugal, and then later stunning Austria in the 92nd minute to clinch second place, the Nordic nation captured the hearts of viewers all over the world with a fairytale ending. They will face a goal-hungry England on Monday. The Austrians however were sent packing despite boasting defensive stars in David Alaba of Bayern Munich and Christian Fuchs of Leicester City. Stoke City’s Marko Arnautovic failed to find the back of the net in their disappointing and winless run in the group play, displaying an overall lackluster team effort.
All in all, the Euro has been anything but boring. With stakes running high, and emotions wild, the tournament has already been packed with tons of dramatic finishes. Although 24 teams entered the Euro with a dream of hoisting the cup, 8 have had this dream destroyed. The 16 that remain will battle it out starting tomorrow, knowing that there will only be one champion. The question that runs in every players mind, will they be the one to spark brilliance? Or will they return home with empty arms and an unfulfilled dream? One thing is for sure. The round of 16 knockout stage is about to begin, and every player to set foot on the pitch will stop at nothing to win it all. But which team will be the one to make history? The question remains, waiting to be answered by the eleven men to leave it all on the field, risking mind and body for their country.
Featured Images Courtesy of Getty Images
All stats and information courtesy of UEFA.com