The group stages of EURO 2016 are over, and we must all now live in the unsettling reality of not having any football for two whole days. Before we can begin our lives again with the Round of 16 fixtures, let us take a look back through the six groups and select some of the outstanding and noteworthy moments of the tournament so far.
Game of the Groups: Croatia 2-1 Spain
While Hungary and Portugal’s 3-3 draw was the most ridiculous and open game of the tournament, it was this concluding clash of Group D that stood at as the best game. While it was a shame that the wonderful Modric missed out, it was a game that delivered on nearly every level of footballing pleasure. For the dramatists, there was the controversy of penalties missed by both officials and kick takers that provoked genuine talking points after the game. There were also the mishaps of David de Gea, whose off-field antics were now matched in media attention by those on the pitch. Most of all however, it was a game between two of the best teams at the Euros who executed two different yet equally exhilarating tactical plans that created a flowing game of attacking football that pitched orchestrated passing against silky, swift counter-attacks: a closely-contested treat.
Best Team Performance: Italy vs Belgium
This group opener was between a tournament favourite and a side labelled as among the worst in the nation’s history. By its conclusion, we had seen an underwhelming Belgium handed a tactical lesson by Conte’s Italy in a result few saw coming. Belgium had chances, but were hindered by Wilmot’s underwhelming coaching skills. It was his side’s suspect formation that Italy brutally exposed with repeated counter-attacks that worked through their lines far too easily. They then used their outstanding defensive to shut down almost every decent chance against them, primarily through strangling the space usual enjoyed by the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne. It was a comprehensive outwitting of one manager by another, and a damned good game to boot.
Worst Team Performance: Russia v Wales
By the end of this drubbing at the hands of the Welsh, it was a toss-up whether this or their fan’s behaviour was the lowest point of the Russian’s campaign. Wales were good, but were helped massively by a passive, lifeless Russia side that folded at the slightest sight of opposition pressure. The second goal – an embarrassing flop where a left-back was allowed two patient attempts at scoring one on one – was the peak of a performance where the Russians simply vacated the middle of the pitch and allowed Bale and co uninterrupted attempts to run directly at their goal. Before their World Cup in 2018, a lot needs to improve… A LOT.
Both of these teams started in the same group and were expected to be battling for the third spot behind Portugal and Austria. In the end, they made up the top two through different tactical approaches, each surprisingly successful. Iceland were true backs-to-the-wallers, with the lowest possession stats of any team at the tournament. However, a country with a smaller population than Sheffield progressed to the last 16 after some outstanding defensive performances and goals that roared from nowhere and showed an outstanding collective resolve.
Without their heroics, Hungary would have walked this category. Regarded as one of the minnows before a ball was kicked, they have topped a group after scoring six goals, playing very decent attacking football and with the ever-loveable tracksuited Kiraly in goal. Far from scraping though, they deserved their win against Austria and arguably could have taken more from their other two games as well. Even if they were to exit next round, they have had an excellent tournament.
They were several people’s dark horses at the beginning, but Austria slump out of the tournament with just a solitary point against Portugal. After hitting the bar against Hungary in the first few seconds of their campaign, this team thoroughly underwhelmed. They dominated against Iceland in the final game, but were shown both in that game and throughout to be both too reliant on David Alaba and surprisingly open to the counter-attack. Having let many a hipster down with their group showing, these dark horses return to the stables having been clearly the worst performers in arguably the tournament’s easiest group.
Goal of the Groups: Payet v Romania
Just edging out Hamsik’s belter against Russia, this goal was the perfect blend of class, drama and timing. The place: France’s opening game of their own tournament. The pressure: a nervous first game was ticking down to a disappointing draw during which the hosts had looked considerably shaky. Step up Payet. His delicious top-corner curler, with minutes remaining, was a gorgeous goal followed by moving celebrations of a man clearly realising the emotive power of what he had just done. It was quite the goal to wrap up the first game, and we are still looking for one better now.