Yes, folks, this is it. The grand swan song to international football has arrived in the fourteenth itineration of the European Championships. As you may well know this will be the last version of the tournament to feature sixteen teams. The next tournament, hosted in France (homeland of a certain Michel Platini), will feature twenty four sides and could even exceed the drudgery of recent World Cups. But let’s not dwell on the negatives. Here’s a round up of the group stages…
What was supposed to be the Group of Dull ended up providing no shortage of entertainment. The opening match of the tournament, Poland vs. Greece, looked, on paper, like it could have been the worse opener ever to a major tournament. Thankfully Platini’s scriptwriters threw in plenty of twists to satisfy. Lewandowski, the top goal scorer in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund, notched a first half goal in a opening period dominated by the co-hosts. Some poor refereeing also saw a Greek player harshly sent off. After the half time break Greece nicked an early goal and proceeded to take the game by the scruff of the neck. The Polish keeper, Szczesny, then got sent off and his replacement, Przemyslaw Tyton, saved the resulting penalty to spare the home side’s blushes.
The other match on the opening day was Russia’s 4-1 trouncing of the Czech Republic. At that point it looked like the Russians would stroll through the group stages but in the end they were eliminated, along with Poland, after somehow failing to score against the Greeks in a 1-0 loss. The Russians’ capitulation just managed to damper the Pole’s exit.
Player of the group: The Russian youngster, Alan Dzagoev, just twenty two years old, bagged three goals in three matches. He showed speed, a deft touch and a deadly knack for being at the right place at the right time. Its a shame he won’t feature in the knockout rounds. It would be shocking not to see him leave CSKA Moscow in the near future.
Goal of the group: Polish captain Blaszczykowski’s belter against Russia in their second match was a fantastic solo effort. After cutting in from the right, the Pole sent his smashing left foot effort spinning into the far post. Cracker-jack of a goal.
Yes, the Group of Death brought us the culling of Bert van Marwijk’s Holland (hopefully we will never see De Jong and van Bommel line up next to each other again), a side that took Spain to extra-time in the World Cup and was highly favoured to win Euro 12. In the end they lost all three group matches, looking slow, uncreative, and completely ineffectual. That’s payback for messing with Total Football.
The pick of the Group B matches was Portugal’s late 3-2 win over Denmark, who had conquered Holland in their opening match. Denmark overcame an early Portuguese goal to lead 2-1, only to slip up and lose the match in the closing minutes. The win helped Portugal on their progress to the knockout rounds despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s best efforts to go on holiday early (after approximately 3,542 shots he finally scored two goals against a Holland team who didn’t have the slightest clue about defending).
The other side in the group and big favourites to take the championship, Germany, were the only team in the tournament to win all three group stage matches. They managed the feat without much effort and certainly look to have a gear or two left in them. With a relatively easy quarterfinal against Greece, they could square up against England in the semi-finals and send Sun journalists into a frenzy.
Player of the group: No single person excelled in Group B, so we’ll pick a player that excelled in disappointment – Robin van Persie. After setting records left and right for Arsenal this year, the Dutch striker had an abysmal tournament. Not that he will feature as the scapegoat for Holland’s failures, but had van Persie been on song the team would have fared much better.
Goal of the group: While Krohn-Dehli’s cheeky feint against Holland was a joyful surprise, the German opener against Holland was a true beauty – both a magnificent team effort and an exhibition of individual talent. A goal made in Bavaria saw Muller come in off the right wing, slide a pass to Schweinsteiger who played a inch perfect through ball into the box for Mario Gomez. The striker still had it all to do as he pirouetted and brought the ball under control in a perfect position to smash the ball into the Dutch net.
Yawn. The worst group of this championships. Defending champions Spain had the audacity to start their opening match with six midfielders and despite smacking four past Ireland, haven’t looked anything impressive. The other team to make it through to the quarterfinals, Italy, also looked less than cohesive. The one thing you can say this group taught us is that Euro 16 will, in all likelihood, be extremely dull if it features eight teams worse than Ireland.
Player of the group: He might be old and rickety but Andrea Pirlo further highlighted why his free transfer to Juventus last year was such a coup. Thirty three years young he buried the only direct free kick goal of the tournament against Spain and orchestrated the Italian midfield fantastically in that oft-called quarterback role.
Goal of the group: The Italians didn’t have too many moments to shout about, but Mario Balotelli’s goal against the Irish was spectacular. John O’Shea was having a nice tug on his shirt but the Italian hot-head still managed to slam a wondrous scissor kick volley past Shay Given.
Win or lose, play well or poorly, scandal or not, there is just nothing like the circus of the English national football side. For a side that has never won the European Championships, and only won the World Cup once forty eight years ago, the hype is hilarious. Many pundits were playing down England’s chances pre-tournament. This was down to a new manager, Roy Hodgson, with little time to prepare, a transitional squad and a plethora of injuries (which brought the comedy of selecting Liverpool’s inexperienced Martin Kelly over veteran Rio Ferdinand, and the shocking decision to ignore Micah Richards). This surprising downsizing of expectations had a interesting effect. Suddenly all the pundits, critics and hype-journalists realized that without the burden of expectation, England had a fantastic chance to win the tournament.
Whether or not John Terry and Ashley Cole can add to a bizarrely successful year is yet to be seen, but England have already managed to be dour (against the French), highly entertaining (in the 4-4-2 showdown against Sweden) and wasteful (against Ukraine, thanks to a out of sorts Wayne Rooney on his return from suspension). One thing you do have to point out about England is that they have been organized in the back, and that Steven Gerrard is in fantastic form. If they continue on this path and Rooney finds his feet, England might just manage to match the expectation to do better than everyone expects.
Joining England from this group will be France, who, as usual, have been anything but consistent. They will face Spain in the quarterfinals and could easily beat them or bend over and take a good thrashing from the World Champions.
Player of the group: Good old Stevie G is back. His assist for Carroll must have had Kenny Dalglish cursing the veteran midfielder’s lengthy absences this season for Liverpool. Against Ukraine Gerrard also pulled off a fabulous move on the rightwing to ghost past the Ukrainian defense and provide a cross for Wayne Rooney’s goal. In that same match he produced the crunching tackle of the tournament. To the relief of fans of English football everywhere, it was nice to see the referee hold his whistle.
Goal of the group: Sheva’s goals against Sweden turned back the clock, but the goal of the group has to go to another player heading home early, the controversial Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His volley in Sweden’s final match (after they had already been knocked out of the tournament) against France was phenomenal. While Ibrahimovic is undoubtedly a selfish player, these moments of pure genius can almost make you forget his lesser qualities. No one will be crying over the Swede’s absence from the knockouts, but this was a goal to savour.