The Group stage is at an end, twelve frenetic days and forty-eight pulsating games later and we have arrived at our first rest-day. With no Euro action for us to feast on this evening, many face a night of classic withdrawal as football fans across Europe and the wider world struggle to pass the hours without the dulcet tones of match commentary to soothe those aching bones. Still, the pause is but a short-one, with only twenty-four hours until the quarter-finals get underway, meaning there’s no need to fret too much just yet. So, on this day of rest, just to keep the interest up and in an attempt to keep boredom at bay, I thought I’d pen this article looking at how the groups finished, the winners and losers and having a brief glance at how the quarter-finals shape-up.
Group A which featured Greece, Czech Republic, Russia and co-hosts Poland, was, without doubt, on paper, the weakest group of the four. Russia were huge favourites to come out on top and, after thumping the Czechs 4-1 in their first game, looked a shoe-in for the quarter finals. Poland began in positive fashion, taking the lead early on in the opening game of the tournament against Greece. With the Greeks then having a man sent off in the first half for two very soft yellow card decisions, it seemed as if the Poles, many peoples’ favourites to finish in second place in Group A, would get off to a winning start.
Greece, however, revel in upsetting the proverbial apple-cart, as they did in 2004 when they defeated hosts Portugal in the opening fixture, and fought back, snatching an opportunistic equaliser. Moments later, after Szczesny’s ill-timed challenge had earned him a straight red card, the Greek captain, Karagounis, had the chance to put his side ahead from the spot, however, the substitute keeper, in what was his first action, saved the penalty and kept his side in the game. 1-1 it finished.
In the second round of matches, the Czechs re-found their composure and, after two goals in the opening six minutes, went on to record a 2-1 victory against Greece. Russia, after weathering an early storm, took a first-half lead against Poland. The Poles, however, determined not to lose against their most hated enemy, took advantage of a less than convincing second-half display from the visitors and Jakub Blaszczykowski scored a stunning equaliser. With that match finishing all square, the final game between the Czechs and the Poles was a straight shoot-out.
Poland started brightly, with energy and created a few chances but, as the game progressed, they ran out of steam and a disjointed second half performance allowed the Czechs to take control. The superior quality in the Czech ranks shone through and in the end they emerged as fairly comfortable 1-0 winners, sending the co-hosts spinning out. In the other game, Russia only needed a draw to go through but, after dominating the first-half completely, a horrible defensive lapse from a routine throw-in situation allowed Karagounis in to score for Greece. Try as they did, Russia could not get the equaliser that they desperately needed, and it was the Greeks and not the Russians who would qualify behind the Czechs, causing a massive upset in the process.
Group B, the “Group of Death”, containing Holland, Germany, Portugal and Denmark. Germany were the clear favourites to win the Group, with Holland certainly the bookies’ favourites to finish second. The opening games were drab affairs, Germany edged past a cagey Portugal thanks to a late Mario Gomez strike, securing three points. The Dutch, on the other hand, despite creating innumerable clear-cut opportunities to score, could not hit the back of the net for love nor money. Denmark, no slouches in their own right, were fully committed and determined and played, as they did for the whole tournament, selflessly for each other as a team, something which allowed them to defend their one goal lead successfully. Holland, in marked contrast, did not, and that may go a long way towards explaining why they could not respond to set-backs throughout the tournament.
Germany, playing Holland in game two, duly showed their class and, after van Persie missed an early sitter, took control of the game. A 2-1 win cemented the Germans at the top of Group B after two games, with Portugal narrowly beating Denmark 3-2 after a cracking battle in the other game. Going into the last round of matches in the group, Holland needed a two goal win over Portugal to qualify, with the aid of a German victory over Denmark.
Despite taking the lead early on, Holland were poor and very soon Portugal were in full control of the game. Two goals from Ronaldo, his first strikes of the competition, secured a Portuguese win and thus, progression to the next stage. That progression was at the expense of the Danes who, after going behind to Germany, responded quickly with an equaliser and had chances to win the match at 1-1 but failed to capitalise on them. Had they done so, Deutschland would have been facing the most unlikely of eliminations. As it transpired, however, Germany took their chance when it came and ran out 2-1 winners, topping the group with a perfect record, the only team in the competition to have achieved that.
Group C contained Ireland, Croatia, Spain and Italy. No prizes for guessing who went out first. Yes, it was Ireland! The Irish, having arrived at the tournament on the back of some magnificent defensive displays, were unable to reproduce them in tournament conditions against teams of superior quality. In the end, Trapattoni’s men lost all three of their encounters, scoring just one goal and conceding nine, the second worst performance by any team ever in the history of the European Championships (after Yugoslavia in 1984) I’m reliably informed. Spain and Italy produced a high quality game in the opening group game, which ultimately ended 1-1 whilst Croatia’s victory over Ireland saw them top the group after one game.
Italy and Croatia produced a less high quality although still thoroughly engrossing game in the second round, which again finished in a 1-1 draw, whilst Spain thrashed Ireland 4-0 in the other fixture. Entering the last round of matches, Italy needed to beat Ireland to ensure qualification and, if that happened, nothing less than a victory for Croatia over Spain would allow Bilic’s men to progress, thanks to UEFA’s intensely confusing co-efficient system.
Despite belief from some, including myself, that Ireland might have been able to snatch a draw against the Italians, this did not come to pass. Although the Irish were far better in their final game, perhaps because the pressure was off, Italy did just enough, as per usual, to win the game. For my money, Croatia deserved to beat Spain and were certainly not helped by some unkind penalty box decisions from Wolfgang Stark. However, in the end, Spanish possession eventually yielded a 1-0 win, which saw them top the Group C, followed by Italy, with Croatia very unfortunate to be going home.
So to Group D, which involved France, England, Sweden and Ukraine. France and England were the big favourites to qualify, in that order, and, meeting in the Group D opener, produced a cagey game which resulted in a 1-1 draw. Co-hosts Ukraine opened up against perennial also-rans Sweden. After going a goal behind early in the second-half, Ukraine rallied and, buoyed on by fanatical home support, responded with two quick-fire goals from national icon, Andriy Shevchenko. Shevchenko, at one time the best striker in Europe, if not the world, is a hero in his homeland and, now playing for Dynamo Kiev, it was fantastic to see this former giant of the game rise to the occasion on the biggest stage of all.
Unforunately for Sheva, France would prove tougher opponents than the Swedes and the striker was powerless to prevent a 2-0 reverse. In the other second round game, possibly the match of the tournament so far, England triumphed 3-2 over Sweden. The English took the lead in the first half through Andy Carroll, in his first game of the competition, but were pegged back and then overtaken by two Olof Mellberg goals. The introduction of Walcott for Milner swung the game back in England’s favour and, after scoring one and making the other, Walcott helped his side to a famous win, knocking out the Swedes as a by-product.
Going into the final round, France were assured of qualification provided they didn’t lose heavily to Sweden. Ukraine faced England, without the injured Shevchenko, knowing only a win would keep them in. Sweden, already eliminated, exposed the French frailty at centre-back, with Mexes given a torrid time. Although the French had chances, they looked laboured at times and Sweden’s pressing gameplan bore fruit as they ran out 2-0 winners. Ukraine, unfortunately for them, went down to a Wayne Rooney goal in his first game of the tournament.
It was a poor match with neither side creating many chances, however, Ukraine made the running and can count themselves semi-unfortunate not to have registered an equaliser, as midway through the second half, after a break-away, the Ukrainians had the ball clearly over the line before John Terry cleared the danger. The reason I say semi is that the player in question appeared to be offside from the initial pass, something which was also not spotted by the officials. So Ukraine went down, but they did so with a fight and Zlatan got his wonder-goal, that an ego the size of his demands but, ultimately, it is England and France who come through the group and, somewhat surprisingly, in that order.
As a good friend of mine has been known to say, “and that was that”. The group stage is over, eight teams are gone and eight remain. There are surprises in both the eliminated pile and the safe set but these are the nations still in contention: Czech Republic, Greece, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, England and France. The quarter final match-ups are as follows: Czech Rep vs Portugal (Thu), Germany vs Greece (Fri), Spain vs France (Sat) and England vs Italy (Sun). These are all intriguing matches for varying reasons and just which teams will emerge to reach the semi-final is a matter up for discussion and debate across the continent. In my next post I’ll add my tuppence to the argument.
Karagounis image by ~CoquA. Rooney image by sopitascom