Twelve months after the Euro 2020 group stages were supposed to end, they finally have.
The group stages had it all – trauma, heartbreak, relief, upsets, joy, heroics – and now it is time for the knockouts. Sixteen teams will be moving on, and eight teams have already gone home. But which sixteen, and did they deserve to move on? And will eliminated teams feel proud of their performances? Let’s take a look:
Rather unsurprisingly, Italy, who many consider to be favorites for the tournament, won Group A. What was somewhat surprising was the way they dominated Switzerland, Wales, and Turkey, both offensively and defensively. Italy are a force to be reckoned with and face Austria next round.
Wales, meanwhile, were the only team in Group A that managed to hold Italy to fewer than three goals. Better yet, they did so with ten men after a questionable red card for Ethan Ampadu. Wales looked shaky against Switzerland in a draw, but improved as they went on to finish 2nd with four points and face Denmark in the Round of 16.
Switzerland will advance as a third-placed team, finishing on four points, but their form is also concerning. The Swiss failed to take their chances against Wales in a game they should have won, were torn to shreds by Italy, and became the only team to concede a goal to a poor Turkish team. A tough matchup with France awaits in the Round of 16.
Who saw this coming? Many people, myself included, were high on Turkey‘s chances to make a run this tournament. The squad was young, the manager is experienced, the defense was solid. Somehow, Turkey lost all three matches (by multiple goals) and were one of only two teams to finish without a single point.
No team is ranked higher in the world by FIFA than Belgium, who showed why in Group B. Belgium defeated Russia 3-0, a motivated Denmark 2-1, and Finland 2-0. They out-possessed, out-scored and out-passed every opponent. They have a tricky match in the Round of 16, however: Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Undoubtedly the best story this tournament is that of Denmark, who have reached the knockouts despite the dramatic events surrounding Christian Eriksen. You can read more about Denmark’s past at tournaments here, but the future looks tough as they face Wales in the Round of 16.
Finland is one of two third place teams that will not be advancing to the knockout stage, and that’s fair. They finnished (get it?) with just three points, a victory over Denmark the day that Christian Eriksen collapsed. Whilst both teams were affected by this, the Danes were probably more so as they outshot Finland 22 to one and still lost. Finland lost both of their remaining games.
This tournament was a real wake-up call for Russia. With a combined score of 2-7, Russia won once: against Finland. Manager Stanislav Cherchesov’s future is in jeopardy following failure to advance, and rightfully so. I have praised Cherchesov in the past (ok, two weeks ago…) but his strategy against Denmark left a lot to be desired. Needing a draw or a win, Russia played entirely too defensively to open the game and failed to get any offense going. They lost 4-1. I also said good things going into the tournament about Russia’s youth, but only two players under the age of 23 started a game at the Euros. In the 2018 World Cup, they had four players under the age of 23 start. Moving on is best for both Cherchesov and Russia.
The Netherlands is the last of three teams that won every single group stage game, with only Ukraine posing much of a threat. It is somewhat worrying for the Oranje that they blew a two-goal lead against Ukraine, but they then looked very convincing against both Austria and North Macedonia. Manager Frank de Boer might not be popular among Dutch fans, but he seems to be doing just fine. Netherlands face the Czech Republic.
For the first time ever, Austria have advanced to the Euro group stage. It wasn’t without hiccups – striker Marko Arnautovic was banned a match for offensive comments towards Macedonian players, prompting captain David Alaba to grab Arnautovic’s jaw to try to silence him as well as talented Christoph Baumgartner being forced to play through a clear head injury – but Austria ultimately advanced. A tough match against Italy is next.
Ukraine had to wait anxiously to see if they would be advancing as a third-placed team – and they will. Despite only having three points, Ukraine have a better goal differential than both Slovakia and Finland so they are the only team with just three points to be advancing. Ukraine impressed against the Netherlands and beat North Macedonia, but they weren’t good enough against Austria. They’ll have to improve if they want to beat Sweden in the next round.
Qualifying was never likely for North Macedonia, but they made it to the tournament anyway. The Macedonians fought bravely but were unable to come away with a point, finishing with zero. They were, however, able to score their first goal at the Euros. Fittingly, that goal came from national team legend Goran Pandev, who is calling it quits for the national team after 122 appearances.
Is it coming home? Fans of England seem to think so, if they can get past Germany. Why should fans be excited? Only England and Italy have allowed no goals so far, and England have great depth. Why should fans worry? Six players have scored more goals than the entire England squad has, and much of the English team is recovering from major injuries. Also the whole Germany at Wembley thing. Still, this might be a good time to play Germany as the Germans have struggled recently.
If you were looking for exciting, high scoring games, then Group D really disappointed. Croatia finished as the group’s highest scorer, with just four goals in three games. Croatia is another team with good, young players, but the reliance of the team on 35-year old Luka Modric and 32-year old Ivan Perisic is concerning. Next up for the Croatians is Spain.
Czech Republic will be immensely dissatisfied with a third-place finish, as the Czechs had been in first after beating Scotland and tying Croatia. Unfortunately, Patrik Schick and co. were unable to score against England and Croatia scored twice late, with Croatia finishing higher because they scored more goals. Czech Republic finished third and face the Netherlands next.
After losing to Czech Republic in their first match, the odds of Scotland advancing appeared nonexistent. Then, Scotland tied England – and the impossible looked possible. Scotland had never, ever made it past the group stages of an international tournament – but all they had to do was beat Croatia. After falling behind, Scotland tied the match at the half. Sadly, Croatia scored twice and the Scots were out.
For the second straight tournament, Zlatan-less Sweden have made the knockout stages. Sweden looked doomed following Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury, but have recovered nicely to win the group with seven points. Just like England, Sweden need to start scoring – prior to playing Poland, Sweden had scored just one goal in two games. The goal was a penalty kick. Sweden face Ukraine, and will need to shut down Ukraine’s high-scoring offense.
Don’t let Spain‘s point tally and goal differential fool you – Spain were terrible. They missed two penalties, had all-round terrible finishing, and didn’t use superior possession and passing to their advantage the way that Belgium did. No goals against Sweden, a goal that may have been offside against Poland, and then five against self-destructing Slovakia (two own goals, including one punched into the Slovakian net by goalkeeper Martin Dubravka). The only thing that saved Spain was good defense, and even that looked vulnerable at times.
Slovakia were sitting pretty – three points after two games and a solid performance against Sweden. All they needed to do was finish with a better goal differential than Ukraine (-1) and they would advance. Or better yet, finish with a draw and clinch second. Instead, Slovakia lost 5-0 and were eliminated, despite a third-place finish.
Poland were so close. Poland needed a win in the final match of Group E against Sweden to advance, and after quickly falling behind, things were looking grim. Then Sweden doubled, and with half an hour left Poland were good as gone. Then it became the Robert Lewandowski show, with the striker scoring twice, once from long range. Poland pushed for the winner, but unfortunately it was Sweden who found it, with the final score 2-3.
Side Note: Whilst a group stage exit probably eliminates Robert Lewandowski from Ballon d’Or contention, it shouldn’t. Lewandowski scored all but one of Poland’s goals, and scored them from different areas of the field, including a header. His goals were also scored against Sweden and Spain: both teams didn’t concede in any other match. Furthermore, Lewandowski did this with a supporting cast of players from the second tier of England and Russia, and a manager who doesn’t even speak Polish.
Just like Spain, France‘s finished first but the way they played was worrying. They deserved the win against Germany, but the only goal came from Mats Hummels in a botched clearance attempt. They gave up too much on the counter to Hungary, but also played better overall. And the Portugal game was overall pretty messy. France should still be expected to go far, but they probably aren’t most people’s favorites to win the tournament anymore. Up next is Switzerland.
Germany barely avoided a second consecutive group stage exit at a major tournament, avoiding elimination thanks to an 84th minute Leon Goretzka strike. Whilst Germany were in the hardest group, proclaimed the “Group of Death”, it doesn’t change the fact that they were wildly inconsistent. They impressed against Portugal, winning 4-2, but were poor against Hungary. Which Germany shows up against England remains to be seen.
Portugal finished third in Group F, but they, too, limped across the finish line. After beating Hungary 3-0 in the opener, Portugal were looking very likely to go through with three points and a good goal differential. However, that all changed after a 4-2 loss at the hands of Germany. Needing a result against France to advance, they got one – just. Two Cristiano Ronaldo penalties and some questionable refereeing decisions gave Portugal a 2-2 draw.
Hungary were always on the outside looking in when it came to advancing from this group, and injuries to key players like Dominik Szoboszlai and Daniel Gazdag furthered this. The Hungarians did well and put in some performances they can be proud of, tying both France and Germany.
With the group stages being stranger than ever, the Round of 16 will be where questions are well and truly answered. Are England for real? Are the Netherlands, France, and Spain as good as their point tallies suggest? Can Denmark’s fairytale continue? Who has the best chance of winning the Ballon d’Or?
We will find out soon enough.
Image Courtesy of Кирилл Венедиктов, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.
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