Euro 2016: Taking stock after a frenetic first five days

By Samuel Charles

Hosting the largest European Championship in history, France has now seen all 24 countries play their first group-stage games. After 12 games in group play, there has yet to be a scoreless game in this year's Euros, but there wasn't any team whose offense looked overly explosive, as of yet. No team scored more than two goals, and no game saw more than three goals thus far.

Something to remember: In my preview of tournament favorites, I noted that this year’s Euro is using the exact same formats as the 24-team World Cups in 1986, 1990 and 1994, and in all three of those tournaments at least one third-place team reached the semifinals and lost to the eventual winner.

Third in its group, Belgium lost to eventual champion Argentina in the 1986 semifinals, third-place Argentina reached the 1990 World Cup final, and lost to West Germany. In 1994, Italy reached the World Cup final in the USA, before losing to Brazil on penalties, after finishing third in its group behind Mexico and Ireland.

Group Notes:

Group A: France beat Romania 2-1. Switzerland beat Albania 1-0.

Any dreams Albania had of upsetting Switzerland ended early, with a goal in the fifth minute for the Swiss followed by a second yellow in the 36th that put Albania down to 10 men against a solid Swiss team, predicted to finish second in this group behind France (especially after Romania’s late loss).

France opened the tournament with a late win over Romania, with several of Les Bleus appearing to feel the weight of enormous expectations. Dimitri Payet was not among them. Payet has not always been a part of the national team, with rumors of attitude problems, and earlier this year Coach Didier Deschamps implied that he might not have room for the 29-year-old Payet because he played on the left at West Ham. All of France is certainly glad he reconsidered, as Payet sparkled throughout, scoring a memorable winner in the 89th to open the tournament -- helping the hosts avoid a disappointing start.

Group B: Wales beat Slovakia 2-1. England and Russia tied 1-1.

England played well for much of its game with Russia -- one that made world news for all the wrong reasons -- and then the Three Lions reminded their fans how they can disappoint an entire country in the blink of an eye, by conceding a late goal that ceded control in a balanced group to its U.K neighbors.

Wales, playing in its first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, grabbed a win in the 81st minute with a goal by Hal Robson-Kanu, after Slovakia had tied the game in the 61st. Gareth Bale got the party started early by scoring on a free kick to the far post, with the keeper caught cheating the wrong way --- causing celebration in Cardiff.

Group C: Germany beat Ukraine 2-0. Poland beat Northern Ireland 1-0.

None of the tournament’s big favorites were overly impressive out of the gate, Germany was no different, with Bastian Schweinsteiger's 92nd minute goal boosting the final margin. Although some may have forgotten Germany’s 2014 World Cup run was not without hiccups, as other than blowout wins over Portugal and Brazil, the world champions’ games were quite tight. Joachim Loew chose to play without a true striker (he doesn't have a top-shelf one available), and there remain concerns about the backline, but unless Poland can spring a surprise, Germany should win this group.

Paired with one of the world's best pure strikers, in Robert Lewandowski, 22-year-old Arkadiusz Milik is 'the other guy' on a Polish team that impressed during qualifying, but it was Milik, who scored 21 league goals for Ajax this season, netting Poland's winner just after halftime, handing Northern Ireland a loss in its first major tournament appearance in 30 years.

Group D: Spain beat Czech Republic 1-0. Croatia beat Turkey 1-0.

Winner of the last two Euros, and the 2010 World Cup, Spain owned 72% of possession against a Czech Republic that felt it had done enough to earn a point, but a moment of genius, and beautiful delivery, in the 87th minute by Andres Iniesta found Gerard Pique for a crucial winner in a tough group. David De Gea started in goal ahead of Iker Casillas, which seemed a simple decision based on current form, but Vicente del Bosque was reluctant to replace Spain's longtime captain.

Darijo Srna has long been one of the best right backs in the world, while not always recognized as such, having played at Shakhtar Donetsk since 2003. Now 34, Srna helped lead his team to a win over Turkey on Sunday without knowing his father Uzeir had passed away, which he was told after the game. Croatian coach Ante Cacic and a Croatian delegation accompanied Srna to attend his father's funeral. Captain of Shakthar, and Croatia since 2009, Srna is Croatia's most capped player, and you would expect his teammates to rally around their hugely popular leader, who is expected play in Friday's game against the Czech Republic.

Croatia's win also produced what may be the goal of the tournament thus far, from its best player --- with Luka Modric displaying his enviable technique from outside the area.

Group E: Italy beat Belgium 2-0, Sweden and Ireland tied 1-1.

Ireland started the second half with a bang against Sweden, when Wes Hoolahan tucked a cross in the 48th, but after keeping Zlatan Ibrahimovic mostly under wraps, the Paris Saint-Germain star -- who is supposedly headed for Manchester United -- put in a dangerous ball that was turned in for an own goal. The draw disappointed both teams, as their next two opponents will be far tougher.

Belgium squaring off with Italy saw a cohesive unit from this less-heralded Azzurri generation marching in one direction past a highly regarded group of Red Devils that looked out of step, as Belgium continues to fall short of expectations based on individual talent. Even after taking a lead, Antonio Conte's team was more aggressive offensively than Italian soccer stereotypes would suggest, and Italy, the Euro 2012 runner-up, looked like it may yet be a factor in France 2016. However, it would be premature to write off Belgium, which is still favored to progress, although these Red Devils are in desperate need of a chemistry class.

Italy’s first goal was sparked from midfield by Juve's Leonardo Bonucci, one of the world’s best passers from off the backline.

Group F:Hungary beat Austria 2-0, Portugal and Iceland tied 1-1.

Tuesday offered two of the most surprising results thus far. Austria arrived with Bayern Munich star David Alaba and a ton of momentum, with nine wins and one draw during qualifying, but lost to lightly regarded Hungary, coughing up a late goal could prove especially painful -- as goal differential is the first tiebreaker after points for third-place teams from different groups.

Portugal was the only semifinalist from Euro 2012 that failed to win its opening group game this year (Spain, Italy and Germany all won theirs). Cristiano Ronaldo's team authored a dominant first half against Iceland, which included a goal by Nani off a nice combination on Portugal's right wing. Birkir Bjarnason started the second half with a goal he'll never forget, giving his team hope, as Iceland, a country of 330,000 people, saw raucous support at the stadium in Saint-Etienne, and held on for a critical point against the group favorite in its first ever game at a major tournament.

Ronaldo was left disappointed after Tuesday’s draw, during which he tied Luis Figo for most appearances for Portugal's national team, but Cristiano remained as gracious as ever.

"It was a little bit frustrating, we tried hard to win the game, Iceland didn't try anything," Ronaldo said. "They scored a goal, they created two chances in the 90 minutes and otherwise they got every player behind the ball, they put the bus in the net, so it's difficult when one team doesn't try but Portugal tries and plays football and tries to win the game."

1 comment about "Euro 2016: Taking stock after a frenetic first five days".
  1. ROBERT BOND, June 15, 2016 at 8:52 a.m.

    Man City seems to think Sane is a decent forward, need to try him instead of the too short Goetze-getting Hummels back will be huge........if i could have used my scalped ticket, i would have been quietly sitting with the Poles...rebooking that ticket for Hamburg in October, Paris is a mess right now.....

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