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The first round of matches of the group stage at the European Championships came to an end in the wee hours of the morning, when Iceland held Portugal to a draw. And as the dust settled on some hectic action involving two dozen of the best teams in Europe, some things became rather apparent. So here then is our take on seven facts thrown up by the first round of Euro 2016:
There are no easy matches
Portugal were expected to larrup Iceland, Sweden were supposed to not be too stretched by the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland were supposed to hammer Albania…well, at the cost of sounding cliched, if the first stage of the tournament told us anything, it was that there were no easy matches. No team got on the scoreboard three teams and the biggest margin of victory was two goals, and even the likes of Romania and Ukraine held their own against favourites France and Germany for a while. If you are the betting type, we would advise caution!
Italy and Spain are back…
Their early exit from the 2014 World Cup had made football writers pen headlines with “an era ends” theme but if their opening matches were any indication, Italy and Spain are right back in contention for football’s big trophies. And not thanks to any radical tactical makeover but by sticking to basics. Italy were at their calculating, counterattacking best as they soaked up everything the highly-ranked Belgium threw at them and then hit on the counter to emerge 2-0 victors. Spain, meanwhile, showed the world that rumours of the demise of the Tiki Taka had been exaggerated when they literally passed the Czech Republic out the match (618 passes to 177, 72 per cent possession).
…and so is hooliganism in football
After a lull in major tournaments at least, football hooliganism raised its ugly head in France. The 1-1 draw between Russia and England was eclipsed by battles between English and Russian fans. There had also been incidents of fan violence before the match, involving fans of both nations. At the time of writing, Russia had been warned that any further misdemeanour from its supporters would see the team return home with them. We are not too optimistic about how that will work, given the level of sadistic organisation that was seen in the stands, but are keeping our fingers crossed. The Beautiful Game does not need an Ugly Side.
Four British teams, one win
Euro 2016 saw four teams from the UK qualify for the tournament for the first team – England, Republic of Ireland, Northern Island and Wales. But after their first matches, the teams’ combined tally was one win, two draws and a defeat. And the team to notch up a win was not England, whom many had expected to put away Russia, but tiny Wales, who inspired by a never-tiring Gareth Bale beat Slovakia 2-1. The two Irish teams showed more grit than style, but the biggest concern will be for England, who once again turned in a shaky performance in a tournament opener in spite of having an impressive side on paper. Next up is the clash of the Brits: England vs Wales and England can ill afford another draw while a draw will suit the Welsh just fine. Intensity beckons. As for the Irish sides, it really seems to be all about getting third place and hoping others trip up.
France and Germany: great attacks, iffy defences
Two teams that emerged as frontrunners for the trophy in the first stage were World Champions Germany and hosts France. Both teams lived up to their billings as pre-tournament favourites and registered wins. But while very impressive in attack and in the midfield, both teams showed significant frailty in their own final third to give hope to their opponents. Both Romania and Ukraine had their moments against them, and on another day might have rocked their boats. Favourites they might be, but with those curtain-like defences, they are not overwhelming ones. Messrs. Neuer and Llloris – the gentlemen in goal for Germany and France – are likely to have a few sleepless nights given the performances of the personnel assisting them in defending goals.
Look out for…Hungary and Iceland
The one side that has emerged as a dark horse in the opening week of the tournament is unheralded Hungary. No, this is not a side in the mould of Puskas’ magnificent Magyars of the fifties, but it showed enough flair in attack and steel in defence to stun a much-fancied Austrian side 2-0 and is likely to prove a handful for any side that crosses its path, thanks to its well organised defence and midfield, as well as free-flowing passing game. Keep an eye out for them. And if you are one for underdogs, watch out for Iceland. The smallest country to ever qualify for the European Championships held the highly rated Portugal side (with Cristiano Ronaldo to boot) to a draw and have a reputation for keeping clean sheets. They will not score many, but they won’t concede too many either. And as Greece showed us in 2004, that can be a potent combination. Interestingly, both Hungary and Iceland are in the same group. Be worried, Portugal and Austria, be very worried, is our advice.
Bale and Payet: Players of the Tournament
One is the most expensive football player in the world, the other a player of immense talent who seems to have rediscovered his potential after having lost his way. And both lit up the first stage of Euro 2016. While Gareth Bale ran his socks off for Wales, Dmitri Payet carried over his fantastic form for West Ham to the tournament, and has already perhaps scored the goal of the tournament – a scorching curler from distance to clinch an unlikely victory against a stubborn Romanian side. The sight of both of them overwhelmed with joy at the end of their teams’ victories – Payet wept famously – is already one of the most memorable sights of the tournament. Watch out for a certain Bastian Schweinsteiger, though, who suddenly seems to have discovered a scoring touch!