Twelve games across four frenetic days, 39 goals, three more own goals, more Ronaldo records, eight teams knocked out, sixteen through to the knockout stage – that was the third group stage in summary. And before we move on to the tournament proper, there’s a chance to momentarily catch our collective breaths and look back on the footballing week that was.
Team performances: With games played simultaneously for matters of fairness in the final group stage, it doesn’t make for the best viewing for fans, or at least for those with neither the time or inclination to record games and watch each one, i.e. me. So some big decisions needed to be made – Finland v Belgium or Russia v Denmark, Sweden v Poland or Slovakia v Spain, and at what point to switch over from the England game. Needless to say, there was action that was missed, but, by and large, each of the final group games did its best to satisfy viewers – not least the final day’s offerings, with a record haul of 18 goals scored in a single day across the four matches – if only every matchday was like that? When it comes to best team performances, it’s hard to look past Spain’s 5-0 trouncing of Slovakia, whilst Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands all maintained their unblemished record – Italy’s made all the more impressive by the fact they had eight changes to their usual starting XI and even managed to sub their goalie in the dying minutes and didn’t look for one second diminished. Thank goodness Italy B team didn’t enter as a separate entity. However, my standout team performances of the final round have to go to a couple of sides who came out of the group wilderness to qualify at the last second, notably Switzerland, but, even more impressively, Denmark, who on the back of two weeks of heartache and a tally of zero points pulled through in emphatic, determined fashion in their 4-1 demolition of Russia – let’s be honest, we’re all Danish fans to some degree at the moment.
Individual performances: In terms of individual performances, Xherdan Shaqiri, Luka Modric and Emil Forsberg all made the headlines for impressive outings that largely sealed the fates of their respective teams, but Marco Verratti’s return from a knee injury in Italy’s 1-0 victory over Wales was a masterclass in midfield magnificence. However, whilst Verratti may be the head’s choice, the heart’s choice can only be Bukayo Saka. Starting for the first time in a major tournament, Saka looked completely at home, or rather he looked like he was showing everyone else round his home – right, guys, let me give you a tour, here’s the back door, through you go, Jack, that’s it Raheem, after you – 1-0. Grealish too made an impressive first start in the tournament, but there was no getting away from the overall effect of Saka’s energy, positivity and forward thrust, which gave England added impetus and was just what Southgate ordered. Although Saka’s now given Southgate a new headache in his forward line, as if having to choose between the likes of Sterling and Rashford, Mount and Grealish isn’t enough, Saka made himself the kid you can’t ignore. Mind you, it’s not a bad headache to have – certainly better than the one Danilo must have woken up with after Hugo Lloris’ best Anthony Joshua impersonation.
Goals: And, as for goals, well, take your pick from the 39 recorded across the final group games. There was Andreas Christensen’s thunder-blaster against Russia, Luka Modric’s strike of beauty against Scotland, Ferran Torres’ cheeky flick against Slovakia and Xherdan Shaqiri’s curled finished against Turkey. Sadly, Martin Dubravka and Juraj Kucka both made the showreel, but for the wrong reasons – both scoring own goals in Slovakia’s 5-0 defeat to Spain – only the second time that has ever happened in Euros history, the first being in Portugal’s 4-2 loss to Germany – like they, say, you wait ages for a bus and two come along at once, though I suspect Dubravka, Kucka, Dias and Guerreiro could have done without these particular buses. It certainly keeps Own Goals’ tenure at the top of the Golden Boot chart alive and kicking, and whilst Emil Forsberg, Romelu Lukaku and Gini Wijnaldum make up the chasing pack, one man currently leads the way. No prizes for guessing who – Ronaldo, of course. And, on the topic of Ronaldo, it wouldn’t be a week at the Euros without another Ronaldo record. In fact, it’s like a game within a game, as he picks off decades-old records as if they’re fluff. This week’s record included that of becoming top scorer at the Euros and World Cup combined, with his twentieth (and subsequently twenty-first) goals surpassing the nineteen of Miroslav Klose. His second penalty against France also saw his international goals tally reach the hallowed 109 of Ali Daei, needing just one more to become the best international goalscorer of all time. Portugal face a tough test against Belgium next and potentially Italy in the quarterfinals and France in the semi-finals if they are to go all the way and retain their European crowns, but if they’re going to do it, you wouldn’t count against Ronaldo being the man to deliver the goals.
Moment: All players, I imagine, dream of their final international game ending with them sealing a win and lifting a trophy. Sadly, players all too often bow out with a whimper, if they get beyond the subs bench, that is. So, it was poignant to see one man get a deserved farewell, albeit without the goals and the trophy, when North Macedonian captain, talisman and general lynchpin, Goran Pandev brought time on his twenty-year international career against the Netherlands, earning a guard of honour as he was subbed off in the 69th minute. Pandev is the nation’s top scorer and appearance maker. He became the first man to captain his side in a major international tournament at this Euros and the first man to score a goal at a tournament. Aged 37, this was both Pandev’s first and last tournament and whilst three defeats from three may not be the dream ending, leading his nation out in the biggest tournament in Europe isn’t a bad way to sign off. And who doesn’t love a guard of honour. I may have had something in my eye as I watched on, but it definitely wasn’t a tear.
England: And so to England, and it has to be said on the back of the Scotland game, the mood of the nation had taken a decided turn for the worst, with fans even beginning to worry whether the Three Lions would get out of the group. However, such is the fickle fate of football that even before a ball was kicked in England’s final decisive game against the Czech Republic, they had qualified, thanks to other results. Yet, it was still decisive in determining England’s next opponents and talk prior to the game turned to the question of whether England should go for the win and top the group or play out for a draw and a second-placed finish, on the basis of a possibly easier route to the final. As if football was that easy to determine. With a win clearly all that was in Southgate and his team’s plans, England secured a 1-0 victory, a top-of-the-table finish and a Round of 16 game at Wembley. What was yet to be decided, however, were their opponents. As it stood, going into Group F’s final fixtures, Germany would be England’s nemesis once more, but there were a whole 90 minutes to play in both a Portugal and France and Germany and Hungary game that could reset the whole complexion of the group. In fact, the complexion didn’t change at all, despite at various points in the 90 minutes, England set to face Portugal, France, Portugal again, Hungary, Portugal once more, Germany, Portugal for a fourth time, until eventually an equalising goal from Goretzka brought everything back to where it had been 90 minutes previously. But it was a rollercoaster for those 90 minutes, as England hopes rallied as Hungary secured second-place, dive-bombed on France and, in true English fashion, ended up in the inevitable outcome of facing Germany. It could be worse, but it could be better, and whilst it’s appealing to say Germany aren’t at their best, that in itself is worrying, as they continue to get the job done regardless. And what if we had finished second you ask, well, there would have been the small matter of a game against Spain in Copenhagen, a possible quarterfinal against France in St Petersburg, before a meeting with Belgium, Portugal, Italy or Austria in the semi-final. Definitely a walk in the park then.