Seizing The Moment: The Good, Sad, And Ugly From EURO 2020 Group Stage

The sixteenth UEFA European Football Championship kicked-off just over two weeks ago. Twenty-four nations sought glory for their country; some dreaming of winning it all, and others just thankful to have qualified.


Today marks the beginning of the Knockout Stages. The grueling gauntlet of qualifying for the tournament, being sorted into one of six groups, and then performing well enough to reach the Round of 16 is a dream nearly two or (in the case of this tournament’s year-long delay due to COVID-19) three years in the making.


Thirty-six of the fifty-one matches have been played. It all comes down to a single-elimination bracket. For reasons both thrilling and chilling, Euro 2020 has already become one of the all-time classic international tournaments. Here are some of the reasons why:


FINLAND, NORTH MACEDONIA DEBUTS


Finland and North Macedonia made their Euro debut in this edition, both giving their supporters something to cheer about despite not being fortunate enough to reach the Round of 16. Finland avoided finishing in the bottom of Group B, waiting on the results of the final Group Stage matches to see if they would be granted the final spot in the Knockout Stage.


Though they ultimately came up short on goal differential, it was an overall triumph that will be remembered for several years to come.


As for North Macedonia, it was only fitting that their talisman, Goran Pandev, opened their scoring account in their first fixture against Austria. Pandev made his international debut twenty years ago as a seventeen-year-old, and was substituted late in their final fixture to a raucous ovation from their supporters.


They failed to earn a point in their three Group Stage games, but played some impressive football, indicating that they will return to future tournaments with a vengeance.


Source: Tibor Illyes/POOL/AFP via Getty Images


PAN-EURO HOSTS CONQUERING COVID


After COVID-19 delayed the tournament for a full year, the sigh of relief and comfort upon the kick-off of the Italy-Turkey match in Rome on June 11th was palpable. Eleven different countries (nine of which qualified for the tournament) hosted matches during the Group Stage. From Glasgow to Baku, and from Seville to Saint Petersburg, the atmosphere within the limited capacity crowds (or in Budapest’s case, FULL capacity) was high octane.


Italy returned to a major international tournament, after having missed out on the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They buckled down defensively in the first half of their opening match against Turkey, only to blitz them time and time again in the second half to come away with a 3-0 victory. They followed that up with two further clean sheets against Switzerland and Wales, scoring a combined seven goals in the process.


Look out for a potential deep run in the Knockout Round.


ETHICS OF PLAYING AFTER THE CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN INCIDENT


On the second day of the competition, Denmark was set to host a match against Group B foes, Finland (in their tournament debut). Christian Eriksen, arguably the biggest star on the Danish team, collapsed on the pitch late in the first half after earning a throw in the attacking third of the pitch. Referee Anthony Taylor immediately halted the match and beckoned for emergency medical personnel, while the 14000 spectators watched in horror.


Eriksen’s teammates were brought to tears as the situation became grave with each passing second. I recall thinking “we might be witnessing a man die on live television”, and in fact, we did. Eriksen was clinically dead for a brief period, requiring CPR and a defibrillator to restart his heart. After several minutes, he was stretchered off the pitch and taken to a hospital which was just up the street from the stadium.


The match was postponed, and then cancelled. Upon reports that Eriksen was thankfully stable and responsive, UEFA decided that the match would resume nearly an hour and a half after the incident occurred, with the final few minutes of the first half being played before a shortened halftime.


Despite the positive news surrounding Eriksen’s condition, his teammates were in no position mentally to carry on with the match, and it showed. Lacklustre effort, diminished attacking play, and gaunt expressions that poorly masked the shock they had just experienced was overtly apparent.


Finland then managed to sneak in a goal from Joel Pohjanpalo to a subdued reaction. One would expect an explosion of emotion for having tallied Finland’s first ever major tournament goal, but it was unsurprisingly tarnished. Finland hung on to win the match 1-0, and Denmark were understandably angered by the decision to resume the match so soon after witnessing their star player collapse in such appalling fashion.


Thankfully, Eriksen continued to recover and was discharged a few days afterwards. Regardless of the status of his future, Denmark was the beneficiary of good karma, as their final Group Stage game against Russia saw them leap from last place to second in Group B.


ARNAUTOVIC IS A DUMBASS


Despite having an Austrian background, I’ve continuously been wary of Marko Arnautovic. The outspoken thirty-two-year-old striker has had a fruitful career, both for club and country, but his attitude has always been questionable.


Austria’s opening Group C match against North Macedonia (on their tournament debut) was actually quite exciting. It was 1-1 until the 78th minute, when Austria took the lead. Arnautovic, who had come on as a substitute, then scored a brilliant goal to put Austria up 3-1.


Rather than celebrating, Arnautovic (who is half Serbian) chose to dig into the ethnic conflicts between former Yugoslav regions Macedonia and Albania. Arnautovic bellowed vulgarities in Serbian at Egzon Bejtulai and Ezgjan Alioski, who are both of Albanian descent, forcing Austrian star David Alaba to clamp a hand over Arnautovic’s mouth.


While I won’t divulge details on exactly what was said, let’s just say it was something crass about his opponents’ mothers. Maybe I said too much.


UEFA investigated Arnautovic’s explosive verbal tirade and suspended him for Austria’s next match against the Netherlands, which they went on to lose 2-0. Arnautovic took to social media to apologize and assure us all that, no, he is not a racist. Racist……. No? Dickhead…… yes.


Source: Getty Images


SCHICK’S WONDER GOAL HUMBLES SCOTLAND


I was very much looking forward to Scotland’s return to a major international tournament, their first since the 1998 World Cup. The fact that they were in a group with British neighbours England, and defending World Cup runners-up Croatia was titillating.


They were actually my dark-horse team to qualify for the Knockout Stages. So, I was quite certain that they would achieve some sort of positive result in their opening fixture against the Czech Republic in front of a home crowd at Hampden Park. Wrong! After having their fair share of chances, including an Andy Robertson bullet that was tipped over the bar, Czech striker Patrik Schick opened the scoring shortly before halftime on a well-placed header.


Because of this, Scotland seemed to panic a little too prematurely, desperate to strike back early in the second half. Jack Hendry decided to let a shot go from about 30-yards out, with very little support behind him. Lo and behold, the shot was easily blocked and ricocheted to a streaking Schick near the centre circle.


Scotland keeper, David Marshall, was well off his line, hovering a few yards behind the edge of the circle in a sweeper-keeper position. That’s fine and all, but when his teammate takes an ill-advised shot which had no chance of registering and instead glides to the feet of an opponent, you best hustle back.


On the television screen, Marshall was out of frame, so when Schick decided to have a shot from just under fifty yards away, I thought it was absurd. It turns out it was Scotland who were made to look absurd, as Schick’s rocket dipped right under the bar and out of reach for the flailing Marshall. It wasn’t a good look for the Scottish keeper, who went full-force into the net, tangled up in the mesh and forced to scoop the ball out of the cage as the Czechs celebrated with glee.


It seems that the Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia) are the architects of some of the finest goals in European tournament history, from Panenka’s penalty chip in 1976 to Karel Poborsky’s lob in 1996.


In fairness to Marshall, his positioning wasn’t overly outlandish, but such is life. Backup keeper Craig Gordon was closer to the net when Schick let the shot fly, and he was sitting on the bench. I was always claiming Gordon should have started for the Scots. They went on to finish last in Group D.


SPAIN/POLAND TRY TO SMARTEN UP


Most pundits and average fans would assume that three-time champions Spain were poised for a first-place finish in a group that included Poland, Sweden, and Slovakia. Hell, if they couldn’t win the group, they’d be a sure-fire close second-place to Poland. Spain was turning over a new leaf, with only Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets remaining from the triumph of their Euro 2012 victory.


As for Poland, Robert Lewandowski, quite possibly the best striker in world football right now, needed to come up with a deep run before the twilight years of his international career dim his chances at glory.


I, as well as hundreds of thousands of others, was foolishly undervaluing the experience and cohesion of the Swedish team. Sebastian Larsson, Mikael Lustig, Robin Olsen, Marcus Berg, Emil Forsberg and Andreas Granqvist are extremely capable professionals who took Sweden to the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup. This group was not an obvious speculation at all.


Sweden and Spain played to a 0-0 draw, and Slovakia of course went on to upset Poland. In the second set of fixtures, Spain was once again held to a mediocre draw against Poland, despite their continued excellence at maintaining an overwhelming majority of possession, whereas Sweden came away with a narrow win against the Slovaks. Hence, the favoured Spain and Poland were on the bottom looking up with only one match left to play.


If both Spain and Poland won (with Poland needing to score a few goals to improve their -1 goal differential), they would both qualify with the possibility of finishing first and second, respectively. Spain took care of business by thrashing Slovakia 5-0 after Busquets returned to the lineup after quarantining with COVID, confirming a place in the Knockout Stages.


Sweden v. Poland was an amazing match. After going down 2-0 with only a half hour remaining, Lewandowski carried Poland on his back by scoring an excellent strike from outside the box, and then equalizing right in front of the goal. Poland pressed on for a third goal, facing elimination if they weren’t successful, but it was Sweden who struck late to steal the result and top the Group. Vem skulle ha trott?


Source: EFE


GROUP OF DEATH DELIVERS/RONALDO SETS RECORDS


When the draw to determine the groups took place back in November of 2019, everyone was astonished how France, Germany and Portugal all ended up together. The defending European tournament champions, along with the previous two World Cup champions. Whichever poor country rounded out the group would be bullied senselessly. It was Hungary who solidified the most challenging ‘group of death’ in tournament history.


Of course, they made it tough on each of their opponents. With the luxury of having full capacity crowds in Budapest for two of their matches, they kept Portugal at bay in a scoreless 80 minutes. After having a Szabolcs Schon goal called back for an offside, Portugal awoke from their slumber and slotted three goals past Peter Gulacsi to emerge with an impressive win on paper.


Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to feature in five European Championships, and he scored twice in the aforementioned opening fixture. It marked his tenth and eleventh goals throughout his career in the tournament, breaking the previous record held by Michel Platini.


Then, in the final Group Stage match against France (a rematch of the two finalists in the previous competition) he scored his 109th career international goal, tying Iranian Ali Daei atop the all-time list for males.


With France defeating Germany in their opening match thanks to a Mats Hummels own goal, it was clear that this group very well could see one of the big 3 countries eliminated. Ronaldo scored another goal to open Portugal’s match against Germany, only to have ‘Die Mannschaft’ slot four beautiful goals past a helpless Rui Patricio and affirm that they weren’t going to disappoint Joachim Low in his final tournament as head coach.


A draw between Hungary and world champions France left an array of possibilities for the final fixtures. Hungary was to play Germany in Munich, with the aforementioned France and Portugal match taking place in Budapest. Both matches were 2-2 draws. Hungary was unable to hang on to a lead they had held throughout the duration of the contest, allowing their chances of finishing second to slip, finishing bottom of the group despite an impressive two draws.


France managed to win the group off of one win and two draws, and Germany took the second place spot over Portugal thanks to their head to head result in the second match. A thoroughly entertaining group that produces many thrills, further fueling this invigorating tournament that has plenty more surprises and dramatic moments to come!

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