What we've learned from the Euro 2020 group stages

Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane should still come to the party, revived Italy are a nice throwback, it’s a dreadful time to be a dark horse and France remain favourites… EIGHT THINGS WE LEARNED from Euro 2020 group stage

  • The Euro 2020 group phase is done and dusted as the last-16 shapes up
  • France should still be considered favourites despite twice dropping points
  • Italy have impressed with perfect record but have they peaked a little too early?
  • England have taken a pragmatic approach with fans hoping there’s more to come
  • Dark horses Turkey, Russia and Poland have all crashed out of the tournament
  • 24-team format isn’t perfect but it did sustain most of the drama and intrigue 
  • Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here

Quick as a flash, the group stage of Euro 2020 is done and dusted. Some 36 matches crammed into 13 frenetic days has left us with 16 survivors and sent eight teams home early.

The first portion of the tournament has seen Italy, Holland and Belgium emerge with perfect records while the likes of France, Germany, England and Spain have yet to fully fire.

We’ve seen nations such as Hungary, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all play above expectations – for one match at least – but not necessarily make it into the last-16.

France and Portugal closed out the group stages with a draw that saw them both progress

England made it safely through as group winners despite failing to get anywhere near top gear

Some stars of the tournament have really hit the ground running – Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku – while others such as Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane still need to produce more to impress.

So before our attention is consumed by previewing the last-16, what have we learned from the group matches at Euro 2020?

France remain the favourites despite a few hiccups

The reigning world champions didn’t exactly sail through the group stages but they were, after all, placed in the Group of Death with Germany, Portugal and Hungary.

Didier Deschamps’ tournament favourites were surprisingly held by Hungary amid the partisan atmosphere of the Puskas Arena before playing out an entertaining 2-2 draw with Portugal that safely steered both through.

Yet France still finished top, slipped through the gears when they had to – not least after Cristiano Ronaldo’s first penalty on Wednesday night – and gave the impression they still have a lot more to come.

France topped the Group of Death and gave the impression there’s still much more to come

It really doesn’t matter that France didn’t finish first with maximum points like the winners of other groups, they remain the most fancied to win the tournament for a reason.

When it was required, their midfielders Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Adrien Rabiot just stepped up the pace almost imperceptibly.

Karim Benzema is back among the goals for France after netting twice against Portugal

Karim Benzema is now off and running on his France comeback with two goals against Portugal and nobody seriously expects Mbappe’s goal drought to continue for much longer.

With Switzerland awaiting them in the last-16 and then either Spain or Croatia, you can see France kicking things up a notch.

It’s good to have Italy back

After they failed to even make it to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it is good to see a revitalised Italy back at a major tournament.

They’ve been the stand-out team so far, cruising through Group A with three wins from three and not a single goal conceded in vintage Italian fashion.

You’d imagine Roberto Mancini’s side will make light work of Austria in the last-16 though a quarter-final against either Belgium or Portugal may see them finally tested.

Italy have been a revelation during the Euros so far, winning all three of their group matches

Coach Roberto Mancini had every reason to be satisfied with Italy’s performances to date

It isn’t hard to see why Italy are 30 matches undefeated. The performances of Leonardo Spinazzola and Manuel Locatelli in particular have caught the eye while forwards Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne have goals under their belts.

The inevitable question is: Have they peaked too early? Potentially. A tournament should be about playing the long game but equally a lot of other favoured teams have stuttered at times and enter the last-16 lacking momentum.

Italy are playing like a side who appreciate this is their moment and are determined to seize it.

Improving England content to be pragmatic

What of England? Far from perfect, far from dominant but still managing to top their group without conceding a goal.

It’s easy to look at the wealth of attacking talent at their disposal and assume they’re going to blow everyone away but tournament football doesn’t work like that.

England have felt their way into the tournament, playing three sides who were conservative and set up to limit and frustrate them.

England were left frustrated in their goalless draw against Scotland but still advanced 

So it’s been a grind at times but Gareth Southgate has taken a pragmatic approach and will have a much clearer idea of his best line-up now.

The last-16 game against Germany will represent a considerable step up in class but equally it could suit England with more open space to exploit with speed on the counter.

England’s half of the knockout draw is favourable if – and obviously it’s a big ‘if’ – they can get past the Germans.

England fans hope there’s more to come from Gareth Southgate’s side ahead of Germany tie

A quarter-final against Sweden or Ukraine followed by a probable Wembley semi-final against Holland provides a definite route to the final.

Not that England fans are ones to get carried away.

Kane and Mbappe among strikers who will surely spark soon

While Ronaldo and Lukaku have been banging in the goals, other forwards have yet to ignite in the tournament.

All the talk in England has been about Harry Kane struggling to even touch the ball for long periods let alone find the net.

But let’s not forget that France’s Kylian Mbappe, arguably the best player at the tournament, hasn’t scored yet either. That’s arguably more of a shock.

Few expected France star Kylian Mbappe to fail to find the net during the group stage matches

What better time to announce yourself than in the last-16 ties and you wouldn’t bet against either belatedly making their mark.

Kane was much improved in England’s win over the Czech Republic and came close to that breakthrough goal when denied by the hand of Tomas Vaclik in the first half.

England’s Harry Kane also hasn’t scored as yet but was much improved against the Czechs

There was a dramatic improvement in England’s wide forwards getting to the byline to cross rather than passing the ball backwards and this must continue to help Kane, who will get in the scoring positions.

It’s been a case of six out of 10 performances for Mbappe so far but he’s had his moments, winning a (quite soft) penalty against Portugal that Benzema converted. Expect him to produce against Switzerland.

Ronaldo’s enduring class should be cherished

Oh look who’s top of the scoring charts… Yep, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo with five.

Admittedly three have been penalties but the 36-year-old looks on course for the Golden Boot even if Portugal probably won’t replicate their triumph of five summers ago.

Ronaldo has now equalled Ali Daei’s international scoring record with his 109th goal for Portugal against France on Wednesday night.

There has been no stopping Cristiano Ronaldo with five goals during the group stages

The fact Ronaldo now has a staggering 48 goals in his last 45 matches for Portugal speaks of a player for whom age is just a number.

He also overtook Germany’s Miroslav Klose as the leading European goalscorer at major tournaments and yet again appears to be on a one-man mission to haul Portugal to victory.

Ronaldo has powered home three penalties so far in the tournament in his tally of five goals

It was said in the tournament previews that Portugal are vastly more talented now than in 2016 and there are plenty of players capable of sharing Ronaldo’s burden.

But he most certainly remains the star of the show and will go again when they play Belgium on Sunday. It must be down to the mineral water.

Tournament has come alive from sluggish start

One theme of the early games in the tournament was that very little happened prior to half-time.

Italy, for example, needed 53 minutes to break down Turkey on the opening night, England 57 to score against Croatia and Portugal 84 to wear down Hungary’s resistance.

In much of the first matchday, it really diminished the spectacle, giving the impression that players already knackered from a long and hard season were happy to feel their way into the competition.

England had to be patient to break down Croatia but matches have generally improved 

The format didn’t help matters, with everyone safe in the knowledge that four points would be sufficient to get through. So why expend all your energy in the first match?

Thankfully things have improved as we’ve gone on. The first halves of the Germany vs Portugal and Portugal vs France games were especially exciting as the initial caution has been cast aside.

It’s not a good year to be a dark horse

Most pre-tournament predictions concurred that Turkey, Russia and Poland were firmly in the dark horse category. Unfortunately all three are trotting home after the group stage.

Turkey were fancied by many because of the return of previously-successful manager Senol Gunes and some eye-catching results in recent qualifiers.

But when it came down to it, they completely froze. Playing a swaggering Italian side in their opener was unfortunate but then they were dreadful against Wales despite the backing of most of the crowd in Baku.

Ozan Turfan sums up Turkey’s disastrous Euro campaign as they crashed out after group stage

A poor 3-1 defeat by Switzerland was just a final indignity for a side that is undoubtedly talented but simply didn’t turn up.

Poland boasted Europe’s most prolific striker in Robert Lewandowski but started in the worst possible way by losing to Slovakia after Grzegorz Krychowiak was sent off.

A draw with Spain offered hope but then they fell two goals behind to Sweden when needing a win and couldn’t quite pull things back despite Lewandowski’s best efforts.

Russia were backed because of their enormous talent pool and home advantage in two matches but they too went home early after heavy losses to Belgium and Denmark battered their goal difference.

Robert Lewandowski’s heroics proved in vain as dark horses Poland also exited the Euros early

The format isn’t perfect but does offer excitement

It does seem a bit daft to play all these games in order to lose just eight of the 24 teams there at the start of the tournament.

But although the 24-team format is far from perfect it is false to say it removes the drama of the pre-2016 set-up when heavyweight clashes in the group stage were common.

For one thing, Group F threw together France, Germany and Portugal, offering tantalising games if not exactly any jeopardy as all three progressed in the end.

Denmark qualified for the last-16 after a dramatic final night in which they defeated Russia

Just one of the final round of games – Holland versus North Macedonia – had nothing riding on it with the Dutch already assured of top spot in Group C and their opponents already out.

With the third places to play for, it kept interest alive for everyone else and that can be no bad thing even if it was unfair to make Switzerland and Ukraine wait in limbo.

Ukraine were very poor in their defeat by Austria yet still made it through after a nervous wait

The finales to Groups B, E and F were especially exciting with the games played simultaneously, as goals elsewhere shaped destinies thousands of miles away.

On the other hand, there were a few matches in which allowing things to fizzle out into a draw – such as France vs Portugal – was mutually convenient.

It was a giant leap taking the Euros to 24 teams and there will be no going back to 16 now. We will have to embrace it so thankfully there’s enough intrigue to keep us sustained.

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