Group A: chaos reigns
In a tournament characterised by unpredictability and excitement, Group A took all that to extremes. Who, after all, could have foreseen both of its eventual qualifiers going through? Who could have predicted Greece’s second halves after their first periods? Who could have predicted Poland’s?
In general, absolutely nothing went according to pre-tournament form, general predictions or, indeed, the opening games.
That was most evident in the fact that Russia receded from being heavily fancied outsiders to startling first-round casualties. And, of course, that was because they also receded from routing Czech Republic to suddenly failing to take their chances. Poland suffered from the same problem as well as a troubling trend of storming through one half and stuttering the next.
Greece were the opposite, with manager Fernando Santos illustrating an Otto Rehhagel-esque capacity for innovation. Then there was the most surprising team of all, the Czechs. Having been overrun in the first match, Tomas Hubschman returned to the starting line-up to imbue their technique with a lot more toughness. It was the platform for their comeback and the complete turnover of the entire group. Their tactically efficient victory over Greece created the necessity for Santos’ side to then go and beat Russia.
Naturally, such an open group devoid of genuinely elite quality is unlikely to provide a winner to this tournament. But, then, improbability has also been the story of this group. It’s likely that it will remain a quirk of the tournament, but it’s also possible it may yet define it.
Moment the group swung on: Giorgios Karagounis’ goal put both the Russians and the Czechs under pressure, meaning the latter then had to go and beat Poland too.
Group B: strong teams over star turns
Given the fact that five of the group’s most important goals were scored by the two of the top six European scorers in the 2011-12 Golden Shoe, it would be tempting to put this pool down to the input of the blue-chip stars who fill it. That, however, isn’t quite the case.
For one, Mario Gomez’s strikes came on the back of the general brilliance and cohesion of the German team. Secondly, Cristiano Ronaldo’s admittedly exceptional and wonderfully driven performance against the Dutch was only facilitated because the rest of his team managed to overcome his misses in the late victory over Denmark.
What’s more, it’s arguable that part of the reason Ronaldo was afforded so many openings was because the Dutch were a fractured assembly of individuals rather than a true team. You only had to see some of the withering looks some of their players gave each other. And the irony – or perhaps the perfect illustration – of the situation was that Wesley Sneijder had such a fine tournament.
Of course, it can’t be denied that the main reason a decent Danish side went out was because they lacked that elevated level of quality to take several opportunities against the Germans. And that is the one mark against Jogi Low’s side. Even more than in the 2010 World Cup, there’s an element of openness in their defence that may eventually undo them.
There’s also the fact, meanwhile, that Denmark’s own defence wasn’t as durable. Again, greater cohesion proved the key. It should also provide both of its qualifiers with a solid platform to reach the semi-finals.
Moment the group swung on: Portugal’s Varela securing a last-minute victory against Denmark.
Group C: the only group where almost everything went to plan
Few alarms, fewer surprises. Group C was the one pool that proceeded according to most predictions: Spain on top, Italy second best, Croatia impressive but not imposing enough and Ireland left in dead last.
The only elements of intrigue came in the degrees of all that. Italy were better than expected against Spain but worse than expected against Croatia, with the team not yet fully revealing its hand. The suggestions are they’re surging, but there was a surprising amount of anxiety in their match against Ireland – even for the likes of Andrea Pirlo. The Croatians themselves oscillated between convincing and questionable, often in the same game. Ireland’s defensive record and durability, meanwhile, proved a mirage developed from fortune and forgiving fixtures. In this group, they got neither.
Indeed, it was astonishing how Ireland themselves gave Spain their easiest fixture since Euro 2008. Going against general convention and simply failing to congest any space around their box and midfield, Giovanni Trapattoni’s team offered the Spanish the kind of confidence-boosting game they arguably needed in 2010 after the Swiss managed what the Irish couldn’t.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that was the only game when Spain were simply exceptional. Otherwise, they were possibly guilty of proving all of the cliches and overcomplicating things. They’re still going to be the most difficult team to beat in this entire tournament, but they may also make it hard for themselves.
Moment the group swung on: Antonio Cassano’s header against Ireland.
Group D: in a group of underperformers, England just about performed enough
One of the trends of this tournament in general has been how teams that have played predominantly defensive football have failed. Even those who eventually got through, like Portugal and Greece, had to adjust their approach to do so. Except, that is, England. And, as much as Roy Hodgson deserves credit for becoming the first English manager since Glenn Hoddle to successfully impose a proper tactical plan on the side, their success is also down to the fact that none of the other teams in the group fully fired.
Ukraine peaked too soon, Sweden peaked too late and France never really peaked at all. In terms of quality and excitement, it’s probably been the poorest group of the tournament. As such, the sudden calls that England can win this tournament have to be put in context. Given how on the edge and panicked they seemed for periods of every game, the suspicion remains that it’ll all cave in once they face a side of real quality.
Moment the group swung on: Theo Walcott’s introduction against Sweden.© ESPN