Written by: Michael De Luca
My, oh my: Hello knockout stage, it’s nice to see you. The real juice of the tournament is upon us and the group-stage play has left us all with quite a bit to chew over. Some squads will be looking toward the next round optimistically, while others might be lamenting the hand they’ve been dealt. The new format has not necessarily left everyone in good taste. The criticism received often sites a frustration at two runner-ups locking horns next round or that unimpressive results have seen some squads squeezing in to the tournament’s latter stages (we’re looking at you, Portugal).
Either way, we are here and two things have proven glaringly obvious: (A) Thus far, there is by no means a clear-cut favourite and (B) respect the “minnows”.
It is always fascinating to see the wicked sways in a team’s perception in just three matches. For instance, take the Italians who, following game one, took viewers by storm by putting in a controlled and calculated defensive master class against the attacking prowess of Belgium, humbling them to a 2-0 defeat. It couldn’t be truer that one of the most dangerous dishes to serve is one in which you outrageously surprise onlookers because what immediately follows is a radical rise in expectations. Italy’s following matches saw them need a very late moment of brilliance from striker Eder to down an underwhelming Sweden side and a surprise 1-0 loss to the Republic of Ireland – albeit whilst fielding a second tier starting lineup. A turn of events in Group D suddenly sees Italy link up with reigning champions Spain in the round’s most intriguing fixture and fans are beginning to grow a little nervous at the lack of scoring ability. As is often the case, they will look toward their stonewall backline to shut down the Spanish attack and hope that a rare gap opens up for them to exploit at some point. Overall, both Italy and Spain will go in to this round feeling as if they can come out on top and march on.
“This 24-team tournament has let in the likes of Hungary, Northern Ireland and Iceland…what the hell can they manage on the biggest stage?” Hmmmm ……. would ya look at that! They’ve each just gone and moved on to the meaty stages of the Euros. Fan or not, your heart just desperately wants to root for these sorts of teams. Hungary’s healthy mix of young and old has proven worth while as they haven’t looked at all like a side that has been without a major tournament in 30 years. Northern Ireland has fielded a squad made largely of Championship players and lower-league footballers, but the results count all the same. They bravely stepped on to the pitch against the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Andriy Yarmolenko and walked away with only two goals conceded. A 2-0 victory against Ukraine that yielded wild scenes in the stands among fans has proven enough to send them in to a knockout match against southern neighbours Wales.
For me, the story of the tournament: Iceland. It is absolutely astonishing to witness this nation punch above their weight at these Euros. As if it needs any reminding…Iceland is a nation of approximately 323,000! To lend perspective, the population of Boston is 645,966, almost exactly 2x Iceland. A stiff test awaits the Scandinavians with England waiting in the wings on Monday. By no means are Iceland looking to take their foot off the gas, however, what has been achieved up to this point is already beyond impressive. Look no further than Leicester City; anything can happen boys and girls! We shall wait and see in anticipation.
Below are my three favourite moments from the tournament’s opening stages:
1) That pass from Leonardo Bonucci vs. Belgium:
Kick-starting Italy’s campaign was a goal from the most unlikely of sources in Emanuele Giaccherini. The first touch was sublime, the finish equally as good, but the real beauty of the goal came from the foot of Juventus defender Leo Bonucci. From the halfway line, Bonucci delivered an inch-perfect lob deliciously on to the foot of the little midfielder who made no mistake. Belgium centre-back Toby Alderweireld may not have seen such a wonderful pass coming from a fellow defender as he miss-timed the flight of the ball before it was put past his keeper. The pass of the group stages, in my opinion. A wonderful goal.
2) Icelandic commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson goes insane after winning-goal:
Surely this stacks among Iceland’s greatest ever sporting achievements, possibly the greatest. So no one can blame their fans for going in to delirium at the sight of a goal, let alone a victory at full-time! That is exactly what commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson did when Iceland scored a stoppage time goal that secured their passage in to the round of 16. Give a listen to this shrieking celebration he delivered as the ball found the back of the net. Pure, pure passion:
3) Cristiano Ronaldo penalty shot miss vs. Austria
Disclaimer: I am by no means unleashing an attack on Portugal as a squad. This is, however, directed at Ronaldo. A worldly talent he may be, one too many times this tournament he has shown his utter lack of human class for all to see. It began with his classless remarks regarding Iceland’s approach to football by stating, “When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition”. As it turned out, Iceland finished ahead of Ronaldo’s Portugal in the group with two more points and a better goal difference. Following this, Ronaldo was at it again letting his attitude get the better of him in front of a reporter when he tossed the man’s microphone in to a lake after denying comment for an interview. All of this was capped off by a shocking temper-tantrum of sorts in the centre of the pitch following one of Hungary’s goals scored in their final group game. If he did not possess the footballing abilities he does, it would be a mystery how he would get away with his antics. This is precisely why his timely miss from 12 yards against Austria was all too deserved and marks a beautiful victory for humanity. It pays to be likable at times and it seems that the greater powers that be were at work against Cristiano when he lined up for the PK.