Eight Things We Learned From The UEFA EURO 2016 Group Stages

That’s it! We are halfway through what has been an intriguing couple of weeks of football at Euro 2016. The group stages are over, the draw for the last-16 is complete and the first eight teams are on their way home from France.

With a couple of days to analyse before the knockout stages begin – we have a look at the eight things we learned from the group stages.

Expansion works

Fears that adding eight more teams would make this tournament a sprawling, draining mess of a group stage – were misplaced. The view may chance as the tournament progresses and fatigue sets in, but on the evidence of the group stages expansion to 24 teams has been a success. The newcomers and supposed makeweights have seized the moment and added to the excitement, from Wales and Hungary topping their respective groups to Northern Ireland’s win over Ukraine to Iceland holding Portugal. The expansion has offered more excitement and competitiveness among the groups, and diversification of nations.

Late drama

One lesson for sure what Euro 2016 has provided is, don’t leave the ground, don’t change the channel and don’t avert your gaze until the final whistle is blown. Goals have become more scarce in this tournament, a disproportionate number have come in the final throes of matches. Even before the knockout stages begin, this European Championship has already produced 45 of the 69 goals (65%) in the second half, 29% of the goals have come from the 76th minute onwards (20) including seven, a joint record, in stoppage time. England learned the hard way against Russia, then joined the club against Wales, emulating Italy, Northern Ireland, Hungary, Germany, France and Iceland.

Stuttering strikers

Euro 2012 was a classic tournament for strikers. Six players shared the Golden Boot with three goals, and of those four were authentic centre-forwards. Most of those have now either retired or past their peak, and four years on there does seem to be an acute lack of world-class strikers at this tournament. Conventional centre-forwards have generally struggled, whether through lack of service, lack of form, heavily marked or simply being a bit useless. The reason for this is probably tactical. Meanwhile, more unconventional forwards like Dimitri Payet and Gareth Bale have thrived. In a tight, defensive tournament like this, you need skilful players who can gather the ball in space and bring it into central areas.

The underdogs haven’t disappointed us

Hungary and Iceland did a terrific job in keeping Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal quiet. Chris Coleman led a rambunctious Wales side through the group stages to top Group B. Northern Ireland shocked plenty by qualifying for the round of 16 off the back of captivating performances in Group C. We all love an underdog story, it keeps people glued to their screens. I can tell you about many people who have put their money on Wales or Northern Ireland or even Iceland to go on and win the entire competition (they may have been marginally intoxicated at the time, but that’s just a part of the fun). The way the draw has fallen, no team in the top half of the draw have ever won an international tournament. Time for an underdog winner?

Football hooliganism is back

You can praise the passion on the pitch by many teams, but in the stands and away from the stadiums, on the streets, the dark days have returned to European football. The Hungarian Football Federation were the latest football association in hot water at Euro 2016 after they were fined €65,000 following trouble after the 1-1 draw with Iceland. Other nations like Croatia (€100,000) and Russia (€150,000) were also fined, while UEFA has ongoing investigations into fans from Romania, Albania, Portugal, Belgium, and Turkey. The behaviour by some Russian Ultras is not the greatest advert for a country that will host the next FIFA World Cup.

Croatia – the dark horses? 

Before the start of the tournament everyone was raving about Germany, France and Spain, but the one team that has impressed almost everyone is Croatia. Boasting perhaps one of the strongest midfield pairing in the world in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, these two have orchestrated some great moments. No doubt Rakitic and Modric are world-class performers, but it has been Ivan Persic who has been the Croat’s player of the tournament thus far. The Inter Milan midfielder scored a superb winner against Spain to secure top spot for his nation in Group D and opponents must now be wary of the trio in the knockout stages.

No clear favourites

A lot of talk coming into the tournament was the lack of a complete team to roll out in front as a clear favourite. If the group stages have shown us one thing, it is that everyone was right about that. For the first time in 20 years, no team has made it through their group with a 100% record. France have struggled to score. England haven’t been clinical in front of goal. Germany haven’t shown their World Champions form. Spain looked good against the Czech Republic and Turkey but were stunned by Croatia and now face Italy in the last-16, arguably the hardest route to the final. Each and every team have shown their flaws and it is now time to fill up the cracks.

Ireland fans are the best!

French daily newspaper Le Monde billed them “the model fans of Euro 2016”, French magazine SoFoot asked, “Are the Irish fans the best in the world?” Among the evidence so far, the answer is YES. The trademark “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work” banners, viral footage of Ireland fans singing to a nun on a train, tidying up after themselves in Bordeaux while chanting “Clean up for the boys in green“, changing an elderly French couple’s flat tyre, singing “Stand up for the French police“, and giving a surprised Paris resident the special treatment by mass cheering him every time he appeared on his balcony. In a tournament which has seen a lot of fan trouble, the Irish fans are setting the perfect example for all fans around the globe.

This article is written by Shantanu Ambekar, you can follow him on Twitter at @ShantanuAmbekar. What are your thoughts? Let us know by dropping a comment via our comments box below. Make sure you follow us on TwitterGoogle+, Instagram and like us on Facebook.

Manchester United fan and Premier League lover. Founder of IntoTheTopCorner.