Now that every side has played two matches at Euro 2016, I feel that I have seen enough to make my initial judgements on the tournament. Although there will, undoubtedly, be more in store before the end of the competition, we have had our first look at the players and teams competing in France. I have split my analysis into four parts: the best team so far, the worst team so far, the surprise package of the tournament so far, and the most disappointing team so far.
Best team so far:
From the first two rounds of group games, only three teams have picked up the maximum six points. Predictably, those have are the hosts, France, the 2012 winners, Spain, and the 2006 World Cup winners, Italy. It is slightly surprising that more teams haven’t been able to pick up wins from their opening two games, most notably the world champions, Germany failed to beat Poland, and Portugal failed to beat Iceland in their opener.
It is no surprise that France were made favourites for the tournament on home soil, as it could be argued that they have the best squad on paper. However, although the group draw handed them seemingly straightforward opening games against Romania and Albania, France had to rely on late goals to get past both sides. Dimitri Payet scored in stoppage time in each game, while Antoine Griezmann had to score a late header to put France in front against Albania. The performances of Dimitri Payet, in particular, have been one of the shining lights of the competition thus far, with the West Ham midfielder showing that he can take his club form onto the biggest stage.
English fans are no strangers to his free kick taking ability, but even we have been pleasantly surprised by his showing in the first two group games. Although pundits all agree that tournament football is a results business, most would have expected the host nation to dispatch their opponents more convincingly than they did. It is possible that they are simply growing into the tournament and trying not to peak too early, but there is certainly room for improvement for the French.
Spain look a good bet for winning the European Championships for the third time in a row. They opened their campaign with a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic, with a late goal from Gerard Piqué securing the points for the spaniards. However, although they too relied on a late goal to win the game, they had been well on top for the entirety of the match. There was no such problem in Spain’s second game, this time against Turkey, as brace from Álvaro Morata and a goal from Nolito consigned Turkey to a crushing defeat. The fluidity with which Spain are able to move the ball about the pitch has been a constant problem for oppositions over the last few major tournaments, and this one is no different, with both Turkey and the Czech Republic having to chase the ball for long periods of time while the stellar spanish midfield bide their time to pick an opening.
Andrés Iniesta has continued to show that he is one of the best midfielders in world football, while Cesc Fábregas has stepped up confidently to the challenge of partnering him. The one criticism that could be made of Spain is that they looked slightly toothless up front in their opening game, but as both Nolito and Morata got themselves on the scoresheet against Turkey, that is not looking like a major problem. Certainly, based on the first two performances, you would expect Spain to go far in the tournament.
Under the management of Antonio Conte, Italy have, again, upheld their reputation as a good tournament side. On the face of it, the squad is arguably one of the weakest fielded by the Azzurri in recent years, but they have managed to continue their habit of securing wins even when not at their best. Their opener against Belgium was probably the most appetising fixture of the first round of group games, but Italy managed to secure themselves a 2-0 win. It was a solid counter-attacking performance, with the Juventus-orientated defence absorbing the pressure from the belgians and using the pace of their wing-backs, Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian to launch forays into the opposition half. Their win over Sweden was less comfortable, as a late goal by Eder gave them a 1-0 win, but with their progression into the last 16 secured, their job is done for the moment. They will rotate their players in the final group match against the Republic of Ireland, ensuring they are fresh for their knockout games.
The most notable players in the side have to be the defence, along with Gianluigi Buffon. They are all very experienced players on the international stage, and are a fundamental part of Conte’s style of play. The problem I can see for Italy is that they may find that their gameplan is undone later in the competition, as if they concede one goal they will find themselves having to chase the game, and I think they might lack the attacking threat to be able to do that against competent opponents.
Although they have not managed to win both of their opening games, an honourable mention must go to Croatia, who look like they could go on to become a force in the tournament. They calmly set aside Turkey in their opening game, with a volley from Luka Modrić being an early contender for goal of the tournament in a 1-0 victory. They looked set to beat the Czech Republic with the same ease they showed against the turks, but threw away a 2-0 lead when the game was all but won. With 15 minutes to go, midfielders Ivan Perisić and Ivan Rakitić had put them two goals ahead, but Croatia conceded twice, the second coming in stoppage time, to draw the game. It was a very disappointing collapse, as Croatia had been on top all game and their class, especially in midfield, was simply too much for their Czech Republic counterparts.
The defensive frailties which led to the surrender of the two points does not bode well for them for the rest of the competition. Going forward they seem to be well capable of causing problems, but their defensive showing against the Czech Republic make me wonder if they might be exposed when they come up against better opposition in the later rounds. It cannot be denied that they pose a considerable threat in attack, mainly due to their star-studded midfield containing Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, and Ivan Perisić, which allows them to keep the ball for long periods of time while they wait for a chance to present itself. Modrić, in particular, has showed himself to be one of the stars of the tournament so far, and he will be looking to maintain his high levels of performance in order to guide his country through to the latter rounds of the competition.
These are the four teams that I feel have made the best accounts of themselves in their first two group stage matches, and it will be interesting to see whether they can continue to impress, and whether any of them will go all the way and lift the trophy in July. I would be fearful if England had to play any of the above teams in the knockout stages as, on their day, they could all beat any team in the world. However, the overall side that I believe has performed best in the opening group games is Spain. They have performed brilliantly in both their games and have, at times, looked at a different level to opponents.
Although France have also had their moments, they have relied on a certain amount of luck, while Spain have been able to pick teams apart at will with their passing. Italy and Croatia have also looked good, but I think they are too reliant on one area of their team; with Italy’s defence and Croatia’s midfield. Spain, on the other hand, have experienced players at international level in every position, as well as strength in depth to come off the bench at any time. For me, this puts Spain on another level to anybody else in the tournament, and it will be up to everyone else to try and stop them winning the tournament.