Now that every side has played at least 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.
Due to the new format of the European Championships this year, more teams have been able to qualify for the tournament and, while this allows for all of the very best teams in Europe to take part in the finals, it also allows teams to qualify who are, perhaps, not up to the standards of playing at a major tournament. Even so, this year, just as it is every tournament, a few of these so-called weaker teams have pleasantly surprised us with their performances.
In my opinion, the four teams who have played the most above their means are Albania, Northern Ireland, Iceland, and Hungary. All of these teams have performed above the sum of their respective parts, with all of them having won at least one game, with the exception of Iceland, who have managed to avoid defeat against both Portugal and Hungary.
Even though I wrote about them in my category of worst team of the tournament so far, Albania’s performance against Romania has convinced me that they deserve to be talked about for the tournament’s surprise package! As – like the rest of the non-Albanian-or-Romanian world – I opted to watch France against Switzerland, I did not get a chance to watch Albania against Romania as the two games were on at the same time. However, the fact that they picked up a win against a side 20 places higher than them in the FIFA World Rankings has to mean that they have performed above expectations.
When you consider that their squad is one of the weakest at the tournament, to win a game is a fantastic achievement. Even in the games they did lose they were fairly impressive, having only gone down narrowly in each match, one of which was against the host nation and the other of which they had to play over half the game with ten men. They even managed to avoid finishing bottom of what was, undoubtedly, a difficult group, and could potentially find themselves progressing to the knockout stages as one of the best third placed teams.
Northern Ireland have enjoyed a great tournament so far, and currently find themselves third in a difficult group with a game to play. Most people wrote off their chances when they were put in a group with the world champions, Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, but although they suffered a narrow defeat at the hands of Poland, they beat Ukraine 2-0. This means that they, too, have a chance of qualifying for the last 16 of the competition, and could even sneak through in one of the top two spots if they can get a positive result against Germany.
The standout performers in the Northern Ireland team have been Gareth McAuley and Steven Davies, in a team that puts the focus on defensive stability rather than attacking prowess. Considering the relative size of the other countries they have been pitted against, Northern Ireland have done brilliantly just to get a win, and anything other than a heavy defeat against the world champions would simply be a bonus for the Northern Ireland supporters.
Iceland were widely expected to be one of the sides present at the tournament simply to fill the required number of spaces. However, they are one of the unbeaten teams so far, having played two games. Their first was against Portugal, who were expected to condemn the icelandic to a damning defeat, but a Birkir Bjarnason volley earned his side a 1-1 draw, to the despair of Cristiano Ronaldo. In the second match of the tournament, star player, Gylfi Sigurdsson put them in front and only a late Hungary equaliser could stop them from gaining a monumental win. It is Iceland’s first ever major tournament, and nobody can say they are not well supported, with over 10% of the country’s population having travelled to France to support their team.
Although Iceland are yet to win a match, they are in with a shout of qualifying for the knockout rounds as a third placed side. Iceland currently sit in second place, which would mean they qualified automatically for the knockout rounds, but few can see any result other than a Portugal win against Hungary, which would mean that the best Iceland can realistically hope for is a point against Austria in their last group game, putting them in third place.
Hungary have shocked everybody with their performances to date, having won against Austria and drawn against Iceland. Although they are still to play Portugal who, on paper, are the strongest team in the group, they have already picked up four points, which practically secures them passage into the next round. They currently sit top of their group, which was a spot almost everybody thought would be occupied by Portugal. The Hungarian defense has been solid so far, with the only goal conceded being a dubious penalty against Iceland. Meanwhile, they have been commended for their slick passing football, while many expected their game to consist mainly of long balls up to a target man.
Their star performer has been Balázs Dzudzsák, who has been problematic for defenses, while they have relied heavily on the experience of ex-Fulham man, Zoltán Gera and goalkeeper, Gábor Király. Király is the oldest player at the tournament and, although he was at fault for the goal Iceland scored against them, he has looked fairly comfortable for most of the tournament. Hungary’s group is arguably the weakest at the tournament, but most had Austria down to finish second in the group, with Hungary and Iceland battling it out for third place. However, the way the group has turned out, it has become almost certain that one of Hungary and Iceland will qualify, if not both of them. If Hungary can get a point or more against Portugal, it may even be possible for the big fish in the group to be knocked out while two underdogs progress.
It is fair to say that all of these teams have performed to a level few expected them to, with all of them having picked up points from their opening games. All of them also still have a chance of progressing to the last 16 of the competition, when none of them would be expected to. However, I believe that Hungary have impressed the most out of the teams in the tournament because they have played well in both their games so far, while it could be argued that the other teams got slightly lucky in their games.
Hungary have had their more favourable fixtures first, and their biggest challenge will be to try and avoid defeat against Portugal in their final group game. However, for them to sit top of their group after two games having all but secured qualification to the next round is something nobody would have predicted to happen so, in my opinion, Hungary are the surprise package of Euro 2016 so far.