In my predictions for this group I had imagined France going through as first and England as second, with Sweden possibly being able to challenge the latter for this spot. I had never expected such a mediocre performance of the swedes in the first two matches (especially in defence) or that Ukraine could cause these many problems. I could not follow these matches as well as I would have liked (the work that kept me from writing also kept me from watching everything I would have liked to, so compromises had to be made), but the general impression was one of a talented but disfunctional french side, organised english and ukrainian ones and a swedish side which relied too heavily on their star player. In the end, the results might not have been totally expected or logical (England were very much the weaker side against large periods of the match against Ukraine), but reflected what happened.
Much of what I had expected came to being. Russia surprised me with their 4-1 thrashing of Czech Republic, but it was all downhill from there. They seemed tired (at the end of the match against Poland they hardly moved) and the players seemed uncomfortable with having to be the attacking side and playing a proactive game. It was telling that their best result came in the match when the opposition decided to take all initiative and left spaces at the back. Also some element of luck (understood as a happy accident) might have been at play there.
Poland were, as expected, too much dependant on their three star players. It’s not that they did not perform: Piszcek did well, Lewandowski was excellent and Blaszczykowski was the best polish player. It’s just that the opposition knew that, by shutting out these three, there was little threat from their teammates. This ended up being their undoing in attacking terms, since the defence did well throughout the tournament.
The winners were Czech Republic, the team I had expected especially because of a solid group, without real stars, but consistent and balanced. They were never going to hit great heights, but in an even group, it was clear that the better organised side might come out top. Gebre Selassie may have caught the eye with his forward runs, but his defensive positioning was often questionable and some more maturity will help him tremendously. At this moment, however, Vaclav Pilar may already be pointed as the surprise of the tournament, with his pace and trickery causing problems throughout. If supported by some more creativity and movement from his teammates, he could have carried the team further. At under 1 million euros he already seems the bargain of the summer for Wolfsburg.
Greece played pretty much the way it was expected. Solid at the back, with some attacking runs (they were more attacking than in previous tournaments) and had as star players the young centre-back Papadopoulos and midfielder Katsouranis. In the end, they qualified through hard work and plenty of heart, but also some tactical astuteness from their manager Fernando Santos (especially against Poland). They would never set the world alight, but they showed enough spirit for their compatriots and that was what they had aimed at.
As expected, Spain came out on top, with Italy getting second place ahead of Croatia and Ireland departing with three defeats. Italy, however, did much better than expected, strongly stiffling Spain (and even having the best opportunities to win the match) and not being far from beating Croatia. Had Croatia drawn with Spain in the last match, Italy might have been gone, but the spanish were keen to avoid surprises and won against the croats with a display somewhat characteristic of their Euro: unconvincing. Still, in the end the best teams went through and Croatia can go back feeling they really gave their best. Ireland went for the party and cannot really be disappointed: their victory was in being there.