Group stage openers down and still no clear favourite

Portugal and Iceland completed the “final” group stage opener of this year’s European Championship and yet there are no clear favourites.

A regular among favourites in tournaments and reigning world champions, Germany are along with defending champs, Spain and host, France the teams really being tipped as the teams best equipped to win the Euro.

France

The host, France are naturally the leading favourites by default, considering the tournament is on home soil but if we are to be honest, their opening game wasn’t at all impressive and without the inspiration of Payet, they’d probably have earned a mere draw against Romania.

The French looked anything but a cohesive unit and the man we all expected to be France’s star and a major force in midfield turned in a somewhat underwhelming performance. Yes, I’m looking at you Pogba. There was none of his clever shimmying or cheeky yet killer passes nor did we see his usual energetic runs from box to box. Things we’ve all gotten use to seeing from him week in, week out in Juventus’ midfield.

Defensively they are suspect and that was demonstrated by a clumsy tackle from Evra, which led to a penalty for Romania. Not to mention, the Romanians constantly cut through that defense like a knife through butter, creating far more opportunities than I had anticipated they would; chances they should’ve converted.

It was, however, important to start the opening game with a win and that they did. It was a win birthed from a moment of individual brilliance but a win that could also spur them on to become eventual champions.

Germany

Reigning world champs Germany turned in a strong performance against Ukraine but were still caused a great deal of trouble by most of their attack, especially in the first half and had it not been for the ever impressive Neuer and some magical, yet logic defying defending by Boateng, they may have finished the game levelled. Germany’s defence were, however missing their defensive leader, Mats Hummels and it manifested itself through Ukraine’s copious chances.

Nevertheless, Germany had some stand out performers, chiefly Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos. Based on stats by Squawka, he missed all of two passes in the entire game. He absolutely dominated the midfield. Özil also had an impressive game and his form with Arsenal has spilled over to the tournament, evidenced by his two assists.

The opening performance by Germany, though not as disciplined as we are accustomed to, delivered the all important win, which will probably propel them to the title. It was without a doubt the best performance by a favourite in the tournament thus far.

Spain

Defending champs Spain, who are hoping for a much better performance in this tournament following their debacle in the last World Cup, turned in a very patient, typical Spanish performance and rightly secured a narrow win over the Czech Republic.

The Spanish seemed to have recovered some of their swag that won them the 2012 European Championship but they are still struggling to put the ball in the net, a feat that could be detrimental to their hopes of retaining the title for a third straight tournament, but their aptitude to keep possession and frustrate opponents has been their fortitude during their run of three successive International titles and it could be what fires them to a third consecutive European title.

Are there any others worth mentioning?

England is a name also being thrown around as potential favourites- mostly by the British media. Their opener against Russia was a testy one- probably more in the stands and streets than on the pitch.

The English dominated the game and should’ve rightly won but for a terrible lapse in defense which allowed Russia to take a point late on. That said, if the English are unable to finish their chances and their defense is going to be plagued by such costly lapses then the role of favourites should be given to someone else because if they come up against a defensively stronger and more creative opponent they will struggle and they will lose. Roy Hodgson has some assessment to do before they come up against the Welsh, mainly benching Sterling, starting or eventually bringing on Vardy as a late substitute and choosing a better person to take the corners. They are however, a group that has piqued my interest and I’ll be watching their next game against Wales closely.

Italy, as always, are considered favourites in any tournament even if they have nothing special about them and this tournament is no different. Such is the Italians effectiveness. They have a knack for turning in awful performances but still manage to grind out the win. Something we’ve seen on countless occasions. The effectivity of the Italians came in to play in their opener against Belgium. It was a solid performance from the Azzuri and their wing backs caused Belgium all sorts of trouble and the likes of Giaccherini and Pelle, both considered on the average side were clinical. Another performance like this for the Italians in their next game will certainly see them qualify for the next round. After which, we can really discuss what their potential is as far as this tournament goes.

Dark horses?

Croatia and Poland are worth mentioning as the possible dark horses of the tournament. Both teams have a wealth of talent and their own superstars, who’ll probably draw the attention of their opponents leaving the other, younger talented players to wreak havoc.

But if one had to choose, Croatia would be hands down the pick to cause a likely upset. The wealth of talent they have in Modric- he picked up his second Champions League trophy with Real Madrid this season; Rakitic- was key in helping Barcelona win the domestic double; Mandzukic- an erratic character but a clinical striker nonetheless; Brozovic- an undoubtedly talented, energetic and creative midfielder; Perisic- despite Inter Milan’s average season, he’s still a talented attacker and he displayed that in the first game with a few tricky moves and some wonderful crosses into the box; and then there are the stallions: Corluka and Srna. Croatia has all the right ingredients to be our Cinderella at the ball and I’m looking forward to them fulfilling that role.

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