Worldies, own goals, late drama, golden oldies and super subs… MATT BARLOW reviews a thrilling Euro 2024 group stage and picks his XI of the tournament so far

There were own goals and wonder goals. There were script-changing late goals. Records were shattered, hearts broken and noses busted in the group stage of Euro 2024.

There were bright shiny newbies and great golden oldies. Unlikely heroes burst from the fringes. 

There were pink kits and pretzels, armies of tartan, invasions of orange. Blaring car horns of late-night celebration, doner kebabs and mighty steins of ale.

There was John McGinn’s Bavarian prancing and Wreck-it Ralf’s renaissance, his Austrians all tanked up on Red Bull philosophy. 

There was Christian Eriksen’s opener, a Danish fairytale before the Group of Snooze sent its audience to sleep.

Ralf Rangnick's Austria team have caught the eye during the entertaining group stages

Ralf Rangnick’s Austria team have caught the eye during the entertaining group stages

Croatia legend Luka Modric became the oldest scorer at the Euros at the age of 38

Croatia legend Luka Modric became the oldest scorer at the Euros at the age of 38

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SPRINTING AND STROLLING 

The fashion for high-octane football played at a relentless pace without time for over-coaching produced early contests of carefree fun strewn with errors. 

Thirty of the 81 goals came in the first half an hour of games.

Quite right too, in the land that led the gegenpressing revolution and set us off down this road. At the vanguard, the High Priest of the high press Ralf Rangnick and his exhilarating Austria team of perpetual motion.

Caution prevailed in England’s group but others laden with stars found it heavy going against those with a plan and a determined attitude, and Group E — which Romania won but everyone finished on four points — concluded in a state of inertia.

Perhaps that’s the double-edge of the third-placed qualifiers. 

One win all but gets you through so teams take early risks, but Scotland and Ukraine never recovered from hammerings in their opening games.

 

A DORTMUND CLASSIC…

A personal favourite. Turkey’s 3-1 win against Georgia was an assault on the senses. From the torrential pre-match downpour via a barrage of mind-bending noise from the Westfalenstadion’s Yellow Wall turned red by the Turks, to the final act of a breathless spectacle when Kerem Akturkoglu scored on the break in a goal without a goalkeeper.

Kerem Akturkoglu scored on the break during Turkey's entertaining 3-1 win against Georgia

Kerem Akturkoglu scored on the break during Turkey’s entertaining 3-1 win against Georgia

 

PICK THAT ONE OUT

Just how do you like your humdingers? Out of the sky, timed perfectly on the volley like Turkey’s Mert Muldur, fizzing low across the turf and in off a post like Denmark’s Morten Hjulmand or swept effortlessly into the top corner like Nicolae Stanciu of Romania. 

Plenty of the brilliant goals from distance have been assisted by vicious curl. See also Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri against Scotland, Lukas Provod of the Czech Republic and Turkey wonderkid Arda Guler.

Mert Muldur's goal for Turkey against Georgia was of a really high standard

Mert Muldur’s goal for Turkey against Georgia was of a really high standard

Nicolae Stanciu's strike for Romania against Ukraine was one of many superb goals

Nicolae Stanciu’s strike for Romania against Ukraine was one of many superb goals

 

THE ADIDAS BALL

Made from wood pulp, sugar cane, corn fibres and recycled polyester, the tournament ball was, as ever, more popular with strikers than goalkeepers.

‘It’s quick, it stays hit,’ said an approving Harry Kane. ‘It’s not made for the goalkeepers,’ scowled Denmark No1 Kasper Schmeichel.

Having figured out they could whip this ball into extravagant trajectories, some started shooting from corners. Ruslan Malinovskyi of Ukraine almost scored this way against Belgium.

Inside, the smart-tech chip enabling semi-automated offsides via 500 fresh data points per second, all of them seemingly converted into reasons to wipe out goals by Romelu Lukaku.

Denmark's Kasper Schmeichel stated that the <a href=Euro 2024 ball does not favour goalkeepers” class=”blkBorder img-share” style=”max-width:100%”>

Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel stated that the Euro 2024 ball does not favour goalkeepers

 

WUNDERVAR

Lukaku had three goals overturned by VAR in Belgium’s first two games but, overall, the tech has gone down well. 

Sound and speedy resolutions, apart from Stuart Attwell’s five-minute prevarication over Xavi Simons’ offside goal against France.

The handball rule continues to defy belief, but refereeing has been generally very good, with sound judgment on the falling-down merchants and only one red card until the Czechs lost the plot on Wednesday. 

Poor old Ryan Porteous might be forgiven. The Scotland centre back’s tackle that saw him dismissed against Germany would never be red playing for Edinburgh City and Hibernian, nor for Watford in the VAR-free Championship.

There’s been far less dissent, as though the chip in the ball acts like a soothing placebo for players more trusting in AI technology than humans. Just wait, Virgil, we’ll run this one past the robots.

VAR has largely been used efficiently during this summer's tournament so far

VAR has largely been used efficiently during this summer’s tournament so far

 

OH MY OG…

Seven own goals, mostly during some of those early pinball games, is just one fewer than in the group stage of Euro 2020. Thankfully, science is a long way from erasing human error and Turkey centre back Samet Akaydin’s howler against Portugal was the very definition of a comedy own goal.

So unexpected it caught out the director of the live feed, who was wallowing in the timeless beauty of a Cristiano Ronaldo tantrum, another staple of summer tournaments we will miss when he’s gone, as Akaydin gave his own goalkeeper the eyes.

Samet Akaydin¿s howler against Portugal was the very definition of a comedy own goal

Samet Akaydin’s howler against Portugal was the very definition of a comedy own goal

Donyell Malen of the Netherlands was left dejected after his own goal against Austria

Donyell Malen of the Netherlands was left dejected after his own goal against Austria

 

DISTANCE COVERED 

Unfancied teams were committed and competitive. Austria were the perfect example, although Albania had two players in the top five of distance covered. Ylber Ramadani covered 37.5km in the group stage, according to uefa.com statistics. Further than any other player. His team-mate Kristjan Asllani was just behind on 36.1km. It wasn’t enough to qualify but they competed in every game in a very difficult group.

Making up the top five on distance: Italy’s Nicolo Barella (37km), Tomas Soucek (37km) of the Czech Republic and Andras Schafer (35.9km) of Hungary.

Albania's Ylber Ramadani covered 37.5km in the group stage, more than any other player

Albania’s Ylber Ramadani covered 37.5km in the group stage, more than any other player

 

SUPER SUBS…

They like to call themselves ‘finishers’ these days. Bless ‘em. Specialists for 10 minutes at the end. Nice work if you can get it and with five per team it’s a boom market. Mattia Zaccagni finished Croatia in the 98th minute, but the master of this business is Niclas Fullkrug, who scored twice off the bench for Germany with noble simplicity.

Boss Julian Nagelsmann shrugged when asked if Fullkrug should start. ‘He delivers the argument for both jobs, starting and coming on,’ said Nagelsmann. ‘It’s good luck and bad luck for him that he is so good in the role.’

Niclas Fullkrug scored twice off the bench for Germany during the group stages

Niclas Fullkrug scored twice off the bench for Germany during the group stages

 

BRAND NEW HEROES…

Georges Mikautadze, of Georgia and French second-tier side Metz, leads the goals charts with three, while none of the favourites scored more than one in the group stage. Kylian Mbappe, hindered by a broken nose and protective mask, scored one, a penalty. Kane scored a tap-in. Lukaku toiled.

Long and gruelling domestic campaigns caught up with those from the most illustrious clubs, chasing trophies until just a few weeks ago. Jude Bellingham appeared exhausted and Spain, the most fluent of all 24 teams, managed Rodri’s minutes.

Only nine Premier League players out of 68 to hit the net. Cody Gakpo with two, Bruno Fernandes, Kevin De Bruyne, Youri Tielemans, Kai Havertz, Scott McTominay, Bernardo Silva, Eriksen and Soucek with one each.

Georges Mikautadze, of Georgia and Metz, leads the goals charts at <a href=Euro 2024 with three” class=”blkBorder img-share” style=”max-width:100%”>

Georges Mikautadze, of Georgia and Metz, leads the goals charts at Euro 2024 with three

De Bruyne sparkled but this was about emerging new names on the international scene, such as Dan Ndoye (23) sparkling up front for Switzerland, and Riccardo Calafiori (22), stylish at the back for Italy. Both play for Bologna, fifth in Serie A last season and Champions League bound.

Nico Williams produced arguably the finest individual display against Italy. Slovenia’s Jaka Bijol made by some distance the most defensive clearances (27) and Giorgi Mamardashvili was a star of Georgia’s progress.

 

GENERATION GAP…

At the start, it was all about Lamine Yamal, at 16 the youngest player to appear at the Euros, dazzling on Spain’s right wing while studying for his exams, and Guler, who scored a screamer on his Euros debut at 19.

But the oldies hit back. Ronaldo has yet to score (but don’t put it past him) and he broke the habit of a lifetime to set a tournament record for assists. Luka Modric stitched a silver lining into Croatia’s cloud as he became the oldest scorer at the Euros, aged 38. N’Golo Kante at 33 looks good as new for France. Portugal’s Pepe is still going strong at 41.

16-year-old Lamine Yamal has dazzled on Spain's right wing while studying for his exams

16-year-old Lamine Yamal has dazzled on Spain’s right wing while studying for his exams

41-year-old Portugal defender Pepe is the oldest player in the history of the Euros

41-year-old Portugal defender Pepe is the oldest player in the history of the Euros

 

SERIOUSLY THOUGH…

It was not all frivolous fun. There were security alerts, pitch invaders and Balkan tensions. There was a sickening head injury for Barnabas Varga of Hungary. 

There were a host of pitch invaders who attempted to get a selfie with Cristiano Ronaldo

There were a host of pitch invaders who attempted to get a selfie with Cristiano Ronaldo 

Beer cups were lobbed at Gareth Southgate and Belgian fans jeered De Bruyne and Co into the last 16 as head coach Domenico Tedesco grumbled about red lights, traffic and laser beams.

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