The group stage at UEFA EURO 2008 was not without its share of
surprises, as holders Greece and joint host nations Austria and
Switzerland failed to survive, while FIFA World Cup™ holders Italy
were pushed all the way.
The 16 nations who set out on the road to glory at this year's European Championship scored a total of 57 goals in the group phase. Some 15 of those came between the 61st and 75th minutes.
The Netherlands were the most prolific scorers with nine as they marched to top spot in Group C, generally regarded as the toughest section. The Dutch stormed to victories over world champions Italy (3-0), FIFA World Cup runners-up France (4-1) and Romania (2-0). The next highest scorers were Spain with eight, followed by Portugal and Turkey on five apiece.
At the opposite end of the scoring charts, holders Greece shared the wooden spoon with Romania, Poland, France and Austria on just a solitary goal in three games. "You don't get miracles every fortnight. If you did, there wouldn't be any miracles," intoned 69-year-old Greece supremo Otto Rehhagel as the 2004 winners failed to make an impression this time round.
The individual roll of honour was topped by Spain marksman David Villa, boosted by his hat-trick against the Russians. The 26-year-old has four for the tournament so far, ahead of Germany's Lukas Podolski on three. Murat Yakin of Switzerland also netted three times but can longer add to his total.
The highest scoring matches at EURO 2008 to date have featured five goals: Netherlands - France and Spain - Russia both ended 4-1, while the Turks defeated the Czech Republic 3-2.
That match was arguably the most dramatic of the group fixtures. With just a quarter of an hour remaining, the Czechs led 2-0 courtesy of Koller and Plasil, but Turan pulled one back after 75 minutes and Nihat fired a last-gasp brace to complete an amazing turnaround and propel the Turks into the last eight.
Group C also produced the only scoreless draw, a dour affair between France and Romania, the pair who failed to survive from the section.
Best teams in the group stage
The Netherlands, Croatia and Spain all claimed the maximum nine points from three matches, although that has rarely been a guarantee of future glory. France were the last team to hoist the trophy after winning all their group fixtures, and that was back in 1984, when Les Bleues also scored nine times. A perfect group stage record failed to help at the last edition of the event: the Czech Republic took nine points from their group games but fell in the semi-finals to eventual champions Greece.
The Netherlands and Croatia boast the stingiest defences at the tournament with just one goal against, but the Spanish are top dogs in no less than three categories: the most shots at goal (58), the most passes (1,639) and the best completion rate (81.33 percent).
Otto Rehhagel's Greeks arrived as defending champions but promptly sank without trace, deservedly losing all three of their matches against Sweden (0-2), Russia (0-1) and Spain (1-2).
FIFA World Cup runners-up France also utterly failed to live up to their billing. After opening with a turgid goalless draw against Romania and then suffering a 4-1 reverse against the Dutch, their final match against Italy was a do-or-die affair. However, the French lost the re-run of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final 2-0.
Foul play doesn't pay
A physical approach is generally the weapon of teams lacking quality in depth. A number of nations looked to the more robust approach for salvation, but it cannot be said to have paid off. Three of the four teams who committed the most fouls are already on their way home. 'Top foulers' Poland led the way with 67 offences, followed by Switzerland (66), quarter-finalists Turkey (64) and France (61). The Turks also collected the most bookings with ten yellow cards ahead of Austria, Greece, Italy and Switzerland, all on eight. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Eric Abidal (France) and Volkan Demirel (Turkey) all saw straight red cards, although no player was dismissed for a second bookable offence.
Clash of the generations
The last matchday in Group D boasted one intriguing characteristic from a statistical point of view. The meeting between Russia and Sweden pitted the youngest team at EURO 2008 against the oldest. Youth duly won the generation game as the east Europeans eased past the Scandinavians 2-0 to book a place in the last eight.
Injury setbacks for stars
No fewer than three undisputed stars suffered injury misery at UEFA EURO 2008. Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro hurt his foot at a pre-tournament training camp and will play no active role at the event.
It was also hard not to feel sympathy for Switzerland's Alexander Frei. The team captain limped out of the opening match against the Czech Republic with damaged knee ligaments after just 42 minutes and was condemned to watch his team-mates' subsequent misery from the bench.
Finally, French hopes of salvaging something from the tournament in their Group C decider against the Italians were dealt an arguably fatal blow when inspirational forward Franck Ribery was stretchered off after ten minutes. France duly lost and packed for home.
The most poignant moments came after the Netherlands' 4-1 victory over France, as the men in orange collected their kids from the main stand and took the beaming youngsters with them on their lap of honour. Will one of the lucky kids grow up to emulate their illustrious dads?
Germany striker Lukas Podolski's goal celebrations were at
the opposite end of the spectrum against Poland. The 23-year-old
scored both goals in Germany's 2-0 win, but the player declined
to celebrate. Poland-born
Poldi cited "respect" as the reason for his
muted reaction to scoring.
After two kidney transplant operations, and 11 months out of the game, the future looked gloomy for Croatia striker Ivan Klasnic. The 28-year-old was initially thought to have little hope of resurrecting his professional career, but the goal-getter staged a courageous comeback, first at club level, and then with his national team. His joy was complete when he notched the only goal of the game as Croatia defeated the Poles.