Sports

Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary, and Iceland Advance: The Euro 2016 Group Stage Review

In our latest review of Euro 2016, we take a look at the last few games of the group stage, and say some nice stuff about Hungary, because they’ve earned it.
June 23, 2016, 2:00pm
EPA Images/CJ Gunther

We have, like, a lot more Euro 2016 coverage. You can read it here.

With the group stage done and dusted, we now know exactly how the first knockout round of Euro 2016 is going to shape up. England are playing Iceland, Wales are up against Northern Ireland and the Republic are set to take on hosts France. As for everyone else, there are some games between several sides who aren't the home nations, all of which are likely to end in either a win or a loss.

Before the Round of 16 kicks off, then, let's take a look back at the last few days. With praise for Hungary, a nasty surprise for Spain and a detailed appreciation of that Icelandic commentator losing his proverbial shit, here's the Euro 2016 review.

JOE ALLEN APPRECIATION DAY

Joe Allen, a beacon of Christ-like calm // EPA Images/Armando Babani

Just prior to the start of Euro 2016, Ashley Williams revealed that the Wales squad celebrate a weekly Joe Allen Appreciation Day. We thought this was a tad odd at the time, but we're now starting to see why. While Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey were both fantastic in Wales' emphatic 3-0 win over Russia on Monday evening, it was Allen who pulled the vital strings in the midfield. His assist for Ramsey's opening goal was nothing short of delicious; a knife through the warm, salty butter of Russia's inept back four.

GOAL! Ramsey collects a cute Allen through ball and chips the opening #WAL goal #WALRUS #EURO2016 https://t.co/qI1va540Vb
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 20, 2016

What's more, wee Joe showed that there's far more to his game than meets the eye. Despite his slight stature, despite the fact that he stands at a mere 5"6, he proved that he can play the role of a canny ball winner as much as that of a playmaker and distributor in the middle of the park. Allen worked incredibly hard against the Russians, covering a huge amount of ground and working as diligently in defence as he did in attack.

He also squared up to Pavel Mamaev which – considering that the burly Russian midfielder would almost certainly batter Joe in a street fight – was as admirably brave as it was endearingly stupid.

As such, we declare ourselves ready to celebrate Joe Allen Appreciation Day. We're growing out our hair as we speak, cultivating rich, bushy beards and preparing to don flowing white robes, all in homage to the Carmarthen Christ. This is Joe Allen's moment, and he is prepared to die for the sins of Welsh football. If he can perform a minor miracle and help his side to the quarter-finals in the process, then his sacrifice will be remembered forevermore.

BUCKFAST! SUCH FOOTBALL! BOUT YE!

Norn Iron defended like lions against Germany, even if they did lose // EPA Images/Etienne Laurent

If Wales are to progress to the quarter-finals, they'll have to beat Northern Ireland first. Michael O'Neill's men certainly aren't the most proficient side at the tournament but, nonetheless, a 1-0 defeat to Germany on Tuesday afternoon was enough to see them get past the group stage as one of the best-ranked third placed teams.

While two defeats in their first three games doesn't necessarily bode well for the knockout rounds, the GAWA have done an incredible job to simply reach the Round of 16. This is a team largely made up of players from the Championship, and whose most beloved icon has only just been promoted from League One with Wigan Athletic. Michael O'Neill has organised them in such a way that they're compact, tenacious and hard to beat, while their underdog spirit does the rest.

Whatever happens in the Stade de France on Saturday evening, Northern Ireland will have done themselves proud. In fact, they've done so well that we'll even let them off for their incredibly shit flags, and for the Will Grigg's on Fire chant. Honestly, if we hear that song one more time we're going to have ourselves voluntarily sectioned.

NO SPAIN, NO GAIN

The Spains of being pure at heart // EPA Images/Caroline Blumberg

On Tuesday night, at the final whistle of their match against Croatia, Spain's players looked positively broken. Having been firm favourites to top Group D and progres as the first-placed team, they were thoroughly outplayed by an excellent Croatia side whose midfield of Ivan Perišić, Ivan Rakitić and Milan Badelj looks commanding, imperious and nothing short of all-conquering. With Luka Modrić out injured for the Spain game, it's scary to think how good Croatia could be in the middle of the park come the knockout rounds.

The Croats will now go on to play a lacklustre Portugal. Meanwhile, Spain will have to face Italy, and mend their lacerated gameplan in the meantime.

Vicente del Bosque's squad is still one of the best at the tournament, of course. It's possible that the pain of defeat will give them the impetus to get past the Italians, and reinvigorate their Euro 2016. Still, they look short up front, and occasionally fallible in the centre of their defence. Will the wounds of the Croatia loss fester, or will they have healed over in time for their clash with the Azzuri? Come Monday evening, we shall find out.

HUNGARY LIKE THE WOLF

Hungary Hungary hippos // EPA Images/CJ Gunther

They might not be the most fashionable side at the Euros, but Hungary deserve huge credit for navigating their way out of Group F. Perhaps the most underrated team of the tournament, they ended up topping the group after a scintillating 3-3 draw with Portugal on Wednesday evening.

What's most surprising about the Hungarians is their penchant for goals. Despite having almost no recognised attacking stars in their squad, they've managed to score six times in three games, a total matched only by Wales. Ádám Szalai, Zoltán Stieber and Balázs Dzsudzsák have popped up with key strikes at vital moments, while even 37-year-old Zoltán Gera has got in on the act. The last time we can remember him scoring, he was playing in an FxPro-sponsored Fulham kit and it was some time in the autumn of 2010. We're sure he's scored since then but, still, it's a rare occurrence these days.

Though they can be a tad porous at the back at times, Hungary could be the surprise package of the knockout rounds. They face Belgium on Sunday evening, and Marc Wilmots' men would do well not to underestimate them.

LATE-GAME LUNACY

Iceland secured their first ever win at the European Championships on Wednesday // EPA Images/Srdjan Suki

At the same time that Hungary were playing out their high-scoring draw with Portugal, Iceland were sealing a historic win. We said that the men in red and blue would become Norse legends if they progressed from Group F and, in godlike fashion, they scored in the final minute against Austria, sending a thunderous roar echoing across the icy surface of the Arctic Ocean and up towards the heavens, Valhalla and beyond.

While some of that roar was produced by the supporters inside the Stade de France, most of it reverberated from the vocal chords of a single television commentator. As Arnor Ingvi Traustason slid home at the far post, Icelandic commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson screamed a scream so pure, so high-pitched, that avalanches rolled down the sides of Iceland's volcanic landscape and ice sheets plunged into the inky sea. With the goal sealing Iceland's first ever win at the Euros and setting them up to play England in the Round of 16, Benediktsson expressed the joy of an entire nation with one ear-splitting, glass-shattering shriek.

The Icelandic commentary is absolutely insane pic.twitter.com/ZlXz0bD9Gy
— Soccer Life (@TrueSoccerLife) June 22, 2016

A couple of hours later, as Robbie Brady nodded home an unlikely winner against Italy, we imagine there were a few Republic of Ireland supporters screaming in comparable glee. There's nothing like a bit of late-game lunacy to send fans into raptures, so long may the belated deciders continue, and long may the manic squealing go on.

@W_F_Magee