Five who arrived late to the Euro 2016 party

Date published: Monday 27th June 2016 12:25

Eden Hazard

Eden Hazard
All together now: He’s like a new signing.

But no, really, he is. Hazard’s 2015/16 was a complete write-off, low on energy, motivation, form and confidence. Towards the end of the season we saw flashes of his brilliance – his goal against Liverpool in particular – but against Italy it was back to last season’s Hazard. Arms flapping and cheeks puffing are the telltale signs of his frustration.

If Hazard has saved his best for the knock-out stages of the European Championship, it was worth the wait. His performance against Hungary on Sunday was the greatest individual display of the tournament so far, Messi-esque in his dominance of Belgium’s attacking play. Hazard’s late goal, picking up the ball from deep before beating three players and curling the ball round the goalkeeper’s dive, was a mirror image of the Messi goal that you think about with your eyes closed at night.

 

Mario Gomez
Left out of Germany’s first two matches as Joachim Low tried to succeed through beauty over brawn, Gomez has given his side a focal point in attack over their last two matches. Against Slovakia, he was magnificent.

Following a hiatus from the national team lasting almost four years, Gomez is now back en vogue. His success is emphatic vindication for the principle that the only right way to play is the way that proves the most effective. July 10 could bring a very special birthday present indeed for Germany’s line-leader.

 

Julian Draxler
Picked for Germany’s opening two matches before being left out against Northern Ireland, Draxler was in danger of coasting through this tournament. There were plenty of inventive runs and clever passes, but the Wolfsburg attacking midfielder had contributed neither goal nor assist. Germany had 34 shots in those opening two matches, but Draxler had created only four chances and had one shot on target.

Rather than keep faith in Mario Gotze against Slovakia, Low instead gave Draxler another chance to impress and was rewarded handsomely. Playing on the left of three attacking midfielders behind Gomez, Draxler was named Man of the Match as Germany eased into the quarter-finals. In 72 minutes against Slovakia, he scored more goals, contributed more assists and had as many shots on target as in his other two games combined. He also completed eight dribbles, two fewer than every other German player combined.

 

Portugal’s defence
Having conceded four goals in the group stage against Hungary and Iceland, there were real concerns about Portugal’s ability to thwart Croatia’s collection of lovely attacking midfielders. We need not have worried. Portugal had never failed to reach the quarter-finals in each of the six times they had qualified for the European Championship – make that seven out of seven.

While the pre-match hype understandably surrounded Portugal’s attacking options, it was actually a much-maligned defence that finally played to its full potential. There was none of the recent incidents of full-backs being caught out of position, Ricardo Carvalho’s lack of pace being exposed (Jose Fonte was preferred) or Pepe being a majestic sh*thouse, just an organised and resolute defence that managed to last 120 minutes without allowing a shot on target. The centre-back pair made 17 clearances, and four of the five Portugal to have the most touches of the ball were their defenders. Supreme.

 

Antoine Griezmann
It wasn’t that Griezmann played particularly poorly in the group stage, more that he was pushed from literal centre stage by Didier Deschamps, farmed out in wide areas where he is only half as effective. Finally, after half-time against Ireland, Griezmann was allowed to stay central, a position in which he is so prominent for Atletico Madrid. Turns out it did the trick; here’s to round pegs in round holes.

Griezmann was superb in the second half in Lyon. Ireland’s defence was tired, but Griezmann staying central means he can drift wide to pick up the ball, before facing up against a defender to dribble past him. As I wrote on Sunday, he possesses the ability to ride challenges and keep his balance, which makes him incredibly dangerous against tiring central defenders. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling should be worried.

 

Daniel Storey

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