Group F-***ing ridiculous as England peek into the carnage

Matt Stead
Leon Goretzka, Joachim Low, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema

Euro 2020 had been excellent while lacking something in the groups. England watched the carnage between Germany, France, Portugal and Hungary.


For the opening 11 minutes it was a date with The Old Enemy and a week of uncomfortable war references. Then thoughts switched towards a meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo and a game soaked in mid-2000s disappointment. It was not long until the dread of hosting the world champions came to the fore. And for a quarter of an hour the fanbase was split between salivating at the prospect of a plum tie with a relative minnow and recalling those painfully hubristic memories of Iceland five years ago.

The wheel spun for an agonising hour and a half without stopping, jolting with each Ronaldo penalty and jerking every time Karim Benzema turned his international drought into a quenched thirst. Adam Szalai, Kai Havertz, Andras Schafer and Leon Goretzka certainly added to a ludicrous evening with their contributions in Munich. England were pulled from Germany to Portugal to France to Hungary like an innocent child being dragged to see grandparents of a fractured family over Christmas. By the time it came to unwrapping their last-16 gift it was Joachim Low sniffing his fingers and eagerly waiting to see the mixed reaction.

Germany started and finished the day second in Group F but that tells a minute fraction of the whole story. They were minutes from being eliminated altogether and a goal away from finishing top. Hungary were dealt a 2 and a 7 of different suits with the draw but still almost gambled their way through against three opponents with pocket aces.

None of these teams should scare England yet each of them would have caused trepidation. This France team is packed with so much individual quality it can transcend a poorly executed game plan ostensibly designed to contain and control. Portugal are defensively suspect but possess the second greatest scorer in the history of men’s international football; Ali Daei is still clinging on for relevance by virtue of his goals-per-game record. Germany are no easier to decipher than before the tournament started. Hungary have held their own and bloodied a few noses on their way out.

The sensational drama was matched with moments of genuine brilliance across both anxiety-inducing games. During the opening stages in Budapest, Paul Pogba had slipped Kylian Mbappe behind the Portugal defence but his attempted finish was thwarted by Rui Patricio. The Manchester United midfielder would repeat what is becoming Euro 2020’s greatest and most effective trick twice more: playing Mbappe in to win a penalty on the stroke of half-time, then slotting Benzema in behind Ruben Dias to complete a France comeback that barely seemed possible at points in a sluggish, static first half.

Karim Benzema celebrates his goal

He was not even the best midfielder on the pitch, and although at this point N’Golo Kante tends to enter the conversation, he barely even made the podium in that regard. Instead this was a game dominated by Renato Sanches, who is presumably planning on retiring from club football and World Cups to play exclusively at the European Championship. His performances at Euro 2016 were stunning but after five challenging years finding his feet, this summer has been even more impressive.

A Ligue Un title with Lille has restored the confidence levels of a supreme talent. So often he would carry the ball by himself from deep as opponents bounced off a forcefield of brilliance. Early in the second half he sauntered past three France players before laying the ball off to Ronaldo, who promptly misplaced his own pass. A tornado could have struck at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium and he would still have emerged with the ball at his magnetic, balletic feet.

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Antonio Mateu Lahoz tried his utmost to upstage the 23-year-old, awarding three penalties that varied in worthiness. Hugo Lloris inadvertently testing the structural integrity of Danilo’s jaw was fairly punished, while Jules Kounde’s handball was prime You’ve Seen Them Given material despite still feeling a little harsh. Nelson Semedo, markedly improved from his undressing at the hands of Robin Gosens a few days ago, should consider himself unfortunate for existing when Mbappe was nearby and at full foreboding sprint.

When Ronaldo dispatched his second penalty on the hour mark there was a sense that they were happy with their lot. Joao Palhinha managed their only shot thereafter. France pushed a little more for a winner and forced Rui Patricio into a phenomenal double save from Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, but when news filtered through of a Germany draw that sent all three favourites through, Les Bleus were content to pass it around the defence.

Germany players celebrate

The Disgrace of Gijon this was not. It was more the emotion, the tension, the ridiculousness of four countries, playing in stadia separated by 400 miles but united by the sheer drama of knockout-style football in a tournament that has lacked such a quality for most of its bloated group stage. UEFA have continually proven themselves to be dreadful but this was amazing. Goretzka sent at least part of the message they dared not to with his pertinent celebrations at a time of pandemonium.

The one real regret, viewing the aftermath through an England prism, is what comes next. Not in terms of facing Germany but rather a build-up that will incorporate 1966, sunbeds, yet more mentions of Euro ’96, probably some Brexit stuff, a few references to Euro ’96, pizza, ‘Krauts’, some talk of Euro ’96 and Gareth Southgate being asked about missing penalties for every waking second of the next week.

For now, it is time to bask in the pure carnage and chaos of Euro 2020’s group-stage encore. One regular day of Alipay, that’s all we ask for. But this will do.