Below is the seventh installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “The Russian Review” by Russian football expert and sports journalist, Shaun Nicolaides.
After a slow start, Euro 2016 has burst into life, and football fans all around the continent were treated to a thrilling group stage.
Footballing giants such as Germany, Spain and hosts France qualified for the next round with minimal fuss, while Ukraine, Russia and Portugal disappointed with lacklustre performances.
Despite some unforgettable moments, there has been criticism of the new format, with more underdogs being allowed into the competition. In turn, the quality of the football has been taken down, and many are calling for the system to be reviewed.
Nevertheless, on the other hand, lesser nations such as Iceland and Hungary have taken Europe by storm, and they have produced plenty of shock results which will live long in the memory.
Some top figures have struggled to show what they are truly made of, but others have taken advantage to display their real potential.
Here indeed is my team of the group-stage.
Hannes Halldorsson, Iceland, 32 years old
No matter what happens in the knockout rounds, will anyone ever forget that moment when Iceland beat Austria in the dying seconds to seal their qualification?
Their dogged, determined attitude has driven them to the last 16, and goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson has been a big reason behind their success.
Denied Cristiano Ronaldo in the match with Portugal, and made some crucial late saves against the Austrians.
Jerome Boateng, Germany, 27 years old
World champions Germany haven’t quite set the competition on fire, but they have been solid all around the park, not yet conceding a goal.
Jerome Boateng of Bayern Munich has been fantastic at the back, and it helps that he and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer know each other perfectly from club level.
Received a calf injury in the 1:0 win over Northern Ireland.
Vedran Corluka, Croatia, 30 years old
Croatia were recognised as the tournament’s dark horses, and they confirmed first place in their group with a pulsating 2:1 win over Spain.
Central defender Vedran Corluka, who currently plies his trade with FC Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia, has been showing his form of old, and doesn’t give the opponents an inch.
Leonardo Bonucci, Italy, 29 years old
After beating Belgium 2:0 in their opener, much is expected of the Italians, and they have been displaying their typically world class defensive abilities.
Leonardo Bonucci is a key part of a Juventus filled set-up, and the only goal that they conceded was in the 0:1 defeat to Ireland in a meaningless match for his side.
Darijo Srna, Croatia, 34 years old
Shakhtar Donetsk stalwart Darijo Srna suffered a family loss at the start of the tournament, but he seems to have drawn on extra motivation.
Leads as an example for the Croats, and has played consistently at the top level for a number of years.
Advised goalkeeper Danijel Subasic on where to dive for Sergio Ramos’ penalty.
Ivan Perisic, Croatia, 27 years old
The versatile Ivan Perisic has been a nightmare for opponents bombing up and down the left wing, and he already has two goals to his name.
A constant danger, and a player that gives Croatia a real spark on the flanks.
Marek Hamsik, Slovakia, 28 years old
Slovakia scraped out of Group B with four points, and it was largely down to midfield talisman Marek Hamsik.
The Napoli man scored a beautiful winning goal against Russia, and when he plays at his best, the Slovakians have a chance against anyone.
Andres Iniesta, Spain, 32 years old
What a pleasure it is to watch this genius at work.
Andres Iniesta makes the art of passing the ball look remarkably easy, and he rarely makes the slightest of mistakes.
A true living legend.
Dimitri Payet, France, 29 years old
Got the tournament going with an amazing long range marker against Romania, and repeated the trick in the tough win over the plucky Albanians.
His goalscoring antics are becoming a habit, and some of Europe’s big boys will be looking to take him onto their books.
Gareth Bale, Wales, 26 years old
Much was expected of Gareth Bale coming into the competition, and he certainly hasn’t disappointed.
Scored in each of the three group games, and his pace and power have been too much for the opposing teams to deal with.
He’s under serious pressure to deliver in the next stage.
Alvaro Morata, Spain, 23 years old
Having secured a return to Real Madrid from Juventus, Alvaro Morata has been proving his worth.
Has led the line well for Spain, and has slowly been fitting into the national team’s system.
Substitutes: Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland), Andrea Barzagli (Italy), Michal Pazdan (Poland), Gerard Pique (Spain), Cesc Fabregas (Spain), Balazs Dzsudzsak (Hungary), Aaron Ramsey (Wales), Nikola Kalinic (Croatia), Arkadiusz Milik (Poland).
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93
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