As final rounds of games go the fluctuations of Group F on Wednesday night provided a classic of the genre. At the start, only France were guaranteed to move on to the last 16 while the other three teams were in with a chance of qualifying. Hungary were discounted as no-hopers by the cognoscenti, beating Germany in Munich was never going to happen. In the pre-match talk the BBC were lured into weighing up the prospect of who England were going to face – France, Germany or Portugal with Hungary nowhere to be seen. Little did they know what was about to materialise.
Nobody was prepared for the multiple twists and turns as the two matches went one way then the other and back again in a dizzying blur. As best illustrated by Chris Wise’s tweet – see above – which tracked the ever-changing picture as to who would finish second and therefore face England. The Hungarians threw an almighty spanner in the works by taking the lead with a superb diving header from their captain Szalai in the 11th minute. As the Hungarians grew in confidence the Germans grew increasingly desperate.
Meanwhile in Budapest where the celebrations of that Szalai goal were still reverberating around the stadium Portugal took the lead through a Ronaldo penalty to put even more pressure on Germany who were consigned to being bottom of the group. Karim Benzema, who last scored against Armenia in a friendly back in October 2015, ended his international drought by notching his own penalty in added time of the first half before doubling his tally only a few minutes into the second half. Both goals were timed at 46 mins 44 seconds, thus neatly bookending both halves. Such synchronicity made the near six-year wait worthwhile.
The third penalty of the evening – a Euros record for a single match – gave Ronaldo the chance to draw level with Iran’s Ali Daei as the highest international goalscorer on 109 goals and he did not spurn the chance in also drawing Portugal level in the match. These three successful conversions were slightly out of kilter with the overall quality of penalties in the tournament, which had dipped to below 50% conversion rate after Morata’s failure earlier in the Spain-Slovakia game.
When Germany equalised through Kai Havertz in the 66th minute Hungary looked dead and buried but an almost instant resurrection came two minutes later as Schafer restored their lead directly from the kick-off. And for fifteen minutes it looked as though the Hungarians would gain revenge for their 1954 World Cup defeat. The Germans were rescued from elimination by Leon Goretzka’s 84th minute equaliser, which finally put a stop to that nonsense and order was restored.
A frenetic, frantic, febrile 90 minutes was over and the pair of 2-2 draws meant Group F was back to square one. Hungary’s disappointment at going out after such an impressive performance was heightened by the fact that they had been ahead in their group matches for around 90 minutes, longer than the other three and additionally had been behind for the shortest amount of time, just eight minutes at the end of the Portuguese game. Football can be a cruel mistress. After all the issues with Uefa’s refusal to sanction the Munich stadium displaying rainbow imagery in support of LGBTQ+ rights allied with the Hungarian governments’ stance on such matters they departed with pride if not Pride intact.
Group F not only led the way in terms of final day drama but it also boasted more goals (20) than any other group and twice as many as England’s group. Overall there have been 94 goals in the 36 group matches, at a rate of 2.61 per game, which is appreciably more than the 69 scored at this stage in 2016. Although almost inevitably Ronaldo leads the race for the Golden Boot with five, he is some way behind in the scoring charts. From the first goal of the tournament when Turkey’s Merih Demiral chested Domenico Berardi’s cross into his own net, the own goals have been coming at quite a lick.
There have been eight in total, which compares with nine in the entire history of the Euros, over the previous fifteen tournaments. Twice teams have scored two own goals in the same match with Portugal self-combusting against Germany in the space of four minutes and Slovakia adding to their many troubles against Spain. Martin Dubravka’s feckless flap for Spain’s first goal was a particularly comical effort and was one of three own goals by keepers. Mats Hummels’ effort against France was probably the pick of the bunch as he flashed it past Manuel Neuer with some force and unerring accuracy.
Although the group games have been generally entertaining and competitive there was a certain predictability about which teams qualified, as the eight who failed to make the last 16, were the lowest ranked teams in their respective groups. If the games continue to follow the Fifa rankings, then England will get past Germany, Sweden and Denmark before losing to Belgium in the Final. But we all know that now the tournament has reached the knockout stages that there will be the odd turn-up for the books alongside some predictable outcomes – Ronaldo scoring, Scotland celebrating England’s exit and a further gaggle of own goals. Let’s fervently hope that Gary Lineker’s oft-quoted assertion is incorrect and that football is actually a complex game and the Germans don’t always win.