At last, it was here. Yes, that’s right people, on Tuesday we had the start of the Group of Death.
That meant 2018 World Cup winners France, defending Euros champions Portugal, Europe’s most successful footballing nation Germany and Hungary, whose biggest achievement just happens to be bottling the 1954 World Cup.
The host cities were Budapest, courtesy of a long-running personality project by Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, and Munich, with its splendid Allianz Arena.
For the first match, we had the benefit of a full-capacity Puskás Aréna to cheer on some of Europe’s best.
Hungary’s tight COVID-19 laws over the past 12 months were to thank for this, as even though only 42.1% of their adult population is currently fully vaccinated, they had sufficient confidence in work before this to welcome back 67,215 fans.
What those fans returned to was a ravenous performance from visitors Portugal.
With a starting line-up boasting Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and Bernardo Silva – elite players in the ultimate teams across Europe – this was no great surprise.
The Magyars held on well, and really, Portugal were restricted to moving the ball around in midfield and reverting to their full-backs for width in the first half.
Ronaldo would’ve been expected to finish his standout chance, while he and Jota both tested Hungarian goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi, who started what should be a busy tournament personally in style.
That pattern largely continued in the second half, with the addition of Hungary’s persistent fouling truly winding up the Portuguese.
Fortunately, Fernando Santos had plenty of high-quality options available on his bench.
Rafa Silva arrived, then so did Renato Sanches and André Silva.
With Szabolcs Schön having a brilliant finish ruled out for offside for the hosts, Portugal’s star men took full advantage.
First, Raphaël Guerreiro plundered a scrappy but priceless goal in the 84th minute.
Just two minutes later, Silva was tripped in the box and Ronaldo was given the chance you never want to give to Ronaldo; a free 12-yard shot.
The main man had even more fun in added time – rounding Gulácsi in the six-yard box after a passing move, and tapping in for his second.
3-0, ladies and gentlemen, and from an unlikely position deep into the game, Portugal had the most convincing win of the tournament so far.
With that score settled, we moved to Munich for a fitting final flourish to this first round of games.
You’d imagine that France v Germany is a classic match in these championships, but it was only the second time they had met in the Euros.
The first, of course, was just five years ago in Marseille, where a tiring Germany side began to realise their reign as a globally dominant side was up, being put to the sword by Antoine Griezmann and a brutal young French side.
That was revenge for a 1-0 Quarter Final defeat in the 2014 World Cup for Didier Deschamps’ side; the scorer on that occasion, within the first quarter of the game, being Mats Hummels.
It was hardly Hummels’ fault that he was the only goalscorer on this occasion as well; his 20th-minute own goal a game attempt to turn Lucas Hernandez’s left-wing cross over the crossbar, preventing Kylian Mbappé from beating Manuel Neuer.
This German side creaked, almost deafeningly, as they allowed Paul Pogba space 25 yards out to toe-poke a ball through to Hernandez. Poor Joshua Kimmich was left scrambling as his Bayern Munich teammate had all the time in the world to pick out a cross.
Whether it was due to a none-too-zealous gameplan, or the Germans actually finding some impetus through Thomas Müller– still somehow only 31 – Serge Gnabry and the impressive Robin Gosens (who doesn’t love an Atalanta player at this tournament?), Joachim Löw’s side came back in the game after that.
None of their chances in the match were on a plate, though – I’ll say that much.
It felt a little like a lion toying with its prey before striking the killer blow.
On two second-half occasions, Kylian Mbappé should’ve been the man to make that happen.
In what was, similarly to Ronaldo, “not entirely his game today”, Mbappé still proved his considerable worth whenever the French could break, and was marginally offside for both chalked-off French goals.
That will be more of an encouragement than a frustration, as should France face England, Belgium, Spain, Italy or the Netherlands in latter stages of the tournament, there will be that space on at least one or two occasions.
It’s a scary prospect.
Even more so, I’d argue, when coupled with this squad’s record of 23 wins from 31 matches since their dominant World Cup Final performance – with losses only to the Netherlands, Turkey and Finland.
It’s an almost identical record to Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain in the years 2010-12 – save only for one more defeat on the Spanish side – and presents the very real proposition of an inheritance across the Pyrenees.
We shall see how true that becomes.
Performance of the Day: Though it could’ve been Gulácsi until his Hungarian teammates tired, and Mbappé due to his maturity as the real leader of this French team, I was highly impressed by the work of Paul Pogba today.
With every game he has with France, agent Mino Raiola has an even stronger case to force Manchester United executives to either strengthen or sell up. Pogba is a serial winner, visible in his swagger and his serene skill, and it is unfortunate that this sees him develop a mixed relationship with the British press, when he could have this Midas touch at club level too.
Up Next: Back to the start, with a few variations! We’ll see Italy strut their stuff in Rome again, this time against the tricky Swiss, and Wales visit the temporary Turkish enclave of Azerbaijan, where the locals will have to put their admiration for Kieffer Moore on hold for a day to support Burak Yılmaz and company, lest they want President Erdoğan’s wrath.
Before any of that, though, we have the greatest rivalry North-Eastern European military enthusiasts have ever known; Finland v Russia in the fitting setting of St Petersburg. Santa Claus v the ghost of Vladimir Lenin, Jean Sibelius v Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Lordi v Russian Grannies. Bring yer dinner…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!