Five things we learned in France.
Antoine Griezmann is the real deal
Euro 2016 will not be remembered with fondness by many of the continent’s most high-profile strikers.
Robert Lewandowski’s radar was off for Poland; Harry Kane had a miserable time for England while Thomas Muller did everything but score for Germany.
Things didn’t start so well for Griezmann either, the striker losing his place in the side for France’s second game after an underwhelming showing in the tournament opener against Romania.
However, with France toiling against a stubborn opposition, Griezmann was summoned from the bench and his stoppage-time header broke Albania’s resistance.
He rescued the hosts again in the last 16 clash against Ireland, scoring twice as France came from behind against Martin O’Neill’s men. Another brace put paid to Germany’s hopes in the semi-final and while France ultimately fell short there can be no doubt that Griezmann is a special talent.
Wales will be a tough nut for Ireland to crack in the World Cup qualifiers
When the draw for the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup was made a year ago it appeared the Republic of Ireland had cause for optimism.
A group that pitted Ireland against Wales, Austria, Serbia, Georgia and Moldova looked, at the time, a considerably easier task than the one faced in their ultimately successful mission to reach the Euros.
Now, though, the challenge of making it to Russia looks a far stiffer one after Wales’ remarkable, uplifting journey as far as the semi-finals of this tournament.
They might even have made last night’s final, had they not lost Aaron Ramsey through suspension for the semi-final against Portugal. Getting the better of the Welsh will be a tough ask, particularly so if, as expected, some of Ireland’s most experienced names opt to call it a day at international level.
And with only the group winners guaranteed a place in the World Cup finals and Ireland finishing their qualifying campaign in Cardiff, the road to Moscow could be bumpy.
Chelsea have struck gold with Antonio Conte
It’s amazing how quickly perceptions change. Before this tournament began the word was that this Italy team was their worst of all time.
One classically Italian win over Belgium later, the Azzurri were being talked up as potential tournament winners. That didn’t happen, Italy losing out to Germany in a penalty shoot-out at the quarter-final stage but the team and their manager left France with their reputation substantially enhanced.
The way Conte galvanised and organised his troops was hugely impressive as he got the absolute limit out of a side sorely lacking in star quality in midfield or up front.
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho may generate more headlines but Conte could prove the summer’s best managerial capture.
Talented players don’t necessarily make a talented team
Every major international tournament produces teams who should, on paper, prosper but contrive to blow it.
This competition was no exception. It’s become tradition for England to flop and once again they did just that, drawing against a hopeless Russia team, scrambling a win against Wales, before failing to win their group by not beating Slovakia.
It seemed their luck was in when they were pitted against Iceland in the last 16 but a truly shambolic display ended their tournament and Roy Hodgson’s reign. It was a similar story with Belgium as Marc Wilmots’ men began their tournament by losing against Italy and ended it by being totally overwhelmed by a vibrant Welsh outfit. Given the quality of player at their disposal they, like England, should have performed far better.
Big is beautiful
The decision to extend the Euros from 16 to 24 teams was controversial but the events of the last month have vindicated the call. The fear was the expansion would result in lots of lopsided games but, happily, that didn’t prove the case.
In addition, the fact the four best third-placed teams reached the last 16 meant very few teams were doomed to elimination before their final group game.
Ireland were one of the chief beneficiaries of the expansion, firstly, making it to France despite finishing third in their qualifying group and, secondly, reaching the knockout stages despite finishing behind Italy and Belgium in Group E. However, the performances against Sweden, Italy and in the first half against France showed that Ireland, at the very least, can compete at this level.
It’s also worth noting that Hungary, who like Ireland qualified via the play-offs, won their group in France. Portugal also benefited, going all the way despite only finishing third in their group.
As a result, it’s hard not to conclude that bigger is better.
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