Back when it was announced that the European Championships would be expanded from 16 to 24 teams, many people denounced the decision by UEFA and claimed that it would dilute the competition. However, some of the so-called minnows of the competition have thrived under the chance given to them and are even showing some of the bigger nations how it is done.
Some of them began in qualifying, with teams being a little more adventurous in the hopes that extra spots gave them a great chance of making the finals. In fact, many of the smaller sides like Wales, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Albania would have made it even in the older format, showing that it wasn’t just that more places were offered to them, they simply exceed initial expectations.
That form has continued into the group stages, with Wales being the standard bearer for bringing the heat. They have been resolute in defence, allowing just 22 of the 45 shots on their goal from inside the box, restricting teams to taking pot-shots at distance rather than crafting a better chance that has a greater risk to their goalkeeper.
They also lead the entire competition in interceptions with 20.7 per game, which just pinpoints how they are working hard at closing the lanes between players and disrupting their opponent’s passing flow.
But they aren’t just defending, Wales also have scored more goals than anyone so far with a tally of six. While some have come from set pieces, it was clear from their stand-out performance against Russia that they can be just as dangerous when given the space to attack than they can be on the counter.
Chris Coleman has done a fantastic job in finding a formation that suits the players at his disposal, namely the 3-5-2 that has kept them solid yet dangerous when attacking. They have forward-thinking full backs that can be pulled in if needed, a solid three-man wall in the defence and add the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale in attacking areas and it’s difficult to see why this team is a one-man machine.
Hungary managed to finish at the top of their group thanks to a solid opening win against Austria, a game that they ended up taking by the scruff of the neck. By taking their initial onslaught, Hungary found gaps and eventually got a goal they deserved before crafting a wonderful winner with a counter attack in added time.
It was they who went for the glory against Iceland after their opponents got a suspect penalty but they could only manage a late draw. Their most impressive performance, however, may have come against Portugal in the final game when they stood toe-to-toe with Ronaldo’s boys, trading haymakers in a super 3-3 draw.
Unlike many had thought, men were not boring and despite being a tad lucky to make the finals, that has not meant they would sit on their laurels and hope for the best. They have gone for the win, caused all the teams they’ve faced issues and would not be an easy side that Belgium can simply walk over.
Iceland have come through a group that contained the Netherlands in qualifying, beating them home and away, before being a stubborn force in the finals. They maybe got a tad lucky against Portugal, they couldn’t quite cling on against Hungary but when it mattered against Austria, they were clinical.
It was never really pretty but having 0.05% of your entire population in your squad can limit your options. Sometimes you need a little fairy dust to take you that extra mile and from a small nation with a big heart, they had the passion and desire to push past more desirable teams with smaller mindsets.
Even with that luck, they have scored more goals in the competition than Germany, France, England and Italy so far, so Iceland can’t be that poor at creating goals for themselves.
Northern Ireland should be seen as a little lucky to get through but given their tough group, it’s an enormous achievement. They allowed the fewest strikes in the box with 16 and while they rode their luck to not lose by more against both Germany and Poland, who were wasteful, they showed that they have the grit to dig out a result.
In the game they needed to win to stand any chance of making the knockout stages, they showed everyone exactly why they qualified in the first place. They were resolute but rarely under serious danger, they were a threat at set pieces and managed to seal the deal late on.
While no team has broken out with real quality yet, the tournament has been entertaining because it’s much more competitive than people thought it would be. Some might be holding out to defend but other teams aren’t rising to that challenge, forcing their opponents to come out and try something.
The fact is that these teams did not dilute the mixture, far from it, they gave it much more rounded taste that asks others to step their game up at the business end of the competition. Now that it’s do or die, the big teams could learn a thing or two from their smaller neighbours in being a well-rounded team rather than a combination of individuals.