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Euro 2020: EIGHT THINGS WE LEARNED from the first round of group games

Biting, paragliders and very strong opposition to fizzy drinks. It has been a whirlwind opening round of group fixtures six days into the European Championship.

England got off the mark to record their first opening game win ever, Cristiano Ronaldo reached yet another milestone while football came together after Denmark’s Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest against Finland.

All 24 sides have taken to the field and shown us glimpses of what is to come over the next 39 games. So, just what have we learned from round one of the group stages at Euro 2020? 

Sportsmail breaks down eight things we learned from the opening round of group games

Italian winning machine are strong contenders

While all the talk pre-tournament has been focused on France and Portugal, Italy ensured that there was just one topic of conversation last Friday after their emphatic opening statement against Turkey. 

Roberto Mancini may have cause to feel his side have been overlooked heading into Euro 2020. After all, the Azzurri have fallen under the radar, perhaps given their no-show at the World Cup. 

Make no mistake, this side that boasts a blend of youthful exuberance and wily veterans are a winning machine that will be eyeing the last-four, at the very least.

Italy are a strong contender and can no longer be overlooked after their victory in Rome

Roberto Mancini’s side made it 28 games without defeat after seeing off Turkey with ease

In Ciro Immobile, the Italians have one of the best strikers in Europe and flanked by the hard-working Leonardo Spinazzola and Lorenzo Insigne, the Azzurri have a fluid attack that has been unshackled by Mancini.

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team were once described as a ‘winning machine’ and the same can be said of this Italian side. Friday’s win over Turkey – earmarked as dark horses by a handful of pundits – made it a whopping 28 games without defeat.

Switzerland and Wales will be nervous visitors to Rome for the remaining Group A fixtures. 

‘Happy’ Raheem Sterling a force to be reckoned with

As far as silencing your critics goes, Raheem Sterling forced many England doubters into an emphatic U-turn following his sensational performance against Croatia.

Gareth Southgate raised eyebrows with an unpopular team selection, with the decision to play Kieran Trippier at left back, as well as Sterling in a three-pronged attack, quizzed by supporters on social media.

Raheem Sterling is in confident mood with England and is a force to be reckoned with

But Sterling vindicated the Three Lions boss’ call, and some, with a standout performance on a sun-soaked Wembley Stadium, scoring the winning goal.

Even the 26-year-old would not shy away from the fact that he has been under-par for Manchester City this season, and after Sunday’s game the Englishman delighted in his return to the Three Lions fold.

‘There are a lot of different reasons I haven’t scored for my club and that’s totally irrelevant now,’ Sterling told the BBC. ‘I’m here with England, I’m enjoying my football and that’s the most important thing and I’m just happy to score. 

The 26-year-old vindicated Gareth Southgate’s trust in him to score against Croatia on Sunday

‘It feels good. I’ve always said if I play at Wembley in a major tournament, I’m scoring. It’s great to finally do that.

‘It’s been a long season for me, I couldn’t wait to get started with England and I knew it would be a positive one.’ 

They say a happy player is a dangerous player, and Sterling appears in the right headspace to truly tear through the competition for England. 

Czech Republic pose dark horse potential 

Czech Republic didn’t get the memo, did they?

Monday’s 2pm kick-off at Hampden Park was supposed to be Scotland’s day. It was supposed to be the Tartan Army’s long-awaited homecoming, resulting in a triumphant victory after a 23-year wait for major tournament football.

Yet in the face of a strongly partisan crowd, the Czechs displayed nerve to put in a professional performance – including two spectacular goals from Patrik Schick – to announce themselves as possible dark horses for the competition.

Czech Republic have flexed their dark horse potential after their win over Scotland on Monday

Jaroslav Silhavy has a group of players capable of causing an upset. 

Led by captain Tomas Soucek, the Czechs have the defensive organisation and steel, coupled with the attacking incision that makes the perfect recipe to do well at this level.

The win in Glasgow gives Silhavy’s side a great chance of advancing to the knockout stage and upcoming opponents Croatia may be slightly apprehensive heading into their game on Friday, knowing that another defeat could end their Euros journey very prematurely.

And a surprise victory for the Czechs is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility, just ask Southgate – whose England side suffered a 2-1 defeat to Soucek and Co in 2019. It would be foolish to rule them out.    

The Czechs offer defensive steel and attacking flair through Patrik Schick to trouble teams

Toothless Spain frustrate again

It is difficult to recall a tournament in which Spain have entered with their stock so low. 

Luis Enrique’s surprise omission of any Real Madrid player from his 26-man squad, including talisman Sergio Ramos, had seen the Spaniards written off by some quarters before a ball had even been kicked.

Yet despite their lack of big names, Spain remain a big hitter in European football, and entered Monday’s game with Sweden expected to get their tournament off to a strong start.

Spain demonstrated that they remain characteristically toothless after their draw with Sweden

However, the three-time European Championship winners mustered the same old performance that has blighted them post-2012. 

86 per cent possession, 17 shots, five on target and zero goals. In fact, Sweden had the best chance of the game to snatch a shock victory, only for Marcus Berg to waste the glorious opportunity in front of an empty net.

For all of Spain’s incisive play, it is their lack of killer instinct that could threaten an early exit from the competition. Alvaro Morata came under fire for his wasteful shooting and Enrique is crying out for a ruthless finisher to lead the line for his side.

Luis Enrique’s side were missing their shooting boots during a frustrating game in Seville

All the more baffling was the former Barcelona boss’ decision not to bring on Adama Traore when in search of a goal. 

With one substitute remaining, Enrique opted for midfielder Fabian Ruiz over the dynamic winger, a curious selection.

Spain will hope to find their shooting boots when they take on Poland next. Enrique will surely have an envious eye watching Robert Lewandowski for their opponents. 

A rare win for VAR

In a season in which virtually every week has seen some form of VAR controversy, it has been refreshing to see very little uproar over video technology thus far at the Euros. 

After 10 games of the competition, there have been just 198 fouls – a record low for the tournament – with referees allowing the games to flow more freely and a notable lack of intervention from the VAR officials based in Nyon. 

VAR has been incident-free and its use has been refreshing compared to the Premier League

France were denied two goals against Germany on Tuesday night for offside and, on reflection, those decisions were accurate and were not decided by a shoulder or toe nail – the source of much frustration among Premier League supporters.

There has been a lack of agonising over 50-50 decisions, with video officials reluctant to interfere with play unless absolutely necessary.

Roberto Rosetti, Uefa’s chief refereeing officer, visited all 24 national team camps before the tournament to lay out how officials would control games.

Of course when the stakes are higher in the latter rounds of the tournament refereeing decisions will be placed under even more scrutiny but so far, so good.  

France won’t let rift tear them apart

It would be fair to say that the only thing that can prevent France from getting their hands on the European Championship is, well, themselves.

There can be no argument that Didier Deschamps has the best and strongest squad at his disposal. The French are blessed with quality and depth from back to front.

Yet Les Bleus have form for being a notoriously volatile camp, and pre-tournament drama behind the scenes threatened to spill over and hamper their campaign.

France are the tournament favourites but were facing a rift in the camp before their opener

Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud had been involved in an ugly spat after the Chelsea striker criticised the quality of service from his team-mates, an opinion that the young PSG star took umbrage with.

Moreover, Karim Benzema’s surprise return to the fold raised eyebrows, with the Real Madrid star previously labelling Giroud a ‘go-kart’ to his ‘Formula One car’.

But any sign of strain in the camp certainly didn’t show on Tuesday as the French coasted to a 1-0 win over Germany in Group F – the Group of Death. 

Kylian Mbappe put his feud with Olivier Giroud to one side to help France beat Germany

In fact, it appeared that Les Bleus had several gears they could hit if the Germans put them under any real pressure – which they didn’t.

Everything is in place for Deschamps’ side to back up their World Cup triumph with glory at Wembley on July 11 and after their win in Munich it appears that their warring superstars are now on the same page. 

Ronaldo still the force behind Portugal’s all-star attack 

Despite winning the Euros five years ago, Portugal have entered this year’s competition in a stronger place than when they won in France in 2016.

Fernando Santos is blessed with an attack that is arguably as strong as France’s with Cristiano Ronaldo flanked by Diogo Jota, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva of Liverpool, Man United and Man City respectively.

Portugal have an array of attacking stars but Cristiano Ronaldo remains the driving force

That front four, on paper, reeks of goals. However, the Portuguese made hard work of Hungary in front of a packed crowd in Budapest. 

The reigning champions toiled for the best part of 80 minutes in which Jota was uncharacteristically off note, Fernandes was nowhere near the level of influence he displays at United while Silva was unable to probe as effectively as he does at City.

And it is just as well that their 36-year-old talisman is still at the top of his game, as Ronaldo once again rose to the occasion to score twice as the Portuguese clinched a 3-0 win to get their campaign up and running. 

The 36-year-old spared the blushes of Diogo Jota and Bruno Fernandes who had quiet games

Ronaldo’s brace made him the leading scorer of all time at the Euros, and he is just three shy of Ali Daei’s record of 109 goals for his country. 

Jota, Silva and Fernandes are the future, but there is no doubting that Ronaldo remains the driving force behind this exciting Portugal side. 

Football unites around Eriksen

It would be remiss not to mention Christian Eriksen. When all is said and done, it will be the former Spurs star’s cardiac arrest that will resonate with most fans when recalling the first round of group games.

Football collectively let out a deep sigh of relief when medical experts helped stabilise the 29-year-old after his distressing collapse on the pitch against Finland. 

Christian Eriksen is recovering in hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest and collapsing on the pitch during their opening match against Finland in Copenhagen on Saturday night

The heroics of captain Simon Kjaer who bravely gave his team-mate crucial CPR, gathered his players to form a wall around the stricken midfielder and offered support to Eriksen’s heartbroken wife, signalled that the result of these European Championships pale in significance against the backdrop of the solidarity, unity and friendship those Danes demonstrated.  

‘I have chosen to say to myself that this has had a happy ending – it’s not the end yet, but it could have been so much worse,’ Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel said.

‘I am grateful to be part of a team that has stood together as much as we have done. And I’m grateful Christian’s still here.’

Win, lose, or draw, this Danish side will leave this tournament champions. 

This post first appeared on Dailymail.co.uk

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