KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: Cristiano Ronaldo, the one superstar individual present at Euro 2016, found his range just in time to propel Portugal into the second round as the group stage wound to a dramatic finale across France.
On the last day of mini-league competition Portugal and Group F leaders Hungary played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in Lyon while finals newcomers Iceland pressed on thanks to a remarkable rearguard action which brought a 2-1 over homeward-bound Austria in the Stade de France.
The first stage was wrapped up by the last two games in Group E. Group winners Italy lost 1-0 to the Irish Republic while Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international career came to a downbeat end with Sweden’s single-goal defeat against Belgium.
Saturday – Switzerland v Poland (Saint-Etienne); Wales v N Ireland (Paris); Croatia v Portugal (Lens)
Sunday – France v Rep. Ireland (Lyon); Germany v Slovakia (Lille); Hungary v Belgium (Toulouse)
Monday – Italy v Spain (Saint-Denis); England v Iceland (Nice).
Ronaldo had not enjoyed his Euro campaign. He had ended up grumpy and bad-tempered after Portugal’s opening 0-0 draw with Iceland then missed a penalty in the subsequent stalemate with Austria.
His mood was not improved when he was ambushed by a radio reporter during a morning stroll. He responded by throwing the proffered microphone into a nearby lake.
Thus fired up he carried the anger into action against the Group F leaders. Ronaldo laid on Portugal’s first equaliser for Nani, finessed the second equaliser with a wonderful side-backheel and then produced the third levelling goal with a dramatic header.
Three times, generally against the run of play, the Hungarians had taken a lead courtesy of a magnificent volley from Zoltan Gera and two deflected but powerful efforts from Balazs Dzsudzsak.
The Magyars have been one of the welcome surprises of the finals after being absent from elite competition for so long. The draw saw both teams into the second round, the Hungarians as group winners and Portugal with the requisite minimum three points in third place.
Iceland go with them, after enjoying every minute of their adventure. Their appearance on the grand stage of the Stade de France was no exception. They snatched an early goal through Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and maintained the advantage until halftime with the help of a little good fortune when Aleksander Dragovic rattled an Austrian penalty against a post.
The Austrians deserved a goal to show for all their efforts and celebrated it shortly after the interval with a fine run and shot from newly-arrived substitute Alessandro Schopf.
Predictably manager Marcel Koller threw everyone forward in the closing minutes but, equally predictably, Iceland broke away for Arnor Ingvi Traustason to claim their first-ever win in the finals of a major tournament.
Not only that, but victory earned the second-round match-up of which their players had all dreamed, against England in Nice.
In Group F the Republic of Ireland won their first finals game since they defeated England in 1988 when they beat Italy’s reserves in Lille. Norwich winger Robbie Brady struck in the 84th minute, shortly after Italy substitute Lorenzo Insigne had hit a post.
Defeat did not affect the Azzurri’s status as group winners and Belgium claimed second place after beating Sweden with a superb late strike out of nowhere by Radja Nainggolan.
All in all, the standard of play across the group stage has been disappointing. Hopefully the weekend switch to knockout football may raise the quality quotient.
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