Germany and Portugal had to sweat out their group stage finales at the European Championship, while France topped a difficult quartet without being its best.
In the end, Group F at the Euros, the competition’s Group of Death, finished as it had begun, with France on top, Germany second and Portugal in position to qualify for the knockout stage sitting in third. But the route it took to get there was extraordinary. Twice, Hungary had the lead over Germany in Munich before being pegged back to a 2-2 draw that ultimately sealed its elimination. Had Hungary won, there was a serious danger of Germany going out in the group stage for the second straight major competition. Instead, Germany now faces a trip to Wembley Stadium to face England in the round of 16.
Topping the group for France means it will take on Switzerland, while Portugal, having qualified out of third place as it did five years ago en route to winning the title, will take on the world’s No. 1-ranked side, Belgium. But none of these three teams will feel entirely satisfied with the start they’ve had at the competition. France, as is often the critique of Didier Deschamps’s side, never seemed to get into anything like top gear, while there are major questions about the defenses of both Germany and Portugal.
After the defeat to Germany in the second group game, Portugal coach Fernando Santos made a number of changes. Bruno Fernandes, so out of sorts over the first two games, inhibited perhaps by playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and denying him the primacy he enjoys at Manchester United, was omitted, with João Moutinho coming into the midfield, where Renato Sanches replaced William Carvalho alongside Danilo. There may have been some improvement, but defensively Portugal was still poor—perhaps not quite as bad as it had been in Germany, but still far from the solidity that brought the title five years ago.
The first half was enlivened by two hugely controversial penalty decisions. First, Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz penalized Hugo Lloris for a punch on Danilo as the two challenged for a cross for the right. It’s the sort of incident that probably should be given as a foul, but very rarely is. France protested, but Ronaldo converted, his fourth goal of the tournament and his 108th in total for Portugal, putting him one behind Iranian great Ali Daei’s all-time men’s international scoring record.
But just before halftime, France got a questionable penalty of its own, with Mateu Lahoz perhaps evening the balance. Right back Nelson Semedo, having had a torrid night against Robin Gosens in Portugal’s defeat to Germany, had the unenviable task of trying to deal with Kylian Mbappé, who operated on the left as Colentin Tolisso came in on the French right. Semedo largely performed well, before straining a tight muscle and being replaced by Diogo Dalot.
But Mbappé, who has been a little way from his best in the tournament, started quietly. He had one opportunity midway through the first half, running onto a Paul Pogba throughball, but his involvement was limited until the final minute of the opening half when he collapsed while running alongside Semedo. Mateu Lahoz gestured that he’d seen a push and gave the penalty, which Karim Benzema converted for his first goal for France since his lengthy exile from the national team was ended. Benzema and Ronaldo, the former Real Madrid strike partnership, then walked off chatting with arms draped over each other’s shoulders at halftime. The two were just as influential in the second half.
Having waited six years since his previous France goal, it took Benzema just three minutes to get his next, running onto another magnificent pass from Pogba. But before the hour was reached, Ronaldo had his second of the night, equaling Daei’s record from the penalty spot after Jules Koundé had handled his attempted cross—and about this penalty call, there was no doubt. France might have had a second penalty of its own in the final minute, when Tolisso seemed to be fouled by Fernandes, who had entered as a substitute, but play carried on, and the two Euro 2016 finalists played to a draw.
By then it barely mattered, but there was a time, with Hungary leading after the 11th minute, going level from the 66th to 68th minutes and then leading again until the 84th minute in Munich, that there had been a period of real jeopardy for Portugal, during which Rui Patricio made a stunning save on a shot from Pogba, pushing his shot against the post and then blocking the follow-up from Antoine Griezmann.
Over the course of the night, Portugal went from topping the group, to being eliminated, to being safe in third, while Germany went from the brink of a humiliating exit to an automatic qualifier in second. Hungary’s valiant attempts were for naught, despite at one point provisionally being in second before succumbing to Leon Goretzka’s late goal.
As for France, which had already secured a last-16 berth entering the day, Pogba’s performance and Benzema’s goals aside, Les Bleus were far from their best. The attacking trident, despite Benzema’s end product on Wednesday, still does not look as well-balanced as it did three years ago. Mbappé has been quiet in this tournament, while Griezmann drops so deep that at times he barely seems like a forward. The experiment with Toliso did not offer any extra fluidity.
Portugal, meanwhile, still looks extremely reliant on Ronaldo, with none of its other creators really firing. The bigger concern for Santos, though, given his instincts, is probably sorting out a defense that has now conceded six goals in its past two games and will face a Belgium side whose attack is building into this tournament. And Germany, too, looked distinctly rickety. The Group of Death may have comprised the last two world champions and the defending European champion, but none of them have been convincing so far.
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