Source: Imago Images
Source: Imago Images

EURO 2024, round three: everyone loves a great underdog story

Football OlyBet 24.06.2024

It still feels like a dream twenty years later. How did Greece, a team without prior or later noteworthy success, win the European Championship? We could put it quite simply: they took on the top teams and defeated them all. Portugal, Spain, France, Czechia, and Portugal again.

The group stage draw for a major tournament is usually held some six months before, so from an emotional standpoint, it is not linked to the games directly. Two things tend to interest the fans: which group was your national team drawn into and which is the toughest group, often labelled the group of death.

By definition, a group of death is an unusually competitive group with more great teams than available qualifying places for the next phase of the tournament. Essentially, at least one top team will have to head home way ahead of schedule. And even though the draw is seeded, things happen. For example, a quartet of France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Italy could have been drawn together this summer.

Instead, we witnessed reigning champion Italy (FIFA rank 10.), World Cup bronze-medalist Croatia (9.), and the most recent Nations League winner Spain (8.) meet in Group B. Minnows Albania (66.) were not given much hope, yet they have led both games so far and will likely go through if they beat Spain; could it be a blessing in disguise to be drawn into such a group, as the others will no doubt underestimate the underdog? Let’s have a look at some recent examples.

  • EURO 2021: Hungary earned two points vs France (reigning world champion), Germany, and Portugal (reigning EURO champion); they were seven minutes away from going through.
  • EURO 2012: Denmark defeated the Netherlands in the first round. The Dutch never recovered, finishing without a point just two years after reaching a World Cup final while Germany and Portugal advanced to the knock-out stages.
  • EURO 2008: Romania held France and Italy – both World Cup finalists just two years earlier – to draws while finishing ahead of the former. The Netherlands could have helped Romania advance in the last round but did not throw the game.

Seeing the underdog mix it up should not surprise anyone then, but ultimately, all of the mentioned teams failed. This was not the case with Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup though, as they held their own against former champions Uruguay, Italy, and England to win the group, with the latter two packing their bags in humiliation. Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals, only to come undone against the Netherlands (them again!) via a penalty shoot-out.

So how will the story end for Albania and could Spain play the long game? Which other games to enjoy in the third round of the group stage?

All times listed below are in Eastern European Summer Time (GMT+3).

Croatia – Italy

Monday, June 24th 22:00

After a disappointing result vs Spain, Croatia fell behind against Albania too. They bounced back but could not seal the deal, meaning they will now have to defeat the reigning champions to progress. Getting going in the first 45 minutes has been an issue, with 0.44 xG vs Spain followed by 0.32 vs Albania (1.83 and 1.93 in the second half respectively) – they will have to start much better in their final group game.

A draw would suit Italy but not Croatia, as two points will most likely not help them through. After impressing vs Albania, Italy did not find their groove at all against Spain. They did not have a single shot on target as head coach Luciano Spalletti insisted more rest is needed to be able to press the opponent more intensely. It would definitely be a shock to see Italy head home this early.

Player to watch: This will most likely be the last major tournament for 38-year-old Luka Modric, and if they fail to advance, this will be it for him and many of his experienced compatriots. Has time caught up with Modric? Remember, this will be his 178th game for Croatia in what is his ninth tournament. But that experience could be vital against a youngish Italian side.

England – Slovenia

Tuesday, June 25th 22:00

Has England looked like the team everyone expected them to be? No. But is anything very, very wrong? Not exactly. It has been a defensive masterclass as they have allowed their opponents just 0.93 xG goals over 180 minutes of football while not exactly lighting it up themselves (0.54 vs Serbia, 0.82 vs Denmark). But they have pretty much ensured a place in the play-offs and are on course for a top spot.

Slovenia was a moment away from being in the exact same position, but Serbian striker Luka Jovic scored a last-gasp goal to draw 1-1. Slovenians have probably surpassed expectations over the first two games, but it can still all end in disappointment – and well could considering who their opponent is. It brings back painful memories: Slovenia was leading the group 14 years ago before a 0-1 loss to England left them third…

Player to watch: None of the players were present in 2010, so they can write their own history. This could be the time for 21-year-old Benjamin Šeško to step up – much was expected of the RB Leipzig striker, but he has been kept relatively quiet. This could be the time to introduce himself to a wider audience.

Ukraine – Belgium

Wednesday, June 26th 19:00

Group C offered not one, but two shock results in the first round, with both Ukraine (0-3 vs Romania) and Belgium (0-1 vs Slovakia) losing. The Ukrainians were on the ropes against Slovakia but showed fighting spirit to win 2-1 from 0-1 down. They were highly touted before the tournament, but it has not clicked as expected, and this will be a make-or-break moment.

Belgium has not played Romania at the time of writing, but will need a result here anyway – either to reach the knock-out stages or restore some self-belief and go home on a high note. Should they be worried at this point? Belgium dominated vs Slovakia (1.97 to 0.58 xG) and had two goals disallowed, so maybe they just need to be a bit more clinical. But they can not slip up again.

Player to watch: Romelu Lukaku has scored 85 goals in just 116 games for Belgium, and it could have been 87 if not for VAR. The 31-year-old striker is an absolute menace for every defender and can hurt in so many different ways.


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