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Euro 2020

Euro 2020 – Team Of The Group Stage

Euro 2020 – Team Of The Group Stage. Zach Lowy take a detailed look at the best players of the group stage at Euro 2020.

The Euro 2020 group stage is finally in the books, but the knockout round is just around the corner, as Wales and Italy get set to face off against Denmark and Austria, respectively, on Saturday. With that being said, it’s time to take a look at the best performers of the Euro 2020 group stage.

Lukáš Hrádecký – Finland

In truth, this was the hardest position to choose from. Certain goalkeepers, such as Jordan Pickford and Gianluigi Donnarumma, did not concede a single goal during the group stage, whilst the likes of Danny Ward, Tomáš Vaclík, and Robin Olsen put in heroic performances to carry their teams to the knockout round.

Like Hungary’s Péter Gulácsi or North Macedonia’s Stole Dimitrievski, Lukáš Hrádecký was unable to extend his European adventure, with Finland finishing third in Group B and narrowly missing out on qualification to Ukraine, whose goal differential of -1 edged theirs (-2) to seal a Round of 16 date with Sweden. It is even true that Belgium’s opening goal in their final group stage match came from a Gulácsi own goal, as Thomas Vermaelen’s header bounced off the goalpost, off his glove, and into the back of the net. However, for a team that was outmatched in individual quality for every single match, that put in a backs-to-wall performance and had little to no attacking or midfield standouts apart from Glen Kamara, the only reason they even came close to a berth in the knockout round was Hrádecký.

The Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper made an astonishing 14 saves across the three matches, including a heroic performance in Finland’s first ever match in a major tournament to guide them to victory over Scandinavian neighbours Denmark. Born in Bratislava to Slovak parents, Hrádecký moved to Finland at a young age as his father, a professional volleyball player, moved the family to Turku, and whilst he has spent the majority of his career in Denmark and Germany since leaving his homeland in January 2009, he has gone from plying his trade for the Finnish U-17 team to pulling off their greatest ever footballing achievement at 31 years of age.

Denzel Dumfries – The Netherlands

One of the biggest breakthrough sensations has been Denzel Dumfries, who, despite being a right wingback, has played a role in nearly all of the Netherlands’ goals in their sensational group stage. In the first match against Ukraine, Dumfries raced up the right flank and played a low cross that was haplessly parried away by Heorhiy Bushchan and converted by Georginio Wijnaldum. For the second goal, it seemed as though his heavy first touch would allow Vitaliy Mykolenko to marshal it out to safety, but he muscled his way past him and forced a tepid clearance from Mykola Matviyenko, which Wout Weghorst promptly converted. It looked as though Ukraine would pull a draw out of a thin air after Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk scored in quick succession, but Nathan Aké’s cross found the head of Dumfries to score the fifth goal of perhaps the most exciting contest of the first matchweek.

Frank de Boer has gained criticism for his seemingly defensive 3-5-2 formation, but it is undeniable that his tactical switch has paid dividends thus far against Ukraine, North Macedonia and Austria — not just in terms of results, but performances as well. The midfield balance of Wijnaldum, Frenkie de Jong, and Marten de Roon has worked like a charm, whilst the back three of Matthijs de Ligt, Stefan de Vrij and Daley Blind has conceded zero goals as well. More importantly, the 3-5-2 has allowed Dumfries and Patrick van Aanholt to showcase their explosive movement and act as auxiliary wingers, combining with Memphis Depay and Wijnaldum whilst also keeping the defence secure.

Dumfries has been a shining star so far — with all due respect to the likes of Vladimír Coufal, Stefan Lainer, Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Meunier — there was only one winner here. At 25 years old and with two years left on his contract at PSV Eindhoven, this might just be the summer that he departs the Eredivisie for a top five league, but buyer beware: his agent is Mino Raiola.

Leonardo Bonucci – Italy

Whilst Dumfries was the obvious favourite for right back, picking a centre back pairing from this group stage is vastly more difficult. Simon Kjær, Andreas Christensen and Jannik Vestergaard’s pairing proved to be a vital part in Denmark’s improbable run to the knockout round, John Stones’ solid performances at club level have continued into the summer for England, and 23-year-old Hungarian defender Attila Szalai was one of the tournament’s breakthrough performers. From Group E, Victor Lindelöf, Milan Škriniar and Aymeric Laporte each delivered impressive performances for their respective sides, whilst David Alaba, Pepe and Presnel Kimpembe are all worthy of mentions as well.

One player who proved to be a cut above the rest, however, is Leonardo Bonucci. It’s true that he didn’t exactly have to face the toughest opposition — a hapless Turkey side with an isolated Burak Yılmaz, an underwhelming Switzerland side with a misfiring Haris Seferović and Xherdan Shaqiri, and a conservative Wales side whose main goal was to defend deep and protect their goal differential to finish second in the group. It’s true that he isn’t one of the freshest, younger names in this Azzurri team like Nicolò Barella or Federico Chiesa, but Bonucci’s leadership, experience, and ability on the ball has been a constant in Italy’s perfect start to their Euros. Italy could have suffered when Giorgio Chiellini was subbed off early on against Switzerland with a hamstring injury, but whether playing alongside his longtime partner, or Francesco Acerbi, or Alessandro Bastoni, or Rafael Tolói, Bonucci proved why, even at 34, he’s still as important as ever for Roberto Mancini’s side.

“The beauty of this squad is that there is not just one captain, there are many, many leaders in this group,” stated Bonucci in an interview with Calciomercato. “Everyone is a part of it, everyone is responsible for himself and for the team. The champion of this national team is the group itself. “It is important that even the players who have not had the opportunity to compete in European competitions in recent years have responded positively to the debut match.”

Next up? A date with Franco Foda’s Austria at Wembley Stadium.

Matthijs de Ligt – The Netherlands

As the saying goes, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. That was certainly the case for the Netherlands in their opening match of the Euros on June 13. Matthijs de Ligt picked up a groin injury in a 2-2 draw against Scotland on June 2, sidelining him for Oranje’s final friendly against Georgia as well as their tournament opener against Ukraine. With Jurrien Timber in his place, the Netherlands took a two-goal lead after halftime, prompting Frank de Boer to take Daley Blind and Patrick van Aanholt off for Nathan Aké and Owen Wijndal, respectively. The result? Andriy Yarmolenko halved the Netherlands’ lead with a wonderful strike from outside the box, and four minutes later, Roman Yaremchuk snuck past Wout Weghorst to head home a free-kick from Roman Malinovskyi, although Denzel Dumfries’ late winner saw the Netherlands take three points in Amsterdam.

The following match saw De Ligt come back into the team, slotting into the centre of defence alongside Stefan de Vrij and Daley Blind and delivering a stellar performance against Austria. He was the only player on the pitch to complete every single one of his passes (40/40), he was constantly in the right position to sweep up the danger and compensate for his teammates’ errors, constantly coming out of his area to win the ball back, reign supreme in aerial duels and prevent Austria from gaining success with their long balls. From his physical dominance to the timing of his interceptions and jumps, to his aggression and anticipation, it was a masterclass in defending.

Bizarrely, it wasn’t enough to quell criticism from Marco van Basten, who stated after the match, “De Ligt is a central defender and he has to lead more. He has to make himself heard, he has to assert himself, because he has to lead the defence. He just goes after his man and leaves a hole open. De Ligt went to Italy to learn how to defend, but I don’t think he has learnt much there.”

De Ligt, to his credit, took it in stride, stating, “If someone of the calibre of Marco Van Basten criticizes you, then you have to listen to him, hear what he says about you. He too has played in a difficult league like Serie A in the past, so I understand what he meant when he spoke about me.” He followed his magnanimous response with a clean sheet and a composed performance against North Macedonia, keeping Goran Pandev quiet in his final match with the national team and ensuring the Oranje remained the only team to win every single match in the groups alongside Belgium and Italy. With Virgil van Dijk recovering from his ACL injury, Dutch fans will be counting on him to protect the defence and lead the team to their first European Championship since 1988.

Joakim Mæhle – Denmark

No matter where you go or what game you watch, Gian Piero Gasperini’s influence has been evident for all to see in the first few weeks of international football this summer. Atalanta playmaker Ruslan Malinovskyi has been the creative fulcrum of Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine, whilst Papu Gómez, the man he replaced, opened the scoring in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay on Monday. Marten de Roon, Remo Freuler, Robin Gosens and Aleksei Miranchuk have been vital cogs for the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Russia, respectively, whilst Cristian Romero has emerged as a starter in defence for Argentina. Matteo Pessina and Rafael Tolói have been valuable rotational players for Roberto Mancini’s Italy, whilst Leonardo Spinazzola, who played at Atalanta from 2016 to 2018, has been one of the finest left-backs in the Euros thus far.

Having joined the club in January, it would be unfair to put Joakim Mæhle’s excellent performances for Denmark solely down to Gasperini, but he is just another member of the low-budget Serie A team who has been a breakthrough sensation in the Euros. The Dane left his home country to join Genk in 2017 after Atalanta plucked Timothy Castagne from their ranks, and when Castagne left to join Leicester City in the summer of 2020, Atalanta’s replacements — Fabio Depaoli, Johan Mojica, and Cristiano Piccini — struggled to impress before having their loans cut short midway through the season. They made way for Mæhle, who joined on a five-year contract for a fee of €10 million.

Fast forward six months, that fee is already looking like a massive bargain. Able to play on either flank, Mæhle has operated at left-back for Denmark, although he often looks like a left-winger. As a right-footer, he is comfortable at cutting inside and combining in the final third with his teammates, using his close control and rapid pace to penetrate opposing fullbacks. After playing as a left-back in the opening match against Finland, Mæhle found plenty more success being used as a left wingback against Belgium. Whereas Daniel Wass would often drop back to aid in the first phase of build-up, Mæhle could push forward and combine with Mikkel Damsgaard to cause the Red Devils problems, although he was unable to stop the three-headed snake of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard from turning the tide for Belgium and spurring a comeback win in Copenhagen.

For the final match, Mæhle completed the most touches in the match (85), won 6 out of his 13 ground duels, and scored the fourth and final goal, deftly curling his shot past Matvei Safonov into the near corner and sealing Denmark’s passage into the knockout round. Whilst he has solely played on the right flank for La Dea due to Hans Hateboer missing a lengthy spell with a knee injury, Mæhle has proved that he has what it takes to replace Gosens, who, with just two years left on his current deal, looks likely to depart for greener pastures this summer. Alongside Gosens, Spinazzola and Jordi Alba, he has been one of the finest left-backs in the Euros thus far, and he’s just another reason why Atalanta are one of the most forward-thinking clubs in world football.

Manuel Locatelli – Italy

With seven goals scored and zero conceded, Italy have been by far and away the strongest team of the group stage, carrying over an excellent form that saw them win seven straight, score 21 and concede zero going into the Euros. However, while they were considered one of the tournament’s ‘dark horses,’ their hopes of winning their first Euros since 1968 were threatened on May 11 as Marco Verratti sustained a knee ligament injury in a training session with Paris Saint-Germain, putting his participation in the upcoming Euros at risk. Enter: Manuel Locatelli.

With Verratti in a race against time to recover from his injury, Locatelli started on the left side of Italy’s midfield trio alongside Jorginho and Nicolò Barella in the Euros opener against Turkey, with Mancini giving him the nod over Gaetano Castrovilli, Matteo Pessina, and Bryan Cristante, who replaced him in the 74th minute. Locatelli impressed in the opener, combining alongside Spinazzola and Lorenzo Insigne and picking out Barella between the lines, who then found Domenico Berardi, whose shot bounced off Merih Demiral for the opening goal of the Euros.

The following match against Switzerland, Locatelli stole the show at the Stadio Olimpico. Playing in a far more advanced position than his ‘metronome’ role at Sassuolo, the 23-year-old created the opening goal once again, capitalizing on a loose ball at the halfway line and spraying a delectable volley towards an isolated Berardi on the right flank. His teammate for club and country raced up the wing, hesitated, and played a pass to the onrushing Locatelli, who snuck in past Granit Xhaka and Freuler and converted from close range. After halftime, Locatelli sealed the Azzurri’s victory by picking up a pass from Barella outside of the box and curling the shot past Yann Sommer.

Italy would go on to win 3-0 via a late goal from Ciro Immobile, who grabbed his fourth goal in as many games for the Azzurri. With first place sealed, Mancini heavily rotated his side in the third and final match, with only Gianluigi Donnarumma, Bonucci and Jorginho retaining their starting spots. Marco Verratti returned to action and controlled proceedings in a comfortable 1-0 victory over Wales, a stellar performance that proved why he is one of the finest midfielders in Europe. Now, Mancini faces a dilemma: put Locatelli back in the line-up for Saturday’s match against Austria, or keep him as a bench option with Verratti, Jorginho and Barella operating in the centre of the pitch. It is a dilemma that any other manager in the European Championships would be lucky to have, but it is a dilemma nonetheless.

Paul Pogba – France

Picking a secondary midfielder next to Locatelli is perhaps the toughest selection of them all. Frenkie de Jong has been practically flawless for the Netherlands, whilst Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has stepped up as Denmark’s midfield metronome in the unfortunate absence of Christian Eriksen. Luka Modrić continues to dictate the biggest occasions even as he approaches 36 years of age, Kalvin Phillips has been an unexpected star for Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions, Toni Kroos is as cool as ever, and Hungary’s midfield trio of András Schäfer, Ádám Nagy and László Kleinheisler has caught plenty of viewers by surprise.

My pick goes to Paul Pogba, who, despite a mediocre showing against Hungary, has been one of the brightest stars of the entire tournament thus far. The Manchester United midfielder began the tournament with a Man of the Match performance against Germany, winning the most duels (13), the most fouls (4), the most interceptions (3) and completing the most dribbles (3) of any player on the pitch. More importantly, he created the sole goal of the match out of thin air, attempting an audacious trivela pass to Lucas Hernandez, whose cross deflected off Mats Hummels and into the back of the net. It was a tremendous performance that prompted Bruno Fernandes, his teammate at club level and his opponent in the third and final group stage match, to jokingly post on his Instagram, “Happy for you, but MVP only today.”

Karim Benzema would go on to win the award after scoring a brace in a 2-2 draw against Portugal, but it was Pogba who ran the show in Budapest. Whilst Fernandes was relegated to the bench after a dire match against Germany, Pogba took the match by the scruff of his neck, nearly creating the opening goal with a delectable through ball to Kylian Mbappé and engineering the equalizer by flicking a lofted pass into the box and prompting Nélson Semedo to make contact with Mbappé for an albeit soft penalty. Benzema equalized from the spot, and he put them ahead within a minute of the restart, latching onto Pogba’s through ball and tucking it past Rui Patrício. Cristiano Ronaldo equalized from the spot, but Pogba’s sensational performance saw France finish atop the Group of Death. With 97% passing accuracy, four chances created and nine accurate long balls, it was another masterclass from Pogba who, at 28, is delivering a stellar campaign in his fourth major tournament for Les Bleus.

Georginio Wijnaldum – The Netherlands

From Emil Forsberg to Pedri to Kevin de Bruyne, from Antoine Griezmann to Marek Hamšík to Marcel Sabitzer to Xherdan Shaqiri, there have been a plethora of impressive attacking midfielders in the group stage, but arguably the finest has been Georginio Wijnaldum. With Ronald Koeman, his manager for the Netherlands from 2018 to 2020, keen on a reunion with him at Barcelona, and Mauricio Pochettino aiming to bring him to Paris, his unclear future threatened to disrupt the captain from unleashing his full potential at the Euros. Wijnaldum, however, joined Paris Saint-Germain on a Bosman transfer just days before the opening match, penning a contract that will see him earn €10 million through 2024.

With his short-term future taken care of, Wijnaldum has proceeded to deliver world-class performance after world-class performance for the Netherlands, opening the scoring against Ukraine, putting in a tireless performance on and off the ball against Austria, and bagging a brace in the final match against North Macedonia to put him level as the second-top scorer of the tournament alongside Forsberg, Patrik Schick, Robert Lewandowski and Romelu Lukaku. Whilst he was often limited to a more defensive, box-to-box role at Liverpool, Wijnaldum is allowed the freedom to roam into the final third and arrive in the box, as exemplified by the fact that he ranks fourth for total xG and shots attempted in the entire tournament thus far. As he prepares to leave Anfield for the Parc de Princes, the 30-year-old will be looking to pull off the crowning achievement of his entire career and spearhead the Dutch to their first European Championship since 1988.

Romelu Lukaku – Belguim

At 28 years of age, Romelu Lukaku has become Belgium’s top scorer with an astonishing 63 goals — 31 ahead of his nearest competitor Eden Hazard — led Belgium to a third-placed finish in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and ended Inter’s 11-year Scudetto drought. Today, he faces his toughest task yet: leading Les Diables Rouges to their first ever trophy at a major tournament.

Their opener was a mismatch from the very moment Mateu Lahoz blew the whistle. Capitalizing on a calamity of errors from the Russian defence, Lukaku picked up Dries Mertens’ deflected cross and calmly slotted past Anton Shunin, before paying tribute to his Inter teammate Christian Eriksen, who just an hour before, suffered a cardiac arrest against Finland. Thomas Meunier doubled their lead shortly after, before bursting through the Sbornaya midfield and threading a pass towards Lukaku, who beat Igor Diveev for pace before slotting home the third and final goal.

Yussuf Poulsen’s early opener looked to have Denmark headed for a shock victory in Copenhagen, but the second-half entrances of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard ultimately proved too much for the Danes to cope with. Picking up a pass from De Bruyne, Lukaku sprinted up the right and threaded a pass to De Bruyne, whose low cross met the feet of Thorgan Hazard for the equalizer. The go-ahead goal saw Lukaku weave his way out of pressure and feed Youri Tielemans, whose clever combination play with the Hazard brothers saw De Bruyne’s strike beat Kasper Schmeichel from outside the box. It was more of the same in the final match in Saint Petersburg, as Lukaku turned Daniel O’Shaughnessy inside out and condemned Finland to a group stage elimination.

With a digestive problem taken care of, Lukaku looks slimmer, quicker, and more efficient than ever before, thanks not only to Antonio Conte’s coaching, but Lukaku’s relentless desire to improve his game and silence his critics. If he does somehow manage to pull Belgium through a daunting bracket that will see them take on the reigning European champions in Sevilla, he will solidify his place in history as one of the finest centre forwards of his generation.

Patrik Schick – Czech Republic

Lukaku may very well be the frontrunner for Player of the Tournament, but there are plenty of other forwards who have delivered sensational performances at the Euros thus far. Ciro Immobile, Andriy Yarmolenko, Mikkel Damsgaard, Raheem Sterling, Kai Havertz, Ivan Perišić, Roman Yaremchuk, Alexander Isak, Robert Lewandowski…the list of forwards who stepped up to the task and spearheaded their countries’ attacks is seemingly endless. However, Patrik Schick’s campaign deserves a mention of its own.

When Czech Republic crashed out of the Euro 2016 group stage with just one point, Schick was a 20-year-old striker who was getting ready to join Sampdoria for a fee of €4 million. And yet, Schick’s excellent performances in the Euros doesn’t quite have the same brand new car smell as Dumfries, Locatelli or Damsgaard. From his breakthrough campaign for Il Doria, to his failed medical at Juventus, to his ill-fated move to Roma, to his constant injury problems, Schick has been on the general public’s radar for quite some time. A loan move to RB Leipzig in 2019 served to rekindle his form with 10 goals in 28 games, and while Leipzig failed to reach an agreement to sign him on a permanent deal, Bayer Leverkusen snapped him up on a five-year deal for €26.5 million plus bonuses. However, after a middle-of-the-road year in Leverkusen, it remains to be seen whether he, Lucas Alario or someone else will be the starting centre forward next season under new manager Gerardo Seoane.

His group stage campaign certainly won’t have worsened his reputation in Seoane’s eyes. Going up against Scotland at Hampden Park, Schick opened the scoring in the first match with a bullet header, rising above Liam Cooper and Grant Hanley and placing the ball past goalkeeper David Marshall. It was a superb header that could only be topped by what came next. Jack Hendry’s blocked shot rebounded towards Schick, who, rather than dribbling from the halfway line or threading a pass to Jakub Jankto, elected to catch Marshall off his line and lob a shot from 50 yards out into the back of the net. In doing so, he became the first Czech player to score a brace at a major tournament since Tomáš Rosický in 2006.

A penalty goal against Croatia followed, and while he failed to continue his goalscoring form against England at Wembley Stadium, he was their biggest threat, albeit an isolated one. If Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side have any shot of getting past the Netherlands in Budapest, it’ll likely be down to another piece of individual magic from Schick.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal

Top scorer in the ongoing Euros (5 goals), joint-top scorer in international football alongside Ali Daei (109 goals), Capocannoniere (29 goals), top scorer in Euros history (14 goals), most Euros played (5), most goals in Euros + World Cup history (20 goals)….even at 36, Cristiano Ronaldo continues to rack up individual accolades and add to his unprecedented record collection. Having trudged off the pitch injured in the 2016 Final and motivating his teammates from the bench, Cristiano is doing just about everything he can to ensure that a shaky Portugal side repeat their heroics at Wembley Stadium this summer.

After bagging a late brace against Hungary, Cristiano opened the scoring against a thoroughly dominant German side on the second matchday, heading away a corner kick out of danger and into the path of Bernardo Silva, who cut inside and picked out Diogo Jota with an inch-perfect pass. Cristiano, meanwhile, was making a run in behind Kai Havertz and Robin Gosens to allow Jota to receive in space and play a cross to Cristiano, who calmly tapped in from close range. He set up Jota’s goal in the 67th minute, but it was all in vain as Die Mannschaft took home the three points with a 4-2 victory. A brace against France on the final matchday sealed Portugal’s entrance into the knockout round, with the Seleção finishing third in their Euros group for the second straight occasion.

Three of his five goals have come from penalties. It is true that Memphis Depay could have just as easily gotten into the team ahead of him, with the soon-to-be Barcelona forward delivering sensational performance after sensational performance for the Netherlands. However, in an increasingly talented Portuguese generation that should be, in theory, lessening his importance and eventually phasing him out from the team, Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be the only Portugal forward who is actually pulling his weight.

Zach Lowy is the co-creator of Breaking The Lines (@BTLVid) and a freelance soccer journalist for various websites such as BET Central, Soccer Laduma and Hudl Analysis. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is the host of the Cortalinhas podcast, a weekly podcast that discusses Portuguese football. Zach has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in football and has written about various subjects for BET Central ranging from Barcelona's financial difficulties to the 'lost generation' of South Africa's Amajita class of 2009.

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