BizPunkMitch Lasky's blog

Ok, you can’t deny this has been a very entertaining tournament so far.  All of the final games of the group stage had stakes, and every pair of final matches in the groups had real drama. There was even some decent football.

There has been positive play and goals have been plentiful (not a single nil-nil draw in the group stage), including some real gems like Ibrahimovic’s or Welbeck’s or Ballotelli’s (you could put Di Natale’s in the mix, or Silva’s, or Schevchenko’s brace, too). Unfortunately, many of the first-round goals went in against the Irish, whose -8 goal difference and 9 goals conceded in repeated pastings were an embarrassment — and not a great advertisement for the expanded 24-team format in 2016. Apart from Ireland, there were three 5-goal matches and five 2:1’s, a welcome absence of play-acting and diving, and few major complaints about the officiating (save the Ukraine non-goal vs. England).

The fact that every group went down to the last match (and in several cases, down to the last kick in injury time) made for some excellent TV. The final matches went on simultaneously, with the mood of the fans rising and falling as news came into each stadium from the other match in real time via text and Twitter. There were several moments when a single goal could (and did) upend a group.

In Group A, the Czechs beat Poland and the Greeks miraculously beat previously dominant Russia by equally-tense 1:0 scores, sending the match winners through to the quarterfinals against most predictions.  In B, Portugal stylishly beat the floundering Dutch 2:1 to advance (pre-tournament favorite Holland lost all three group matches); Germany beat Denmark by the same score and won the Group of Death. In C, the big favorite Spain won the group, but barely beat Croatia 1:0 in a game they could easily have lost but for Casillas’ save of a diving Croatian header (which, had it stood up as the winner, would have knocked Spain out of the tournament).  In the other match, Italy beat the hapless Irish to advance. Finally, in Group D, England gutted out a win over the hosts Ukraine 1:0 and won the group, while Sweden manhandled a lifeless France 2:0 and left the tournament with some pride.

I can’t move on from the group stage results without mentioning the utterly baroque tie-breaking rules for the UEFA tournaments. I’ve read the commentary on both sides of this issue, and I appreciate the potential unfairness of the UEFA rules. It’s lame that most fans couldn’t figure out the various permutations for advancement in a major tournament without a computer.

That said, the mini-leagues and UEFA coefficients produced some unexpected results, and I would argue that the net result was a meaningful forcing function in favor of winning the final matches rather than drawing (and the fact that there were no draws on Match Day 3 seems to support that — despite the fact that draws would have been just fine for many teams). I think that made for a better viewing experience. By the way, the best and simplest fix for this that I heard was to use UEFA rules for two-way ties (head-to-head) and FIFA rules for three-way ties (goal difference).

As good as the group stage has been, the tournament looks set up for a great finish.  On one side of the bracket, Germany play Greece and Italy play England. On the other side, Spain play France and Portugal play Czech Republic. I’d love to see a Portugal-Spain semifinal, with Ronaldo going against his Real Madrid teammates, and a Germany-Italy grinder. But I can imagine England getting past Italy to face Germany, and I wouldn’t be surprised by a Czech victory over Portugal in a low-scoring game.

The Spain-Germany final looms. They are clearly the two most in-form teams in the tournament so far, and I can’t really see any of the remaining teams beating them if they play at their best. But there may be a lot of twists and turns left in this tournament before we get there.

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