DONETSK: From the moment Poland’s Robert Lewandowski scored the opening goal of the tournament with a brilliant header against Greece, Euro 2012 has served up one great moment after another during a thrilling group stage.
Superb goals have followed including Mario Balotelli’s volley against Ireland, German Mario Gomez’s first strike against the Netherlands and Jakub Blaszczykowski’s stunning equaliser for Poland against Russia.
The quality remained until the end with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s exquisitely executed volley for Sweden against France arguably the pick of the bunch.
In keeping with the exciting and unpredictable thrills of the first phase, Russia made a dramatic impact with a blistering 4-1 win over the Czech Republic but failed to advance after drawing with Poland and losing to Greece.
The Greeks, shock Euro 2004 winners, caused another surprise, recovering from a draw with the Poles and defeat by the Czechs to beat Russia for their first win since the 2004 final, take an unexpected place in the quarter-finals and ease the euro zone gloom back home.
Neither co-hosts Poland or Ukraine survived the group stage, but still produced memorable moments.
The Ukrainian weather also made an impact with a lightning storm forcing the suspension of Ukraine’s match with France in Donetsk for 55 minutes.
Fortunately, most of the drama involved high-quality games in full stadiums and not the expected widespread trouble off the pitch except for fighting before the Poland v Russia match.
Unlike the World Cup in South Africa two years ago which produced plenty of drab uninspiring games, Euro 2012, the last to involve 16 teams before the tournament is expanded to an unwieldy 24 finalists in 2016, has been a fans’ delight.
There was not a single 0-0 draw in the group stage.
Doubts about the co-hosts’ ability to stage the tournament surfaced almost from the day UEFA awarded it to them in 2007, but whatever problems there may have been leading up to kick-off, most of those fears have not materialised.
While there have been isolated outbreaks of mainly politically-inspired violence and some racism issues – the major worry for the authorities beforehand – Europe’s top players have ensured they have been the ones making the headlines.
Ronaldo, after a slow start, produced the individual performance of the group phase with two goals – he could have had five – when Portugal beat the Netherlands 2-1 on Sunday.
Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko was virtually anointed as a national saint for his double against Sweden in their opening 2-1 comeback win in front of a frenzied Kiev crowd.
Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic, a prolific scorer for his German club VfL Wolfsburg, announced himself to a wider audience with three goals before Croatia’s unlucky elimination from a group including Italy and world champions Spain.
But proving that footballers can also be at once brilliant and barmy, Nicklas Bendtner scored twice for Denmark in a 3-2 defeat by Portugal, then got a 100,000 euro ($126,800) fine and a one-match ban for revealing the name of a bookmakers on his underpants.
Plenty of other players have done their careers a world of good at the tournament which has highlighted their talent.
There have been notable performances from Russian playmaker Alan Dzagoyev, who scored three goals, French fullback Mathieu Debuchy and Dutch defender Jetro Willems who, aged 18 and 71 days, became the youngest player to appear in the finals.
While the Netherlands, beaten World Cup finalists two years ago, will want to forget this tournament as soon as possible after losing all three matches, the eight teams still involved have the quality to make the knockout stage memorable.
Spain, whose tactics include the voguish ‘false No.9’, or withdrawn centre-forward first perfected by Hungary in the early 1950s, have had a nervy campaign but are always dangerous.
The Spanish are still on course to become the first side to win three successive major titles following their victories in Euro 2008 and the World Cup two years ago.
But Vicente del Bosque’s men need to find their old swagger against France to keep that dream alive although the French themselves unconvincingly limped into the last eight following a 2-0 defeat by Sweden.
Germany or Portugal might prove to be the biggest obstacles to Spain reaching that goal but England are also dangerous and their last-eight opponents Italy can never be underestimated.
England, with little expected of them under new coach Roy Hodgson, have shown steely resolve with wins over Sweden and Ukraine to reach the last eight.
The Germans should get past Greece and a Ronaldo-inspired Portuguese side ought to be too classy for the Czech Republic.
Germany won all three group matches and remain on course for an unprecedented fourth European title but, as the Russians proved after their blistering start and swift elimination, a week is a long time in international football.
UEFA president Michel Platini, who gambled much of his political reputation in backing the bid from two widely disparate eastern and central European neighbours, was as delighted as anyone at the conclusion of the group stage.
“It has not been perfect, nothing ever is, but I am very, very happy,” he said.
“The atmosphere in the stadiums has been 99.9 percent fantastic, Poland and Ukraine have delivered and the people have shown their thanks. They have said thanks for having the confidence and trust in us, that we could do it. It has been wonderful so far and I hope it continues.”