By Aidan Elder | Chief Sports Writer
The group stages of Euro 2012 provided some good football and excellent matches.
Unless you’re Irish.
Half the teams are on the way home, the players no doubt sobbing their way to the beaches of the Caribbean. Dry your eyes on the bikini bottoms of the nearest glamour model, boys! The other half march on, all but one of them destined for disappointment and slightly shorter summer holidays.
Winning the group is always touted as being important. Finish top, get the easier draw and then all of a sudden the competition is yours to be thrown away. In England’s case, it certainly seems to have come to pass. By winning Group D, their hopes have a significantly better chance of surviving to the semi-finals. They’ve avoided the Harlem Globetrotters of Spain and landed the vastly more appetising task of taking on Italy. It’s handy, but with the Azzurri not playing like the mindless lemmings many had pegged them for, it’s important to remember dashed hopes are just a badly taken penalty away.
The somewhat surprising news is that group winners don’t dominate the quarter-finals. They enjoy the edge over the runners-up they meet in the European Championship quarter-finals, but not by the Wesley Sneijder’s ego sized margin some may have expected. Over the years, they’ve won 55 per cent of the matches in contrast to the 45 per cent of the second placed teams.
It’s an advantage, but a surprisingly slender one. Part of the reason must be down to the fact the bare bones of the form can be as misleading as Harry Redknapp’s tax returns. Thanks to the luck of the draw, winning one group can require significantly less skill and effort than finishing second in another.
A prime example happened this year when Group B was the ‘Group of Death’ and Group A was more ‘Group of a tickly cough’. The Czech Republic came out on top of the topsy-turvy group, but they were about as impressive as Robbie Savage’s command of the English language. Portugal only finished second in Group B, but considering it required a creditable performance against Germany and wins over Denmark and the Netherlands, it was a more laudable achievement.
As such, both the winners and runners-up of Group B are hot favourites to progress at the expense of the Group A teams. Germany are 1/7 to get past Greece and Portugal are 1/4 to overcome Czech Republic. On the other side of the draw, Group C winners, Spain are 2/5 to beat Group D runners-up France and England, at Evens, are slight outsiders to prevail against Italy. Overall, it shows that other than booking your place in the next phase, winning a group doesn’t mean a whole lot. At 2008, three of the runners-up from the groups got the better of group winners at the quarter-final stage. In 2004, the split was 2-2 and in both 2000 and 1996, it was 3-1 in favour of the group winners.
Just for the sake of clarity, it should be pointed out that from 1984 to 1992, European Championship quarter-finals were like David Cameron’s childcare skills – non-existent. The teams went right into semi-final, but these semi-finals were still organised in the ‘Winner of one group v Runner-up of another’ format. Prior to that, the winners of the two groups just went straight through to the final. That was in a time before UEFA realised they could make a lot more money from TV revenues by stringing it out for a couple of rounds more.
Winning a group has its uses, if only for inflating a few egos and increasing confidence within a squad. When it comes to actually making progress, its value is as uncertain as an Irish midfielder with the ball at his feet. England have given themselves a better chance of reaching the last four, but doesn’t mean they’ll deliver. Don’t go booking the 29th June off just yet.