The dust is still settling on the last day of the group stage and it’s probably an understatement to say that some teams performed better than expected. With that in mind, I thought it’d be good to challenge myself when compiling a team of the best players in this group stage by only allowing a maximum of one from each team.
Starting with the goalkeeper, I’ve gone for the Icelandic stopper Hannes Þór Halldórsson. For a country with so few people and a team with so few expectations, to have kept out Cristiano Ronaldo and seen his team through to qualify outright from the group is utterly remarkable. Some will say that Halldórsson wasn’t up against the most difficult teams, but you can only play what is in front of you and the saves he made have kept Iceland competitive.
For the right-back, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better one than Kyle Walker. In a tournament where teams have treated England with the utmost respect and sat back, Walker has been the man making the most incisive runs and taking on the opposition flank with more gusto than anyone in the England side. A supreme tournament thus far from the Tottenham man.
My central defensive pairing probably reflects the two best central defenders in the world at present, let alone Euro 2016. Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci and Germany’s Jérôme Boateng have marshalled their defensive units brilliantly and aside from doing all the basics well, they have come up with moments of individual excellence. Boateng’s clearance against Ukraine as well as an outstanding covering challenge against Poland have helped keep Germany one of the only sides not to concede, while Bonucci’s pass to Emanuele Giaccherini against Belgium was right out of the top drawer.
At left-back, crippled slightly by both my commitment to having only one player from any given team and the world’s shortage of good left-backs, I have opted for the Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Brady. I think he’s a criminally underrated player regardless, but he’s been a real driving force in this tournament for that plucky Irish side and his goal to secure a last 16 place showed his capabilities going forward. Furthermore, it showed how much the Republic of Ireland rely on him as a defender that when Brady pushed into the left midfield position, they suffered down that side as Belgium took them apart.
Playing a 4-1-4-1 in this multicultural cornucopia, my holding midfielder will be Granit Xhaka. Having watched all of Switzerland’s games as part of Box to Box Football’s sweepstake, I’ve seen a lot of this Swiss side and they would not be the same team without Xhaka. He’s controlled the midfield better than anyone else in the tournament, collecting the ball from the defenders and distributing with urgency and accuracy in equal measure. He’s also got an eye for a tackle and is a prickly character, meaning that he should be able to step up into the Patrick Vieira-shaped hole for Arsenal in August.
My two more advanced central midfielders are Slovakia’s Marek Hamšík and Spain’s Andrés Iniesta. I hadn’t actually seen much of Napoli before so I was intrigued by Hamšík, especially being in England’s group.
But I see what all the fuss is about. He’s done it all at Euro 2016 — carried the ball, scored a wonderful goal, been the provider and has also exhibited some mesmeric dribbling. He’s proven his loyalty to Napoli on more than one occasion but I’d be surprised if it isn’t tested again this summer. And need I say more about Iniesta? The diminutive midfielder has kept Spain ticking and has two man of the match awards to his name, one of which was for the destruction of Turkey. One of the best players I’ve ever seen and it’s a delight to see him perform again in another major tournament.
My wide players may divide opinion on where exactly they’ll play but I think they’ve been far too good to leave out. For the hosts, everyone expected it would be Paul Pogba or Antoine Griezmann to step up to the plate until tubby Eastender Dimitri Payet asserted himself as their prime creator. One only need listen to the adulation the fans feel for him when he came on against Switzerland in their final group game to know that he’s now the main man. Scoring, creating and ball retention, it cannot be emphasised enough how badly clubs have missed the boat on Payet.
The other winger is Croatia’s Ivan Perišić, who also has two goals in this tournament. While Croatia boast arguably the best deep-lying playmaker in the world in Luka Modrić, his injury means they need someone else to take the initiative in that team. Perišić has been that man. His tireless running and defensive contribution has been complemented perfectly with his tricky dribbling and clinical finishing — he’s just been superb. Another one for whom an interesting summer awaits.
A centre forward was difficult because everyone’s either been terrible or plays for a previously chosen country. I’ve chosen Gareth Bale because he has played there on a couple of occasions and he’s the tournament’s top scorer. Moreover, while it was sparks of brilliance which won the day against Slovakia and put Wales ever so close to a result against England, the game versus the albeit hapless Russians showed Bale at his best. Running at players, acting as both the fulcrum and the provider in equal measure and also giving Wales someone to look to in times of need. Where (or who) would the winners of Group B be without him at Euro 2016?