Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Thomas Hitzlsperger's BBC Sport column: 'After early surprises, this is when big teams get going' – BBC


In the first 14 days of Euro 2024 I’ve watched 13 different teams in nine games across seven cities – and I've enjoyed every second.
It’s been a whirlwind tour of Germany and I am ready for a rest now the group stage is over, but this is exactly what I wanted to do – see as much of the country as possible, and watch as many matches as I can.
I’ve seen a lot of happy faces on my travels and I think I speak for a lot of Germans when I say things are going well. It's been amazing to see so many people coming over and enjoying themselves and, overall, the tournament has lived up to my expectations too.
A lot of the things I had hoped for beforehand, from the behaviour of all the fans to the quality of the football, have become reality.
I know from first-hand experience that the German train system is not as good as people probably expected but hopefully that is the only thing that has been disappointing so far.
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Highlights: Slovakia and Romania both qualify in entertaining draw
We saw quite a few surprise results in the group stage and one of the most enjoyable things about this tournament has been the approach of some of the smaller or less-fancied nations.
I was at Romania’s draw with Slovakia in Frankfurt on Wednesday and, especially in the first half, both teams just went for it.
It was end-to-end because they both never stopped going forward and attacking. They made mistakes, but they made up for it by chasing every ball and it was so much fun to watch.
The atmosphere was brilliant too. I was sitting right in the middle of the Romania fans, and I am still having problems hearing now because of all the noise they made.
I watched Georgia when I was with the BBC in Berlin last week and they were very similar. The way they play, there is no holding back and it has been so refreshing to see teams that really attack and don’t play a tactical game.
It’s why so many people love watching them, and it has obviously worked because they also got out of their group.
The smaller nations who are here seem to be playing for something bigger, or at least that’s what it feels like. That was definitely the case with Ukraine and it was such as shame that they went out and finished bottom of their group despite getting four points.
I know there is always a debate about football and politics and how they should be separated but there are some occasions when it's obvious that you can't.
Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky talked about the team a lot in the past couple of weeks and you felt they were playing for something more than just winning a football match, which is very special.
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Highlights: Ukraine 0-0 Belgium
A lot of the favourites have made a slower start, and have been a lot less exciting. But they play a different style of football, and they probably know quite well how to get far in the tournament.
It is something France always seem to do and England are another good example of that.
They have not really impressed me yet but their defence has been extremely good and it is really hard to break them down, which is why from the outside I would say they could go further than their fans and critics probably expect them to.
It is not always fun to watch, but that is what the bigger nations do. They are well organised, whereas if you expose yourself, like the smaller teams, it is great for the fans but it is less likely that it takes you far.
Still, it makes it exciting when they go up against each other, especially now we are in the last-16 stage and these different systems and approaches meet each other in a knockout tie.
One of the themes of the first few matches were long-distance shots and spectacular goals but they became fewer and fewer as the group stage went on.
I was expecting more games to be decided by set-pieces but that did not really happen. Maybe we will see more of that in the next few rounds, but things will definitely change once the big teams really get going the way I am expecting them to.
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Highlights: Germany rescue late draw against Switzerland to win Group A
Along with Spain, Germany have been the team that has looked most convincing after three matches.
I was certain after Germany’s second game, our win over Hungary, that we had really arrived and the team was really rolling. It made me think we could go very far.
Our third game, against Switzerland, was much harder and we struggled a bit to get a draw but maybe it was just what we needed.
At first, Germany tried to go through the middle all the time and the Swiss just overloaded those areas to stop them. It took Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann a while to make changes and bring on David Raum and Niclas Fullkrug, but it was good to see he has got a Plan B, and I think he has got a Plan C and D if needed too.
It was good to have that test, and react to it, because Denmark could try to play like Switzerland did when we play them in the last 16. In the past that caused Germany a lot of trouble but now I am thinking maybe the team has progressed a little bit further than I had thought.
We have found some consistency – Nagelsmann has named the same team in each game here so far – which is important and also the team camp seems very relaxed. I went there earlier this week and although I did not see the players because they were on a rest day, I was speaking to some of the staff and it was a great atmosphere.
The reaction from the German public has been really positive too – the TV viewing figures have been high and the fan zones have been busy. I’m pleased with the way the supporters have grown together with this team, which is what we've always wanted in the past couple of years.
So, our story of this tournament so far has been a happy one, but we don't know yet how it is going to end. That is the same for everyone though – there are a lot of good teams left in Euro 2024 and I don't think you can pick one that is definitely going to win it.
Thomas Hitzlsperger was speaking to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan in Germany.
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