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Georgia's players celebrate after winning the Uefa Euro 2024 Group F match against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday. Image Credit: AFP

Dusseldorf: Euro 2024 in Germany moves on to the knockout phase this weekend after a group stage, which saw all of the continent’s biggest names advance to the last 16 even if some of the favourites have failed to convince.

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France and England were widely tipped as the leading contenders before the tournament, but both stumbled unconvincingly through the first round, each scoring only two goals in three matches despite boasting some of the best forwards in the world.

The most impressive team has been Spain, probably followed by the hosts Germany, even if their group stage performance was not flawless in similar fashion to a strong Portugal team.

Stuttering start

Yet those three sides now all find themselves in the harder half of the draw alongside Belgium and France, after the stuttering 2022 World Cup runners-up proved incapable of winning their section.

“We were in a very tough group. We beat Austria but they finished top,” pointed out France coach Didier Deschamps, whose side were not helped by Kylian Mbappe breaking his nose and missing the goalless draw with the Netherlands.

“We have achieved our first objective. A new competition starts now.”

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Spain midfielder Mikel Merino takes part in a training session along with his teammates ahead of the last 16 match against Georgia. Image Credit: AFP

A veteran of five previous major tournaments in 12 years as France boss, he also pointed out that the impressions left in the group stage “are not always the same later on”.

Had France finished first, they would have been on a collision course to play England in the semi-finals.

Lopsided draw

Instead they meet Belgium in the last 16, with the winner of that possibly facing Portugal in the quarter-finals. Spain and Germany, meanwhile, are on course to meet in the last eight.

“It doesn’t cost anything to dream, but we need to keep our feet on the ground,” was the reaction of Spain coach Luis de la Fuente despite his team winning all three group games without conceding a goal.

That matched the performance of Italy at the last Euros, when they went on to win the trophy by beating England in the final.

There is now the prospect of England and Italy clashing again here in the quarter-finals, should both win their last-16 ties.

England defeated Italy twice in qualifying but have disappointed at the tournament despite winning their group. Gareth Southgate’s team were booed off after their 0-0 draw with Slovenia on Tuesday.

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Austrian coach Ralf Rangnick celebrates his team's win over the Netherlands, which has helped them to win Group D, ahead of France. Image Credit: Reuters

“I’ve not seen any other team qualify and receive a similar reaction,” pointed out Southgate, who is under pressure as star men Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane struggle to shine.

Beyond the leading names, Austria and Georgia have made the biggest impressions, but for different reasons.

Austria have built on promising form under coach Ralf Rangnick in recent months by running France close and beating Poland and the Netherlands.

Rangnick called his team’s achievement in winning their group “incredible”, and they suddenly seem serious candidates to make the semi-finals.

Georgia defy the odds

Georgia’s story is remarkable, that of a small country appearing at their first major tournament and qualifying for the knockout stages by beating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.

They now face Spain, who beat them 7-1 and 3-1 during qualifying.

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Slovenian players celebrate with fans after qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time at a major tournament. Image Credit: AFP

Slovenia, a country of barely two million people, are also into the knockout phase for the first time at a major tournament, despite drawing all three group games.

Croatia and Ukraine, meanwhile, are the biggest names to go out, after almost two weeks of group-stage action, which eliminated only eight teams from the awkward 24-nation format.

Less profilic group stage

The group stage was less prolific than at the last Euros, with only 81 goals in the first round compared to 94 in 2021. Games became progressively more cagey after a lively start to the competition.

Perhaps some misfiring stars will turn up when it really matters, starting with Mbappe.

He got his first ever European Championship goal via a penalty in France’s 1-1 draw with Poland, but his Expected Goals (a commonly-used metric to measure attacking performance) is, at 2.12, the highest of any player in the competition. And he has only played two matches.

It is hard to pick a standout player from the group stage, but Toni Kroos and Jamal Musiala have excelled for Germany, and winger Nico Williams is just one player to star for Spain.

Pepe has been outstanding at the age of 41 for Portugal, while Georgia could not have advanced without Georges Mikautadze, the tournament’s top scorer on three goals.

Euro 2024 Round of 16 fixtures (all times UAE):

June 29: Switzerland v Italy, 8pm

June 29: Germany v Denmark, 11pm

June 30: England v Slovakia, 8pm

June 30: Spain v Georgia, 11pm

July 1: France v Belgium, 8pm

July 1: Portugal v Slovenia, 11pm

July 2: Romania v Netherlands, 8pm

July 2: Austria v Turkey, 11pm