The first round of group matches were all well fought, but largely devoid of surprise results. Arguably the biggest exception was Hungary’s fine 2-0 win over a much fancied Austria side, who badly failed to live up to the pre-tournament hype.
Not much was expected of a side that had not competed at a major finals for many years, and needed the play-offs to qualify from what on paper, was one of the weakest groups. However, they produced a very tidy performance to not only outplay their opponents, but limit them to very few scoring opportunities.
It was the perfect time for lone striker Adam Szalai to end a lengthy lean spell in front of goal by apply the finishing touch to a great move which totally carved open the Austrian defence, while Zoltan Stieber showed an amazing level of composure by clipping in the second following a late counter-attack.
The result now means that victory over Iceland on Saturday would secure their place in the knockout stages of the competition, although a draw would also put them in a very strong position. They will be full of confidence, but so indeed will Iceland after they picked up a tremendous draw against Portugal.
Led by a joint management team including the highly experienced Lars Lagerback, they were forced to defend for long periods of the game and sometimes needed to rely on weak finishing to remain on level terms, but it was a famous moment when Birkir Bjarnason scored a very well taken equaliser.
There was also a defiance in the manner that they batted away criticism from Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo regarding their style of play. As massive favourites to take the three points it would have more prudent for the Real Madrid star to reflect on his side’s profligacy after having a total of 26 attempts on goal.
They now come up against an Austria side in a game where both sides will have something to prove. Portugal at present do not have the look of a side that can properly compete against the strongest teams in the competition, particularly when Ronaldo is now firing. Nani played well in the opening match, but needs to show consistency if he is to gain prominence in France.
Both teams will feel that they need to take something from the game and show that they are capable of reaching the latter stages, so that should make it a better spectacle. Austria must show more attacking invention than they did against Hungary; otherwise it could be a case of failing to live up to their potential.
Easily cancelled out by a side they were expected to beat, this is a test of character for a very highly-rated group of players, who perhaps suffered the same fate as Belgium did in Group E – a team made up of some very strong individuals being overcome by an inferior, though more united group. It should be a tight encounter, although Portugal will be the slight favourites. As for Hungary, defeat would be a major disappointment after Tuesday’s exploits.
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