On Wednesday, the group stage of Euro 2012 concluded. Eight teams were sent home and many exceptional players had to ponder what could have been.
While Ukraine, Sweden, Russia, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and Croatia did not make it into the quarterfinal stage, they had players that performed well on the pitch. They are now part of a group of disappointed all-stars.
Here is a look at the best-XI players who were sent home before the quarterfinals.
The 36-year-old keeper might be past his prime, but that didn’t stop him from making save after save after save. While his team didn’t perform as well as they would have liked in Euro 2012, Given did what he could to make sure Ireland had a chance in every game.
The Aston Villa goalkeeper made some incredible reflex saves throughout the tournament, and his save on David Silva from point-blank range might be considered as the best save of the tournament. Ireland doesn’t have much about their performance in Poland-Ukraine to take home, but they can say that they still have one of the best keepers in the world.
While Corluka has struggled to find a consistent place in the Tottenham starting lineup the last four years, the 26-year-old defender was a lock for the Croatian back four.
Corluka has the size, strength and talent to be a world-class defender, and during Euro 2012 he did not disappoint. Anchoring a strong and experienced back four for “the Blazers” during their three group games, Corluka emerged as one of the top young defenders of the tournament.
After a disappointing finish to the tournament, the Netherlands didn’t have much to smile about. The offense struggled to find space and create chances, and the defense looked lost at times, allowing the second most goals by any team in the Group stage with five.
Only a few players impressed for the Dutch side, and outside back Gregory Van Der Wiel was one of them. Coveted by many top European club teams including Chelsea, the 24-year-old showed why he is an up-and-coming talent in the football world. Van Der Wiel was rarely out of position on the defensive end and was a constant threat for the Dutch pressing forward.
What can the 27-year-old Danish captain not do on the defensive end of the field?
Agger had yet another strong outing for the Danes in Euro 2012, and again established himself as one of the top center backs in the world. The Liverpool man held the Danish defense tight and was the star performer of the back four.
Although Denmark is obviously upset that they didn’t live up to expectations in the group stage, they can feel confident moving forward knowing that their captain is still at the top of his game.
The 29-year-old outside back is one of the most experienced defenders the Russian national team ever had, having appeared in more than 70 games for his country.
Anyukov looked the most experienced in the back for the Russians throughout the tournament, even when the opposing attack was threatening. Anyukov patrols the outside wings with force and doesn’t shy away from a chance to move up the pitch and help out on the offensive end.
The Zenit St. Petersburg defender is an experienced star for his club, and he has experienced that same success for his national team.
Although he may have the hardest name to pronounce in the field, Blaszczykowski, or Kuba, as he is nicknamed, was one of the brightest young stars at the tournament.
The 26-year-old Polish captain played well down the right flank all tournament long, and might have even scored the highlight goal of the group stage. Coming in from his right wing spot against Russia, Kuba beat several defenders and curled a cracking strike past goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev to tie the game. The goal sent ripples through the crowd and gave the host nation something to believe in.
Even though the Poles ended up last in their group, their core of young players is something to watch out for in the future. And that future starts with Blaszczykowski.
With the attacking talent that would make many defenses shudder, it seemed like the Netherlands was poised for a big offensive showing. But in the “Group of Death,” that offense never got going.
The brightest player on the field for the Netherlands could have been Sneijder, the 28-year-old Inter Milan playmaker. While Sneijder failed in finding the back of the net for the Dutch in three group games, he didn’t fail in creating chances. Sneijder was the most active in the Netherlands loss to Denmark and created chances by playing through balls and crossing when he had the opportunity.
Sneijder will be disappointed in the Dutch performance, but should look back on the tournament with confidence, as he was clearly the best player on the offensive end for the Netherlands.
It is no secret that Russia expected more from their performance at the EURO 2012 Championships. They seemed to have command of the group after their 4-1 thrashing of the Czechs, but lost their momentum against Poland (1-1) and Greece (0-1). While the offense sputtered in the final three halves of each game, one of their bright young pieces didn’t.
Alan Dzagoev proved to be the “next big thing” in Russia after scoring three goals in three group matches. The 22-year-old CSKA Moscow prodigy had only 20 caps for Russia before the tournament, but he came away as one of the best players on the field for the Russians in all three games.
Dzagoev’s knack for a big goal cannot go unnoticed, as he figures to be a valuable part of the Russian team moving forward.
The surprise player of the tournament came in the form of Michael Krohn-Delhi of Denmark. The 29-year-old was under the radar coming in, but after three games should be looked at by some of the more prominent clubs in Europe.
The Brondby star scored two goals for the Danes in Euro 2012, and scored the goal against the Netherlands that will go down in Danish football legend as it beat one of the top-ranked teams in the world. Krohn-Delhi hasn’t played more than 30 games for the Danes in his four-year international career, but came away from Euro 2012 as one of the best attacking threats Denmark has.
What else can be said about the 29-year-old Swedish captain?
He is a nightmare for defenses, has a knack for the goal, has the height and ability to win every head ball and has the touch to put the ball wherever he chooses. Ibrahimovic was considered an emerging star when he played for Ajax from 2001-2004, and he has lived up to every expectation.
His goal-scoring record on the club and international levels has been brilliant, and the scary thing is he is not done yet. Ibrahimovic added two goals to his tally during the EURO Tournament and, again, established himself as one of the best strikers in the world.
Mandzukic was another player coming in to Euro 2012 with not a lot of press or expectations.
Mandzukic has put together a nice scoring record for his last two clubs, Dinamo Zagreb and VfL Wolfsburg, and looked poised to start scoring for his national team. In 32 appearances for the national team before the start of Euro 2012, the 6’1” striker scored only eight goals. In his three appearances for Croatia at the Euro Championships, Mandzukic scored three goals.
Croatia has looked for a long-term replacement to take over since leading scorer Davor Suker retired from international duties in 2002, and they might have found their man in Mandzukic.