Euro 2020: Ranking the 5 greatest group stage matches from Euros past

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Greatest group stage matches at the Euros

International football is sporadic. Breaks – for friendlies, qualifiers, and more recently the Nations League – are peppered throughout the domestic season in two and three-game bursts.

That means we're limited to fleeting, often deceptive glimpses of national teams before the gears of domestic football clunk back into action. As such, the group stages of a major tournament are the first time most of us get to see what a side is really about.

The European Championship, or the European Nations Cup as it was then known, began in 1960. For the first five iterations, the tournament followed a knockout-only format before doubling in size from four to eight teams in 1980.

That championship saw the first Euros group stage match as West Germany beat Czechoslovakia 2-1 at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Euro 2020 begins at the same venue as Italy take on Turkey.

In total, 203 group stage matches have taken place between the two fixtures. So before you unbuckle your belts for the footballing feast set for the next four weeks, here are five of the best.

5. England 4-1 Netherlands, Euro 1996

England vs Netherlands Euro 1996

Between 1972 and 1988, England qualified for just three of eight major tournaments. Then came Italia 90 and an epoch-making campaign to the semi-finals that restored the nation's footballing pride.

But zero wins from three matches at Euro ‘92 and failure to qualify for the ‘94 World Cup in the United States had warped and twisted England's perception of themselves as a footballing juggernaut.

But this was a tournament on home soil, England's first since 1966. Wembley's terraces groaned once again with the weight of expectation, and the Three Lions – for once – did not disappoint.

In their third group stage game, England put four past the Dutch. It was a swaggering performance but not a dominant one, not in terms of having the majority of the play, at least.

Instead, England sliced into the Netherlands on the counter, snapping shut when they lost the ball. Shearer got two and so did Sheringham before Patrick Kluivert pulled one back in the closing throes.

4. Turkey 3-2 Czech Republic, Euro 2008

Turkey vs Czech Republic Euro 2008

Few things in football are as evocative as a comeback completed with two late goals. Even fewer things are as evocative as a comeback completed with two late goals with a red card and an outfielder finishing the match in net for the winning team.

Turkey's meeting with the Czech Republic at Euro 2008 was effectively a knockout game. The two sides went into the clash with identical records. Had it finished as a draw, this would have been the only European Championship group stage game to go to penalties.

Jan Koller's header gave the Czech Republic the lead in the first half. In the second, Jaroslav Plasil's far-post finish meant they had the knockout rounds in the crosshairs.

But they were unable to pull the trigger. Arda Turan pulled one back before Petr Cech fumbled a Turkey cross for Nihat Kahved to pounce and level the scores.

Nihat's sublime bending finish in the 89th minute was about as top-corner as you can get. It won the match for Turkey but not before goalkeeper Volkan Demirel was sent off for a shove in the dying seconds, leaving centre-forward Tuncay to see out the match between the sticks.

3. Portugal 1-2 Greece, Euro 2004

Portugal vs Greece Euro 2004

Portugal were the overwhelming favourites in this Euro 2004 curtain-raiser.

They had the unthinking brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, who at this point in his career played football like a YouTube skills compilation made flesh. They had the elan and experience of Luis Figo and Rui Costa. They had the home advantage. They had to win, didn't they?

While neither Portugal nor Greece were pushing the frontiers of football in 2004, this game makes the list because of what if foreshadowed: the single greatest upset in European Championship history.

Portugal peppered the Greek goal and didn't so much lay siege as they did occupy their opponent's half. But Otto Rehhagel's side were content to absorb the pressure and strike on the counter. It was a strategy that bore fruit as Giorgos Karagounis, who would amass 139 caps in his international career, gave Greece the lead with a 20-yard drive after just seven minutes.

Angelos Basinas doubled their advantage from the spot shortly after half-time after Ronaldo awkwardly felled Giourkas Seitaridis in the box.

Ronaldo pulled one back in stoppage time with his first international goal, but the match ended 2-1. It was the eventual champions' first-ever victory at a major tournament.

2. Yugoslavia 3-4 Spain, Euro 2000

Yugoslavia vs Spain Euro 2000

After one win and one loss in their first two matches at the tournament, Spain knew that only a victory in their final group stage match against Yugoslavia would see them through to the knockouts of Euro 2000.

This high-octane thriller lurched violently in one direction then another before Spain somehow secured passage to the quarter-finals with two preposterously late goals.

Spain took the lead; Yugoslavia pegged them back. Yugoslavia took the lead; Spain pegged them back. Yugoslavia took the lead again; Spain had to wait until the 94th minute to find an equaliser.

Yet Gaizka Mendieta's late penalty was still not enough to see them through to the knockouts.
Luckily for Spain, one of football's immutable truths seems to be that there is always one more chance. That chance was swept home by the left boot of Alfonso Perez in a moment of ultra-late drama that would make Sergio Aguero blush.

The footballing gods were smiling on Spain that day.

1. Hungary 3-3 Portugal, Euro 2016

Hungary vs Portugal Euro 2016

Portugal were not domineering champions in 2016. In fact, they won just one game in normal time over the course of the tournament.

Indeed, before Ronaldo’s touchline cheerleading and Eder’s extra-time winner in Saint-Denis, Fernando Santos’ side could only gasp and wheeze their way out of the group stages as one of the best third-placed teams.

But their path towards a first international honour was a white-knuckle ride, and this undulating thriller in Lyon was its dramatic apex.

On the final matchday in Group F, Portugal needed a result to qualify for the knockouts while Hungary were looking to top the group.

Zoltan Gera of Fulham and West Brom fame put the Magyars 1-0 up with a laser-guided half-volley after 20 minutes, leaving Portugal on the brink of oblivion.

But Ronaldo, who had not yet found the back of the net at the tournament, squeezed a sugar-coated through-ball to Nani who equalised three minutes before the interval.

After the break, an explosion of four goals in 15 minutes elevated the match to a classic. First, Balazs Dzsudzsak's deflected free-kick put Hungary back in front with the second half two minutes old.

Moments later, Ronaldo became the first player to score at four European Championship finals tournaments when his characteristically outrageous backheel flick levelled the scores.

On 55 minutes, another deflected Dzsudzsak strike wormed its way past Rui Patricio, cue a tantrum of vein-popping proportions from Ronaldo.

But Portugal’s captain wrestled the limelight back from Dzsudzsak on 62 minutes as Quaresma twisted a cross into Ronaldo’s flight path. His header was enough to see them through. The rest is history.

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