Knockout rounds promise more after lacklustre start
Our writer looks at the highs, lows and tantrum of the tournament
CALLING ALL STARS
Cristiano Ronaldo flourished in the final game, but his tedious histrionics, which included throwing a reporter's voice recorder into a lake, made sympathy hard to come by.
Frankly, it's hard to care about the unrepentant superstar anymore, his grubby behaviour reflective of a tournament that has seldom dazzled.
Euro 2016's discernible lack of star power threatens to drain the event of its impetus.
The collective work ethic and canny coaching decisions define the tournament, but kids rarely dash into the playground to emulate Antonio Conte's defensive strategy or replicate a team ethic.
They dream of stars. But Ronaldo sulked and skulked before his final-game recovery.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic made headlines only for announcing his retirement.
Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Mueller have yet to score.
Paul Pogba, Mesut Oezil, Toni Kroos, Harry Kane, Andres Iniesta and Eden Hazard occasionally flickered, before returning to the periphery.
The overriding mood is one of artistic anti-climax. Thankfully, the underdogs are having their day.
TOO LONG, TOO CONFUSING
As a playmaker, Michel Platini gave Europe one of its greatest tournaments, steering France to victory in 1984.
As a corrupt administrator, he delivered a bloated, ponderous event that waited almost two weeks before waking from its slumber.
The expanded 24-team version realised sceptical fears, with its long and practically bloodless format.
The best part of a fortnight was needed to eliminate eight teams, while most commentators and pundits admitted the third-placed farce was an exercise in pointlessness.
The Round-of-16 fixtures were finally revealed on Thursday to a collective sigh of indifference. And this might be as good as the Euros gets.
Before he was banned for six years for corruption, the ex-Uefa president announced his brainchild for Euro 2020, another protracted tournament, but played in 13 countries instead of one.
Euro 2016 only underlines the egotistical arrogance of Platini's legacy.
There were two positives from Platini's "bigger is not better" philosophy.
Watching TV presenters tie themselves up in knots, painfully trying to work out the various third-placed permutations was a guilty pleasure.
But, more importantly, the mathematical daftness ensured most nations went into the final group game with a fair chance of finishing first, second, third or even fourth.
As a result, Group F delivered the game of the tournament on Thursday morning (Singapore time), when Portugal came back more times than Elvis to draw 3-3 with Hungary.
The group's complexion continually changed, as it did in Group E, where the Irish pulled off their miracle against Italy.
Uefa apologists will pluck out these riveting contests as justification for the revised format. But the Irish won largely because Antonio Conte dropped many of his regulars.
With the third-placed spots making it much easier to qualify, France, Italy, Germany and even the hapless England knew they were as good as through and managed only one goal among them in the final game.
For the heavyweights (and England), the tournament begins now.
LESSER LIGHTS SHINE
Dimtri Payet makes a mockery of the tired argument about tiredness.
West Ham depended on the late bloomer almost exclusively throughout a heady club campaign and yet, his exuberance and relentless industry have captivated. Intriguingly, his most telling contributions came in the latter stages of contests.
The nifty automaton never stopped running.
Aaron Ramsey and Eric Dier were hardly unknowns before Euro 2016, but they certainly didn't top the billing.
They do now.
Their consistency and enterprise guided their countries through tricky campaigns.
Ivan Perisic frolicked along Croatia's right flank.
Hungary's Balazs Dzsudzsak refuses to acknowledge that he's a journeyman forward at Bursaspor approaching his 30th birthday and Iceland's unstoppable Jon Dadi Bodvarsson is fast becoming a cult hero in France.
COACHES COME TO THE FORE
Euro 2016 has represented the tournament of the coach.
With too many teams still in transition and illustrious names yet to align their performances with their undoubted pedigree, it's been a time for the tinkerers. Antonio Conte's masterful defensive plan belonged on a Game of Thrones battlefield.
Against Belgium, his horseshoe-shaped back three, with able support from Daniele De Rossi, repelled the Belgians' superior firepower and set the tone for the tournament.
Invention resides in the dugout. Didier Deschamps might have cut a despondent figure as key players Pogba and Antoine Griezmann left their form in their club dressing rooms.
But Deschamps improvised, more than once, to squeeze out six points from the first two games.
Chris Coleman, Martin O'Neill and Michael O'Neill all made a little go a long way, while Croatia's Ante Cacic's fast, pressing game proved that the Spaniards could be contained.
To see what a perilous exercise tinkering can be, look again at Roy Hodgson's radical changes against Slovakia, which cost England a chance to top the group.
THE BRITISH AND IRISH ARE COMING!
For the first time, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have qualified for the knockout stages of a major tournament.
The British and the Irish make up a quarter of all remaining teams.
Objectively, the presence of Wales and both halves of Ireland has served as a welcome tonic to the toxic atmosphere in town centres in the early stages of the tournament.
England's behaviour has improved, but the insufferable belligerence from an idiotic minority lingers in France.
Everyone else has come for a party and what a party it has been.
In the final group games, Gareth Bale's "England lack passion" jibe was vindicated, with the other nations facing down Russia, Germany and Italy and doing enough to go through, with only one goal conceded.
England were leaderless and lost against Slovakia and now face a hiding to nothing against the Icelandic romantics.
Elsewhere, heroes abound. Robbie Brady is the toast of the Republic of Ireland.
The great wall of Northern Ireland, Michael McGovern, finds himself revered back home and Bale has elevated his status to Welsh comic-book fantasy, a bonafide fire-breathing Dragon.
Over at England, Wayne Rooney sulked after not being selected. The contrasting moods are palpable.
All four countries are through, but only three have captured their nations' imaginations. The Welsh and Irish teams have got momentum. England have got Roy Hodgson.
THUGS FADE FROM VIEW
The violence in France continues.
Sporadic punch-ups and silly drunken scraps are still being reported near stadium venues, but the hooliganism is spontaneous, scruffy and thankfully short. Euro 2016 is grateful for small mercies.
In the first week, Russian and Croatian "ultras" were organised, drilled and intent on carnage, targeting specific "enemies". (The English in the case of Russia, the Croatian administrators in the case of the rebelling natives).
Fortunately, Russia are out and won't be missed and the English sing where they're winning, rather than swing punches.
Meanwhile, Croatia's unexpected resurgence has soothed fraying nerves. In this instance, the cliche concerning the healing powers of sport holds.
Perisic, Ivan Rakitic and Nikola Kalinic can achieve so much more with a ball than French police can with tear gas.
The numbers game
As Euro 2016 enters the knockout stages today, PA Sport looks at some of the key statistics from the tournament so far.
Best pass completion rate:
Spain - 93 per cent.
Goals scored in 36 group games:
Most attempts on goal:
69 - by Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo was responsible for 32.
Highest possession percentage:
65 per cent - by Germany (average over three games).
France's Kingsley Coman, who clocked 33kmh, according to Uefa.
Most productive period:
Between the 46th and 60th minutes of a game, where 15 goals, or 21.7 per cent of the tally so far, were scored.
Wales' Gareth Bale and Spain's Alvaro Morata, who have three goals each.
Most shots without a goal:
12 - by Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Average goals per game: 1.92, compared to 2.67 at the 2014 World Cup and 2.45 at Euro 2012.
Teams who have yet to concede a goal:
Germany and Poland.