Italy cruised through the group stages with wins over Wales, Switzerland and Turkey, taking more shots per game than anyone else and not conceding a single goal in the process. Only Spain have had more possession than the Italians, and only Spain and Denmark have had the ball in the opponent’s final third more often.
Roberto Mancini’s side are now unbeaten since 2018 and are on a run of 11 wins in a row (without conceding a single goal). Many who wrote them off before the tournament started are hastily rewriting their predictions.
Belgium and the Netherlands also have 100% records in the group stage. The Netherlands are currently the tournament’s top scorers with eight goals, and Belgium have three wins despite starting the tournament without star player Kevin de Bruyne, who was named Man of the Match against Finland.
But history suggests that perfect records in the groups count for little when it comes to winning the tournament.
At Euro 2016, Portugal scraped through the groups, finishing third with three draws and no wins, before going on to win the tournament. And their struggles at the start are more of the norm than the exception.
In the entire history of the European Championships, only Spain in 2008 and France in 1984 have picked up maximum points in the group stage and then gone on to win the tournament.
In 2016, no team managed to pick up 9 points in the group stages, which is ironic as the enlarged 24-team tournament is supposed to make the group stages less competitive. In the era of three points for a win, Euro 96 was the only other tournament that produced no teams who got nine points in the groups. In other years, Germany crashed out in the semi-finals in 2012, as did the Czech Republic in 2004. Croatia and the Netherlands didn’t even make it that far in 2008. The Netherlands and Portugal reached the semi-finals, and Italy the final in 2000, but France ended up lifting the trophy despite losing to the Netherlands in the group stages.
Euro 2004 winners Greece managed to get through the group stage with just four points and a goal difference of zero, finishing second in the group above Spain on goals scored.
When it comes to the World Cup, it is a similar story with only Brazil in 2002 and 1970, and France in 1998 managing to get maximum points in the group stage and go on to lift the World Cup.
This could be because it’s easier to get maximum points in some groups than it is in others. No team at Euro 2020 is a walkover. After all, North Macedonia beat Germany and Turkey beat the Netherlands in the March 2021 international break. But at the same time, every team in Group F would certainly prefer the groups that Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands had.
The knockout stages provide an entirely different challenge, one where not losing is just as important as winning. The aim of the game is to stay in the tournament, and if you can do that through goalless draws and penalties, then that is better than winning 3-0 in one match then losing 1-0 in the next.
Facing tough opponents in the group stage could in some aspects be better preparation for the knockout stages than having an easy group. In three of the past six tournaments, the winners have been in the same group as one of the semi-finalists, so facing tough opponents in the group stage doesn’t appear to be a disadvantage once a team gets through the group.
More than getting nine points in the group stages, the three sides with perfect records at Euro 2020 are more likely to benefit from a slightly easier route on paper to the semi-finals, meaning they have a lower chance of getting knocked out.
Portugal benefited in 2016 from a favorable draw in the knockouts, meaning Croatia were probably the toughest opponent they faced in the entire tournament up until the final with France. The Netherlands could get a tough round-of-16 tie but will favor themselves over Wales or Denmark in the quarterfinals, whereas Italy will probably be quite happy with Austria in their opening knockout game.
Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands are all among the tournament favorites, but they would still be among the favorites had they got six or seven points in the group, and while they’ve been impressive so far, there are much bigger tests to come. After all, once the group stages are over, 16 of the 24 teams that started are still in the tournament.