PARIS (AFP): At the end of the European Championship group phase, here are five players who shone in the first round:
Gareth Bale (Wales)
Bale arrived in France fresh from winning a second Champions League title with Real Madrid and the 26-year-old forward has lived up to his pre-tournament billing as one of the potential stars of Euro 2016. He inspired Wales to a 2-1 victory over Slovakia in their opening game with a stunning 25-yard free-kick and repeated the feat, albeit from 10 yards further out, in the narrow loss to England. He struck again against Russia in Toulouse on Monday, sealing a 3-0 win that sent Chris Coleman’s men into the last 16. With three goals, he is the competition’s joint-top scorer alongside Spain’s Alvaro Morata. “Every time he steps onto the pitch in a Wales shirt, he does the business,” says team-mate Joe Allen.
Dimitri Payet (France)
Following a superlative debut season with West Ham United, Payet sparked the tournament into life with a magnificent left-foot winner against Romania in the 89th minute of France’s opening game. He had earlier set up the opening goal for Olivier Giroud and when he was substituted to a standing ovation in stoppage time, he left the pitch wiping away tears. “If someone had told me it would have gone like that, I don’t think I would have believed them,” Payet said. He claimed another late goal in France’s 2-0 win over Albania, while a lively cameo in the 0-0 draw against Switzerland emphasised why the left-wing berth is now his own.
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
Appearing at his sixth major tournament, but his first without long-time club and international team-mate Xavi, Barcelona great Iniesta has demonstrated that even at the age of 32, he remains one of the game’s foremost midfielders. He may have disappointed in Spain’s 2-1 defeat by Croatia, but he was sublime in their first two matches as the defending champions edged the Czech Republic 1-0 and crushed Turkey 3-0. His stand-out moment came against Turkey when he was involved six times in a sweeping move before spearing a pass through the Turkish defence to Jordi Alba, who crossed for Alvaro Morara to knock in the third goal.
Jerome Boateng (Germany)
The Bayern Munich centre-back has been an absolute rock in Germany’s uncertain first round. He was man of the match in the world champions’ hard-fought goalless draw against Poland. Hailed for the way he marshalled the back, Boateng has also become a leader in the team, not hesitating to criticise the attackers for failing to do their duty warning Germany “won’t go far” if they do not improve. Many are now talking about him as a future captain but a calf injury suffered in the win over Northern Ireland could hold him back in the last 16 game against Slovakia on Sunday.
Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland)
If Northern Ireland overcome the odds against Gareth Bale and Wales on Saturday, Michael McGovern will almost certainly play a role. The 31-year-old goalkeeper, battled hardened by a relegation battle with Hamilton Academical in the Scottish Premier League, hurled himself everywhere to limit Germany to a one goal victory in Group C and is certainly one of the heroes of the tournament. “The players gave him a round of applause when he came in the dressing room. When that happens, you don’t really need the manager to say any more to be honest,” said manager Michael O’Neill. McGovern’s contract with Hamilton ends next week, he should not have a problem finding a club for the new season.
© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse