"One of the big lessons the players learn at these tournaments," said Germany coach Marcus Sorg, "is that if you make mistakes, you lose."
At an event marked by equality, lapses at either end of the pitch carried a heavy price tag. After the opening match, Greece coach Giannis Goumas admitted that his side had been "very, very lucky" during a first half in which Ukraine had squandered a series of chances while the hosts had exploited their only real opportunity. Switching to a counterattacking style with five at the back after the interval allowed Greece not only to preserve their advantage but also to double it and earn three points.
Defensive efficiency was also the foundation stone of their game plan against Austria, during which Hermann Stadler's team carved out openings but failed to find the net. Their opening match against France had been a similar story, with Patrick Gonfalone's team starting strongly and hinting at a high score with some fluent, skilful, high-tempo middle-to-front play, only for their fuel to steadily evaporate in the sultry heat of Katerini.
Failure to add to the first-half opener from midfielder Alexis Blin seemed to take on lesser relevance when Austria right-back Petar Gluhaković was dismissed in the 77th minute yet, with ten men, they rallied for a strong finish against the flagging French and came within an ace of equalising.
France's second match produced an equally deceptive scoreline. Ukraine, inspired by Viktor Kovalenko, again produced fluent combinations and dangerous counters and, when Olexandr Zubkov made it 1-1 early in the second half, the game seemed to have tilted in their favour. But failure to exploit chances proved costly when a solo run by substitute Moussa Dembele and an added-time own goal clinched a 3-1 win for a below-par France.
Six points afforded more satisfaction to Gonfalone than his team's performances. With a semi-final place in the bag, rest and recovery considerations influenced team selection for the final fixture against Greece. An early headed goal from a free-kick, reminiscent of the set play that had earned three points against Austria, undermined the defend-and-counter strategy adopted by the hosts, who finished the first half without an on-target goal attempt.
A Dembele goal sealed a 2-0 France win which threw a lifeline to the Austrians who, in Veria, struggled against Ukraine's passing game (even though Kovalenko had headed in) and, thanks to woodwork and heroic blocking, not only achieved damage-limitation but enabled them to come back to 2-2 and set up a stirring finish. Had Austria managed to score in the closing minutes when their goalkeeper added to confusion in the Ukraine box, they would have progressed. But narrow misses led to a frustrating exit alongside their opponents, while the hosts' four points secured second place behind France.
There was even greater drama in the other group, where merits were equally reluctant to appear on scoreboards and where the ratio of surprises was… surprising. Sorg's comment about the high price of mistakes was inspired by lapses which enabled Spain to start in style with a 3-0 win over Germany, the goals stemming from a smart move on the right, a penalty and an added-time counterattack. In the other match, a set play – a free-kick and header, to be precise – earned a 1-0 victory for Aron Winter's Netherlands over Russia, which hinted that the possession-based teams would come out on top.
That theory, however, was comprehensively refuted on a second matchday when a 1-0 advantage for Spain over Russia seemed to be in tune with expectations. But Russia, counterattacking with pace and purpose, hit a spectacular equaliser followed by two goals after the break – and stout resistance when reduced to ten with 20 minutes to play.
A 3-1 defeat represented a psychological trauma for Luis de la Fuente's team and an injection of morale for Dmitri Khomukha's squad. On the same evening, Germany practically doubled the Dutch team's tally of goal attempts but their hard-running power game went unrewarded until two minutes from time, when a cut-back from the left broke the stalemate. It meant that the four teams kicked off their final fixtures level on three points.
Ninety minutes of nail-biting ultimately did little to alter the status quo. An own goal put Spain 1-0 ahead, only for the Dutch to equalise from the penalty spot. A corner and a near-post header put Germany 1-0 up – only for Russia to restore parity thanks to an own goal and take the lead on the stroke of the interval.
Sorg adjusted the Germany structure at the break, switching from one screening midfielder to two, thus stemming the flow of Russian counters. Timo Werner struck an equaliser but sustained final onslaughts by Germans and Dutch remained unrewarded and both teams were eliminated by goal difference in a group where, unusually, all the teams finished level on four points.
Russia's five goals earned them top spot and a semi-final against the hosts in Larissa while runners-up Spain faced France in Katerini. Greece's defend-and-break strategy gave them a slight edge during a first half when they focused on countering via the flanks – two crosses earning them the best chances of the half.
But, five minutes after the break, a defensive lapse allowed Russia centre-back Nikita Chernov to head in a corner and open the floodgates. Another positional error within two minutes represented a psychological blow and the trauma was compounded by a penalty and, four minutes later, a red card. A 4-0 scoreline was sealed by another set-play goal – Chernov nodding in a free-kick.
The other semi-final in Katerini was an ebb-and-flow encounter between two technically gifted sides, with French pace and counterattacking pitted against Spain's assured possession play and ability to twist and turn out of tight situations. In an absorbing contest, however, goalkeepers were rarely tested. France, after a strong finish to the first half, might have been expected to make their growing fitness levels pay as the game drew to a close. But the reverse was the case.
France keeper Florian Escales was obliged to shine by Marco Asensio in the 85th minute but was beaten by him three minutes later when the Spain attacker profited from a lapse by centre-back Mouctar Diakhaby to run through and place a left-footed finish across Escales and into the far corner. With France launching a final onslaught in search of a reply, Asensio ran clear again in the fifth minute of added time to double the score and make the final a second meeting between Spain and Russia in the space of nine days.