Football Features

Weirdest Euros group ever? Belgium limp out of Group E to set up France clash

By Harry Edwards

Published: 19:15, 26 June 2024

Going into the final round of fixtures, Euro 2024’s Group E was as open as it could be.

All four teams were level on three points, meaning anyone could qualify in any of the three available spots, or finish bottom.

Romania entered top on goals scored, with Belgium second. Slovakia were third on goal difference, with Ukraine propping up the group.

So, what went down?

Belgium’s attack needs work

It feels as though this could be said about a lot of bigger nations at Euro 2024, and it has been. But if Belgium are to harbour hopes of winning the tournament, their attack needs to turn up.

Although they are no longer the Golden Generation, Belgium still have a lot of star names in their squad, not least Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker was among those tipped to fight it out for the Euro 2024 Golden Boot, particularly with a group that looked favourable on paper.

But Lukaku ended the group stage without a goal, despite having 10 shots and seven on target. Against Ukraine alone, Lukaku hit the target with both of his shots, but both were really poor, lacking power and were easily saved.

It’s a problem that has been shared among the Belgium squad too. They’ve had 47 shots in target with 18 on target, but they’ve scored just two goals from an xG of 4.35. To make it worse, both of those goals came against Ukraine. So, Belgium failed to score in two of their three group stage matches.

They’ll need to up their attack, now facing a tough France defence in the last 16.

Romania benefit from another penalty

Romania finished top of Group E on goals scored, netting four throughout the Euro 2024 group stage. Three of those came against Ukraine including two wonder strikes as they were having their own Goal of the Tournament competition in their opening game.

The fourth goal came via the penalty spot in their final game against Slovakia, which helped them come from behind to secure a draw. After Ianis Hagi was fouled by David Hancko, Razvan Marin rifled his penalty home. Four of Romania’s last eight goals at European Championships have come from the spot.

Since Euro 2016, no team has scored more penalties than Romania’s three, which is impressive when you consider they have only played six matches in that time.

Slovakia do just enough

Slovakia provided one of the early shocks of Euro 2024 when they beat Belgium in their opening game. And that would ultimately prove the difference for them.

Losing their next game against Ukraine, Slovakia kept the defeat to just one goal, keep them in control. It meant that a 1-1 draw against Romania was enough to finish third, above Ukraine on goal difference.

But that isn’t to say Slovakia didn’t go for the win against Romania. In the first half alone, Slovakia had nine shots, their most in the first half of any of their 14 matches at major tournaments. Two hit the target, including Ondrej Duda’s opener, and that would be enough for them.

Even when Romania pegged them back from the penalty spot, Slovakia continued to attack, not resting on their laurels. But the second half did only bring four more shots for Slovakia (two on target) with the Falcons ending the game with an xG of 0.96.

Poor start proves costly for unlucky Ukraine

Groups at international tournaments can be cruel. Ukraine finish bottom of Group E, and are eliminated from Euro 2024 despite winning four points. Hungary, meanwhile, scraped into the last 16 from Group A with three points.

For Ukraine, the damage was done in their opening game, a disastrous start to the tournament. Although Group E was fairly level in terms of quality, many expected Ukraine to have too much for Romania, predicting a narrow win.

However, Romania blew Ukraine away with a 3-0 victory, giving Serhiy Rebrov’s side a goal difference deficit they just couldn’t overcome.

Like Belgium, Ukraine failed to score in two of their three games, but it was their defence that let them down more. It meant that Ukraine made unwanted history at Euro 2024, becoming the first team to fail to qualify having won four points since the tournament expanded to 24 teams.

How the group was decided

In quite bizarre, and rare, fashion, all four teams in Group E finished level on points. Romania, Belgium, Slovakia and Ukraine all won four points from their three games, with one win, one draw and one defeat.

Usually when two teams are level on points, the head-to-head record comes into play, but it’s not possible to do that when all four teams are on equal footing. So, how was the group decided?

In a hark back to more normal tiebreakers, it was as simple as goal difference and goals scored. Romania and Belgium were level on goal difference, so the former went through having scored four goals to the Red Devils’ two.

Slovakia snuck in at third with a goal difference of zero, while Ukraine missed out due to their -2 differential.

Responding to Gary Lineker’s suggestion that Group E may have exposed flaws in the groups qualification system, Alan Shearer said: “I think the vast majority of the third games have been really poor.”