Portugal's dominant rearguard highlights Euro 2016's best XI
With Euro 2016 in the books after Portugal's 1-0 win over France in Sunday's final, we asked Michael Cox to create the best XI of the European Championship.
Rui Patricio | Goalkeeper | Portugal
Both Rui Patricio and Hugo Lloris performed extremely well in this competition, but while the Frenchman was caught out for Eder's tournament-winning strike, Patricio turned in another fine performance in the final. He made a series of fine stops from Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, in keeping with his performances throughout the tournament. Patricio was also notably effective at commanding his area when Portugal faced crosses, something his predecessors in the Portugal goal have often struggled with.
Darijo Srna | Right-back | Croatia
Srna is one of the most underrated players of his generation, largely due to playing in an unfashionable position outside the major leagues, having spent the majority of his career with Shakhtar Donetsk. But he is outstanding in every major tournament, mixing tremendous energy with great technical quality, almost an extra playmaker in a side hardly lacking in passing quality. His deliveries from advanced positions are excellent, and he quickly recovers his defensive position, where he's a tough tackler without being at all reckless. Even as Croatia lost to Portugal 1-0 in the round of 16, Srna was the game's standout performer.
Pepe | Centre-back | Portugal
Winning the European Cup and the European Championship in the same year is an extremely rare feat, and while few were happy when Pepe won the former with Real Madrid after his ludicrous playacting in the Champions League final, few could begrudge him the man-of-the-match award in Sunday's 1-0 victory over France. Pepe, 33, is playing the best football of his career, supplementing his obvious physical attributes with a cooler, calmer approach to defending. He made the most interceptions in this tournament, was dominant in the air, and was the major reason for Portugal's fine defensive record.
Leonardo Bonucci | Centre-back | Italy
In the absence of Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti, Bonucci became Italy's deep-lying playmaker from the centre of defence. His brilliant long diagonal ball to Emanuele Giaccherini helped Italy start the tournament on a positive note against Belgium, and Bonucci was arguably the Italy player opponents needed to pay closest attention to; he also demonstrated his creativity in the quarterfinal against Germany. Defensively, he remains excellent, not as physical or as rugged as Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, but equally as good in a positional sense.
Raphael Guerreiro | Left-back | Portugal
Few triumphant Portuguese players will have enjoyed Sunday's victory quite as much as Guerreiro. The left-back was born and raised less than 10 kilometres from the Stade de France, and he has spent his entire career in French football. Guerreiro started this tournament as a relative unknown, even among some Portuguese fans, and cemented his position in the side over Eliseu only in the latter stages. Guerreiro produced some excellent all-around full-back displays, however: defensively solid, intelligent with the timing of his runs, and capable of swinging dangerous left-footed deliveries into the box. Borussia Dortmund have already pounced, securing his services for €12 million.
Grzegorz Krychowiak | Midfielder | Poland
Hugely unfortunate to be eliminated in penalty kicks at the quarterfinal stage to the eventual winners, Poland conceded only two goals in France: arguably the best of the competition, Xherdan Shaqiri's incredible bicycle kick for Switzerland, and then an unluckily deflected shot by Portugal's Renato Sanches. Krychowiak was brilliant at shielding the somewhat immobile centre-back pairing behind him, especially as midfield partner Krzysztof Maczynski pushed forward into more advanced positions. Krychowiak is brilliant positionally and a powerful tackler. He makes excellent long-range passes, too. He performed excellently in all five games.
Toni Kroos | Midfielder | Germany
The competition's outstanding midfielder by a distance. At times Kroos was operating on a completely different level compared to other players in this competition, dictating play and orchestrating the game from deep in a manner only Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez have achieved in recent editions of this tournament. The German always makes the correct decision, feeding attackers in a way that allows them to take the ball in their stride, and he is always on the move to make himself available for a pass. His dead-ball deliveries were also impressive, and if Germany had boasted a prolific striker up front who could finish chances, Kroos might have been named player of the tournament.
Aaron Ramsey | Midfielder | Wales
Ramsey's box-to-box role was crucial to Wales' fine performances at this competition; at times he appeared to be playing as a defensive midfielder and an advanced playmaker simultaneously, such were his incredible energy levels. He helped overload the opposition in deep positions to build play, before racing forward to join Gareth Bale between the lines. Ramsey's clever passes from the right channel were always dangerous, and he was useful for his pressing, too. The extent of his brilliance became fully clear once Wales were without him (due to yellow card accumulation) for the semifinal versus Portugal.
Antoine Griezmann | Forward | France
The Atletico Madrid forward may sadly be remembered for a couple of missed shots in the final, but Griezmann's brilliance is a large reason France were there in the first place. Although he started the tournament on the right flank, he thrived in a central role just behind Giroud, impressing with his control in deep positions and racing forward to help himself to six goals -- twice as many as any other player. His performance in the second-half turnaround against Ireland showed his importance to this France side, and it's a shame such a wonderful, exciting player has lost in two major European finals in the space of two months (the first to Real Madrid in the Champions League title game).
Gareth Bale | Forward | Wales
Bale wasn't constantly involved in Wales' first four matches and sometimes seemed somewhat peripheral, yet he always produced the crucial moments. His free-kick openers against Slovakia and England were both exceptional in a tournament lacking quality from these scenarios, while he scored from open play against Russia and his cross caused an own goal to help Wales overcome Northern Ireland in the round of 16. His display against Belgium was the opposite: He didn't score or assist, but his brilliant movement and counterattacking threat forced Belgium back and allowed Wales to dominate. He played a deeper role against Portugal in an attempt to get passing moves started in the absence of Ramsey, which didn't quite work, but this was still an outstanding tournament for Bale.
Graziano Pelle | Forward | Italy
In a tournament short on star performances from No. 9s, Pelle stood out for doing the simple, unfashionable things consistently well. His ability to control long passes from defence and link with strike partner Eder were particularly crucial, allowing Italy to play quick, direct football from back to front. Pelle smashed in two late goals against Belgium and Spain to convert 1-0s into 2-0s, and his work rate to nullify Sergio Busquets in the latter game was the crucial tactical feature of the tournament's best team performance.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.