Euro 2016: Burning questions for the final group games
As the third round of Euro 2016 games commences there is still everything to play for... unless you are Ukraine. Here are five of the key themes that will dominate discussion.
Will the stars come out when it matters?
There have been flourishes from Gareth Bale, Andres Iniesta, Luka Modric and (now that he undeniably belongs on that level) Dimitri Payet. But many of the tournament's other big names have been quiet.
Cristiano Ronaldo's chastening night against Austria was the most high-profile example of a star failing to deliver. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has also been impotent so far and we have yet to hear a squeak from Thomas Muller, whose excellence in front of goal is usually a tournament staple. Eden Hazard has still to fire while Paul Pogba has mainly found himself in the headlines for a gesture made to the press box after contributing to France's breakaway second goal against Albania. David Alaba, another player expected to shine this summer, has also been disappointing for Austria.
Perhaps these players will come good when it really matters, as they all have during their careers. Perhaps a long, draining season is simply taking its toll. Or perhaps, with the demands of club football so intense, it is just much harder to get into a rhythm with your international side these days.
Are the top nations simply streets ahead?
Group F aside, there are few surprises at the top of each pile. Spain, France and Italy all have 100 percent records and have, with varying degrees of comfort, all found ways to win when it mattered so far. England and Germany sit atop their groups too and unless you count Portugal as a giant there are no real signs that the leading nations -- who tend to grow stronger as a tournament develops -- are going to miss a beat.
England are probably the most vulnerable to being knocked off their perch, with Slovakia a genuine threat in Group B, but on the whole things have gone to type. Hungary and Iceland have provided good stories but so far, we have yet to see the kind of shock that can set a competition alight. With the favourites having navigated their early fixtures by hook or by crook, you wonder whether we will at all.
Is head-to-head really the best way to settle things?
The result between any teams that finish tied in the standings, rather than an individual side's goal difference, will be the first factor that decides their positions and you cannot help but feel that a bit of dramatic tension is lost as a result. That is particularly the case when third place, in this expanded tournament, holds so much weight.
Ukraine have only themselves to blame for their limp display against Northern Ireland but they would, at least, still find themselves in the competition if goal difference was the tiebreaker; in the event, they can only catch the Northern Irish, who might be thankful for the rule given that they play Germany next. It means that a potentially classic derby between Poland and Ukraine in Marseille is only of real interest to confirm who tops the group, and seems a hindrance to a tournament that could do with wringing out all the interest it can.
Can a minnow go all the way to the latter stages?
The bigger teams may be hard to knock off their perch but there is usually room for at least one outsider to make a deep run and much will depend on what second-round games they can tee up. If surprise package Hungary can hold onto top spot in Group F they will probably face Belgium, hardly an ideal scenario. Bizarrely they may prefer to finish second, matching them with the runner-up from Group B -- probably one of Slovakia, Russia and Wales.
Northern Ireland are most likely to be sweating on the final standing of third-placed teams and would not be favoured against England or France in the next round; Iceland are in a similar position, with Spain also among their possible opponents at this stage if they finish third. The Hungarians, who are compact, confident and have more than a few points to prove, look the best bet for the quarterfinals or beyond at this stage but everything could yet turn on its head.
Will the goals keep on coming?
The tournament certainly opened up during the second phase of group games even if last-gasp interventions were still uncannily common. There were just 22 goals in the first 12 matches; it does not look particularly remarkable that the second dozen brought three more but two 3-0s and a 2-2 draw marked a change in pattern there was a sense that some teams, such as Turkey and Ireland, were unable to regenerate the tautness that made their first games close affairs.
Several of them will have to go for it now and with the smaller sides in particular likely to be exposed when chasing games, a big scoreline or two might not be unlikely before the group stage is out.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.