As the group stages of the 2016 European Championships came to a close on Wednesday night, they did so through a chorus of Irish cheers.
The boys in green did the unthinkable and beat the mighty Italians to seal their place in the final 16. They join England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the next round, in what has been a great tournament for the UK and Ireland.
Shocks a plenty were provided in the group stages including Croatia’s victory over reigning champions Spain, Wales topping Group B ahead of England and, of course, Ireland’s stunning late win over Italy. Some of the tournament’s biggest names also failed to impress including Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba.
There were a few obvious standout stars in the opening round of the competition, but was Ireland’s historic performance enough to see any of its starring players make the best eleven from the group stages?
Manuel Neuer (Germany)
With three clean sheets in the group stages, it’s impossible to look passed Neuer as the number one goalkeeper thus far. Although the Bayern Munich star probably hasn’t had as much to do as some of the other keepers he has kept his composure and been reliable when called upon.
Kamil Glik (Poland)
Glik was part of the Polish team that also kept three clean sheets, including a memorable stalemate with the World Champions Germany. The defender, who plies his trade with Torino in Serie A, has really made a name for himself at the tournament with some stunning performances and, at just 28 years pf age, perhaps the Pole could find himself on the radar of quite a few teams.
Adil Rami (France)
Rami has been one of the standout players of the tournament so far with his defensive performances. His composure on the ball really fits the French style of play and will prove to be extremely tough to break down for the Irish on Sunday. The 30-year-old Sevilla defender has played every minute of the tournament to date so the Irish fans will be hoping his legs are heavy on Sunday.
Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)
Chiellini starred in Italy’s first two performances of the tournament with victories over Belgium and Sweden. He took a back seat against Ireland as Antonio Conte rang out the changes to keep his team fresh. He will be coming back in the final 16 fresh as a result and will prove to be hard to get passed again, making Italy a real threat for the tournament.
Jonas Hector (Germany)
Hector is another German that has starred in his team’s three clean sheets during the group stages of the competition. He is willing to go forward with the team but always gets back to fulfil his defensive duties in a typically German workman-like manner.
Dimitri Payet (France)
Payet has stood out as one of the most exciting players the tournament has seen to date. With two stunning goals and an always-entertaining touch on the ball, Payet has taken his Premier League form with him to France. His ability on the ball will be on the top of Martin O’ Neill’s watch list as they prepare for their showdown on Sunday.
Ivan Perisic (Croatia)
Perisic has, like Payet, been extremely entertaining on the ball and has produced two vital goals for his side including a very late winner against the defending Champions Spain. His goal was good enough to see Croatia top their group and get a much easier tie in the next round. While Portugal may not seem an easy draw, their performances make them a much easier opponent than Italy.
N’Golo Kante (France)
The Leicester City midfielder has shown just why he has become a priceless commodity in European football with two flawless performances for France. His ability to break down the play is second to no one else in world football right now and he is involved in almost every phase of French possession.
Wesley Holohan (Ireland)
Holohan’s stunning goal against Sweden combined with his match-winning cross against Italy have seen him just about make this best XI. His cross against Italy proved timely, just moments after his miss could have cost the Irish their place in the last 16. He will need another top performance on Sunday if Ireland are to progress.
Gareth Bale (Wales)
Bale has been in sensational form scoring three goals in his three performances thus far. His goal against England proved he can score in vital games and he could be the key to Wales having a really memorable tournament. With Northern Ireland next, Wales will fancy their chances of at least a quarter-final berth in the competition.
Alvaro Morata (Spain)
Morata’s three goals were just about enough to see a lacklustre Spanish side through to the final 16 but a game against Italy next will be tough. The Juventus striker will be key to the Spanish side’s progression to the latter stages of the competition as he looks the only real major goal threat at the moment.
Paul O’Dea, Pundit Arena