Whilst the group stage certainly had its moments, there’s a feeling that Euro 2016 really kicks off this weekend as we reach the last 16.
Trimmed of some (if not much) of the fat following the elimination of eight teams, the hope is that in terms of entertainment, the last 16 ties will be more Hungary v Portugal than Germany v Poland. Here we look ahead to what’s to come over the next few days.
Switzerland v Poland
The first last 16 tie is perhaps the one with least appeal for the neutral (ironic given one of the participants.) Both Switzerland and Poland managed just two goals each in the group stage but met expectations by qualifying in second place behind two of the competitions big hitters, France and Germany. The key for Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic will be uniting a fractured squad and getting a tune out of Xherdan Shaqiri, who made headlines with his threat to quit the team having been passed over for the captaincy but who has had little impact on the pitch thus far.
Poland meanwhile, could do with their own star man turning up. Robert Lewandowski hasn’t managed so much as a shot on target in 3 games so far, let alone a goal. From the glass half full perspective, shot shy Poland have yet to concede. That and the probability that Lewandowski will improve his accuracy soon should leave Adam Nawalka feeling confident of a place in the last 8
Wales v Northern Ireland
Two teams riding the crest of a wave meet for a British battle in Paris. The draw has been kind to Wales but this is the first time in the tournament they will go in to a match as clear favourites to win. That burden of expectancy brings its own pressure but not much has fazed the Welsh so far and having scored the joint highest number of group stage goals (level with Hungary amazingly,) they will surely have enough to get past a game but limited Northern Ireland.
Michael O’Neil has arguably been the coach whose reputation has received the biggest boost of all at Euro 2016 and he will again organise his team to frustrate and hope Michael McGivern can repeat his heroics against Germany. Whether Northern Ireland can threaten at the other end of the pitch remains to be seen. Set Pieces are likely to be crucial to their success in that regard.
Croatia v Portugal
This has the potential to be the most one sided of all the last 16 ties. Granted, Portugal scored three goals in their final group game against Hungary but, let’s be frank, they’ve been garbage so far. Qualifying for the knockout stages without winning a single game highlights the flaw in the format of the tournament. As ever, Ronaldo will be key but there must be a temptation to freshen up the starting eleven which has underperformed so far. Starting Renato Sanches would seem an obvious move to that end.
On the pitch, Croatia have lit up Euro 2016. Their reserves were excellent against Spain, helping pinch first place in Group D – where they were the only team not to lose a game. Given their path through the rest of the competition, Croatia should be targeting the final. Complacency could be their biggest enemy in Lens on Saturday.
France v Ireland
The natural temptation here is to set an agenda of revenge for Ireland as they face France for the first time since Thierry Henry’s handball allowed William Gallas to score the goal that sent the French to the 2010 World Cup ahead of them. That game will surely be mentioned but it’s unlikely to be a huge motivation given that of the 14 players who featured against Italy on Wednesday, only Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane took part in that playoff in 2009. Ireland will look to play on the nerves of the hosts, for whom 3 of their 4 goals have come in the 89th minute or later. If it’s goalless at half time, Ireland will be in with a shout of a second upset in less than a week.
Germany v Slovakia
Ominously, the world champions are one of the sides who haven’t hit their stride thus far. Not that it hampered Germany too much in the group stages, where they won their section without conceding a goal. A game against Slovakia offers a good opportunity for Joachim Low’s side to tune up. The pre-tournament friendly defeat against the same opponents will sharpen the senses and whilst Slovakia defended impressively against England, they will surely find the quality of Ozil, Kroos and company too much to handle.
Hungary v Belgium
If you’re looking for a shock result in the last 16, Toulouse might be the place to find it. Hungary have been the surprise package thus far, winning a group they were expected to finish bottom of. Whether they can sustain that momentum will depend on which Belgium show up. If it’s the one which swatted aside Ireland, Hungary will be going home. If the Red Devils are as poor as they were against Italy however, Marc Wilmots could be scouring the job pages by Monday morning.
Italy v Spain
How Italy must be cursing their luck. Winning the group is supposed to give you a more favourable path through the knockout stages. Instead, Antonio Conte’s team face that which has won the last two European Championships. Italy have looked very good and very ordinary in equal measure so far but will be determined for redemption following their 4-0 thrashing by Spain in the final of Euro 2012. Spain don’t have the strength in depth they boasted 4 years ago but the quality of their attack just about gives them the edge here.
England v Iceland
England win 1-0 thanks to a deflected free kick, play poorly, go out on penalties in the Quarter Final.