The knockout stages of Euro 2016 get under way today with all of England, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland through from the group stages.
With Wales qualifying as group leaders, England second and both Irish teams qualifying in third place, there are varying levels of difficulty in the teams the face.
Wales have been handed an all British clash with Northern Ireland, England were seconds away from facing Portugal before a last minute goal saw Iceland become their opponents whilst Ireland’s heroics against Italy saw them ‘rewarded’ with a clash against hosts France.
At this stage of the competition there are no easy games and in a straight shootout over 90 minutes (and possibly extra time and penalties) anything can happen. We’ve seen before at the Euros with upsets taking place all the time; none more so than Greece upsetting Portugal to lift the trophy in 2004 or Russia reaching their first semi final after hammering the Netherlands in 2008.
The draw in this tournament has left the door open for a number of upsets with a number of the bigger nations facing potential banana skins; England are expected to beat Iceland but the plucky Nordic nation will look to frustrate and spoil against an England side struggling for goals whilst on the flipside Ireland have shown before that they are capable of taking a big scalp when they beat Italy to qualify, and will be looking to do so again against a France side being tipped by some to win.
We spoke to Jason Cundy about the chances of England, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland:
England vs Iceland
You could pretty much write the match report for this one already as it will likely follow a similar pattern to what we’ve already seen.
Iceland will sit deep, as all 3 sides England have faced thus far have done. They frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal with the former Manchester United man lashing out at them for their celebrations upon earning a draw, and I can see them frustrating England similarly.
They haven’t had more that 30% possession in any game and are through so won’t change what has been a winning formula against an England side that have enjoyed the majority of possession in all of their games, created chances but failed to convert enough of them. The fact Iceland enjoy defending, makes it even more worrying from their point of view.
England don’t have a lock picker, someone like Andres Iniesta, David Silva or Luka Modric to play that pass that could slice through a tight defence, the one player capable isn’t fit in Jack Wilshere, showing in his performance against Slovakia that he is someway off being at the required standard.
Harry Kane is struggling in 4-3-3 with no support from a 10 like he has had at Tottenham in the form of Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen, whilst Vardy’s talents would be wasted against an Iceland side that will sit deep and deny him the chance and space to run in behind.
England haven’t been ruthless enough when chances have appeared and it seems that Iceland will limit the chances that they have, so whilst favourites England face a tough frustrating game.
Ireland vs France
Whilst all the talk in the lead up to the game has been about revenge following Thierry Henry’s handball in a World Cup 2010 play off between the two sides that saw the French head to South Africa and Ireland remain at home, Ireland captain Robbie Keane said it best: it was 7 years ago, move on.
The players won’t be thinking of that, instead their full focus will be on the game itself hoping to keep things tight against the hosts.
France haven’t been great themselves, Romania will count themselves unlucky not to have got anything from their opening game and Abania too, with two late goals seeing off the minnows.
Personally I think for all their amazing attacking talent with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and for me the player of the tournament so far Dimitri Payet, they are pretty weak at the back.
The question is: how much do Ireland have left after that Italy game? I imagine they are drained physically, mentally and emotionally.
The longer the game goes on I can see France getting on top, so whilst I would love for Ireland to get something out of the clash, I just can’t see it.
Wales vs Northern Ireland
This game represents something different for Wales who don’t often go into games as favourites.
This change in roles could make the tie hard especially given that they are facing a tough side in Northern Ireland with their miserly defence that hasn’t conceded more than 1 goal in their last 16 internationals, a run that stretches back to a 2-0 defeat to Romania in 2014.
Wales were poor against England but improved against Russia, where their star men Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale impressed. Ramsey has been Wales’ best player although Bale, who was anonymous in the loss to England has scored 3 in 3.
Northern Ireland on the other hand lack the stars that Wales have but impressed against Germany despite their defeat with goalkeeper Michael McGovern the talk of the town for keeping the score at 1-0 and thus earning his side a place in the knockout stages.
The two sides are similar in how they play, both are organised with spirit and will think they can win it. They are ranked closely by Fifa with Northern Ireland 25th and Wales 26th and their last meeting, at the Cardiff City Stadium in March ended 1-1, so everything points to this being a tight game.
But you’d think that if Ramsey and Bale put in performances then their extra quality can push Wales to victory.