There isn't a soccer tournament that goes by where we can't debate about which teams look the best and which team have thoroughly disappointed us through the first three games of the group stage. Euro 2016 is no different. There have been several great performances by a bunch of teams, but many of them lasted only one game. Not many teams were able to look dominant through the entire group stage. On the contrary, some of the teams competing in the Round of 16 have offered up little in the way of "eye candy" and are advancing only because of the new 24-team format.
Before the Round of 16 starts, I'm going to take a minute to break down how each team has looked in their respective group stage games. The futures odds beside team names are current and can be found at Bovada.
Before the tournament began, France was pegged as the favorite to hoist the trophy on their home soil, much like they did at the World Cup of 1998. Les Bleus opened up the tournament with a rather uninspired and nervy performance against Romania. They were, however, able to secure the win late courtesy of a Dimitri Payet stunner. In the follow up, they were brought to the brink by Albania and again needed two late goals to capture all three points. Passage to the knockout round was achieved, but there were plenty of questions left unanswered. France still doesn't know their best formation, and the strikers have contributed very little. France will have to go through Ireland, England/Iceland and then Italy/Spain/Germany just to reach the Finals. Tough sailing.
The defending World Cup champions came into this tournament with a tremendous amount of talent and the hopes of winning the tournament. Through the group
stage games, Germany hasn't fit the bill. They scored only three goals in three games and weren't able to find anybody to step up and lead the front line.
They were planning on relying on Mario Gotze, but he has underwhelmed tremendously, and Plan B is Thomas Mueller. That would be ideal if he was in form,
which he is not. They must navigate pesky Slovakia in the Round of 16, which should be doable, but they then get either Italy (which they never beat) or
Spain. We all know what Spain is capable of. Unlucky.
Spain's Euro tournament started with a scandal involving starting goalkeeper David De Gea. Their group stage ended with them in second place and a rematch date with Italy, whom they beat in the finals of Euro 2012. Spain had trouble breaking down a stout Czech defense in the first game, but they were able to net three in a win against Turkey. In their finale, Spain was exposed by Croatia's lightning-quick counter attack, something which, on their day, Italy can pull off with the best of them. They would have had a much easier path to the finals should they have finished first. Instead, they must go through the likes of Italy, England, Germany, or France.
Belgium was everyone's sexy pick to make some noise in this tournament. After a very bad start, a 2-0 loss to Italy, Belgium still has every opportunity to leave their mark in France. They are in the "easier" half of the bracket despite finishing second in their group. In the group stage games, they got tactically outclassed by a masterful Italian coach, and they paid dearly. They were able to regain form by trouncing Ireland and then defeating a lackluster Sweden team. I think head coach Marco Wilomts finally figured out that Marouane Felliani belongs on the bench, and that's a positive going forward. They will get through Hungary in the Round of 16 and then they will be favorites to beat either Wales or Northern Ireland to reach the semis. Doable.
In my opinion, Croatia was the best looking team of the group stage. Their midfield trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakatic and Ivan Perisic have been outstanding. They have created plenty of chances and even popped in a few goals of their own. The first game against Turkey just got them started, and for the better part of 75 minutes against the Czechs they looked like world beaters. In the finale against Spain, they were able to withstand the pressure and make their counter attacks count. This was all without Luka Modric, who sat out with a hamstring injury. Croatia, much like Belgium, found themselves on the easier side of the bracket. Their Round of 16 game against Portugal will be the toughest test, one in which I think they will pass with flying colors.
It wouldn't be a soccer tournament without England failing to live up to their expectations. Despite beating the group-winning Wales, they were able to secure only two draws, which landed them in second spot. Against Russia and Slovakia, they had all of the possession and none of the results. They were unable to break down two very questionable defensive corps, and that begs to be knit picked. Roy Hodgson still doesn't know exactly who to start, and starting Wayne Rooney seems to be a good idea one game and a bad idea the next. France is likely on deck in the QF should they make it, which will be a tall task. Enigma.
This 24-team format is Portugal's most valuable player. Oh, and I guess Cristiano Ronaldo, somewhat. Depending on which game you're looking at. Ronaldo "the good" helped his team back from an absolute nightmare defensive performance against Hungary with their tournament on the line. He was able net two goals and set up the other for Nani. Ronaldo "the bad" is the one that went M.I.A in the opener against Hungary and missed a penalty against Austria that surely would have won the game. He doesn't much help, seeing how Ricardo Quaresma is relegated to coming off the bench due to an injury. They should be undone by Croatia's amazing midfield, and Ronaldo can go back to doing whatever it is he does best for Portugal. Tan.
It wouldn't be news if the Italians did what they were expected to do. They came to France with no hope in hell and no strikers and an aging team, with a coach with a foot out the door. How are they supposed to manage? Well, they made headlines by showing the world what a perfect tactical game looks like against Belgium. They took their chances well and reaped the rewards. The following game was rather drab, but Italy, ever the fortunate bunch, took an opportunity and staked their claim to top spot in Group E. The Ireland game was irrelevant since the Azzurri made nine changes, but a few lads showed they should be called upon as subs should the time arise in the knockout round. Should they get past Spain, they will have an automatic berth in the semis. (They would play Germany in the QF and Italy always beats Germany). Hopeful.
Poland's front duo of Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik was supposed to bulge the onion bag plenty of times against weaker opponents. In reality,
Milik's only goal of the group stage was huge one that ensured three points against Northern Ireland. Should Poland want to prolong their time in France,
they will need to find a way to score on a Switzerland team that is playing well defensively. They have the firepower, but will it come to fruition? To be
Wales have been the most attacking team of the tournament and have the top goal scorer of the tournament in Gareth Bale. Bale has scored two wonderful
free-kick goals, and his partner in crime, Aaron Ramsey, has provided excellent service to the strikers. They have a very winnable game on deck against
Northern Ireland and then a matchup with either Belgium or Hungary for a spot in the semis. The only concern with Wales is their possession as they don't
keep the ball for very long.
Switzerland was solid-but-unconvincing in the group stage. They were pushed to the brink against 10-men Albania but managed a 1-0 win. A draw against
Romania and France was enough to secure passage to the knockout stage, but they will need to be much better if they want to get to the QFs. They need their
strikers to contribute much more and take their chances better as Switzerland has scored only one goal from open play.
With all due respect to the teams below Hungary, this team is the story of the tournament. They were able to win Group F and put Portugal on the brink of elimination three times in a crazy 3-3 draw in the finale. Their defense was the talking point leading up to that finale, but Portugal proved they can be broken down and taken advantage of. They have the toughest draw of the left side of the bracket as they go up against a talented Belgium side. Hungary and their keepers' grey track pants will be going home by Saturday night.
The Irish need all the luck they could have ever gotten, and thanks to some friendly Italian defense they were able to get it and secure a glorious spot in the knockout stage. They go up against France in the round of 16, and I think Karma might rear its head in this game. Ireland sits deep and hopes for the best up front, leaving Shane Long alone to hold up the ball all by himself. It's a tough task going up against the hosts, but I feel that this won't be quite as straight forward as many people think.
I love Iceland. No matter what they do, I always find myself rooting for them. I surely will be rooting for them against England in the Round of 16. The
team is well-rounded and can attack or defend depending on what the game calls for. In the midfield, they have Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is pulling the string
and creating the chances. Their 94th-minute winner against Austria was a bit unlucky however, as they would have had to play Croatia, instead of
England. Surely the belief is high in the camp, and they can hope the pressure is too much for England to stomach (which would be par for the course).
Slovakia played well in the group stage. They were able to stymy England to a nil-nil draw, which showed how impressive their defense can be at certain times. Offensively, Slovakia is led by Marek Hamsik, who is playing very well and creating plenty of chances for his teammates. They will have the unenviable task of taking on the reigning world champion German team, but they can hold onto hope that their defense can once again keep the opponent out and that they can catch them on the counter.
Northern Ireland (+20000)
You got to love an underdog story. Northern Ireland is playing in their first major tournament and is in the Round of 16 thanks to the new 24-team tournament. They got absolutely peppered with shots by Poland and Germany but gave up only two goals. Not too shabby. Offensively, they were only able to score against a terrible Ukraine team, which leads me to believe they might not have the quality to get back into their game against Wales should they go behind on the scoreboard. It was a nice story while it lasted, but Saturday will be Wales time to celebrate.
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