The group stage is over and with that, the first stage of arguably the most thrilling Euros yet is in the books. UEFA’s decision to expand this year’s tournament from 16 to 24 teams has allowed underrated countries to shine. Iceland, Hungary and Northern Ireland to name a few, had the odds stacked against them in pool play, but they were quick to show that no matter the size of their country, they could compete with the best.
The first round of 16 games begin on Saturday, and there is bound to be more drama going forward.
Switzerland vs. Poland
The Swiss look to be in good form heading into this game. A 0-0 draw against France shows that they can hold their own against top teams. However, Poland are highly organized and efficient on the pitch. Poland’s swift movement both on and off the ball will help them to beat Switzerland and progress to the Quarterfinals.
Croatia vs. Portugal
Croatia have been a pleasure to watch. Luka Modric has delivered this small country to the world stage in superb fashion. Even without Modric on the field, Croatia were able to beat Spain in their final group game. Portugal, on the other hand, have looked lackluster. Having tied all three of their group stage games, Portugal finally got their momentum against Hungary. However, it was not enough as that game also ended in a draw. Portugal barely qualified for the next round and will need big names Ronaldo, Sanchez and Nani to turn it up a notch if they hope to beat this impressive Croatian team. Croatia will win this game with the help of their organized defensive line, which will keep Ronaldo out of goal scoring contention.
Wales vs. Northern Ireland
In order for the Welsh to keep the Northern Irish at bay, they will have to break their spirit. Both countries have come to the Euros with an impressive set of fans and an underdog determination that has allowed them to be competitive against preeminent teams. Northern Ireland beat the Ukraine 2-0 with only 35 per cent of the possession; they will likely rely on their strong counter attack against Wales on Saturday. Wales have a deeper squad and talented midfielders that move the ball with speed and precision. This game will be a battle of passion, but I believe Wales will have no problem progressing to the next round over Northern Ireland.
Hungary vs. Belgium
Hungary have shown beyond doubt that they are not just a country that are there to fill a spot as previously projected. Having finished top of their group, ending on a remarkable 3-3 draw against Portugal, Hungary have become the dark horse team to watch in this competition. Hungary’s opposition, Belgium, are formidable and a tournament favourite. Although Belgium have not produced the results they were predicted to deliver, on paper they have arguably the most adept team at the Euros. This game will be tight and will likely be played into extra time or penalties. Hungary possess the ability to upset Belgium, but Belgium’s finesse should carry them through to the quarter-finals against Wales.
Germany vs. Slovakia
Slovakia is another underdog nation that has surpassed expectations. Led by Liverpool centre back Martin Skrtel, Slovakia’s confident back line will be complex for the Germans to break down. Additionally, this fiery team has the capability to threaten Germany upfront as well with Duda always poised to attack. That being said, Germany has brilliant goal scorers in the likes of Özil, Müller and Götze – to name a few. The reigning World Cup champions can dismiss Slovakia’s efforts if they play their game. We have seen them at their best in this tournament against the Ukraine, and looking weaker as they drew with Poland. Germany must take the chances they get and be aware of Slovakia’s counter attack. If they stay tactically sound, they will triumph.
Italy vs. Spain
For me this game is a toss-up. Originally, I predicted that Italy would finish bottom of their group. In recent history the Italians have flopped at major international tournaments, failing to deliver the results their country has come to expect. However, so far they have done nothing but impress. Even a loss against the Republic of Ireland will not be viewed as negative, as they were guaranteed to finish top of their group and rested much of their starting line-up. The Spanish have won the last two European championships and are chasing a record third in a row. They have everything to play for, and have one of the best Spanish rosters of the last four years. Spain should win this game on paper, but as the Euros have proved time and time again, we cannot count out upsets. Both teams are highly organized and efficient, but Spain will come out on top narrowly and look ahead to their game against Germany in the quarter-finals.
France vs. Ireland
Although Italy played with a vastly altered line-up against the Irish, Ireland have the ability to create magical upsets. We saw it in qualifying, and now we’ve seen it in their first ever progression to the knock out stages in a major tournament. As much as it would be incredible to see Ireland create another historical moment, France have a home-field advantage. The French have a consistent ability to create victories on home turf. Drilled forward by the weight of their nation, France will rise to the occasion in the knock-out round. France will win this one easily, likely with a goal created by Dimitri Payet.
England vs. Iceland
Finally, in the last match up of the round of 16, we have England versus Iceland. These two teams have arrived in France with a horde of fans behind them. Iceland is estimated to have 10 per cent of its entire population (roughly 30,000 people) cheering on their country in France, while England has seamlessly packed stadiums wherever they go. Iceland will have an advantage going into this game as they have nothing to lose. They have already beaten the odds to finish second in their group, and their fans have nothing but adoration for them. England on the other hand have once again “failed” to meet the never ending high expectations of their country. For England, this game is a must win. A defeat in the round of 16, let alone a defeat against Iceland will be seen as unacceptable by their fans. Likely, it would cause manager Roy Hodgson to lose his job. England can get the job done if they stay composed. With more movement from their forwards up front, the English will win this game to face France in the quarters.