So after thirty-six matches in Euro 2016 of varying degrees of excitement, the field has been whittled down by a less-than-whopping eight teams and we have our last 16 match-ups all ready for the off.
The group stages have provided one or two shocks, the result of which means there is something of a lop-sided draw, in terms of the historical prestige of some teams anyway. Joining the hosts and bookies favourites France in their half of the draw are Germany, Italy, Spain and England. It is the latter two you slipped up in their groups to finish second and give themselves a potentially more perilous route from now on.
Slipping up to an ever greater extent were Portugal who only made it through as a third placed team and will now have to come up against Croatia – Spain’s vanquishers.
Switzerland v. Poland – Saturday 25th June
Poland are the highest ranked team in the tournament based on the WGF rankings. Their form in the group stage was a little stuttering if we’re being honest. They struggled to break down the massed Northern Irish defence in their first game and scored a late winner against Ukraine in their final game. Sandwiched in between those games they were arguably the better of the two sides when they faced Germany, only to spurn some good opportunities.
But we are yet to see much from their main man, Robert Lewandowski. He has been largely peripheral to Poland’s endeavours so far, which at least demonstrates that they are no one-man team. But if Poland are to keep progressing then they need their heavyweight to land a few knock-out blows sooner or later.
Switzerland have improved since their opener against Albania and were unlucky not to be awarded a late penalty against France which could have won them the match and the group. They could provide a tough test for Poland but I feel that the greater quality is with the Poles and that should see them through. If Lewandowski can belatedly join the party and complement the endeavours of Milik and the rest, then Poland should be looking at a place in the quarter finals.
My Prediction: Switzerland 0-2 Poland
WGF Prediction: Poland by 1 goal
Wales v. Northern Ireland – Saturday 25th June
Having soundly thumped Russia in their final group game, Wales must still have expected England to have taken top spot with a win over Slovakia. But England’s failure is Wales’ good fortune, and with it they have a realistic path to the latter stages. First though, there is another domestic dispute against Northern Ireland, who made it through as one of the third-placed teams.
There were times during the 1-0 loss to Germany that Northern Ireland must have feared the heavy defeat that would have seen them eliminated. They could easily have been 4-0 down by hal;f-time but for some profligate Germany shooting and some stellar goalkeeping from Michael McGovern. Their shot-stopper spent last season playing for Hamilton Academical who finished 10th in the Scottish Premier League, but is currently an out-of-contract free agent.
Now he, and his hard-working defence, must face up to Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and the rest. Wales may have a few stars surrounded by lesser lights but they have found a terrific team formula. They have more quality than Northern Ireland, but if the Irish can play the way they did in beating Ukraine then this could be a close one. The head says Wales will win it comfortably. The heart says it could be a close one with both sides having a real shot.
My Prediction: Wales 2-1 Northern Ireland
WGF Prediction: Draw
Croatia v. Portugal – Saturday 25th June
Portugal looked destined to face England in the last 16. At the final whistle in their remarkable 3-3 draw with Hungary the current standing meant that was the case. But the ever so late winner for Iceland in the other group match meant Portugal now have to take on a Croatia team on the crest of a wave.
Ronaldo has finally found touch in front of goal – though not from his increasingly wayward free-kicks – and will need to be in fine form if his team are to progress. Portugal are less impressive at the back and the worry for them is that the skills of Modric, Perisic, Madzukic et al will leave them foundering. Pepe strikes me as more of a hindrance than a help, repeatedly losing the man he should be covering. He will need to lead from the back with a more commanding display if Portugal are to have any chance.
In coming from behind to beat Spain, Croatia have put down a real marker for the tournament. Indeed, has any team performed as consistently well so far? Had it not been for the late collapse amidst the flare chucking scuffles in the draw with the Czech Republic, they could have been the only team with a 100% record din the group stages. They are a quality side, which is something that Portugal, for all the potential individual quality, are not.
My Prediction: Croatia 2-1 Portugal
WGF Prediction: Draw
France v. Ireland – Sunday 26th June
The hosts eased through their group with one or two scares. – leaving it late to beat both Romania and Albania before nearly throwing top spot away against Switzerland. They have been impressive in patches – particularly when Payet has been on song – but have also struggled to find the right mix at times.
Paul Pogba has had his moments but hasn’t as yet lived up to the hype. Likewise Antoine Griezmann. Both should be back in the starting line up on Sunday and will need to be on their game against the industrious if unspectacular Irish. France have the quality, but without the requisite endeavour and inspiration they may fac e a tough battle. Quality should win the day after a few scares.
My Prediction: France 2-0 Ireland
WGF Prediction: France by 1 goal
Germany v. Slovakia – Sunday 25th June
Slovakia had their moments in the group stage – mainly through the excellent Marek Hamsik – before retreating into their shell when it became apparent that a point against England would see them through. They now face a team they beat 3-1 in a friendly just a few weeks ago.
Don’t expect this match to go as that one did, however. Germany have been steadily improving in their performances but what is evidently missing is someone to consistently put the ball in the back of the net. Something of a fundamental flaw. They should have had a hatful against Northern Ireland but only managed the one. They can’t be as profligate again if they hope to progress. But they will expect to win this one and should dominate the play sufficiently to create enough chances, and be able to convert enough of them.
My Prediction: Germany 2-0 Slovakia
WGF Prediction: Draw
Hungary v. Belgium – Sunday 25th June
Hungary have been the surprise of the tournament so far. Widely touted as the weakest team in the whole competition before a ball was kicked, they rounded off an impressive group stage with that thriller against Portugal to top the group.
Their dubious award is a clash with Belgium. I honestly don’t know what to make of the Belgians. One the one hand they have the quality to dominate many a team and could produce some dazzling play to build on a strong defence. They have quality in almost every position and yet they consistently flatter to deceive. They were terrific in beating Ireland 3-0, but less so against Italy and Sweden. Their defence is weak at full-back, and their tactical approach is hindered by a coach seemingly out of his depth.
Should Hungary produce the kind of attacking display they did against Portugal then they could produce another shock. But the odds are surely in favour of a Belgian win, though I think it will be rather close.
My Prediction: Hungary 0-1 Belgium
WGF Prediction: Belgium by 1 goal
Italy v. Spain – Monday 27th June
The plum tie of the round has come about as a result of neither of these teams performing as expected in the group stage. Italy were widely dismissed as having a weaker squad than has been the case for years, but had already sealed top place after just two matches. They made wholesale changes for the Ireland match and only narrowly lost. A team built to stifle will have its work cut out against Spain, but there is no nation the Italians would rather stop than Spain.
For the Spanish all had appeared rosy when they lead Croatia 1-0 in their final group match. But that late turnaround has landed Spain in the tougher half of the draw and with this rather testing tie. They still have the quality but it will be interesting to see how much their confidence has been shaken by what happened against Croatia.
Italy had long been Spain’s nemesis, consistently holding the upper hand whenever the two met in tournaments. That all changed in the Euro 2012 final with the 4-0 win being almost the defining image of this particular golden Spanish generation. This will be a tie full of intrigue, of beauty against the beast, of two contrasting methods of controlling the opposition. It is surely the most anticipated match in this round and I just hope it lives up to the billing. I have a feeling this one could go all the way.
My Prediction: Italy 1-1 Spain (penalty shootout)
WGF Prediction: Spain by 1 goal
England v. Iceland – Monday 27th June
The final match sees the Icelandic fairy-tale continue against England. Iceland will be happy that their late goal against Austria meant avoiding the dangerous Croatia in this round, but in England they still face a tough opponent.
But for all England’s possession in the group games, they displayed very little cutting edge, or indeed much creativity of variation of approach. They ponderously kept doing the same things and achieving the same results. The frustration was most noticeable late on against Slovakia when England players took turns to run into the massed central defence of Slovakia, only to lose the ball again and again. They did still create enough to have won the game had they taken their chances, but the lack of much of an idea about what to do with all their possession is quite a worry.
Iceland have shown that they can build a strong line of defence – notably against Portugal in their opener – but have also shown a willingness and capability to break in numbers when the opportunity present itself. This is surely the approach they will take against England. When their chances come along, they need to be able to take them. England should dominate the possession again but need to find a way to convert that into sufficient chances. Fail to do that again and they could be in for a shock. But they do possess the attacking talents to go further, if only they can find a way to make the most of them.
I predict a nervy, tense, close match with just a single goal deciding it.
My Prediction: England 1-0 Iceland
WGF Prediction: England by 1 goal