After an exciting and frenetic end to the Euro 2016 group stages the tournament really gets down to business now with the last-16 knockout stage getting underway today. All of the top teams and favourites in the betting are still in action, as are my outright selections Belgium (11/1), Italy (11/1), Lukaku TGS (22/1) and Payet Player of the Tournament (66/1), but it’s fair to say no team has really stood out and stamped it’s authority on the tournament so far. There were also some notable heroic performances and shocks from the final group stage matches this week.
It’s a dream come true for supporters of the home nations as England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland all kept their dreams alive by reaching the last-16. The Republic of Ireland’s final Group E game win against Italy will live long in the memory and has to go down as the biggest shock of the tournament so far, given how well Italy had played up to that point and how disappointing Ireland had been in their previous two group games.
However, they will need to replicate that performance again, and then some, in their last-16 game against host’s France on Sunday. The fixture carries some needle after their infamous 2010 World Cup qualification play-off encounter in 2009 when Thiery Henry’s blatant handball goal was allowed, and it proved to be the decisive goal that cruelly denied the Republic of Ireland a spot at the World Cup the following year.
Having qualified for the last-16 stage the pressure is now off the French players somewhat. With quality top-class players throughout their team, especially in attack, they should eventually grind down a hard working resolute Ireland and win this one 1 or 2-0.
You may remember in my Euro 2016 preview that I said I would be a layer of England to win their group at very short odds, and my gut instincts proved to be correct, as they failed to turn their domination in to goals against a resolute Slovakia. Wales took advantage of England’s stuttering campaign, thrashing a sorry Russia 3-0 to win group B, which set up a fascinating home nation’s last-16 clash against Northern Ireland tomorrow.
Northern Ireland performed heroically against Germany in their final Group C game limiting them to the one goal, which meant they scraped through to snatch one of the four available third place spots. It will be interesting to see how Northern Ireland cope with the threat of Wales talisman Gareth Bale tomorrow and with England, Russia and Slovakia all failing to stop him finding the back of the net, it’s hard to imagine him not playing a significant part in this encounter either.
It’s fair to say while England have frustrated so far, they totally dominated their three group games in terms of possession, key passes (tournament leaders on 59), successful dribbles (second on 52 behind Germany 53) and shots on target. Their strikers cannot be singled out or blamed as only Morata of Spain and Bale of Wales have proved to be consistent in front of goal with 3 a piece, and overall it has not been a tournament where main strikers have excelled.
I get the feeling England are on the verge of finding the right recipe and balance in attack and with plenty of rest, a full week to analyse their performances so far and to prepare for the Iceland game on Monday, we will finally get too witness an England attacking performance that finally delivers goals and a crushing performance, which they are more than capable of achieving against a team of Iceland’s stature.
Many people’s dark horses Croatia justified their support by going unbeaten and winning Group D ahead of defending champions Spain, who they came from behind to beat 2-1 in the final group game. They face a Portugal side tomorrow who scraped through Group F by the skin of their teeth behind winners Hungary and second place Iceland.
Talisman Ronaldo finally got on the scoreboard with two goals in the six goal 3-3 thriller against Hungary, but the way they’ve performed and defended so far in this tournament, in particular against Hungary, its unlikely Ronaldo will be able to save them on this occasion. As long as Croatia don’t get complacent tomorrow night I expect them to put on another master class of attacking genius and progress to the quarter-finals in fairly comfortable fashion.
The remaining last-16 games on Sunday between Germany and Slovakia and Hungary and Belgium should go to form with Germany and Belgium progressing, with the latter game being a potential classic with plenty of goals given both teams propensity to play open attacking football.
Finally, the tie of the last-16 has to be between Spain and Italy on Monday. Spain just edge things in terms of attacking threat and in Morata they have a striker in-form, but it’s safe to say they have not been as impressive at controlling possession or in defence as in previous big tournaments. Italy look really solid at the back and in Buffon they have a vastly experienced World class keeper.
Italy manager Conte rested the majority of his preferred starting eleven against Ireland, which could prove to be a masterstroke, as his players should be a lot sharper and fresher than the Spanish, who fielded their strongest starting eleven against Croatia on Tuesday. I expect this one to be extremely close and think extra-time is a distinct possibility, so the Draw or Draw and Under 2.5 Goals Match Double is worth considering.