Amid the deafening silence of several days without Euro 2016 action (come back to us, sweet tournament), and the shocking exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union (which has led to intense speculation about the future of the Premier League), there have been relatively few articles analyzing the first set of knockout matchups in this year’s tournament. In fact there seems to have been more focus on the “dilution” of the group stages, owing to the expansion of the tournament this year to 24 teams from 16. For all the complaints on how this expanded format has affected the excitement of the opening round (there are some valid complaints to be sure) and the seemingly uneven placement of teams in the knockout brackets (5 of the top 6 pre-tournament favorites to win ended up on the same side of the draw), it is now time to actually delve into the matchups and prepare for what should be a wildly entertaining set of games.
Upper Bracket (0 Euro/World Cup trophies combined)
Switzerland vs. Poland
While it is admittedly one of the less intriguing matchups, this game promises to be a dogfight from start to finish. Neither team looked overly convincing in any of their three group games, but here’s hoping that a knockout game will spur both on. Switzerland boasts the talents of Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri and new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka, while Poland relies on the scoring ability of Robert Lewandowski, one of the world’s premier strikers who is yet to find the net so far in the tournament. It should be a cagey, close encounter, but I expect Poland to progress (with Lewandowski getting off the mark).
Winner – Poland
Croatia vs. Portugal
The only game (on paper at least) that can compete with Italy vs. Spain for the best overall matchup. Portugal fields the best individual player in the tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored twice in the final group game to relieve a ton of weight off his shoulders. However, the team itself has looked pedestrian, drawing all three group games and finishing third in their group behind Hungary and Iceland. Conversely, perhaps no team looked better during the group stage than Croatia, who overcame gifting two late goals and a draw to Czech Republic to beat a heralded and full-strength Spain while sitting half their team, including talisman Luka Modric. With him back in the side, and riding high off a great win, Croatia should be the team to go through here.
Winner – Croatia
Wales vs. Northern Ireland
What??!! Wales finished top of their group, and Northern Ireland advanced at the expense of Ukraine? Anyone betting on both of those situations unfolding surely has the Grays Sports Almanac from Back to the Future 2. Nevertheless, Wales arrived in the knockout round via several inspired performances by their star man Gareth Bale, and his two sidekicks in Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool’s Joe Allen (some might know him as Jesus). Northern Ireland has arrived via defensive sturdiness and the ability to nick a goal, primarily from set pieces. In a battle that carries the after-effects of the Brexit–Northern Ireland voted to Remain, Wales to Leave–adds even more fire to this United Kingdom Derby; it will most likely end the other way around, with Wales staying in the tournament and Northern Ireland leaving the competition.
Winner – Wales
Hungary vs. Belgium
Somehow, one of the pre-tournament favorites to win it all in Belgium comes into this game as a lower seed than one of the pre-tournament favorites to get kicked out in Hungary. Belgium boast arguably the most talented and deepest squad of any team in the world, much less this tournament, but there is also a high level of doubt levied at manager Marc Wilmots and the squad itself to follow through on such promise. Hungary, on the other hand, supposedly have one of the least talented teams, but they make up for it with rock solid defense and a surprisingly potent offense (they scored only 14 goals in 12 qualifying games, but already have 6 goals in 3 games so far). However, as great as Hungary’s story has been, they should be going home next as this game is Belgium’s to lose.
Winner – Belgium
Lower Bracket (21 Euro/World Cup trophies combined)
Germany vs. Slovakia
On paper, the most lopsided matchup of the round. Slovakia have one of the tournament’s best players in Napoli’s attacking midfielder Marek Hamšík, but are otherwise overmatched by the defending world champions. The Germans seem to have found their inherent high level of tournament play in the last game against Northern Ireland, where they just straight up toyed with them for 90 minutes. Even though the Slovakians won a warm-up game between the two several weeks back and have played well in the tournament thus far, the difference in class will surely show when it matters the most. Germany for the win here; too deep, too talented, too experienced.
Winner – Germany
Italy vs. Spain
When two legendary powers meet in the first knockout round, the neutrals get all tingly with excitement and the fans of the respective teams get filled with anxiety. Italy’s reward for beating Belgium and winning their group is sadly getting drawn with one of the tournament favorites, and probably the better team. Any team that is able to field a midfield of Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and Sergio Busquets deserves the utmost respect. However, despite running over a disappointing Turkey team, Spain has done very little to convince the world that their previous World Cup disaster was a mere fluke. David de Gea has looked shaky between the posts, and the defence hasn’t looked much better. On the flipside, Gianluigi Buffon continues to defy Father Time and the Juventus trio of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini–or BBC as they are better known–have looked impassable. They also know the man who leads the line for Spain (Alvaro Morata) extremely well since he spent last season on loan with them in Turin. At the end of the day, I believe Spain to be the more talented team, but Italy will lean on that great defense and prove to be too resolute for La Roja.
Winner – Italy
France vs. Rep. of Ireland
Another matchup that seems lopsided on paper, but should be much closer on the pitch. France are the betting favorites, the home team with as potent an attack as any in the tournament. They boast perhaps the world’s best midfielder in Paul Pogba, one of the tournament’s top players in Dimitri Payet, and have attacking depth in spades with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial, and Kingsley Coman. However, the defence was marked as a weakness pre-tournament and three subsequent matches have done little to disprove that notion. They also struggled to score against both Romania and Albania, teams that defended with everyone behind the ball. And that is exactly what the Republic of Ireland will look to do. Despite getting shellacked by Belgium in the group stage, a last-second win over Italy will have them flying high into this game. Equipped with the unquestionable best fans in the tournament (See this if you don’t believe me), they certainly have enough fight and desire to trouble France if Les Bleus come out flat. But I don’t see that happening; France are the pick here.
Winner – France
England vs. Iceland
Iceland! Little old Iceland have made the knockout stage! In their first ever major tournament, the smallest country at this European Championships (population – 330,000) have been the belle of the ball. They have quickly become the neutral’s favorite team to root for (I wrote a piece about them here and am an unabashed bandwagon supporter). Looking to end the Cinderella run is England, mighty England, and their talented youngsters. While they haven’t quite figured out what to do with themselves yet, they are superior to Iceland in every position and have a lot of attacking depth off the bench. The Three Lions struggled to a 0-0 draw against a very defensive Slovakia team in the group stage, and their progression in this tournament will hinge on doing better this time around. As much as I would love to see Iceland add another scalp and continue to dream the impossible, my mind tells me that England won’t allow themselves to become a meme and will eventually prevail after a hard fight.
Winner – England
There you have it. 8 glorious games. Get out the popcorn and let the excitement begin.