We reach the half way stage of Euro 2016 as the Group Stage came to a close on Wednesday evening. Its knockout time now as the opening last 16 fixtures take place this coming Saturday. It is to be hoped the action will now move up a gear or two following what was a largely drab and uninspiring Group Phase.
A combination of the new 24 team structure, and a number of inferior teams being set up simply not to lose, led to a distinctly underwhelming goals per game average of just 1.92, that’s certainly the lowest that we can remember in a major international tournament. With 45 of the goals scored to date being scored in the second half of matches, as opposed to just 24 in the opening 45 minutes let us hope the second half of the tournament heats up in similar manner.
Whilst no team has really set the world alight in terms of their performances to date, all of the pre-tournament favourites have managed to safely negotiate their way into the knock out stages. The only major surprise came in Group F were the tenth ranked team in the World, Austria failed to qualify from a section containing the unheralded Hungary and Iceland.
It is Hungary who have done more than most to increase the overall goals total in the tournament. With six goals in three games, they are the tournaments joint top scorers along with Wales who boast the current leader in the golden boot race, the magnificent Gareth Bale. Hungary’s reward for such attacking verve is a last 16 clash with Belgium and there will be few who will relish taking them on in what is a wide open top half of the draw.
Pick of the top half for us is undoubtedly Croatia. A likely route to the final of Portugal, Poland and Belgium looks eminently achievable for a well-rounded side boasting one of the competitions most talented midfields. It was an extremely impressive win over Spain, which came without their chief playmaker Luka Modric, landed the Croatians this plum draw and they will head into the knockout phase brimming with confidence. With Modric set to re-join Ivan Rakitic in the engine room and Ivan Perisic firing on all cylinders, they look the standout each way bet of the tournament at around the 11.0 mark.
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The bottom half however looks like a minefield. Spain’s failure to win their section has been punished with a brutal first knockout stage clash with multiple World Champions Italy. Spain as ever have dominated possession in their usual manner and are a joy to watch at times, however there has been an underlying fragility to their displays to date and they look extremely vulnerable to the counterattack. Italy meanwhile have done what Italy do best, tactically astute, near impossible to break down and plenty of passion and pride in the shirt. A fascinating encounter awaits.
Also in the bottom half are hosts France, Germany and England. All are unbeaten at this stage and can be expected to show more sparkle going forward as the more open nature of the knockout phase gives their attacking stars the chance to shine.
With Dimitri Payet in sparkling form and the home fans behind them France have maintained their position as tournament market leaders but face a major obstacle in a potential semi-final clash with World Champions Germany. There are few if any better tournament sides than the Germans and the fact that they didn’t concede a single goal in the group phase looks ominous for their rivals. Available to back at 6.0 for the tournament, we wouldn’t put you off. England meanwhile should comfortably dispatch Iceland but a shakiness evident at centre-back in their displays so far may well prove their undoing against better opposition.
By: Paul Harrison