Although not exactly full of goals, the group stage of Euro 2016 provided its fair share of entertainment and did not produce any of the heavy winning margins that many would have expected. All of the heavyweights made it through whether in convincing or inauspicious fashion, but there were some surprises as some of the competitions least fancied nations advanced to the last 16.
The knockout drama begins on Saturday, where the standout fixture comes in the evening as a very impressive Croatia side come up against Portugal, who laboured through what looked a soft group on paper, with three draws just about enough to see them rank as one of the four best third placed teams.
Even that was under threat on Wednesday as they went behind three times to an inspired Hungary, only for star man Cristiano Ronaldo to finally rediscover his scoring boots and spare their blushes. This match represents a huge step-up from what they faced in the opening round, so Ronaldo must remain on song for them to have a chance of reaching the quarter-finals, while the defence really needs to tighten up.
While Fernando Santos’ men rely on individual brilliance, Croatia have a collection of fine players that functions exceptionally well as a team, and as a result of their excellent Group D campaign they must enter this one as favourites.
Victory over Spain was a notable achievement, and winger Ivan Perisic is one of the stars of the tournament so far. It has not been easy for the Inter player to distinguish himself in a team which includes Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, but it appears that he is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Win this, and Croatia must be seen as real contenders.
Before that game in Lens, two other last 16 encounters will have already been decided, beginning with the meeting between Switzerland and Poland. On the face of it this looks certain to be an evenly-matched, tight affair which could go all the way to extra time or possibly penalties, but Poland may hold the edge due to their greater firepower in attack.
They scored just twice in the group stage, but the Poles have some wonderful talent in forward areas should they manage to produce that all all-important final ball that has often eluded them. As for Switzerland, they are a solid outfit that attack with a great deal of promise, only to lack end product as a consequence of having no natural goalscorers among their squad.
It will be closely contested, but it would have to go some to match the passion that will certainly be on display when Wales take on Northern Ireland in a battle of two of the home nations. This is already uncharted territory for both sides, and this is a chance for either of them to write another new chapter in their footballing history.
Wales will be expected to triumph given their superior quality, and the manner in which they topped Group B with an eye-catching demolition of Russia, but Northern Ireland will be confident of upsetting the apple cart once again as their manager Michael O’Neill plots another unlikely route to victory. Gareth Bale has three goals in as many games so far for Wales, and could again be the man to decide the outcome.
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