Coming into the final round of group matches, it looked an extremely tough ask for the Republic of Ireland to beat Italy and qualify for the knockout stages of Euro 2016, particularly on the evidence of their previous outing against Belgium. However, a terrific display and a late headed goal from Robbie Brady saw them do just that, securing a berth as one of the four best third-placed teams.
It sets up a rather enticing encounter with hosts France, which immediately evokes memories of the two-legged play-off these sides contested in November 2009 when they were attempting to reach the following year’s World Cup.
It had looked set to go to penalties until an instinctive handball from Thierry Henry led to William Gallas firing in the goal which won it for France, sparking a flurry of bitter complaints and eventually resulting in the Irish FA receiving financial compensation.
The opportunity to gain revenge for that sour night has been a talking point since the draw for the last 16 was confirmed, but boss Martin O’Neill will focus his attention on containing a side that has a frightening array of attacking talent.
While they will look to play with the same fluency that they did against Italy, the Republic must ensure that they are compact and difficult to penetrate, or else they will not stand a chance of pulling off a major upset. As far as France are concerned, they should hope to perform more convincingly than they did in topping Group A, although the positive for them is that Paul Pogba now seems to be showing his true colours after starring against Switzerland.
This match begins the action on Sunday, and it will be followed by the meeting between Germany and Slovakia. The world champions will be heavy favourites to progress and should be expected to get the job done in a tournament where so far they have done just that. There have been no heroics, but the efficiency for which they are so well known may just begin to take hold here.
Slovakia will hope for a similar display to the one that frustrated England and was enough to see them through as the strongest of all the third placed sides, but given that this is a knockout encounter they will surely have to show a little more attacking intent than they did in Saint-Etienne. Marek Hamsik and Robert Mak are both capable of causing problems to that Germany backline.
The final game to take place on the second day of the last 16 stage sees surprise Group F winners Hungary face the competitions highest ranked team in Belgium. Of all the second round match-ups this is among the most intriguing, and given the confidence that Hungary have at present they may feel as though they have it in them to cause another upset.
The displays which saw them take four points against Austria and Iceland were impressive, but the manner in which they stood toe-to-toe with Portugal was refreshingly unexpected, going ahead on three separate occasions. They may need to tighten up defensively, but they have shown that they do pack a punch going forward and Belgium should be wary.
After a poor start against Italy, Marc Wilmots’ side recovered to win their two games which followed and thus get back on track. They will be expected to triumph here, and should they fail to do so it would be seen as a major failure for a squad which such individual quality and promise. From their perspective, Hungary cannot be allowed to spoil that.
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