36 matches have been played and the 24-team EURO 2016 field has been reduced to 16 for the first round of the knock-out stage. Reviewing the 2016 European Championship after the group phase, one can say the favourites have struggled, four of the five newcomers have advanced to the next round and there were fewer goals than ever before. Thomas Müller, Germany’s World Cup-winning forward has come up with the new motto: “The tournament gets underway for real now.”
When Britons went along to the polling stations on Thursday to vote for whether the country should leave the EU, the decision at EURO 2016 had already been made: “No BREXIT!” Great Britain is a member of European football’s elite as all three British teams have progressed to the round of the last 16. Wales and Northern Ireland will meet in the first knock-out round. Led by their top star Gareth Bale, the Welsh pulled off the biggest surprise by topping Group B ahead of second-placed England, who will play Iceland for a quarterfinal berth after the northern Europeans sensationally finished runners up in Group F. It appears that two teams from the United Kingdom could well reach the round containing Europe’s top eight teams.
The surprising progress of the three British teams has been flanked by Ireland who advanced in the dying minutes with a 1-0 win against Italy in Group E. If they are to reach the quarterfinals they now have to beat hosts France. The Irish are naturally a separate nation but their national pride is in part based on the complicated history between the two nations. As far as football is concerned, Ireland has close ties with England. All the players in the European Championship squad are on the books of English clubs – 12 in the Premier League and ten in the division below, the Championship. The exception is Eire’s most-capped player Robbie Keane, 35, who, after leaving the Premier League five years ago, has been turning out for Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS.
Switzerland - Poland (Saturday, 15.00 hrs, St. Etienne)
Croatia - Portugal (Saturday, 21.00 hrs, Lens)
Wales – Northern Ireland (Saturday, 18.00 hrs, Paris)
Germany – Slovakia (Sunday, 18.00 hrs, Lille)
Hungary - Belgium (Sunday, 21.00 hrs, Toulouse)
Italy - Spain (Monday, 18.00 hrs, Saint-Denis)
France - Ireland (Sunday, 15.00 hrs, Lyon)
England -Iceland (Monday, 21.00 hrs, Nice)
The complicated method for determining the next ties has come in for criticism. “We’ve been playing for two weeks now and it feels like we still have eight possible opponents in the last 16. Thirty-six games have been played so that eight from 24 teams are eliminated,” said a perplexed Toni Kroos after Germany’s 1-0 win against Northern Ireland, and not only the Champions League winner from Real Madrid finds the system strange. For World Cup winners Germany, it only became apparent that they would be playing Slovakia at the last moment on Wednesday. Everything only became clear when the final whistles went in the last group games when Ireland beat Italy 1-0 with a goal in the dying minutes and Belgium also beat Sweden 1-0. The constellations kept changing, and not only for the Germans who on Wednesday evening appeared to be heading towards an encounter with Albania. However the East Europeans eventually fell by the wayside as one of the two worst group third-placed teams, like the hugely disappointed Turks. For the fourth-placed teams in the six groups everything was all to clear. At the half-way stage of the European Championship, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Austria have all returned home.
Portugal, a semi-finalist on three occasions, was on the brink of being eliminated. However in the most spectacular and highest-scoring game – the 3-3 draw with Hungary – it was two-goal Cristian Ronaldo that played a vital role in ensuring “Europe’s Brazilians” survived the group stage. The six-goal encounter was the stand-out of the preliminary round marked by a distinct lack of goals. Four goalless draws played a big part in making EURO 2016 the lowest scoring championships ever. There was an average of only 1.92 per game.
Another trend: the favourites did not have things all their own way and the newcomers did a very good job. None of the title contenders were totally convincing in all three group matches. For the first time since 1996, no team was able to register three wins and a maximum nine points in the group matches. The top teams did their utmost but their effectiveness left a lot to be desired. Portugal needed 69 shots for their four goals but was still more efficient than England (65 shots/3 goals) and Germany (59/3).
None of the pundits had predicted that four of the five European Championship newcomers would progress to the next round containing the best 16 teams. Wales, Iceland, Slovakia and Northern Ireland all advanced to the second round – only Albania exited. When examining player performances, Hertha Berlin’s Vladimir Darida stands out. No other player ran more than the midfielder who totalled 37.4 kilometres in the three group games. His Czech Republic team exited nevertheless. As for the German team, Thomas Müller put in the most kilometres (33.7). Things however did not go quite so well with his goal-scoring exploits. The 26-year old has amassed ten goals in World Cup finals but is yet to score at the European Championship. It is hoped things will change. French, English, Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Croatian strikers are also hoping for a change in fortunes as are those playing for all the other teams left in the competition. “The tournament gets underway for real now,” said Thomas Müller. Better matches with less defensively-minded team should be guaranteed. A draw arrived at by parking the bus is no longer good enough to reach the next knock-out round.