LONDON: The European Championship is well and truly up for grabs as the tournament enters the knockouts after a compelling group stage in which some top nations fell short of expectations while two fallen powers staged a resurgence.
Italy and the Netherlands, who both failed to qualify for the last World Cup, have played some of the best football and made up two of the three sides to win all their group games.
Belgium, the number one ranked team in the world and the only top side to have fully lived up to expectations, were the other to accrue nine points.
World champions France, meanwhile, are yet to catch fire and were involved in one of the shocks of the tournament when they drew 1-1 with Hungary, only for Group ‘F’ rivals Germany to suffer even more against the minnows before snatching a 2-2 draw to sneak into the last 16 and avoid another major tournament humiliation.
More superpowers have struggled, such as holders Portugal, who were overwhelmed 4-2 by Germany and needed a flurry of late goals to beat the dogged Hungary.
Euro 2008 and 2012 winners Spain were booed off the pitch by unhappy fans after drawing their first two games before eventually lifting off by hammering Slovakia 5-0.
England coach Gareth Southgate meanwhile has faced criticism for deploying conservative tactics, in particular after a surprise 0-0 draw with Scotland, while his captain Harry Kane has had a tournament to forget and is yet to score.
Italy have been perhaps the best side overall thanks to a remarkable tactical shift from Roberto Mancini, who has turned the nation famed for defensive ‘Catenaccio’ into a relentless pressing side capable of scoring from all areas.
Italy have benefitted from some kind fixtures though and should also make light work of Austria to make the quarter-finals, where their mettle will be truly tested by either Portugal or Belgium.
The same is true of the Netherlands, who are the top scorers with eight goals but have looked vulnerable at the back and were fortunate not to concede against rank outsiders North Macedonia.
The Dutch have a kind path in the knockout rounds too, facing the Czech Republic next for the chance to play the winner of Wales against Denmark in the quarters.
ENGLAND SHOWDOWN WITH GERMANY
Two last-16 fixtures stand out in particular: England face Germany in a repeat of the 1996 semi-final at Wembley and Portugal meet Belgium in a showdown between two of the outstanding strikers of the tournament in Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Spain v Croatia is another fascinating fixture, with Luka Modric proving a peerless midfielder in their final outing against Scotland, even at 35 years old, and he will be relishing the chance to face many of his La Liga rivals.
Had Germany lost to Hungary they would have been condemned to an ignominious first-round exit just like at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but now they could be galvanised heading to Wembley next Tuesday for the latest instalment in their long-running rivalry with the English.
The tie brings back memories of the 1966 World Cup final at the same venue which England won 4-2 after extra time.
However it also leads inevitably to mentions of Euro 96 when Germany beat England on penalties at Wembley in the semi-finals before going on to lift the trophy in the final against the Czech Republic.
Indeed, since 1966, Germany have prevailed in all three meetings of the countries in the knockout stages, most recently with a 4-1 win in the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Holders Portugal could scarcely have asked for a tougher tie than a meeting with Belgium, the top-ranked team in the world.
Portugal, who only went through as one of the best third-placed sides, will have had two days fewer rest than the Belgians before the game in Seville on Sunday.
“Forty-eight hours difference, in temperatures of over 30 degrees, of course it makes a difference, but we are not going to go looking for a handicap,” said Portugal coach Fernando Santos. “It is a good game on paper and I hope it will be a great game for Portugal.”
World Cup holders France topped their group and they will now take on Switzerland in Bucharest on Monday.
If they win that, they will face either Croatia or Spain in Saint Petersburg, in the same venue where they defeated Belgium in the semi-finals on the way to winning the World Cup three years ago.
Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2021