That’s the Group Stage for you. All four teams in each group play each other and have to prove in those 270 minutes and then some if they deserve to move on. Sixteen teams proved themselves worthy and it’s up to a single match in the Round of 16 to narrow the field of 16 down to 8 and the quarterfinals to reduce the field of 8 down to 4. So here are my predictions for the next two rounds:
ROUND OF 16
First off the Round of 16. This is the first Euro ever to have such a round. That’s what happens when you increase the number of teams from 16 to 24. Similar confusing format as the Women’s World Cup last year, if not the same. And here are my predictions with my picks for the winner in bold.
Switzerland (Group A 2nd) vs. Poland (Group C 2nd): This makes it the first Euro for either team to qualify for the knockout round. This is also the first Euro Poland won their first game. Also who would’ve expected that draw to Germany? I believe further success will come Poland’s way as they have been excellent. Also Switzerland has never won against Poland. They may have drawn in a friendly almost a year and a half ago but Poland has always beat Switzerland.
Wales (Group B Winner) vs. Northern Ireland (Wildcard: Group C): You could attribute Wales coming out on top because of Gareth Bale but it is a whole team effort. Also Northern Ireland knew how to deliver in their surprise win over Ukraine 2-0 which was enough to give them the berth here. The two have played each other eight times before with Wales winning three times, NI once and four draws. Their most recent match was a friendly back in March where they drew 1-1. I feel this will lead to a draw that will go to penalty kicks where Wales will win.
Croatia (Winner Group D) vs. Portugal (Wildcard: Group F): Normally I would predict Portugal to win this, especially since Portugal beat Croatia the three previous times they’ve met. However you just have to watch the play of these two teams here to get a good sense who will win. Croatia has been playing brilliantly despite their games plagued by obnoxious flare-throwing fans. However Portugal has struggled in their lineup and they have not appeared all that together. In fact you’d expect a team like Portugal to qualify with more than just three straight draws. I will give it to Croatia to win. They definitely look like a team that’s on. Note: If Croatia wins, this will be the first Euro where Croatia wins a knockout game.
France (Winner Group A) vs. Republic of Ireland (Wildcard: Group E): As host nation, France had to do well. However they already had a talented enough squad to take them through the first round. Actually many people are thinking France has what it takes to win. Ireland have to have the ‘luck of the Irish’ that they were able to qualify after their win against Italy. They had a tie and a loss and appeared in danger of heading out. It’s either the luck of winning or Italy just wanting to take it easy knowing they finished first in their group. It almost seems like a forgone conclusion for France to win. Besides their last loss to Ireland was all the way back in the 80’s. It’s fair to pick France.
Germany (Winner Group C) vs. Slovakia (Wildcard: Group B): Germany won their group as expected. This was Slovakia’s first Euro so a chance for themselves to prove themselves in front of the whole continent. They did very well in tying England and beating Russia. You think they should be invincible against Slovakia, right? Not so fast! Germany may have beat Slovakia in three of the five times they met but their last meeting was a month ago in a friendly and it was SLOVAKIA that won 3-1. So I predict the game will go to a draw even in extra time. However I predict Germany to win on penalty kicks. I have a hunch that’s what it will come down to. The only sure thing about Germany is a blemish-free penalty kick result.
Hungary (Winner Group F) vs. Belgium (Group E 2nd): A case of two teams. One is a team playing better than their country ever has. Another you could rightfully call the ‘comeback kids.’ However it’s better to say Hungary proved you can’t call them a ‘blast from the past’ anymore. Hungary has a team that’s ready to return their country to glory. However Hungary’s comeback is not immediate. It’s slow but sure. However I think the Round of 16 is the furthest they’ll be getting right now. Besides Belgium has never lost to Hungary in the times they’ve played each other. I predict Belgium to win.
Italy (Winner Group E) vs. Spain (Group D 2nd): How about that? Two teams that have a stellar reputation in football. Two teams that had an embarrassing Group Stage ouster during the 2014 World Cup. Two teams that played very well in the Euro 2016 group stage. And only one will still be in the running and one other will be out in the Round of 16. There may be concern since both teams lost their last game. However Italy decided to send in some lesser-skilled players for their match against Ireland since they knew they’d finish first in Group E anyways. Spain on the other hand started brilliantly and ended up giving their 1st place ranking away to Croatia. The two have known to have a colorful rivalry with Italy last defeating Spin in 2011. However I think Italy will win in added extra time.
England (Group B 2nd) vs. Iceland (Group F 2nd): England qualifying is not a surprise. Here in Euro 2016, they’re back in a familiar position. Iceland however has been the big surprise of the tournament with 1-1 draws against Hungary and Portugal and a last-second goal giving them a 2-1 win over Austria. The funniest thing is that whenever you see 25,000 Icelandics waving their flag in the stadiums, you’re reminded at least 5% of Iceland’s population is there. Yes, pound-for-pound Iceland has proven themselves in recent years to be the top football team in the world, especially during Euro 2016. However I think Icelandic luck will end here. England has only played Iceland once before and won but that was back in 2004. I’m sure England will win again here although definitely by a smaller margin.
It is tradition that I make quarterfinal predictions. For each quarterfinal, I assume each prediction I make for the Round of 16 is true, though you know it’s not always the case. Whatever the situation, here goes:
Croatia vs. Poland: Croatia is the best it’s ever been at a Euro as is Poland. Poland is actually the best it’s been in decades. However both Croatia and Poland have met five times in the past with Croatia winning three times and Poland once. I predict Croatia to win again but in added extra time.
Wales vs. Belgium: Wales and Belgium have met ten times before with Wales winning three times and Belgium four. I predict this will go to a draw in added extra time and Belgium will win on penalty kicks.
Germany vs. Italy: Traditionally Italy has been known as Germany’s ‘Achilles Heel.’ Germany has lost to Italy on many big occasions like the semifinals of both the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012. However Germany turned the tables in a friendly three months ago and won 4-1. I predict Germany to win again here.
England vs. France: A familiar rivalry. England has won in 17 of the 30 previous meetings. However the tabled turned for France starting in 1999 and the odds would be in their favor with wins or draws. However England got back their advantage back in a friendly in November and won 2-0. I think however France will have the advantage with the home crowd.
And there are my predictions for the first two knockout rounds. That’s how I see things but I know there will be at least one surprise or two. Pele has always said “Football is a box of surprises.” Expect to see some here in the next few rounds. And I’ll see you all again in the semis.