It has taken 36 matches for the Euro 2016 field to be reduced from 24 teams to 16, the number that should have been invited to begin with. As one would expect, the quality of play improved a bit after the first set of matches as teams got used to playing together in competitive matches. It remains pretty ordinary, though.
This is not mainly the fault of the minnows — teams from the lower echelon of European football, some of whom made the tournament only because the field expanded to 24. Most of the minnows have acquitted themselves reasonably well, albeit usually by playing very defensively.
Hungary and Wales have been the best of the minnows. Iceland (population of around 325,000) is the feel good story of the tourney. The Icelanders will play England in the Round of 16 on Monday.
The fault for the mediocrity of the group stage lies mainly with “middle class” teams. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Austria, Turkey all were massive disappointments. They have vanished, along with minnow Albania — home before the postcards, as the joke goes.
Croatia is an upper-middle class footballing country that happens to have a strong squad right now. In my preview of the Euros, I flagged the Croats as one of the top eight teams in the tournament. So far they have looked top three. However, EPL fans may be wondering how far Croatia can go with a back line anchored by former Tottenham defender Vedran Corlucka.
Here’s the thing, though. The brackets for the elimination rounds are terribly lopsided. One side includes four of the teams I rated in the top five when the Euros began — Germany (the World Cup champs), France (the hosts), Spain (the defending Euro champs), and Italy (the runners up at the last Euros). Spain and Italy will square off in the Round of 16 in a match one would expect to occur no earlier than the semi-finals and that was the final four years ago.
This creates a huge opportunity for teams in the other bracket. They include the aforementioned Croatia, Portugal (also in my pre-tournament top eight) and Belgium (in my top four when play began).
Since this bracket will play its Round of 16 games first, let’s focus on it.
Portugal, who will play Croatia, has been wretched so far, managing only three draws in a group filled with minnows. In my preview of the tournament, I wondered how much Portugal’s superstar Cristiano Ronaldo had left after a brutally taxing season with European club champions Real Madrid. After the first two matches, the answer seemed to be: not much.
Ronaldo came alive in the third match, however, with two goals and an assist. Yes, it was against Hungary. But if Ronaldo has kick started his Euros, Portugal could make noise in its bracket. I’m looking forward to the Portugal-Croatia match tomorrow.
Poland is also in the weak bracket. Yet to concede a goal at the Euros, the Poles looked just about as good as the Germans in advancing through their common group. And this was without getting much from star player, Robert Lewandowski the leading scorer in the German league this season and (for me) its best player.
If Lewandowski finds his goal scoring form, Poland might make a deep run. If he doesn’t, Poland might be eliminated tomorrow by pedestrian but efficient Switzerland.
Belgium is probably the team most likely to get through this bracket and reach the finals. Belgium was flummoxed by Italy’s superb defense, came alive to rout Ireland, and then dominated Sweden but struggled to score.
Top stars Eden Hazard and Kevin DeBruyne are both playing well. Rumor has it they are even speaking to each other (as I understand it, one speaks French; the other Flemish). Everton’s Romelu Lukaku has scored twice, but also missed some good chances. The main thing, though, is that he’s terrorizing defenders (other than the unflappable Italians) and setting things up for his teammates.
In my preview, I flagged fullback as a potential trouble spot for Belgium, and so it proved to be against Italy. Manager Marc Wilmots made a change at right back after the Italy match, bringing in the attack-minded Thomas Meunier, who has played well. But Meunier was able to stay in attack mode against Ireland and Sweden. It remains to be seen how well he can defend against top wingers.
On the other side, poor Jan Vertonghen, an outstanding center back, has been forced into fullback duty, just as he was at the World Cup. He’s worked tirelessly on the flank, but had a tough time against Italy and looked less than comfortable at times in the next two matches.
Belgium will play Hungary and then, if successful in that match, the winner of Wales and Northern Ireland. Wales is heavily favored against their fellow Brits, and Belgium would be favored against Wales. Even so, Belgium’s fullbacks can’t be looking forward to confronting Welch wizard Gareth Bale, one of the stars of the tournament so far.
The 24 team format marred the group stage and the skewed brackets will mar the knock-out stage. But for soccer fans, Euro 2016 is still an enthralling show and the real drama is only beginning.