6 Groups 12 days 24 teams 36 matches it took in the European Continental championship UEFA Euro 2016 to progress to the Pre-Quarter Finals Stage.
A total of 16 teams have for the first time made it to the knockout phase of the tournament. Not only has been the group stage thrown in a host of surprises in the way teams performed, it also has thrown up an equally surprising round 16 with all strong teams on one side and relatively weaker opponents on the other.
This has been possible because of some exceptional football played by minnows finishing above the bigger teams as well as by the tweak in rules where the four 3rd best team in the group stage also go through. An example of this is Group F match of Hungary v/s Portugal and Austria v/s Iceland. Both matches kicked off simultaneously and as the 1st match finished Portugal was in the 2nd place and was to face England and Iceland were to face Wales but a minute later just seconds before the final whistle Iceland scored and now finish second and will face England however Portugal courtesy of more goals will now face Croatia and not Wales. This is just one example of the permutations and combinations that have been on display in the tournament.
These confusions arose because of the performance of teams in the group lets look at how they fared in the group stages.
The group had hosts France, along with Switzerland, first timers Albania and Romania. France as expected topped the group and by their performance have made their claims to the trophy quite strong. Switzerland remained unbeaten and defeated Albania by a Swiss team comprising majority of Albanians. Romania managed a lone point finishing at the bottom of the group. However Albania with 3 points failed to move to the next round as they were beaten by a negative goal difference.
The group saw 3 teams moving into the round of 16. Surprisingly it was Wales a first timer which topped the group and
England came second continuing their history of disappointment in major tournaments.
Slovakia courtesy of a win against Russia and a draw against England finished 3rd on 4 points and topped in the 3rd place finish ranking and move to next round. Russia once promising were a shadow of their past finished 4th with 1 point add to that their rogue fans makes it a forgettable tournament for them.
Reigning World Champions Germany topped the group but only on goal difference, the dark horse Poland shared 7 points from 3 matches but had scored one less goal and was thus second.
First timers Northern Ireland made it to the next round by finishing last in the 3rd place ranking their Goal difference of zero helped them qualify as there were three other teams tied on three points each. Ukraine finished last with zero points and the worst goal difference in the tournament of minus 5.
In what was another dark horse triumph Croatia finished top of group beating defending champions Spain in the final match of the group 2-1. Croatia were unbeaten finishing at 7 points winning against Spain and Turkey and drawing to Czech Republic. Spain were jittery from at start and had to depend on a Pique header minutes before the full time to beat Czech Republic. However they seemed to have evolved scoring 3 against Turkey only to again expose themselves against Croatia.
Turkey finished 3rd with 3 points but missed out going to next round due to a negative goal difference.
Group E was the group of Death. And Sweden was the causality failing to make the cut. Italy a team that was written off as being too old topped the group courtesy some Conte’s master class. But they came short in the last match with Republic of Ireland beating them in what could be regarded as the biggest upset. Belgium the highest ranked team of the tournament finished second with the same points, Republic of Ireland courtesy that upset made it the next round in what was highly unlikely.
Sweden and the mighty Zlatan failed to score even one goal in the tournament and finished last.
With Portugal grouped with Iceland, Austria and Hungary one would expect a cake walk for Ronaldo and co., but football is a funny game the Portuguese side failed to win even a single match and finished 3rd drawing all three matches.
It was courtesy their goal difference and Ronaldo’s heroics in the last match that they qualified for the next round. Hungary a team way past its prime topped the group courtesy some gusty performances and Iceland a country with a population of only 3 lakh plus playing for the first time in the tournament finished second much to the joy of their one third population who are in France to support their team. Austria, team which many thought will create an upset in the tournament after their near perfect qualifying phase failed to turn up when it mattered the most and finished last.
What to expect from Round of 16
As things stand you cannot point say who is the favorite there has been no team which has played a near perfect game barring France. However there has been no big casualties either and all those who should have made it knockout phases have. The tournament is likely to get more interesting and with the draw tilted in favor of small teams one cannot deny the possibility of a minnow walking home with the title. Wales anyone?