Saturday evening was arguably the most anticipated night of the year (pertaining to the football calendar at least) for fans of nations like Wales, Northern Ireland, Iceland, and others who are not accustomed to regularly taking part in high profile international tournaments.
But on Saturday they all gathered in France for the Euro 2016 group stage draw. We knew this draw had potential to produce some intriguing ties, and it delivered. If you’re here you likely already know the details by now, but to recap:
- England will play Wales in Group B. They underestimate Slovakia at their peril, while Russia have improved since a stuttering qualifying campaign, but on paper they should both have the quality to make the knockout stage.
- Northern Ireland were drawn in Group C with world champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine. Two out of three of those sides are arguably the strongest from their respective pots, but to draw Ukraine from pot 2 was a nice stroke of luck that could provide the ‘Green and White army’ an opportunity to finish third in this group at the very least… while Germany and Poland would do well to remember our record against the bigger teams. I’m quietly confident.
- Republic of Ireland found themselves drawn into this tournament’s “group of death” with Italy, Sweden, and Belgium, still ranked top of the Fifa rankings. A lot of people seem to be writing off Ireland’s chances here straight away, but I wouldn’t quite say that… they play Sweden in their first match; a crucial game they really have to win if they hope to advance. I’m backing them to do just that and make it out of this group to reach the last 16.
- Group F – including Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary – is intriguing in that it features un-fancied teams who have, to an extent, gone under the radar. Portugal were generally considered the weakest of the top seeds while Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify, are somewhat of an unknown quantity. Austria are my picks to win this group and surprise a few people at this tournament.
- If France and Germany win their groups as expected, they’re set to meet in the semi-finals – so you can probably pencil that tie in right now. Whoever wins the ‘group of death’ will also be on this side of the bracket for the knockout rounds, but I’d easily back Germany against Belgium or Italy in the quarter-finals.
- This does mean the other side of the tournament bracket appears more open. On the surface Spain look a safe bet to win Group D and make one of the semi-finals, but they are not the same team that won three tournaments in a row between 2008 and 2012; I’m expecting them to have a few issues navigating their group.
- You can view the tournament bracket yourself right here.
- Dare I say (though I know people often jump on you for suggesting such a thing), should England or Wales win Group B, either of them could be dark horses to make the semi-finals in what appears to be the easier half of the bracket.
Part of me does think it’s too early to be making firm predictions at this stage, but based on what we know and on where teams are at currently, here’s how I’d call the groups:
Group A: France winners, Switzerland runners-up, Romania to advance in third place.
Group B: Wales winners, England runners-up, Slovakia to advance in third place.
Group C: Germany winners, Northern Ireland runners-up, Poland to advance in third place.
Group D: Croatia winners, Spain runners-up, Turkey third.
Group E: Italy winners, Belgium runners-up, Rep. of Ireland to advance in third place.
Group F: Austria winners, Iceland runners-up, Portugal third.
Now, due to the uniqueness of this tournament bracket it’s tough even to call which of the third placed teams will be playing who in the last 16, so a part of this next stage is guess work – but then again this is all fantasy anyway. So let’s use a bit of imagination to predict the possibilities for the next stage…
Switzerland v Northern Ireland
Croatia v Slovakia
Wales v Poland
Austria v Belgium
Germany v Romania
Italy v Spain
France v Rep. of Ireland
England v Iceland
If I was forced to make a call on the quarter-finals from these possibilities I’d go something like this:
Northern Ireland v Croatia – Croatia to win after extra time
Wales v Belgium – Belgium to win
Germany v Italy – Germany to win
France v England – France to win after extra time
Germany to beat Belgium – Germany win Euro 2016 (?)