16 matches gone, 15 more to go. After the agonisingly long qualification process, the tournament itself feels brutally short – then again, that’s probably what makes up most of the excitement at this level, the fact that every match is a final.
So how have the 16 teams performed so far? Let’s look at it group by group:
Portugal have, as expected, dominated proceedings. Their two wins against the Czechs and the Turks ensure that they will finish top of the group no matter what happens in the last round. You can expect them to rest a couple of players against Switzerland and Scolari will already be planning his strategy for Germany, Portugal’s likely quarter-final opponents.
The Czechs are where they’d expect to be – although the defeat against Portugal was disappointing. They have a crunch tie against Turkey today which they’ll be quietly confident of winning, although with Croatia to come up next in the quarters (if they win) there is no room left for mistakes and they cannot afford to miss any scoring chances. And if it goes to penalties, Cech should be able to bail them out.
Turkey are in with a real shout of qualification to the next round – as long as the players work hard and play the team and not the reputation, they could very well upset the Czechs and get through to the quarters. Might be worth a punt if you’re the betting sort.
Switzerland – the first team to be dumped out of the Euros, and most people are expecting their humiliation to be complete when Portugal beat them tonight. It’s a shame, because Switzerland have a decent team and could have taken a point against the Czechs, not to mention that they’d have fancied their chances to beat Turkey. The lack of proper match practice prior to the tournament – they haven’t played a competitive game since the World Cup – showed here, but even then the Swiss should have done better.
Surprisingly for some, Croatia top the group ahead of Germany and will qualify in first place. Slaven Bilic’s men may have been ‘lucky’ against Austria but they raised their game to efficiently dispatch the Germans and have another game to fine-tune their tactics before the quarter-finals. Poland will provide stiff opposition but are unlikely to trouble the Croats much – or the Germans, for that matter.
Germany lost a game most expected them to at least draw and now face a rematch of their 3rd place playoff against Portugal from 2 years ago in the quarters. That is, assuming they win their next game. The upside is that their opponents are Austria, who might be in with a chance of qualification but are hardly the team to worry Germany. Still, if there was ever an upset to occur, this would surely be it.
Austria are ahead of Poland on goal difference (i.e. they’ve conceded fewer goals) and will be hoping that the lifeline handed to them in stoppage time against Poland will not be the end of things going their way. Winning against Germany is a must, and you can expect the Austrians to go all-out on this one, and I’d expect a lot of neutrals to back them here as well (apart from the Poles…).
Poland will not only have to beat Croatia but if Austria win against Germany, they’ll have to beat them with a better goal differential as well. It’s a tall task and in the aftermath of the draw against Austria the management at least looked more pre-occupied with complaining about the wrongs committed against them than their outside chance to qualify for the quarters. I’d give Poland a draw at best.
The Group of Death has for once lived up to its reputation. The two giants – Italy and France – have suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Dutch (despite playing half-decent, especially in the case of the French) and now Netherlands not only top their group but also enjoy the best scoring record in the Euros so far. They have a relatively tough match against Romania and despite their superiority the Dutch will be aiming for a win to keep their momentum going.
Romania find themselves in the strange position of being second in their group after drawing their two games against Italy and France. Another draw might not be enough if the Italy-France game produces a winner, but they’ll know that if they can score first against the Dutch they have a shot at winning the game and for that reason alone they are my picks for qualifying from this group alongside Holland.
France and Italy share the same problems – under-performing players, managers who seem to have lost their touch (if they ever had any, that is) and overall, two teams who have lost the support of the neutrals with their turgid displays.
To be fair, France showed flashes of brilliance against Holland and if things had been slightly different that game could have been a draw, if not a win for the French. Their inability to make their chances count is troubling but they’re atleast creating chances and will be hoping that Buffon is not on top form on Tuesday.
Italy on the other hand seem a lost cause. Their defence is a shambles and they don’t have the goals they need anywhere in the squad. Unless Toni plays a blinder or Materazzi remembers how to play center-back, Italy will be going home disgraced.
A draw between both teams coupled with a loss for Romania would still send Romania through provided that they can keep their goal difference to -2 or above.
Spain are through after beating Russia and Sweden with ease and can now focus on the next round, and on their current form you can see them beating France or Italy. Their last game is against Greece, champions from last time around but beaten in two hard-fought matches by Sweden and Russia. Should be a simple game, although Aragones will probably rest one or two players which might give Greece the space to register their first goal of the tournament.
Sweden go into the final round knowing that a draw will be enough to see them through to the quarters. They’ve looked stronger than Russia in the first two games but will need to play at their best to keep Hiddink’s men at bay. Still, with a draw needed to qualify, you’d back Sweden to go through.
Russia have stumbled but Hiddink should fancy his chances against Sweden as long as they can stick to their game plan and not get sucked into a physical battle of attrition. Nothing less than a win will do, and for that I’m betting Russia will need to score at least twice.
Greece are out, along with the Swiss, but at least the hosts scored a goal. Their last game will be a mere formality and the Greeks will consider themselves unfortunate to have been beaten by Sweden and Russia, games they would have expected at least a point each from.
Portugal v Germany – Portugal
Czech Republic v Croatia – Croatia
Netherlands v Sweden – Netherlands
France v Spain – France
Portugal v Croatia – Portugal
Netherlands v France – France
Portugal v France – Portugal