No bad teams sneaked through and no obvious favorite has emerged. Isn’t Euro 2016 great?
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We’re through the group stage of Euro 2016, and we’re now down to the final 16 teams in the tournament. With the round of 16 kicking off on Saturday, we now have a big question to answer: how do these teams stack up against one another?
There have been some upsets, some rising stars, and some bitter disappointments along the way, massively shaking up our views on the teams still left in the tournament. So while we’re in a break before action resumes, this is a good time to step back and evaluate just how well these teams rate. These rankings are based on a combination of the teams’ talent and how well they’ve played, two very subjective measures rife for debate, but in a tournament setting it’s what you have available.
It should also be noted that this isn’t a ranking on who’s most likely to win the tournament, just of the best teams. The brackets for the knockout rounds worked out in a fairly unusual fashion, with a lot of the best teams all on one side of it. We’re in for a wild ride regardless, because there’s a lot of talent left in Euro 2016.
The defending World Cup champions have been dominant again in the Euros, with only a scoreless draw against also-strong Poland serving as a blot on their record. Otherwise they’ve been as ruthless and relentless as ever, taking Ukraine’s best performance of the tournament and handing them a 2-0 loss for their troubles, then handling Northern Ireland with ease. They’ve got the talent, they’ve got the production, they’ve got the performances — now it’s just a question of how far they’ll go.
Croatia have quietly been putting together one hell of a tournament run so far, breezing through Turkey, handling the Czech Republic with ease before crowd dramatics served as a distraction, and then having an incredible match with Spain before gutting out the win in the end. They’ve got perhaps the best midfield in the tournament and a defense that’s been taking steady strides over the last few years. Now, crucially, Croatia’s attack seems to be showing up, and it’s going to be interesting to see just how far they can go now that they’re becoming a complete team.
There were a lot of questions hanging over the two-time defending European Championship winners before the tournament began. Their once-elite core was largely aging and not looking as intimidating as they once were, and they’d been struggling to integrate new talent to make up for it. So far in the tournament they’ve looked like the same old Spain, though, dominating their opponents thanks to strong performances from players like Nolito. Their head-to-head loss to Croatia gives their rival the edge in these rankings, but Spain have definitely established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
It may seem surprising to see Poland listed up so high in a ranking like this above teams like Belgium or France or England. But when you consider how those bigger teams have underperformed so far in this tournament and then look at how strong Poland looked in their group matches, it’s hard not to put them up this high. They’re headlined by star striker Robert Lewandowski, but they’ve put in three solid team performances behind him to win two matches and earn a hard-fought draw with Germany. If they keep this level of play up, they’re going to be awfully tough to knock out of the tournament.
Italy had a lot of problems in terms of form, squad composition, and a lot of tactical questions coming into the tournament, but they haven’t let that slow them down at all. They haven’t played super attractive, high-flying football, but they’ve played to their strengths and covered up their weaknesses well, winning their first two group matches over Belgium and Sweden easily to secure the top spot in their group before a heavily rotated team fell late to Ireland. It’s not the most awe-inspiring style around, but it’s smart and it’s working — and that’s all that counts in a tournament setting.
England could and probably should be higher than this based on their potential and the form of performances like their win over Wales, but they were so dull and so bad against Russia and Slovakia in a pair of draws that it’s hard to give them that much credit. They have a lot of room to potentially improve if Roy Hodgson ever loosens up on the reins, though, and the bracket favors them with where they wound up, so don’t be surprised if England winds up making a deep run in the tournament anyways.
Gareth Bale has arguably been the best player in the tournament so far, and the rest of the Welsh team has been solid as well. But there’s still a nagging feeling that they should be playing much better than they have been, and that something is holding them back. Unless they can figure out what that something is, it’s hard to see Wales getting a deep run once they start running into the other top talents in the tournament.
The hosts of this year’s Euros got off to a fantastic start against Romania, winning easily in a match that played with a much wider margin of victory than the 2-1 final score. Their second two group matches didn’t play out nearly as well for France, though, needing two stoppage-time goals to beat Albania, and not managing a single goal against a Switzerland side that didn’t really play all that well themselves in their third and final group match. France has the talent to run the table and win this on home soil, but their tactics and performances haven’t really reflected that so far. They need to kick things up another gear or two fast if they’re going to convince people that they can really win this thing.
On pure talent in athletic and technical senses, there may not be another team in this tournament that can hang with Belgium. But in terms of tactics, manager Marc Wilmots has been well off the mark in the tournament so far, and Belgium has been playing far below their normal standard because of it. Still, after their humbling loss to Italy in their first match, they bounced back well in a big win over Ireland, and found a way to win ugly over Sweden, something they’ve rarely done in the past. Despite their setbacks, there’s plenty of reason to hope for Belgium fans, and if they can finally get rolling they’re going to be hard to stop.
Slovakia could only manage a win and an uninspiring draw, but their best performance of the tournament was arguably in their loss to Wales, when the winner came late and saw Slovakia take one of the best teams in Europe to the limit. With star player Marek Hamsik playing well and several others putting in impressive shifts of their own, Slovakia have the technical ability and tactical know-how to cause another upset or two in this tournament despite being dealt a brutal hand by the knockout brackets — they just need a little bit of luck to help them along.
Switzerland were one of the more promising sides coming into the tournament, but coming out of the group stage they’re one of the hardest to evaluate. They finished second in a tough group, but never really had a truly impressive performance. They started fairly well in a win over Albania, but were thoroughly uninspiring in draws against Romania and France. They have the talent to make some noise in the knockout rounds, but on form it doesn’t look like they’re going to be a major threat.
The Euros have featured an absolute miracle run from Hungary, one typified by their dramatic draw with Portugal to close out the group stage and secure their spot atop their group. Now that they’re in single-elimination matches against the 15 other top sides in this tournament, though, the miracles probably can’t last much longer. They’re still going to work just as hard to get as much as they can out of their Euro run, but with a tough round of 16 matchup looming against Belgium, it looks like time is running out.
Iceland haven’t played up to their potential yet in this tournament, and while they haven’t performed poorly, they also haven’t looked like one of the best sides from the qualifying groups like they were. Still, a win over Austria and draws against Portugal and Hungary are nothing to sneeze at, and Iceland definitely earned their spot in the knockout rounds — but the bracket matchups aren’t looking kind for them, starting with a match against England, and potential matches against France, Germany, Spain, or Italy later on if somehow they get by the Three Lions. They need to be a lot better than they have been to get through that, and it just doesn’t feel like that kind of performance is coming.
14. Republic of Ireland
It took a desperate and hard-fought performance for Ireland to make the knockout rounds, but they definitely earned their place here. Still, it’s hard to see them making it much further, if any further at all, because as impressive as Ireland can be, they’re just not as good as the teams around them. If they beat France, they’d have to face the winner of England-Iceland, two sides they match up very poorly against — and let’s face it, they don’t look like they stand much of a chance against France, either. It’s been a great run for the Irish, but riding on dreams doesn’t last forever.
Let’s get this out of the way: Cristiano Ronaldo is amazing and he’s doing well in the tournament. He’s doing everything he can to pull Portugal along to success — but the rest of his team has been so poor that even Ronaldo, for all his gifts, can’t do much. A team with such an elite player is always a risk to explode in any given match, but so much of the Portugal side has been so poor during the tournament that it doesn’t seem likely.
16. Northern Ireland
Someone had to come in last. Sorry, Northern Ireland, but despite a pretty neat win over Ukraine, you just haven’t been good enough to not be last. It’s nothing personal.