Euro 2016 Last 16: First knockout stage promises plenty of drama

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With Euro 2016’s group stages completed on Wednesday, we now have the unpredictability of the knockout stages to look forward to.

After what was one of the most complex group stages in football history, with certain third-place teams qualifying and nobody knowing quite what was going on, the tournament now really kicks into gear.

24 teams have been whittled down to 16, and the majority of countries will feel they have a genuine chance of going far into the competition.

No team has impressed in every game yet, and much-fancied sides such as Spain, Germany and France are certainly both flawed and beatable.

There are eight matches to look forward to over Saturday, Sunday and Monday – we bring you a preview of the upcoming action.

Saturday

Switzerland vs. Poland (2pm BST)

VALE DO LOBO, PORTUGAL - Friday, May 27, 2016: Official Euro016 match ball during day four of the pre-UEFA Euro 2016 training camp at the Vale Do Lobo resort in Portugal. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Of the eight second round matches, this probably stands out less than most. It still has the potential to be an intriguing encounter, though.

Both Switzerland and Poland can be dangerous on their day, with their ability to counter-attack at pace their most potent weapon.

Robert Lewandowski is yet to impact on the tournament for the Poles, but he is a man for the big occasion, while Arkadiusz Milik is a good foil for the Bayern Munich superstar in attack.

Switzerland have quality of their own, not least new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka, but the fact that they lack the firepower of their opponents may be the difference in the end.

Predicted Winners: Poland

Wales vs. Northern Ireland (5pm)

International Football - UEFA Euro 2016 France - Wales v Slovakia

It is a great achievement for both Wales and Northern Ireland to reach the last-16, especially the latter, and this promises to be a passionate affair between the two British nations.

Chris Coleman’s side are actually underrated by many, with a world-class footballer in Gareth Bale, and top class midfielders in Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey at his disposal.

The have the capabilities to give anyone a run of their money on their day, and the big guns will want to avoid them if they do progress.

The Northern Irish have played with unbelievable heart throughout the competition, and they won’t make it easy for Wales.

Captain Steven Davis has been a cut above the rest of his teammates, when it comes to quality, and a big performance will be needed from the Southampton midfielder on Saturday.

If Northern Ireland were to win, it would be the greatest achievement in their history.

Predicted Winners: Wales

Croatia vs. Portugal (8pm)

International Football - UEFA Euro 2016 France - Wales v Slovakia

This has the potential to be a real cracker.

Croatia have arguably been the most impressive team of Euro 2016 so far, and their 2-1 victory over Spain ensured they topped their group.

In Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, they have two of the world’s most talented midfielders, while Ivan Perisic has been one of the players of the tournament to date.

Portugal have not impressed whatsoever, drawing all three of their games in a fairly straightforward group, but they always have the ability to come alive in big matches.

Cristiano Ronaldo has the quality to win games on his own, and he has shown that he is at his most dangerous when people are criticising him. That should worry Croatia.

Despite this, Ante Cacic’s side are a far more complete, well-drilled team than the Portuguese, and they should have just about enough to reach the quarter-finals.

Predicted Winners: Croatia

Sunday

France vs. Republic of Ireland (2pm)

PARIS, FRANCE - Saturday, December 12, 2015: The Henri Delaunay Trophy, the prize for Euro 2016, during the draw for the UEFA Euro 2016 Championship at Le Palais des Congrès de Paris. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Republic of Ireland threw up one of the most dramatic moments of the Euros so far on Wednesday, with Robbie Brady’s late header sending Martin O’Neill’s men through to the knockout stages.

They haven’t always convinced over the last fortnight or so, but they have shown in the past that they are a team that can really thrive on momentum.

They will be understandable underdogs against France, although Les Bleus are yet to hit the heights many expected them to. Pressure has clearly played a part.

Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, two genuine world-class talents, have flattered to deceive, but West Ham‘s Dimitri Payet has been the star of the show.

He looks like the man Ireland really need to stop, and while they will give the game everything they have got, it seems difficult to see them knocking a team so superior in ability.

Predicted Winners: France

Germany vs. Slovakia (5pm)

BORDEAUX, FRANCE - Saturday, June 11, 2016: Wales' Aaron Ramsey beats the challenge of Slovakia's Martin Skrtel to set up Hal Robson-Kanu (unseen) to score the second and winning goal during the UEFA Euro 2016 Championship at Stade de Bordeaux. (Pic by Paul Greenwood/Propaganda)

It is foolish to rule out Germany, considering their pedigree, but they look to be missing something this time around.

They never really impressed during the group stages, with the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze looking out of sorts.

Toni Kroos has been superb in midfield, while Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels are a world-class centre-back pairing, but they aren’t quite the unstoppable force that won the World Cup two years ago.

It would still be a shock if they failed to overcome a distinctly average Slovakia side, however – one of the worst teams left in the competition.

Martin Skrtel and his teammates are very limited in the attacking third, and while they may not be easy to break down, the Germans will have too much in the end.

Predicted Winners: Germany

Hungary vs. Belgium (8pm)

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - Sunday, November 16, 2014: Wales' James Chester in action against Belgium's Divock Origi during the UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying Group B game at the King Baudouin [Heysel] Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Hungary have been one of the surprise packages in France this summer – not many tipped them to top their group ahead of Portugal, Iceland and a disappointing Austria.

They have looked like a real team, and while many of the lesser sides have simply relied on defending for their lives, the Hungarians have shown plenty of attacking quality.

They take on a Belgium side who must be eyeing up a place in the final, considering they are on the easier side of the draw.

Like so many of the top teams, we are yet to see Marc Wilmots’ men properly click, but they possess huge quality from back to front.

Kevin De Bruyne is a fabulous player, and the man who makes them tick, but Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are also match-winners on their day.

This definitely doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion, but Belgium are likely grind their way through it, and into the last-eight.

Predicted Winners: Belgium

Monday

Italy vs. Spain (5pm)

euro2016-compressor

This could be a mouth-watering contest.

It seems almost unfair that Italy and Spain have draw each other this early, given the mediocre quality of some of the sides left in, but that is the luck of the draw.

Italy really impressed until their 1-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland – they did rest players, in fairness – and they are typically world-class at the back and slick on the counter-attack.

Gianluigi Buffon remains a colossus in goal, while Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are perfection in a back-three.

Spain have looked both one-paced and unbeatable in equal measure so far, but the rather insipid way in which they lost to Croatia will be a concern.

Andres Iniesta has been a joy to watch, though, and Alvaro Morata is the competition’s joint-top scorer currently, with three goals to his name.

This is a repeat of the Euro 2012 final, and while quite a few may tip Italy to get revenge, the reigning champions will just have enough on the day.

Predicted Winners: Spain

England vs. Iceland (8pm)

LENS, FRANCE - Thursday, June 16, 2016: England's Adam Lallana in action against Wales during the UEFA Euro 2016 Championship Group B match at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Until the dying seconds on Wednesday, it looked as though England would be facing Portugal in the next round, only for Iceland’s last-gasp winner against Austria to change everything.

That was a real stroke of luck for Roy Hodgson and his side, and it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t now reach the quarter-finals.

In fairness, the Three Lions have not played badly at all, but poor finishing and an inability to break down packed defences has been their downfall. Finishing second in the group was a blow.

They have some very good attacking players in their ranks, though, and you feel that a lesser team could be on the end of a hiding sooner or later.

In Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and others, England have the quality to win comfortably on Monday. But then we did say the same when they faced Russia, Wales and Slovakia.

Iceland will not go quietly, and their team spirit is among the best in the competition. It will be England’s night, though.

Predicted Winners: England

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