Euro favourites face the hard road in imbalanced knock-out bracket

Number of major football titles for teams in the lower half of the Euro 2016 knock-out stages: 20. Number of major football titles for teams in the upper half of the Euro 2016 knock-out stages: 0.

Anyone seeing a slight imbalance in this list surely has a point but it is not so much a shrewd twist from the ruling body UEFA or hosts France.

It is rather some of the teams' own fault that Germany (four World Cups, three Euros), Italy (four World Cups, one Euro), Spain (one World Cup, three Euros), France (one World Cup, two Euros) and England (one World Cup) are in "the half of death in the draw," as Germany's Bild paper put it Wednesday.

They are joined there by Slovakia, Iceland and Ireland.

The upper half teams and last 16 pairings are Switzerland v Poland, Croatia v Portugal, Wales v Northern Ireland and Hungary v belgium.

Spain and England would have moved into the upper half, which appears easier at least on paper, had they not failed to win their last group game and finished second instead of first.

As a result, the two-time reigning champions Spain now face a last 16 game against the Italy in a rematch of the 2012 final, instead of a third-placed team. If Spain win, their next opponents could be Germany in a rematch of the 2008 decider. France could be waiting in the semis in a rematch of the 1984 final.

"Now Spain will have to do it the hard way, against the toughest possible opponents," the AS sports paper said Wednesday.

But captain Sergio Ramos said: "In order to end up as champions, you have to beat the best teams sooner or later."

Ramos himself could be blamed as he missed a late penalty on Tuesday night for what would have been a 2-1 lead against Croatia. Spain would have even won the group with a draw but a late Ivan Perisic strike saw the Croatians win and take top spot.

The reigning world champions Germany meanwhile did what they wanted to do, win their group unbeaten Tuesday and without letting in a goal, only for Bild to wonder "did we win ourselves out of the title?"

Coach Joachim Loew took a similar view than Ramos though, saying: "I am looking forward to the knock-out rounds, those are the great games. A lot is at stake, and the excitement is there."

Germany first meet Slovakia, against who they lost a friendly 3-1 last month.

Next up would be Italy whom Germany have never beaten at a big championship, or Spain who beat Loew's team in the Euro 2008 final and 2010 World Cup semis.

And even if they get past that hurdle they still likely need to beat France, winners of the last two home events Euro 1984 and 1998 World Cup, or England to get into the July 10 decider.

The French start against Ireland and are also far from amused at the prospect of possibly facing England in the quarters, and then Germany, Italy or Spain in the semis.

"A doable last 16 opponent, then hell," France football magazine said.

It would have been different had Roy Hodgson's England not drawn 0-0 with Slovakia. Instead of playing in the top half they start against impressive newcomers Iceland, and then could run into Les Bleus.

Hodgson is under fire for making several changes in the last group game which could ultimately even cost him the job given the tough draw.

"Behind the scenes there is a firm belief that they did not have to make life so difficult for themselves – and that Hodgson went too far in giving half a dozen players their first starts of the tournament," The Guardian said Wednesday.

Hodgson remained defiant though, saying: "We will take whichever route we are given."

He added: "We don’t know if it will be a harder road or not because you never know which opponents are tough and which are not," saying a look at the FIFA rankings of the final last 16 field will reveal what is at stake.

He has a point there as at least the best-placed European team, number 2 Belgium, is in the upper half, followed by number eight Portugal.

Last update: Wed, 22/06/2016 - 23:33
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