While all 24 teams have played their first round fixtures of the group stage, some from Group A and B have played their second round, there by almost confirming qualification into the round of 16 – the extra round this year before the quarterfinals, considering the record number of participating teams.
It’s been a fascinating but short-on-goals first week for the tournament, with most teams still finding their formation, warming up and getting into rhythm. The problem with each group having 4 teams is that each gets only 3 games to go switch through their gears, and before you know it, you could have crashed out without even hitting third gear. Football tournaments are notorious for this quick turnover, and cricket teams like India and Pakistan suffered in the 2007 ODI World Cup in similar 3-game group stages.
Here are some of the highlights of the first round, along with predictions and likely scenarios for qualification:
– Minnows and first-timers Iceland frustrating and holding a moody Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal to a 1-1 draw in their first group F game. Ronaldo fumed and moaned only the way he can, blaming defensive tactics and lack of ambition. But Iceland, who were tipped to be the pushovers of the group, are too busy celebrating their landmark result to even care.
– An industrious and young Italian team held true to tradition and absolutely destroyed a highly-rated Belgium team (which, as always, looked great on paper) to win 2-0, laying down the marker for the best team performance of the tournament so far. The favorites of the tournament, Germany and France, will want to avoid this resourceful star-less but determined Italian team over the next few rounds.
– The less-fancied Slovakian team, who had crashed to defeat in their first game against all-heart Wales, took on Russia and defeated them 2-1, with Marek Hamsik scoring arguably the goal of the tournament so far for the winner. This opens up the group, giving England hope after their disappointing and ill-tempered first match draw against Russia. UEFA won’t have to impose a ban on Russia though, considering they need a miracle to advance after just managing a point over two matches.
Group A – Hosts France look good at the top with two wins out of two, virtually qualified, and looking to seal top spot in their last game against second-favorites Switzerland, who have 4 points from two games. Hardworking Albania are out of it with two losses, while Romania still stand a chance, if France demolish Switzerland and they defeat Albania by two goals or more.
Prediction: France and Switzerland will go through as 1 and 2.
Group B – Slovakia has 3 points from 2 games, and must win their final game against England to confirm qualification. But it all comes down to the Thursday game between rivals England and Wales – with a Bales-inspired Wales looking for their second win in a row, while England look to hit back from a disappointing draw with Russia. England need this win desperately if they are to advance. They don’t want to end up disappointing their fans once again in a major tournament, especially after winning all 10 qualifying games.
Prediction: Wales and Slovakia will go through as 1 and 2.
Group C – World Champions Germany started strongly against Ukraine with a routine 2-0 win, and Poland pipped Northern Ireland, thereby confirming that the winner of their game on Thursday will end up topping the group. No upsets here.
Prediction: Germany as 1, Poland as 2.
Group D – This is arguably the toughest group, given the form of teams involved. Defending champions Spain won with a typical 1-0 against Czech Republic, while Croatia rose to the occasion again with a solid win against Turkey. But with two games to go, it still could be anyone, and Turkey won’t go down without a fight. Croatia, though, look the strongest on paper, and on the field so far.
Prediction: Croatia as 1, Spain as 2.
Group E – Though Italy started with a win, you sense that it’s going to come down to a battle between Belgium and Sweden too. Though Ibrahmovic was frustrated by a solid Republic Of Ireland performance, Sweden will open the floodgates with a win against one of Belgium or Italy. This one is tough to call.
Prediction: Sweden as 1, Italy as 2.
Group F – Hungary began with a very good-looking victory against neighbors Austria, which gives group favorites Portugal another chance after their insipid draw against minnows Iceland. Ronaldo isn’t a happy man, but he can step it up against the teams with everything to lose. Iceland could end up on their solitary point, while Austria will have to defeat Portugal to stand a chance. Unlikely.
Prediction: Portugal as 1, Hungary as 2.
England v/s Wales (June 16), Germany v/s Poland (June 17), Croatia v/s Spain (June 22), Sweden v/s Belgium (June 23), Hungary v/s Portugal (June 22)