Euro 2016 Round of 16 Breakdown Part I

With the group stage of the 2016 European Championship in the bag, it’s time to look ahead to the single-elimination knockout stages. The teams will get a couple of days to recuperate, and the prognosticators will get a few days to submit their soon-to-be-wrong picks for the Round of 16. The action starts back up Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. and thanks to a few surprise finishes in the group stages, there are a couple of truly awesome match ups already. Let’s take a look at the three Saturday match ups today:

Saturday, June 25 8:00 a.m. CT: Switzerland (Second in Group A) vs. Poland (Second in Group C)

Best Player (Most Important Player): Switzerland — Xherdan Shaqiri (Yann Sommer); Poland — Robert Lewandowski (Lewandowski)

For Switzerland, their best player is the diminutive attacking midfielder, Shaqiri, a man gifted with some of the best nicknames in the tournament (Shaq Attack, Magic Dwarf, Power Cube) and a knack for goal when he’s running hot. But the most important player for the Swiss in the man protecting the net, Yann Sommer. The 27-year-old goalie has been strong so far in Euro 2016, and will have to be a complete game-changer if the Swiss want to make an impression at their first-ever real run at a European Championship.

For Poland, their best player is also their most important, as forward Robert Lewandowski drives the Polish attack. Even though he hasn’t scored a goal at Euro 2016 yet, he is like Steph Curry on the soccer pitch, as his gravitational pull opens up areas for teammates to attack. Teammate Arkadiusz Milik has run hot and cold in the tournament so far, with a goal and an assist, but also a few real bad misses. Any potential run from Poland will need Lewandowski finding the net with regularity.

The Polish defense has also been essential in the tournament so far, yet to allow a goal, even when facing an attacking-loaded German team in the group stages.

Prediction (With a shot in the dark guess at how it goes down): Poland 1 Switzerland 0

Both these teams play a relatively conservative style in their attack, and have solid defenses, having combined for just one goal allowed in the entire tournament so far. Add on to that the fact that it will be the first game of the elimination stages, and neither team is going to want to go out in a fiery crash-and-burn. Neither team’s star (Shaqiri, Lewandowski) has yet to find the back of the net yet, but that will change when Lewandowski is sent through on a well-played ball from Grzegorz Krychowiak (try spelling that name five times fast) in the 42nd minute. From there, the Poles pack it in, and make it to the European quarterfinals for the first time in the country’s history.

Saturday, June 25 11:00 a.m. CT: Wales (First in Group B) vs. Northern Ireland (Third in Group C)

Best Player (Most Important Player): Wales — Gareth Bale (Aaron Ramsey); Northern Ireland — Jonny Evans (Michael McGovern)

Clearly Gareth Bale is the best player for Wales. He may well be the best player at the entire European Championship not named Christiano Ronaldo. However, Northern Ireland is going to make themselves nearly impossible to break down, and as such, Bale is not going to be able to go 1-on-11 and have success. He is going to need his partner in crime, Aaron Ramsey’s hair, to continue playing at the level that allowed Wales to finish atop Group B. Of course, as long as Wales simply get a free kick in even a remotely dangerous area, there’s a decent chance Bale is finding the back of the net, teammates not needed.

The man who will be trying to stop those swerving Bale free kicks from finding the back of the net, Northern Ireland goalie Michael McGovern, is going to have his hands full. However, that has not stopped McGovern this tournament, as he has made 15 saves in three games so far, holding exceptionally talented German and Polish sides to one goal apiece, while shutting out a game Ukraine side. He’ll have help in the form of Jonny Evans (along with Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart), who is playing some of the best soccer of his career at this European Championship. Don’t expect a ton of possession from Northern Ireland, but there should be plenty of meaty challenges on Bale and the Wales attackers.

Prediction (With a shot in the dark guess at how it goes down): Wales 2 Northern Ireland 1

This will be a great story regardless, as this is a battle of teams making their debut at the European Championships, and now one of them will be in the quarterfinals. This feels like a barn burner waiting to happen, with both team’s fans providing an electric atmosphere. Wales are going to go ahead in the 75th minute on a Bale header (he is actually very capable of scoring not just on free kicks, unbeknownst to anyone just watching Euro 2016), but an equalizer from QPR’s Conor Washington in the 89th minute send the Northern Ireland crew into a frenzy. Bale throws a bucket of cold water on those good vibes in overtime, this time (fittingly) knocking home yet another free kick to lock in the 2–1 victory.

Saturday, June 25 2:00 p.m. CT: Croatia (First in Group D) vs. Portugal (Third in Group F)

Best Player (Most Important Player): Croatia — Luka Modric (Ivan Perisic); Portugal — Christiano Ronaldo (Pepe)

It may be the easy storyline, but this has the looks of a game that is going to be 100 percent determined by each team’s mental fortitude. Croatia has a midfield that can drive sane defenders mad with their ability, let alone the fiery Portugal defense, which includes infamously hot-headed Pepe. If Pepe can keep his head, then Portugal has a chance. If he is seen off with a red card, a distinct possibility, their chances near zero.

However, they aren’t quite zero because of Portugal’s main man. When Christiano Ronaldo is on the pitch, anything is possible, and he looks in form, coming off a two-goal effort against Turkey that saw the Portuguese sneak through to the knockout stages.

For Croatia, their star player’s form is not in question — Luka Modric never seems to have off days — but his health is, as he missed their match against Spain in Croatia’s most recent match. Of course, the good news is that The Blazers (as the Croatian National Football Team is called) were able to defeat the reigning Kings of Europe, Spain, even without their talisman. The main reason for the victory was this tournament’s breakout star (non-Dmitri Payet Division), Ivan Perisic. Perisic has two goals and an assist through three games in what has been a stellar performance from the Croatian attack so far. (Only Wales and Hungary have scored more than Croatia’s five goals so far this tournament. What odds could you have gotten that Wales and Hungary would be co-leading the tournament in goals before Euro 16 started?) If Modric returns, alongside Perisic, as well as Ivan Rakitic, the Portugal defense, who have allowed four goals already (tied for highest of any team in the Round of 16), are really going to struggle.

Prediction (With a shot in the dark guess at how it goes down): Croatia 4 Portugal 2

Yup, this should be a wild one. I’m not sure whether I have more faith in Portugal’s defense crapping the bed, or the Croatian midfield to light up the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens Saturday afternoon. Either way, there should be goals aplenty for Croatia. That being said, Ronaldo isn’t going to roll over in an elimination game, so I see Croatia taking leads of 1–0 and 3–1 with a Ronaldo response each time, a pair of mind-blowing goals (one from the run of play, one from the penalty spot) that make this just enough of an interesting game before a late goal from the legendary Darijo Srna and a red card from Pepe seal the deal for Croatia.

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