EURO 2016 enters exciting phase

The quality of football has been of very high standard, and apart from the Belgium versus Republic of Ireland encounter, I am yet to see a one-sided game. I now expect the knockout stage to knock us out with even higher quality games.

Irish stunner... Robbie Brady of Republic of Ireland heads past Italy's goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in a Group E match of EURO 2016 at Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, France.   -  Getty Images

Alvaro Morata gives the Spanish attack the edge.   -  AP

German players celebrate their 1-0 victory against Northern Ireland in a Group C match of EURO 2016. Germany, by far, looks the most complete team in the competition, according to the columnist.   -  REUTERS

The preliminary stages of the EURO, which saw some cracking football, are done and dusted, and the top 16 nations will now lock horns.

The minnows, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, have had a fairytale run, progressing to the knockout stage against all odds.

 

Republic of Ireland, after a forgetful game against Belgium, came out strongly and sneaked to victory against Italy in its last group game. Robbie Brady and company have every reason to feel proud, and the work put out by these smaller teams can be an inspiration for lesser-known football nations like India. There is a lot to learn from them.

The defeat by Ireland has put Italy in a spot and the 2012 runner-up will now face the defending champion, Spain, in the pre-quarters. It promises to be a cracker of a game with two different styles of play battling for supremacy.

Italy, so far, has stuck to its strength by defending deep, soaking in the pressure and hitting teams on the counter, utilising the pace of its midfield runners like Emanuele Giaccherini. Spain, playing its tiki-taka, has dominated possession and the goal-scoring form of its No. 9, Alvaro Morata, has given Vicente del Bosque’s side the extra bite.

 

The clash has all the potential of becoming the ‘Game of the Tournament.’ The three-man Italian defence — Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonnuci — will need ample support from Roma’s Daniele de Rossi, who will sit ahead of them in a 3-5-2 formation, to deal with the dexterity of the Spanish midfielders in the attacking third. Italy will look to narrow down its shape, offering little room for the Spaniards to exploit in between.

The winner, in all likelihood, will face World champion Germany in the quarterfinals. The Germans are expected to get the better of Slovakia in their Round of 16 game.

It’s a pity to see the three former champions in the same half of the draw. Germany, though, by far, looks the most complete team in the competition. While Spain and Italy are set rigidly to highlight their strength, Joachim Loew is blessed with a more versatile squad.

Highly adaptable in nature, Germany can tweak its play and system by changing players to counter the threats of different oppositions. The German frontline is well at ease controlling possession, passing the ball around to find holes in the opposition, but can also resort to long balls and crosses with Mario Gomez and Thomas Muller as the target men inside the box.

While playing with one centre-forward in 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 system, the team needs a No. 9, who can hold the ball and bring in the midfielders to play. Spain, with Cesc Fabregas as the false No. 9 in a 4-2-3-1 system, failed to find a way past the defensive maze despite the high percentage of ball possession during its disastrous World Cup campaign in Brazil. The diminutive playmaker failed to draw in defenders to open up space or act as a target man.

In this competition, Romelu Lukaku has done an excellent job for Belgium as a No. 9. He has used his physical prowess to shield the ball, drawing in defenders and allowing the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne to run in and utilise the space that opens up.

Gomez, high on confidence after his goal against Northern Ireland, can play a similar role for the Germans with Julian Drexler making way for Mario Goetze on the left wing. Muller, Mesut Ozil and Goetze —playing behind the striker — will exchange places, making it difficult for the defence to mark them. The two wide men, however, will need to fall back when the team loses possession.

Draxler and Muller were guilty of not tracking back in their first game against Ukraine and Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andiry Yarmolenko gave the German defence a hard time towards the last 10 minutes of the first half.

The competition has already seen a few cracking strikes and Radja Nainggolan, playing for Belgium, added one more to the list last night. The quality of football has been of very high standard, and apart from the Belgium versus Republic of Ireland encounter, I am yet to see a one-sided game. I now expect the knockout stage to knock us out with even higher quality games.