Dubai: If you’ve been thrilled by Euro 2020 up to this point, well, things are about to get a whole lot better.
During the first two weeks of the tournament we saw several fascinating group games (Germany 4 Portugal 2 had it all), some incredible goals (Patrick Schick from the half way line will probably win goal of the tournament) and a fair share of bizarre moments too (that ridiculous own goal from Slovakia’s keeper Martin Dubravka will take some beating), but with the teams now whittled down from 24 to 16, the tournament is set to explode into life as the knockout stage begins tomorrow.
There are no points to play for or groups to navigate through – from now until the July 11 final, it is winner takes all. And over the years, we have seen some shocking results - Greece in 2004 is a prime example. There are several teams in the last 16 that can replicate their defensive strategy and progress. It may not make for much of a spectacle as Greece kept 10 men behind the ball and waited for a chance to fall to sole striker Angelos Charisteas. They went all the way when nobody expected them to and this will give the likes of Austria, Denmark and Wales who all play tomorrow a lot of hope. The other side in action is Italy, and following their scintillating group performances, they are one of the favourites to lift the trophy.
Coach Roberto Mancini has created a totally different type of Italian team that we are used to seeing. Gone are the days when they’d settle for a 1-0 win – the current crop create chance after chance and are always looking to grab more goals. They play on the front foot and attack teams, and it is their new style that has won over the neutrals.
They’ll be up against Austria who have shown glimpses of what they can do but much will depend on where they play David Alaba. He’s been deployed as one of a three at the back and he is wasted there as he is unable to have an effect on games from so deep, but whenever he has broken free and got down the left, he has shown his ability to whip in dangerous crosses for the strikers. If he starts on the left of midfield, then Austria - who have reached the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time since 1954 - will offer a far more attacking threat.
Italy are currently 30 games without a defeat and have kept 10 consecutive clean sheets. Sure, there unbeaten streak won’t last forever but I don’t see Austria being the ones to stop it. The four-time world champions are able to create goals from literally everywhere on the pitch, and I feel they will cruise into the quarter-finals and it won’t surprise me if they get 3 or 4 tomorrow.
Create and score
Wales will be hoping to do what they did in 2016 and that is to get to the semi-finals, but they face a determined Denmark side tomorrow who have proven they can create and score without talisman Christian Eriksen. Wales will need Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey to be on song if they are to get the better of the giant frame of Kasper Schmeichel. It will be hard for the Welsh as Denmark are the neutrals’ choice having provided the uplifting story of the tournament, inspired by midfielder Eriksen and his recovery from a cardiac arrest.
Denmark have won it before - in bizarre circumstance; they failed to qualify for Euro '92 but were drafted in ten days before it started after Yugoslavia were excluded – and went on to lift the trophy. Mikkel Damsgaard and Andreas Skov Olsen will have to shine if they are to progress.
There are bound to be fabulous goals, horrific mistakes and drama galore as we enter the business end of Euro 2020. It should be a thrilling ride right until the final whistle is blown on July 11.