By Antony Jordan
The time where teams can lose a match and still progress at the 2016 European Championships is now at an end as this Saturday sees the start of the knockout phase of this summer’s tournament in France.
The opening trio of clashes sees two home nations in Wales and Northern Ireland at the Parc des Princes as well as an under-performing Portugal taking on the impressive Croatia while the first game of the last 16 stage throws Switzerland and Poland together.
We take a look at all three games being played around France this Saturday with online sportsbook Bet365.com to provide our best Euro 2016 picks.
At the start of the 2016 European Championships there were very few people that expected both of these teams to make it into the knockout phase as Wales had to overcome England, Russia and Slovenia while Northern Ireland had the even more difficult trio of Germany, Poland and Ukraine in their group.
Despite these tough tasks both of the teams impressed fans and casual observers with Wales playing some attacking football and Northern Ireland showing a refined defensive side that made them difficult to break down and defeat, with even world champions Germany struggling to win against Michael O’Neill’s side. This match should throw together two very different styles of football, but which of the two sides will progress to the Quarter Finals?
Bet365 make the Welsh the favourites to win the match and move into a last eight stage clash with either Hungary or Belgium and the reason for this is just one single man – Gareth Bale.
The Real Madrid striker has been the stand out player for Wales as he has scored one goal in each of the matches played so far with opening the scoring in the 2-1 win over Slovenia, the 2-1 loss to England before capping the 3-0 victory against the Russian side to top Group B and he’ll be out to bag a fourth goal in a fourth successive match against Wales’ close neighbours to lead the goalscoring charts ahead of Spain’s Alvaro Morata.
Northern Ireland were unable to score against Poland and Germany and they’ll be aiming to play to their defensive strengths in this clash too and after coming within minutes of beating the Welsh side in a March friendly match they will be confident of progressing to the Quarter Finals of Euro 2016.
We, however, feel that Wales are the more creativity side and lead their fellow home nation team in midfield and attack so they’ll be on the front foot at the Parc des Princes. We’re in agreement with the bookmakers and we see the Welsh just edging this knockout stage game, but we’re backing Gareth Bale to score as our pick as the Real Madrid man has the spark to unlock any defence, even one as tight as the Northern Irish backline.
Euro 2016 Picks Best Bet
Both Croatia and Portugal are unbeaten coming into this last 16 stage clash in Lens with the designated home side having topped Group C while Portugal scraped through in third place of Group F behind Hungary and Iceland. Croatia have performed impeccably in France this summer for the majority of their three matches as they eased past Turkey in their first match and topped the group with an injury time winner to beat Spain 2-1 in their game of the group, but there was trouble in the second game. They led Czech Republic 2-0 after an hour, but the concession of two late goals and some severe crowd trouble saw them drop points. The way they bounced back against the defending champions despite missing key man Luka Modrić through injury, but can they see off Spain’s fellow Iberians in this last 16 stage clash to make the Quarter Finals?
The Croatian side have selection issues with Modrić being fit to return while manager Ante Cacic will have to decide whether to restore Mario Mandzukic or continue with Nikola Kalinic, who bagged against Spain, up front. Portugal have a full strength side for this match, but with 1-1, 0-0 and 3-3 draws against Iceland, Austria and Hungary in the group stages they are still looking for their first win. Cristiano Ronaldo showed that he is finding his feet in France after a long season for Real Madrid with two goals against Hungary and with Portugal having won all three meetings of these two sides over the last two decades the Portuguese fans will believe that their team will be the one moving onwards and upsetting the odds.
We, however, do not agree as, after watching these two teams in their trio of games so far, Croatia are the far more impressive and we feel that they’re more likely to win this game, especially with the return of Luka Modrić. However, with Cristiano Ronaldo in a side that team always has the chance of securing victory and we also feel that this match will see goals and we are covering ourselves by backing this outcome.
The match odds for this Switzerland v Poland clash suggest that it will be Poland who progress to the last eight stage of Euro 2016 in this match in Saint-Étienne and with them having lost just one of ten matches with the Swiss (with that defeat coming 40 years ago) the Poles will see themselves as the deserved favourites. Add to this the fact that they come into this knockout stage clash as just one of two sides – along with group mates Germany – yet to concede a goal at the Euros this summer they will believe that they can keep out the Swiss at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
Poland’s star man in Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski who scored 13 times in qualifying is yet to get into this stride with zero goals as well as no shots on target in three games either and while the rest of his team mates are not exactly piling in with goals either, as they have beaten Northern Ireland and Ukraine 1-0 as well as drawing 0-0 with Germany, they have dominated each of their group stage matches so far. If Lewandowski can bring his shooting boots for this last 16 phase game then we see Poland make the Quarter Finals for the first time in their history.
However, they will find it difficult to get past an equally resolute Switzerland team who have clean sheets against Albania and France whilst their only conceded goal came from the penalty spot against Romania. However, unlike Poland who have looked the better side in their matches the Swiss have been poor in front of goals missing chance after chance and while things may come together for them in this match we cannot see them upsetting the odds to triumph against such a solid team.