As Germany, often mighty and always dangerous, labored to cement its place in the group stage and needed fine margins to twice come back in a 2-2 draw with Hungary, there will have been plenty of fans of other nations rooting against them for any number of reasons.
One was that Germany is often in the mix for tournament crowns while Hungary is a plucky upstart, but another is that this tournament has shown in the past that all you have to do is get out of the group stage to become a force.
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Look at Portugal in 2016, who escaped from the group stage with three draws but won the tournament. Spain is remembered for winning in 2008 and 2012 but the former group stage was in the balance until an 88th-minute Jesus Navas winner in the final against Croatia. Greece won in 2004 but only made the knockouts because it was level with Spain on head-to-head and goal difference but scored two more goals than their Group A rivals.
So, let’s start there…
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Never forget: Getting through is half the battle
There are a number of teams who reached the Round of 16 despite some huge question marks looming over their performances. Can England score enough to win? Can Germany defend enough to win?
Can Denmark overcome the absence and corresponding emotional toll stemming from Christian Eriksen’s terrifying cardiac incident in the opener? Is Spain the team that scored one goal against Sweden and Spain or the one that hung a five-spot on Slovakia?
But, oh, how a bracket can fall for a team and send its supporters clamoring for reasons to believe in a title run.
England and Germany will look round the bottom half of the bracket and see only one traditional power (the Netherlands), with England puffing out its chest at not allowing a single big chance through three matches and Germany noting it made it through a brutal group with the second-best possession number and top passing percentage.
And Croatia, yes the same Croatia who beat England in the World Cup semifinal, can simply exhale and start from square one in the Round of 16, leaning on their 2018 World Cup run that hardened the with two penalty wins and an extra-time victory.
Group of Death? How about Top Half of Bracket O’ Death?
Want to know how flat-out nasty a road lies ahead for the eight teams in the top half of the EURO 2020 knockout bracket?
Using the FIFA world rankings from May, the top half of the bracket includes the following match-ups in the Round of 16
The bottom half?
Even taking into account Germany’s No. 12 ranking carrying plenty of suspicion (Joachim Loew’s men are top 10 in EloRatings), that’s a forgiving bottom half and brutal top half.
FIFA World No. 1 Belgium could have to beat the world’s fifth, seventh, and second-ranked teams to get to a final. The winner of Germany v England will have to meet at-most one top 10 team before the final.
Three 3-0 favorites silence their doubters
Belgium’s creaky, old defense? Roberto Martinez’s 3-0 Red Devils allowed one goal and scored seven.
Italy’s lack of true star power? Roberto Mancini’s men were through to the knockout rounds before Marco Verratti stepped on the pitch and delivered a Man of the Match performance after months out with a knee injury.
The Netherlands’ controversial hire and early returns from Frank de Boer? Georginio Wijnaldum’s composed an attacking orchestra that’s put together two three-goal and one two-goal performance.
Five dark horses have reason to believe
If you told Sweden, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Wales, and Denmark (and perhaps the Netherlands) their Round of 16 opponents and prospective paths to a final before the group stage, they’d have snapped your hand off.
Here’s a reason for each of that quintet to believe:
Sweden has kinda reached “always there” status once they reach the World Cup, but their EURO record had been “group stage and out” for three tournaments until winning a group with Spain, Poland, and Slovakia. That’s very respectable considering the didn’t allow a goal until the 61st minute of the third game.
Ukraine already finished EURO qualifying atop of a group with Portugal and Serbia, beat the Czech Republic to Nations League B promotion and then Switzerland and Spain in being relegated from Nations League A. They also drew away to France in World Cup qualifying. They know that on their best day they have “it,” and that the bracket may’ve even given them ability to survive a round when they aren’t at their best.
Czech Republic is a collection of players who’ve spent the last year making waves in club soccer on plucky upstarts like West Ham and Slavia Prague, and those players won’t be worried about anyone.
Wales has its three highest-capped players in history all in the fold and one of them is captain Gareth Bale, he of the “Wales. Golf. Madrid” priority list. Bale scored in each group stage game of EURO 2016 as the Dragons then beat Northern Ireland and Belgium before falling to Portugal in the semifinal. “Why not?” will be their cry.
Denmark is feeling the support of an entire nation behind it, and while that’s a sort of cliche, the way they’ve taken a near-tragic on-pitch moment and found their footing is the sort of Hollywood-level base we’ve seen for big runs from teams far less talented than Kasper Hjulmand’s group, which includes the GK from the unlikeliest Premier League winner ever, a center back from the current Champions League winners, and factors from important European clubs like Barcelona, RB Leipzig, Atalanta, Tottenham, and Borussia Dortmund.
EURO difficult to predict
All that said, expect England to average three goals a knockout round match if it can get past Germany, who might not allow another goal.
And then once Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands all lose before the semifinals, we can settle In for the inevitable Austria v Croatia and Sweden v Denmark final four.
Soccer, what a riot!
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What we learned from the EURO 2020 group stage originally appeared on NBCSports.com