First Touch

Euro 2021: Round Of 16 Preview

We’re down to the proper stuff at Euro 2021 now and we go into the last 16 with a horribly unbalanced looking draw that will have eight nations dreaming and eight sweating about three tough knockout rounds that may well prove too debilitating for whoever slugs their way through to be firing on all cylinders by the time they get there.

European championship trophy
By Dave Bowler 

Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Croatia and France are in the top half and must be wishing they’d gamed their groups suitably to end up in the other one which Switzerland and Austria must be wondering what they’ve done to deserve being lumped in with those six.

Meanwhile, England not only have the possibility of enjoying home advantage in three of the last four games if they go that far, their hopes of doing so are considerably improved by being in the weaker half of the draw. Germany look to offer the most formidable opposition, and they come first, but if England can get past them, things really do open up for Gareth Southgate’s side.

That game at Wembley next week will, of course, be couched in terms of the many duels of the past, of 1966, 1972, 1996, of when Germany closed down the old stadium with a World Cup qualifying win, but this is a very different Germany to any of those games.

England v Germany

I’m not sure a more fragile looking Germany has ever come to Wembley. Five goals conceded in three games makes them look vulnerable against an England team which, theoretically at least, has it strengths in the attacking line up. At the other end and on the other hand, they have scored six goals and, as ever, they got the job done when they had to.

England have been efficient rather than exciting but perhaps that’s what they need, even if it isn’t what the nation wants. Southgate has been criticised for playing two defensively minded midfielders but with a defence as brittle as England’s, you can quite see his point.

Certainly they haven’t really been tested yet and Germany will offer something far more competitive, but if England can continue to keep it tight at the back, there are still enough high quality attacking players on the pitch to pinch a goal from few chances.

If England do prevail, as they should on home soil, they will face their only away game of the tournament against the winners of Sweden and Ukraine, who meet at Hampden Park in the round of 16. Ukraine have been anything but impressive, finishing third in their group behind the Dutch and Austria, a win over North Macedonia giving them their only points, the Euros equivalent of beating Sheffield United last season.

Sweden v Ukraine

The Swedes meanwhile have looked altogether more impressive in topping their group. They eased themselves into the competition with a draw against Spain that might easily have been more and then did just enough to defeat Slovakia.

They played well to beat Poland in the final fixture to seal qualification, underlining that in recent years, they’ve become a really awkward opponent in major competitions – four wins and just two defeats in their last seven tournament games. Surely it will be five wins in eight after they’ve met Ukraine?

Holland v Czech Republic

The Netherlands take on the Czech Republic in Budapest having collected maximum points from one of the more straightforward groups. They look good going forward, particularly on the counter-attack, but as Ukraine made clear in the first game, they have their concerns defensively in the absence of Van Dijk. The Czechs looked workmanlike in accumulating four points, largely courtesy of Schick’s double against Scotland, including that audacious goal from halfway. They won’t give the Dutch an inch but it would still be a real surprise if they were able to see them off. Penalties might be their best hope.

Wales v Denmark

Wales against Denmark in Amsterdam is a much tougher one to call. Certainly in the wake of Eriksen’s collapse, public sympathy will be with Denmark. With all they’ve gone through, finding the frenetic energy they used to pummel Russia into submission was an exceptional performance. The question will be just how much more do they have in the tank? Has that game and the events of the last fortnight drained them or now, having come through the group, will they feed off it and go from strength to strength?

Denmark, don’t forget, won this title back in 1992 having not even qualified for the tournament, brought in at the 11th hour after Yugoslavia’s expulsion, so unusual circumstances do bring out something special from them.

For Wales, it’s a question of which side will turn up – the one that shredded Turkey or the one that stuttered to a draw against Switzerland? They know the continent will be hoping for a Danish win, but that might galvanise them into a performance. Their great strength is on the counter-attack, where the blistering pace of James and Bale is enough to terrify any team, but just as five years ago, it will take special performances from Bale and Ramsey in particular to see the side through.

This game is as tough to call as any of the eight but there was something about Denmark’s dismantling of Russia that suggests they’re not finished with this competition yet.

France v Switzerland

In the other half of the draw, world champions France must surely fancy their chances in their game against Switzerland in Bucharest. That said, there will be concerns in the French camp given the way they laboured to draws against Hungary and Portugal having opened up impressively with that 1-0 win over Germany.

Having been placed on by far the toughest group of the lot, they may have been sharpened up for the rest of the competition by the experience, but once they have disposed of the prosaic Swiss side, they are going to have to up their game to go much further.

Spain v Croatia

They will meet the winners of Croatia and Spain, another game that looks on a knife edge in Copenhagen. Spain have certainly taken time to get going with dreary draws against Sweden and Poland, but their 5-0 thumping of Slovakia suggests they might be building nicely, albeit that Slovakia were, in no small part, architects of their own downfall.

Their trademark monopoly of possession has been there in all three games but they’ll find that trickier against Croatia who have likewise improved game on game after a sketchy opening against England.

Modric continues to beguile but this is a Croatian side that has clearly passed the peak of that 2018 World Cup final as players like Rakitic, Corluka, Mandzukic and Subasic have headed off into international retirement. They rescued themselves by finally finding a half decent performance against Scotland but Spain are made of sterner stuff and you would expect them to prevail.

Italy v Austria

The same is true of Italy when they take on Austria at Wembley. Austria aren’t a pushover, having won twice already against Ukraine and North Macedonia, but he Italians have been by far the most impressive team thus far, reeling off three wins against Turkey, Switzerland and Wales without ever looking troubled.

They equalled a national record of 30 games unbeaten in that win over Wales and they look sure to extend that to 31 on Saturday. The injury to Chiellini will be a concern, though he is back in training. That Austria game might come too soon for him but they will need him back in harness from the quarter-finals onwards. Their football so far has been exhilarating at times and while they’ve yet to be severely tested, belief and confidence seems to be coursing through the squad.

Portugal v Belgium

That really will be tested should they come through because they meet the winners of the BelgiumPortugal tie in Seville. Not unlike five years ago when they won the trophy, Portugal have come scrambling through the qualifiers, the German defeat following the win over Hungary seemingly putting them in jeopardy.

But Ronaldo delivered, naturally enough, scoring twice in the 2-2 draw with France to see them through, equalling the men’s world goalscoring record as he did so, scoring number 109 for Portugal. Ronaldo being Ronaldo, it’s hard to imagine him not breaking the record in Seville.

But will that be enough? Belgium feel a little like Spain did in 2008, a nation that really should have won a tournament by now but has continued to be the bridesmaids. They’ve seen off Russia, Denmark and Finland to top the group with maximum points, seven goals scored, one conceded and have overcome a little bit of adversity, struggling against the Danes until De Bruyne came on to turn the game on its head.

There’s a feeling of “if not now, when?” for Belgium coming into this competition, but this might finally be the moment. Maybe not even Ronaldo will be able to stop them.

magic of the fa cupDave Bowler is the author of “The Magic of the Cup 1973/74”, telling the story of Liverpool’s FA Cup win in 1974. Available here: – 

Follow the magic of the cup on Twitter:  @MagicOfFACup

Scroll to Top