Euro 2016 is morphing into a wonderfully intriguing tournament as we near its pointy end.
Growing to 24 teams from 16 has been an excellent improvement. The matches have been competitive since the underdogs have proven they belong. There haven’t been the occasional blowouts as seen in the Copa America Centenario, which is also an expanded tournament this year.
Unlike the Copa, which saw Chile and Argentina quickly become favourites to reach the final as the knockout stages began, the Euros have been more competitive. The average margin of victory in reaching the final was an astounding 3.5 goals per game for Argentina and 4.5 for Chile in the knockout stages. Big Round of 16 winners Belgium and Germany likely won’t match those figures.
The “minnows” of Euro 2016 have more than held their own. Had Euro 2016 not grown to 24 teams, teams like Iceland, Hungary, and Albania would not have made it. (Note that Northern Ireland won its qualification group and would have made it to France under the old 16-team format; Wales would likely have been in a playoff against another country.) The lowest-ranked team at the Euros—Albania (No. 42) with a population of 2.8 million—made history with a win over Romania and finished third in its group.
But Iceland continues to be the biggest story of the Euros after knocking off England 2–1 in Nice on Wednesday. It was no fluke either.
The country of roughly 330,000 faces its toughest test on Sunday against host nation France, a pre-tournament favourite flying under the radar. Could Iceland be a repeat of Greece at Euro 2004?
The tiny nation has been most efficient at converting on scoring attempts. It leads Euro 2016 by scoring on 21 percent of its chances. And Iceland’s possession, which ranks lowest among the 16 teams reaching the knockout stages, reminds one of a certain English Premier League champion Leicester City.
Also, the favourites are now hitting their stride with the exquisite attacking forces of Germany and Belgium, and the resolute defense of Italy. However, Germany is the only team to have not conceded a goal.
While goals excite fans more than anything else in football, one has to appreciate the ability for a team to execute its game plan to perfection and get the win. Case in point—Italy and Iceland.
The Italians shocked No. 2-ranked Belgium 2–0 in their opening game and sent defending European champion Spain packing 2–0 in a masterful Round of 16 performance.
Iceland’s win was a similar case of a team believing in its system, in the strength and togetherness of its team, and pulling off a stunning upset.
Italy and Iceland never really looked threatened. They got their leads, absorbed pressure, and looked the team more likely to score, via the counterattack.
Not Just About Goals
Yes, the Euros haven’t seen the goals like the Copa has. The Copa averaged 5.75 goals per game in the group stage whereas Euro 2016 averaged 1.9. As one might expect, that difference narrowed in the knockout rounds with the Copa edging it 2.75 to 2.375.
That goal scoring differential can be somewhat attributed to the odd Copa blowout. Using FIFA rankings as a broad indication of a nation’s quality, there is a greater disparity in the rankings of teams in the Copa than in Euro 2016. The Euros are more competitive.
Euro 2016 had roughly the same amount of shot attempts and shots on target as the Copa did in the group stage. It had more of both in its eight Round of 16 games than the Copa saw in its eight knockout stage games.
That may sound counterintuitive with some absolute dud games like Croatia–Portugal and Wales–Northern Ireland, while Copa games appeared to be played at a more frenetic pace.
While the Euro 2016 competition is very tight, it has lacked a match like the Copa America final between Argentina and Chile—a true rivalry match played at the highest level with the incredible intensity. Argentina, the top-ranked team in the world, and Chile at No. 5 went at each other like two heavyweights. There was no holding back.
South American teams face each other more frequently than European ones do and that spices up the encounters even more. The Germany–Italy quarterfinal has that kind of potential.
Euro 2016 got off to a sluggish start, but it’s definitely heating up. Goals and scoring chances are up in the Round of 16 from the group stage. The intensity should also pick up, as the teams get closer to the prize, just as it did at the Copa America.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports