Attacking teams will go further in Euro 2016 with fortune favouring the bold, writes GARY LEMKE.
And not without due cause.
Portugal might have staggered into the knockout stages, finishing third behind Iceland (34 in the world) and Hungary (27 in the world) but with Ronaldo striking form at the right time they are better than the group results suggested.
In fact, the last 16 encounter between Portugal and Croatia ranks for me the outstanding tie of the round. Conventional wisdom tells us that the match between Spain and Italy will be the marquee showdown, and the one that grabs most of the headlines but the winners of Portugal and Croatia can go all the way to the final.
Whoever prevails there will come up in the quarter-finals against either Switzerland or Poland and the winner of that facing either Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary or Belgium in the semi-finals. The top half of the draw has opened right up with a world of opportunity, because it’s in the congested bottom half that we find the likes of Spain, Germany, Italy, England and France.
When a tournament like this runs over a month, you don’t want to be hitting your straps right from the beginning.
South Africans will know the feeling, as their cricketers often cruise through the pool stages and then it’s in the knockouts where they come unstuck. I have been deeply impressed by the quality in the relatively little-known Croatian side, as they have speed, power and intelligence in key positions.
Portugal might be overly dependent on Ronaldo – like Wales are on Gareth Bale – but now that we can draw breath and analyse what transpired in the pool stages it’s easier to see the lie of the land.
Ronaldo has cut a frustrated figure for large parts of Euro 2016, but the signs are there that he’s in it to win it and a double against Hungary in that pulsating 3-3 draw opened his account and in an attacking side he’s likely to be more of a threat going forward. If Croatia don’t stop Portugal – and the bookies actually have them as the favourites to do just that – then this could yet turn out to be the Cristiano Ronaldo show.
While football’s most important statistic is always the numbers of goals on the scoreboard, Portugal have played an attacking brand and they showed ambition against surprise packages Hungary in fighting back in that six-goal thriller.
The stats show (visit our Opta-powered match centre HERE!) that Portugal, as a team, have had the most shots in the tournament, their 72 efforts at goal averaging 24 a match. Contrast that with the defensively-minded Italy, who have managed only 25 shots at goal in all three of their games combined. That latter statistic doesn’t bode well for their last 16 encounter against Spain, while it probably also gives an insight into the mindset of the incoming Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte.
Three teams managed over 60 shots in their three group matches, with Portugal leading on 72, followed by England (64) and Germany (62).
The first 18 matches of the pool stages yielded 34 goals and the second 18 produced 36 goals, so overall, the games are averaging, let’s argue two per game. That shouldn’t change now that we’re into the business end of the competition, but it does suggest that there will be a couple of games going into extra-time from now on.
However, I’d argue that the attacking sides are going to be the ones managing to squeak the winner when it counts, which also explains the high number of goals scored from the 85th minute onwards, consistently throughout the 36 games so far.
In terms of looking into the crystal ball, I’m going to go for the sides who are more attack than defensive-minded to go deepest into the competition.
For that reason, my predictions for the last 16 are:
Switzerland (40 shots) vs Poland (34): Switzerland to win
Wales (38) vs N Ireland (7): Wales to win
Croatia (49) vs Portugal (72): Portugal to win
France (50) vs Rep of Ireland (31): France to win
Germany (62) vs Slovakia (26): Germany to win
Hungary (35) vs Belgium (56): Belgium to win
Italy (25) vs Spain (51): Spain to win
England (64) vs Iceland (23): England to win