With the continent’s perennial powers shoehorned into the same half of the draw for the Euro 2016 knockout stages, Europe’s lesser lights will never have a better opportunity to topple the traditional giants.
Title-holders Spain face Italy in the last 16 and then a potential quarter-final against world champions Germany before the prospect of bumping into France or England should they reach the last four.
The teams in the bottom half of the draw have combined to win 11 World Cups and nine European championships, whilst no side in the top half has won a major tournament.But for the likes of Belgium, Croatia, Switzerland, Poland and Wales their respective paths to the July 10 final have given them plenty of reason to dream about a first international title.
“There is a crazy imbalance in the draw for the second round, but those are the rules and we have to respect them,” said Italy coach Antonio Conte. Belgium may be wary of last-16 opponents Hungary, who won Group F after a 30-year major tournament absence, now is the time for the country’s gifted generation of players to fulfil their potential.
The Red Devils finished runners-up at the 1980 European Championship, but with a formidable core based around Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, Marc Wilmots’ side boast more than enough talent to go one step further in France.
“There’s no doubt that we have big ambitions; our aim must always be to reach the final,” Wilmots told FIFA.com ahead of the tournament.After sliding to an opening 2-0 defeat to Italy, Belgium bounced back to outclass the Republic of Ireland before a late Radja Nainggolan strike against Sweden ensured they progressed as Group E runners-up.
Should they beat Hungary, a quarter-final against Wales or Northern Ireland would await them in Lille with Croatia, Portugal, Poland and Switzerland all potential last-four opponents.But Wilmots argued the nature of the draw simply cranked up the pressure on the world’s second-ranked side.
“Forget what it says on paper, only what happens on the pitch counts. I’d rather play Spain or England, as we would have less to lose. Anyway, only the journalists think our half is easier.”Captain Eden Hazard stressed the importance of not looking too far ahead.”We will see at the end of the tournament if we are indeed in the easy part of the schedule, without any favorites. If we get to the final then maybe we can say it was a good thing not to have been with the favorites, but there are no easy games,” he said.
Real Madrid star Luka Modric missed the 2-1 victory over Spain along with Mario Mandzukic, but Croatia will be counting on the pair to lead them deep into the tournament -- having come third at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Poland, twice World Cup semi-finalists in 1974 and 1982, and Switzerland both advanced from the group stage for the first time and square off in the first of the last-16 ties on Saturday in Saint-Etienne.
Switzerland last reached the quarter-finals of a major finals when they hosted the 1954 World Cup, and midfielder Fabian Frei admits anticipation is building in the Swiss camp.
Wales waited 58 years to return to the big stage having last competed at the 1958 World Cup, but with Gareth Bale spearheading their challenge they too have high hopes.”Obviously you come to the tournament for one reason: to win,” said the Real Madrid superstar, who has scored a joint-best three goals in France.
“You do not come out here to play three games and go home. The ultimate goal is we want to try and win the tournament.”