The last sixteen of Euro 2020 has been decided and it has not gone unnoticed that one side of the draw contains noticeably more star power than the other.
Belgium, Portugal, Italy, France and Spain as well as 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia all find themselves on the same side, throwing up some potentially seismic clashes as they battle it out for a place in the July 11 final.
On the other side, only one of England or Germany of the pre-tournament favourites will make it through to the last eight where the road to Wembley looks less daunting.
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That’s not to write off any of the other teams who have all made it through on merit, but on paper, the tournament looks oddly lopsided.
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Of course, whoever lifts the trophy with be deserving winners having navigated through seven matches but right now that achievement would appear far tougher for some teams than others.
All eyes will be on that huge England v Germany clash, with the victors well aware they will be the favourites in a quarter final against Sweden or Ukraine and even in the semi against any of Netherlands, Czech Republic, Wales or Denmark.
Conversely, for Belgium or Portugal who go head-to-head, there is a prospect of a last eight showdown with Italy, then possibly France or Spain in the final four.
Of course, in the previously compressed 16-team edition of the competition, encountering one or more of the ‘big guns’ throughout the knockouts was par for the course, and you were safe in the knowledge everybody was in the same boat. This isn’t the case now.
The expanded 24-team tournament has certainly opened things up for more, less strong sides to make it into the tournament and equally, the unusual structure which allows third place teams from the groups to progress – potentially with two defeats – and only eliminates eight of the original 24 ahead of the knockouts, seems like it could do with a tweak.
Euro 2020 trophy
Image credit: Getty Images
The beauty of the competition previously was its competitive nature and one imagines nobody at UEFA will be pleased to hear discussions around teams potentially hoping to drop points to access an ‘easier’ run.
What the new-style competition does do however is to give hope to more teams than just the usual suspects.
Sweden for example, having topped their group, could sense a real opportunity for a first major tournament semi*final since 2004 and even a first final since 1958.
Should they beat Ukraine in the last 16, the odds of an upset against Germany and England, both of whom look far from flawless, shouldn’t be so high.
Similarly, Wales, who reached the 2016 semi-final have a realistic chance of repeating that feat while the Netherlands, who hadn’t been backed by many pre-tournament to make an impact, will now see themselves as one of the strongest teams on that side of the draw.
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With the heavyweights on the other side facing potentially gruelling tests against one another, the eventual winner could well emerge from the so-called ‘weaker’ side.
The issue when this becomes a possibility, either this year or moving forward, is that it could lead to accusations of the competition being devalued somewhat – particularly, if teams actively and openly seek out an 'easier' run as a means of progression.
But from an England point of view optimism is at an all-time high and for a country so starved of international success, they would take it any which way it comes.
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