Germany legend Lothar Matthaeus gives his opinion on Euro 2016. This week, he looks to the last 16 teams and who he feels will fare best in their attempt to reach the quarter finals. First, a brief look back at the Italy v Ireland final group game...
The late winning goal by Ireland against Italy on Wednesday evening suddenly triggered a carnival-like atmosphere in what till then had been a somewhat restrained atmosphere in France, the host country. The Irish spread so much joy - they sing, they drink, but they're not violent. That is tremendous.
Should teams rest players?
However, one must caution that the goal by Ireland's new national saint, Robbie Brady, only came about because their opponents, already qualified for the Round of 16 as Group E winners, entered the match with eight or nine substitute players. They didn't even field veteran star goalie Gianluigi Buffon. Okay, this isn't forbidden. But you could talk about a bit of a distortion of the competition because the Turks, who after all had beaten the Czechs 2-0 to finish 3rd in Group D, were virtually already through to the Round of 16. Now Turkey has to go home.
One slip for an early final
Looking to the Round of 16, the match towering over everything else is between Spain and Italy. That was the pairing of the 2012 final, which Spain won, 4-0. That Spain must face Italy in this stage is due to their having let slip a lead on a goal by Álvaro Morata against Croatia and wound up losing, 2-1. All the same, the Croatian victory against the defending champions came as no surprise to me. Before the tournament I had them on my list of title contenders, simply because they are strong. And so when a strong team like Spain permits itself to slip up, then the result is that you get a finals-like matchup such as Spain-Italy so early into the knockout stages.
The Spaniards will go into the match as favourites, among others thanks to the outstanding form of Andrés Iniesta. They continue to emphasise ball control, while the Italian game is one of waiting to launch a counter-attack. So two footballing cultures are clashing. I am hoping for Spain, because then they would have to face the Germans - provided that Germany gets past Slovakia. I believe that Spain is the better opponent for the Germans than Italy, who are tough to play against with virtually the entire defense comprised of Juventus Turin players. I guess I'm a patriot.
If only the game was played on paper
On paper, Germany against Slovakia looks clear-cut. But in this European Championships nothing is clear. The group play has seen a lot of tentativeness. So far in France, the Germans have not been convincing, even though, slowly, a team appears to be forming, one that may even be worthy of a world champion. The passion and quality of the German players is there.
Cristiano not enough
It is the Croatians who have been the most convincing. They were the only ones who already in their opening matches against Turkey and the Czechs demonstrated some good football. With Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic they are the favourites against Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo did score twice in Portugal's 3-3 draw against Hungary, but I have been a bit disappointed by the Portuguese. Simply waiting for a stroke of genius from Ronaldo is simply not enough, even if an outcome in this crazy tournament cannot be predicted.
France had a hard time of it in winning their opening matches against Albania and Romania, both of which were eliminated. Against the Swiss the French managed only a draw because this relatively inexperienced team is still trying to learn how to cope with the pressure of being the hosts. Despite the outstanding passing combination style of play they showed in their preparatory matches, the French still haven't loosened up. But their opponents Ireland, despite all the euphoria, will be the rank outsiders.
Surprise vs dark horse
In Hungary versus Belgium, you have one of the major surprise teams against many peoples' secret favourites. It's a miracle how Hungary, my chosen home, has played so well. Nobody foresaw them reaching the Round of 16. The team was together for five weeks, and you can see it. But Belgium has the better roster, something that is not too overly significant, despite such players as Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
The fanatics meet
England has a side of fast, young, hungry players who still lack single-mindedness. But they are naturally the clear favourites against Iceland, even though the Icelanders with their great physical robustness made it to the second round without a defeat.
Tough to call
Switzerland against Poland looks to be a balanced match with no clear favourite. Both sides are well-staffed. In Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik, Poland has two outstanding strikers. The Swiss are good at dominating the play, and even had more control of the ball than France in their match.
Finally, there is Wales against Northern Ireland, both of whom can scarcely believe their success. But when, as is the case of Wales, you have Real Madrid striker Gareth Bale, who has already scored three goals, then your team is the slight favourite. I expect a really physical, British-style duel.
I hope that we won't be seeing too much football that is based on limiting the damage.