1. England and Croatia
England made six changes when approaching their final group game, knowing a win would see them qualify in first. Croatia made five in exactly the same situation.
England were expected to brush Slovakia aside, no matter how many alterations they made. Croatia were always going to lose to Spain, whatever they did.
England laboured to a draw, Croatia bounced back from an early goal to deservedly beat Spain.
The difference? England’s players looked uninterested in playing for each other, bored of trying to win and expected just to turn up and gain the three points. Croatia’s wanted to stake their claim for a first team place in the next round.
Take a look at the midfield. England played a brilliant, but tiring, Eric Dier, alongside a half-fit Jack Wilshere and an uninspiring Jordan Henderson. Croatia had lost Modric to injury so brought in the impressive Rog, and dropped Brozovic for the brilliant Pjaca.
England paid for being negative, Croatia were rewarded for being positive, although in the short run it doesn’t appear to have paid off. Croatia get Portugal in the next round, England have Iceland.
2. Sergio Ramos
As it turns out, Croatia were screwed either way with their group. Win and they get Portugal, lose and they get Italy.
Which is why you need to look beyond the second round, and start plotting a route to the final. It is without question that had Spain won the group, they would cruise into the final.
Croatia’s route is: Portugal, Poland-Switzerland, Wales-Northern Ireland-Belgium-Hungary. Spain’s is: Italy, Germany-Slovakia, France-Ireland-England-Iceland.
So Sergio Ramos has a lot to answer for.
Why? He took the penalty away from Cesc Fabregas. He ignored Andres Iniesta and David Silva. The score was 1-1, another Spanish goal would have meant Croatia had to score 2 to win the group. In 20 minutes, that would have been unlikely.
Ramos missed. Croatia scored. And, if Spain fail to get to the final, there has to be a backlash against their captain.
3. Iceland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Albania
I’ve mentioned the debutants on many occasions. I was looking forward to seeing them all play, and none has let me down.
Wales won their group, Iceland qualified in second while the other three all finished third. All were competitive, and, until Portugal’s comeback against Hungary and Ireland’s late winner against Italy, all were progressing to the last 16.
As it is, we say goodbye to Albania. But we can continue watching the other four, and with Wales taking on Northern Ireland, at least one will be in the quarters.
None of them match the brilliance of Iceland. They’ve riled Cristiano, frustrated Hungary and broke Austrian hearts. They deserve to qualify, and I would genuinely love them to go far in this tournament.
They play England in the next round, with their late goal denying us the chance to play Portugal. My heart wants England to win the tournament, but I wouldn’t be sad if Iceland dumped us out.
Losing to Portugal would have been another chapter in Ronaldo’s sickening ego-fest, losing to Iceland would make us part of one of the greatest sporting stories of our lifetime.
That’s why I was delighted when Iceland scored their winner. That’s why I wouldn’t mind losing to them.
4. The format
I think I’m alone in this, but I have absolutely loved the new format.
Yesterday, Republic of Ireland knew winning would see them qualify, no matter what happened in the other match.
Under the old system, their 1-0 triumph over Italy wouldn’t have been enough.
Assume Sweden beat Belgium and Ireland beat Italy. Italy would have 6 points, Sweden and Ireland 4 and Belgium 3. Sweden would go through on goal difference (they didn’t lose 3-0 to Italy).
If Sweden and Belgium drew? Belgium would have four points, and would progress due to their victory over Ireland (H2H is the first criteria for qualification).
Under the old system, Ireland were almost certainly out. Under the new one, qualification was in their hands.
Doesn’t that justify it? Doesn’t that prove it’s worth?
Third place sides should qualify more often. It made the final round of group matches much, much, much more exciting.
Poland – Croatia
Wales – Belgium
Germany – Spain
France – Iceland
Croatia – Wales
Germany – France
Croatia – France (with France winning at home)