By Michael Stafford-Jones
- England face Iceland in Nice on Monday
- Wales play Northern Ireland in Paris on Saturday
- Republic of Ireland take on France in Lyon on Sunday
Home nation fever has descended on France at Euro 2016 after England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all qualified for the last 16.
England delighted a nation of football fans when Daniel Sturridge scored a late winner against Wales. The goal completed an excellent second-half comeback and gave them a 2-1 win in their second group game. Either side of that game, they were wasteful in attack and ended with disappointing draws against Russia and Slovakia.
An incredible turn of events in group F, which saw Iceland finish second above Portugal after Arnor Ingvi Traustason’s stoppage-time winner against Austria, means England will play the smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament in Nice at 8pm on Monday 27th June. On paper, it’s a total mismatch as The Three Lions have by far the better players, but Iceland have shown they are a very difficult team to overcome by remaining unbeaten throughout the group stage.
Wales’ group stage results were the most impressive of the home nations. They comfortably beat Russia 3-0 in their final game after beating Slovakia 2-1 in their first to finish with six points and top the group. In between, they lost to England after Gareth Bale bragged that none of the England players would get into the Wales team.
The Red Dragons’ prospects look good for the last 16 as they will face Northern Ireland at 5pm on Saturday 25th June. The Northern Irish lack the firepower Wales possess in the form of Bale with Aaron Ramsey in support. The prize for the winner is likely to be a mouth-watering quarter-final clash with Belgium.
Northern Ireland owe their qualification to a fantastic 2-0 victory over Ukraine in their second group match – their first-ever win at a European Championships. Gareth McAuley’s towering header set them on their way and Niall McGinn added a second in stoppage time to seal the win. However, those are their only goals so far in the tournament as they lost 1-0 to both Germany and Poland.
And it this shortage of goal-scoring options which makes a victory over Wales in the last 16 seem unlikely. To win, they will need to draw on all their defensive qualities, their boundless team spirit and some more heroics from goalkeeper Michael McGovern to keep Bale and Co out, and then nick a goal at the other end.
It looked like the Republic of Ireland were heading out of Euro 2016 after they only gained one point from their opening two group games against Sweden and Belgium. But Italy gave them hope ahead of their final game by resting many of their key players, and Ireland seemed inspired on the pitch, producing comfortably their best performance so far to win 1-0 courtesy of Robbie Brady’s late headed winner.
Their reward for their heroics is a clash against hosts and pre-tournament favourites France in Lyon at 2pm on Sunday 26th June. It is difficult to imagine them winning the match, but the Irish football team is famous for its self-belief and they will give it everything they’ve got. After all, Greece showed every team that anything is possible at the European Championships by winning Euro 2004.
The Euro 2016 R16 matches begin on 25th June
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