The move to have 24 teams in Euro 2016 was heavily criticised by some, with many believing that it would simply lead to lower quality teams qualifying for the tournament. However two weeks in to the competition with the group stage done and dusted, we’ve seen a number of smaller nations profit.
Hungary, Iceland and Northern Ireland are all through to the knockout stages despite none of them playing in the tournament since 1972, and in the latter pair’s case, they have never even qualified. But the team who have benefited the most from the change in format has been Wales, who after topping group B could certainly be in with a chance of going all the way to glory.
Wales’ 3-0 win over Russia on Monday, coupled with England’s failure to beat Slovakia meant that they finished first in the group, securing a game with Northern Ireland in the round of 16. Even if this is their first European Championships, we can’t rule out them taking the trophy home with them.
The way the group stages worked out definitely favoured Wales. Not only do they play Northern Ireland, probably one of the weaker teams still in the competition, but they will not meet the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Spain until the final if they get there.
Very few teams have played as well in France as Wales have. Where the likes of France and Germany have sneaked through matches with unconvincing performances, apart from the second half against England, Wales have been excellent. They won 3-0 against Russia, but based on the fact they totally dominated the game and created a number of opportunities, it could have been at least five.
They also have the Euro’s top scorer, Gareth Bale, at their disposal. The Real Madrid man has struck in all three of the group matches, including free kicks in the games against Slovakia and England. With so many star players failing to shine at the tournament so far, Bale has turned up, and has stood up and been counted.
Given that they will avoid some of the strongest teams in the tournament, Wales will certainly feel they can make it all the way. They have also shown an incredible amount of passion in their first three games, and it seems unlikely that any side that they play can match that level, and this could be crucial.