Perisic's stunner for Croatia has blown Euro 2016 wide open

SWITZERLAND, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Belgium.

Friday, 24th June 2016, 8:02 am
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 7:29 pm

Prepare yourselves, but one of these nations mentioned above will be competing in the final of Euro 2016 at the Stade de France in 16 days.

The combined total of major footballing championships won by these aforesaid countries who will fight it out in the top half of the draw in the forthcoming knockout stages is nil – and includes just two teams who were in UEFA’s latest top-10 rankings announced just prior to the tournament.

In marked contrast, the traditional powerhouses of European football in the rival half in Germany, Spain, Italy and France – let us discount England – have amassed 20 major titles, incorporating 11 World Cups and nine European Championships.

It all adds up to one thing: using boxing parlance, a light-middleweight rookie yet to lift a major title will be pitted against, in all likelihood, a seasoned heavyweight in a bout for continental glory in Paris on July 10.

The tournament was blown wide open by one man in Bordeaux – Croatia’s gifted midfielder Ivan Perisic. Or two if you account for a rare error from Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea that enabled the Inter Milan player to fire home and give the Croats a 2-1 win over holders Spain, who suffered their first European Championship defeat for exactly 12 years and a day.

Perisic’s strike reverberated across Europe’s capitals – not just in Zagreb and Madrid.

Try also Berlin, Rome, Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, Warsaw and Cardiff... oh, and London.

His winner ensured Spain and Croatia progressed into the last 16, but in the opposite order to that which almost everyone expected.

Spain’s failure to win Group D landed them in the same half of the draw as the Italians, French and Germans.

Spain’s shock loss was symptomatic of the fact that Europe’s top table have not dined majestically, though the main course is still to come.

As it stands, no major nation has yet posted an ominous warning after the group stages, which saw no side win all three matches – the first time that has happened since Euro 1996.

Instead, the rich pictures on the European football canvas have been painted by the likes of Wales, Iceland, Hungary, Northern Ireland and – belatedly – the Republic of Ireland.

Several of the games involving the leading nations have proved largely sterile.

There have been just 69 goals in 36 games at an average of 1.92 per match, the lowest level since Euro 1992 – which would have proved a forgettable tournament if it had not been for the dashing Danes.

Perhaps just Italy, in their top-class 2-0 victory over Belgium in Lyon in which tournament savvy oozed from every pore, and Spain, whose 3-0 win against the browbeaten Turks in Nice proved that tiki-taka still has a beating heart, laid something resembling a marker.

Then, of course, both contrived to lose their final group games.

The main drama has been reserved for a propensity for late goals, with 27.5 per cent of strikes coming from the 80th minute onwards with the exploits of former Hull City player Robbie Brady, Daniel Sturridge, Niall McGinn and Hal-Robson Kanu providing delight for the home nations and the Republic.

Add to those the wonderful goal and reaction from one of the outstanding players, Dimitri Payet, in the curtain-raiser.

As for England? Well, the jury remains very much out, with Roy Hodgson’s inability to settle upon a system and coherent tournament style of play even more damning than the amount of changes he made for the final group game with Slovakia.

A plethora of striking resources as opposed to strategic planning got Hodgson out of jail in the key game with Wales in Lens, but his chips ran out against the Slovaks.

It has been more a case of where’s the plan as opposed to where’s the beef?

Now, Italy, Spain, France and Germany lie in wait in England’s side of the draw. First come Iceland, who everyone of a Three Lions persuasion would be foolish to write off, especially given the fact that the minnows beat the Dutch home and away en route to qualification.

While Northern Ireland and the Republic are just glad to still be at the party, opportunity knocks for Wales, who pipped England for top spot in Group B, to progress.

Victory over the Northern Irish in Paris tomorrow would open up a quarter-final with Hungary or Belgium – a side they did the double over in qualifying – with the safe money being on Croatia or Portugal then lying in wait.

In Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, the Welsh have two of the tournament’s thoroughbreds, while the star of manager Chris Coleman has never been higher.

If he needs any extra tips, maybe it is worth having a few words with Greece’s 2004 dug-out doyen Otto Rehhagel.

Emulating his feats remains a fair way off, granted. But an extended run is not beyond the realms of comprehension.

As for the big-hitters, it is time to make moves, with one of the finalists from four years ago in Italy and Spain to fall on Monday.

The winners of that fixture will probably then face Germany, who should prove too strong in the last 16 against Slovakia. They may have recently beaten the Germans in a friendly in Augsburg, but repeating it when it matters is a different kettle of cod.

For hosts France, it is a fair bet they will have to overcome England and either Germany, Spain or Italy to reach the final, where a showpiece with Belgium would provide much home enchantment.