Euro round of 16 pits England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany in one half
PARIS -- This is where it begins in earnest: a straight knockout draw to crown the European champion.
What jumps out at you while looking at the Round of 16 is the apparent lopsidedness. Germany, Spain, England, Italy and France are all in the same half of the draw. Put another way, you can count 11 World Cups and 10 European Championships among the teams in this half, all competing against each other for one spot in the final. And, in the other half, you have the likes of Belgium, Wales and Portugal.
"It's a strange situation," said Antonio Conte, the Italy coach. "We play Spain. And then the winner will probably have to face Germany. And then possibly France. Strange to have such a tough draw."
It may be strange, but it's not some diabolical design by the tournament organizers. It is what it is because England and Spain -- both top seeds -- failed to win their groups and ended up on the "wrong" side of the draw. So if you're unhappy with it, direct your complaints to the English Football Association and the Real Federacion Espanola de Futbol.
As for what happens next, given the shocks of the group stage, you hesitate to hazard a guess. But the storylines are endless and we can be thankful for that.
We have a rematch of the Euro 2012 final between Spain and Italy, though that July night in Kiev feels very, very long ago. Defeat to Croatia on Tuesday brought back many of the old insecurities of La Roja. Now it's up to manager Vicente del Bosque and his veterans to banish them once and for all. As for the Azzurri, Conte's side is the polar opposite to Cesare Prandelli's 2012 edition and several standard deviations behind them in terms of talent.
There's Croatia taking on Portugal, two gifted teams with frayed nerves to say the least. The Croats found themselves in the surreal position of having a portion of their fans intentionally misbehaving in an effort to embarrass their FA; Portugal in the equally surreal position of creating tons of chances but having arguably the world's greatest goalscorer fluff his finishes -- a condition that may have led a frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo to throw a TV reporter's microphone into a lake.
England's resolve will be tested by the ultimate Cinderella story of Iceland (if you haven't seen or heard this, you're probably living under a rock). England may be stacked with Premier League stars, but they're playing a nation that is walking on air right now.
Meanwhile, two other United Kingdom sides -- one with blinding star power, one with considerably less, but a stubborn, indefatigable mindset -- square off as Wales face Northern Ireland. Whatever happens, Wales manager Chris Coleman and Northern Ireland's Michael O'Neill could probably both write How To management books aimed at MBA students for the way they've handled their squads.
The world champions, Germany, have a relatively straightforward task on paper when they clash with a Slovakia side led by Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka. But then again, their group seemed straightforward, too, and it was anything but for manager Joachim Low.
A Polish defence that has yet to concede at the Euros while it waits for its star striker, Robert Lewandowski, to start scoring take on a Switzerland side that are still finding its feet but nevertheless held the host nation, France, to a draw.
Speaking of Les Bleus, no manager has tinkered as much as Didier Deschamps. While the host nation are overwhelming favorites against the Republic of Ireland, the conviction and intensity shown by the Irish to get this far leads you to almost believe Robbie Brady when he says: "We can go as far as we allow ourselves to go."
And finally, Belgium take on Hungary. If there's one pretournament favorite who aren't complaining about the way the draw has panned out, it's Marc Wilmots' side. On paper the run to the final, which might require navigating some Real Madrid stars such as Gareth Bale, Luka Modric or Ronaldo, is manageable. Though first you need to get by undefeated Hungary and their cult heroes, the sweatpants-clad Gabor Kiraly and the irrepressible Balazs Dzsudzsak. And that's something neither Portugal nor the hipsters' choice, Austria, could do.
The group stage provided entertainment. It raised questions of the favorites, elevated the second tier and turned most neutrals into fans of Icelandic sagas. It had its ugliness and its moments of fear, mostly -- thankfully -- off the pitch. And the fact that with a few notable exceptions (Ireland spring to mind) we haven't had much reason to talk about the officiating can only mean that overall it's been pretty good.
But now comes the knockout stage and -- truth be told -- this is what we'll remember. For the bigger nations, all of whom struggled at varying times and to different degrees, it's a chance to hit the reboot button and have the kind of Euros they were expected to have. For the smaller ones, it's a chance to write history. Or, in the case of those like Iceland and Northern Ireland who have already done so, an opportunity to turn legend into saga.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.