Seemingly disappointing Euro 2016 draw holds hidden gems with expanded field

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Much of the top talent across Europe was spread thin in the Euro 2016 qualifying draw, leaving fans with few matchups of any excitement early on.

While the draw’s result means the seeding worked and that the finals will most likely be all the top teams, it leaves many of the groups all but predetermined.

However, with the Euro 2016 finals expanded from 16 to 24 teams, the straightforward draw does leave a bit of room for countries previously unable to make noise on the European stage to have a chance to surprise some.

With the expanded finals, it means the top three – not the top two – teams in each group have the opportunity to move on.  With nearly every group holding clear top-2 favorites, the third-place position in many groups will be a bitter battle to the finish.Just two groups – Group A and H – have three clear teams that could vie for the top two spots.

Group A has the Netherlands, Turkey, and Czech Republic, and Group H sports four decent teams in Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Norway.The rest of the groups are left incredibly top-heavy.  Group B has Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovna, Group C has Spain and Ukraine, Group D holds Germany and Poland, Group E with England and Switzerland, Group F is likely to be topped by Greece and Hungary, Group G has Russia and Sweden, and Group I holds Portugal and Denmark (who draw each other again after a fierce battle in the Euro 2012 qualifying groups).

While this seems initially to leave fans with little to look forward to, it also means a lot of the third-place spots will be up for grabs, and could give teams not formerly thought to challenge for the later rounds a chance to make a move.

Consider a country like Romania.  A country that has hardly made noise in the Euros in the past could now have a chance to make a playoff, where anything could happen.

In Euro 2012 qualifying, Romania finished a distant third to powerhouses France and Bosnia, now they draw Hungary and Greece with the opportunity to make noise even if they fail to eclipse either. Finland, in that same group, falls in the same boat.

So with the expanded field, much of the focus will shift from the top of the groups to the middle, where we could see action never before brought to the European championships.

Group C wide open as Denmark, Australia settle for draw

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Denmark and Australia settled for a 1-1 draw on Thursday, as this exciting Group C affair had nothing to separate the two nations at the end of 90 minutes.

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As it stands, the Danes lead the group with four points, while Australia earned its first point of the World Cup.

France will meet Peru later on Thursday, with Les Bleus having won its first match and Peru having suffered defeat to Denmark.

The Danes broke through after seven minutes when Nicolai Jørgensen picked out a perfect back-heel pass to Christian Eriksen at the top of the box, before the Tottenham Hotspur attacker volleyed home for a 1-0 lead.

Jørgensen nearly doubled the Denmark advantage in the 24th minute when the 27-year-old had an open header from close range that skewed just wide of the target.

Australia worked its way into the match following the opener, and were awarded a penalty kick in the 37th minute after VAR Mark Geiger altered an initial decision for a handball inside the box.

Mile Jedinak converted the spot kick to level the match at 1-1, giving the Socceroos life.

A dangerous free kick four minutes later almost gave Denmark the lead once again, however, Eriksen couldn’t get a crucial touch on the ball to knock it over the goal line before Ryan collected.

The second half continued with lightning pace from both sides, and Aaron Mooy‘s 71st minute blast came inches away from giving Australia an improbable lead.

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The two nations will conclude Group C play on June 26, as Denmark faces France and Australia takes on CONMEBOL side Peru.

Video: VAR awards Australia penalty, before Jedinak converts

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The Socceroos battled admirably in the latter stages of the first half, and Australia was rewarded for their efforts.

Australia has leveled the match at 1-1 after a Mile Jedinak penalty kick cancelled out Christian Eriksen’s stunning opener in the seventh minute.

After an initial decision to play on by the head referee, VAR Mark Geiger opted to award a penalty kick to the Aussies after Yussuf Poulsen was caught with his hand away from his body on a Mathew Leckie header.

Poulsen was also shown a yellow card for the infraction, which rules him out for Denmark’s group-stage finale against France.

Video: Eriksen volley has Denmark ahead inside 10 minutes

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Denmark is well on its way to another three points on Thursday, and this time it’s Christian Eriksen who has finally broken through at the World Cup.

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Eriksen put the Danes in front in the seventh minute after a tremendous volley that gave Australia goalkeeper Maty Ryan no chance at keeping it out.

After a sloppy turnover in their own half, Australia could only watch as the ball fell to Nicolai Jørgensen, who cleverly back-heeled to Eriksen at the top of the box.

The Danes pulled off a 1-0 victory in their first Group C match against Peru, while Australia fell 2-1 to France.

Croatia coach says “we have nothing to lose” against Argentina

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Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic chose his words wisely when discussing their final Group D opponent, Argentina, but his side won’t be backing down when they take on Lionel Messi and Co.

[ MORE: Spain gets win after Iran equalizer called off by replay ]

With three points already in the bag for the European nation, Croatia currently sits atop their group, however, Dalic recognizes the task that lies in front of him and his team on Thursday.

“I didn’t say that Argentina was the easiest opponent,” Dalic said. “I said that this was the easiest game for us. We have nothing to lose. We are playing against one of the best.”

Croatia does have the benefit of having won its first match in group play, which has given the side a decided enthusiasm heading into the meeting.

For Ivan Rakitic — who plays at Barcelona with Messi — he believes there isn’t much he or anyone on his team can say or do to further prepare themselves for the Albiceleste.

“What can I tell them that they don’t know?” Rakitic said. “The world knows. Messi is one of the best players in the world. He will have his moments, clearly. It is up to us to stop him, to play the right way against him, and to enjoy the match and play our best.

“It’s a beautiful thing to play against one of the best teams in the world. We are especially motivated.”

In four all-time meetings, Argentina leads 2-1-1 against Croatia, including a 1-0 victory during the 1998 World Cup in France.

The two teams last met in 2014 following Argentina’s World Cup final defeat to Germany, with Messi and Co. earning a 2-1 victory over Croatia.