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Oh, What Could Have Been: Ranking The Also-Rans at Euro 2016

With Euro 2016 soon to fade in the memory, here's a reminder of which teams almost did something special at the tournament, yet didn't quite see things through.

by Will Magee
Jul 12 2016, 3:44pm

EPA Images/Georgi Licovski

Euro 2016, c'est fin. With the vultures now picking over the carcass of the tournament, we can inspect its inner workings, and diagnose exactly what went right and wrong. Having already ranked the worst teams at the competition, it's now time to take a glance at the also-rans – the sides who almost did something special, but didn't quite see things through.

Starting with the best of these teams and finishing with the worst of them, here's a definitive ranking from 9–16.

9. CROATIA

For a fleeting moment in the Euro 2016 group stage, it looked as if Croatia might go all the way. With a beautifully poised midfield of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić, they finished top of Group D, with a draw against the Czech Republic the only blemish on their record. They blew a two-goal lead against the Czechs, but that collapse was precipitated by prolonged disturbances from protesting fans. Apart from that, the early indicators were excellent, with a 2-1 win over Spain announcing them as serious contenders for the tournament.

Unfortunately, like so many others, Croatia were quietly undone by Portugal. The Seleção snatched victory against Ante Čačić's side, with Ricardo Quaresma scoring in the 117th minute. That was Portugal's first shot on target in the match, which Croatia had dominated for large periods. As such, the Croats went out of the competition prematurely, the first of several teams to be lured into Portugal's turgid trap.

Props to Croatia for the tournament's boldest hairstyle, though // EPA Images/Mohamed Messara

10. THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND

For perhaps the first time in their history, a Republic of Ireland team will be remembered more for the football than the associated craic. Having drawn with Sweden and lost to Belgium in their opening two matches, the Republic had to beat Italy to progress to the knockout rounds, and so looked utterly doomed. Martin O'Neill's men proceeded to surprise everyone – not least the Italians – and beat their illustrious opponents 1-0 thanks to a header from Robbie Brady.

Having taken an early lead against France in the Round of 16, the Irish were eventually undone by two strikes from player of the tournament Antoine Griezmann. That didn't really matter, though. The Boys in Green had played out of their skins, and positively changed the perception of Irish football in the process.

The Irish did themselves proud // EPA Images/Sergey Dolzhenko

11. BELGIUM

This may seem like an uncharitable ranking for Belgium, but it fairly reflects their underachievement. Tipped to win the tournament by many, lauded as a golden generation, the Belgians were ruthlessly exposed by Italy in their opening match, and expectations were suddenly tempered. They built up a head of steam after that, swatting aside Ireland, Sweden and Hungary in their bullish run to the quarter-finals.

Sadly for them, it was there that Wales stopped them in their tracks. Despite their billing, despite their star status, Belgium were roundly beaten by the Welsh. Cue much soul-searching, and numerous unforgiving critiques of manager Marc Wilmots.

Belgian fans would have hoped for much more from their compatriots // EPA Images/Tibor Illyes

12. ALBANIA

While Albania failed to get out of Group A, they did themselves proud nonetheless. A narrow 1-0 loss to Switzerland was followed by a 2-0 defeat to France – both the hosts' goals coming after the 90th minute – before Gianni De Biasi's men shook their losing habit and beat Romania in their final game. Their two defeats brought them great credit, with the unfancied Albanians matching far superior opposition for long spells.

They could have qualified for the knockout rounds as a best third-placed team, had results elsewhere fallen in their favour. That's an achievement in itself considering that they were one of the lowest ranked teams at the tournament, and they deserved the heroes' welcome they received on their return home.

Albania were lauded nationally for their Euro 2016 showing // EPA Images

13. SPAIN

Though the Spanish press went into bitter mourning over La Roja's Round of 16 exit, Spain's campaign was not quite as disastrous as some made out. Their surprise group-stage defeat by Croatia was a blow to their pride, but there was no shame in being knocked out by an excellent Italy side, drilled to perfection by Antonio Conte and bolstered by perhaps the best defensive unit to grace the tournament.

With Vicente Del Bosque now stepping down as manager, Spain face a new era on the international stage. Unlike the 2014 World Cup, Euro 2016 was no humiliation for them and leaves plenty to build on. The future now depends on Del Bosque's successor, and his ability to bring new talent into a team which, admittedly, could do with an injection of fresh ideas.

Spain are about to enter a new epoch // EPA Images/Alejandro Garcia

14. NORTHERN IRELAND

When you consider that Northern Ireland would regularly go on six-match losing streaks prior to Michael O'Neill's appointment as manager, the fact that they got to the knockout rounds of Euro 2016 is fairly astounding. This was their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup and – with a fairly limited squad in terms of talent – they managed to put in several creditable performances, not least their 2-0 victory over Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the historical nature of their success didn't make it any easier to watch the actual football. Norn Iron were about as easy on the eye as a sandpaper contact lens, and it was something of a relief when they went out to Wales in the Round of 16. Still, fair play.

Yer Northern Irish da shows his appreciation for the lads // EPA Images/Paul McErlane

15. SLOVAKIA

Slovakia were one of the stranger sides at the tournament, really. Something of an unknown quantity, they managed to overachieve without ever playing particularly well. Having been beaten by Wales in their opening fixture, a win against the abject Russians and a tedious bore draw against England saw them progress to the knockout phase. That was the pinnacle of their ambition, and that was where their participation would end.

Despite the best efforts of Marek Hamšík – a man who could have been player of the tournament, had he played for a different team – Slovakia were taken apart by Germany when the two teams met in the Round of 16. The Slovaks were horribly exposed against quality opposition, and put to the sword by the agile talents of Julian Draxler. It was a humbling experience, and anything but a good way to go out.

Hamsik was Slovakia's best player by a mile // EPA Images/Laurent Dubrule

16. SWITZERLAND

Switzerland were sort of alright // EPA Images/Jean-Christophe Bott

What is there to say about Switzerland, really? They turned up, they were fairly bland, and they went out to Poland at the earliest opportunity. The Swiss only managed one win all tournament – against Albania – while their group-stage draw with France was considerably more praiseworthy than their group-stage draw with Romania.

Having said all that, Xherdan Shaqiri's overhead kick was one of the goals of the tournament. For that alone, they justified their place at Euro 2016.

Check back tomorrow when we'll rank the best teams at the tournament. Likewise, we've ranked the worst teams here.