Euro 2024 and the one-sided draw that affects which teams are considered likely finalists

There is a reason: on the very moment when Gareth Southgate and his players were being pelted with obscenities and plastic cups in Cologne on Tuesday, all of Britain's leading bookmakers were lowering the percentages for England to win the 2024 European Championship.

It had nothing to do with a sudden surge in optimism or a flurry of betting activity. Who would put money on an England win after that?

The reason for this was the best way the tournament was being arrange: the percentages for England were reduced, as were those for Italy, Austria and Switzerland. The odds for a French, Spanish, German or Portuguese title fell accordingly.

If there have been a free draw after the group stage, as is the case in European club competitions, it will be difficult to get past Spain, Germany, Portugal and – given their poor performance up to now – the tournament favourites France.

But the trail was predetermined. The knockout rounds seemed unbalanced even before kick-off. The imbalance was further exacerbated by France's failure to win its group and now find themselves in the highest half of the round alongside Spain, Germany, Portugal and Denmark. Belgium could also find yourself there in the event that they finish second or third in Group E.

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What is England’s path to the ultimate of Euro 2024?

On paper, the underside quarter of the table looks pretty strong: Switzerland face Italy in Berlin on Saturday; England face a third-placed team (probably the Netherlands) on Sunday. But Switzerland, Italy and England have each won one game within the group stage. Add within the Netherlands (or whoever finishes third in Group E – Romania, Belgium, Slovakia or Ukraine) and that's 4 wins out of a possible 12.

To be clear, in the underside quarter of the draw, a team that has won only once within the group stage will reach the semi-finals – where, within the worst case scenario, they’d face Austria, Belgium or the Netherlands. The almost definitely semi-final constellations in the opposite half of the draw can be Spain or Germany against Portugal or France.

Southgate said on Tuesday, after a disastrous 0-0 draw with Slovenia, that England could have been lucky with the best way the knockout stages have turned out. “We shouldn't be seduced by half the draw,” the manager told ITV Sport. “We have to take it step by step. Tonight was an improvement. We have to improve to win the next round.”

In his post-match press conference, it was made clear to him that England had finished on the opposite side of the table to Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. “We have a lot of respect for all the teams you mentioned, but there are some very good teams on our side of the draw as well,” he said.

But to not the identical extent. As on the 2018 World Cup, luck was on England's side and all the opposite teams that finished on that side of the table – not least Austria, who can rightly say they took their luck into their very own hands by ending ahead of France and the Netherlands.

In 2018, five of the highest six teams within the knockout rounds (Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, Argentina and France) ended up on one side of the draw, while the opposite half consisted of Spain (which had won only considered one of its three group matches), Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Colombia and England.

This World Cup was widely seen as Belgium's best probability to win a serious tournament, with lots of the 'golden generation' players at the height of their powers. But they paid a heavy price for winning Group G, beating Japan and Brazil but losing to France within the semi-finals. England's prize for ending second to Belgium of their group was a spot in the better a part of the draw, which saw them beat Colombia and Sweden before losing to Croatia within the semi-finals.

An identical imbalance prevailed at Euro 2016. Antonio Conte's Italy shone within the group stage, but the value of winning Group E was a tougher opponent. They beat Spain 2-0 but lost to Germany on penalties within the quarter-finals. Germany lost to hosts France within the semi-finals. Portugal, meanwhile – who had secured third place in Group F by drawing with Iceland, Austria and Hungary – reached the ultimate by beating Croatia within the round of 16, Poland within the quarter-finals and Wales within the semi-finals.

Some competitions are based on a free draw, comparable to the FA Cup. Others, comparable to the NFL or NBA, rank teams in keeping with their leads to the regular season, which should, in theory, be sure that the 2 strongest teams in a conference find yourself on opposite sides of the draw.

Things are different in international football competitions – including the World Cup, the European Championship, the Copa America, the Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup of Nations. The teams are already determined on the draw: the winner of Group A plays against the runner-up of Group B, the winner of Group C against the runner-up of Group D and so forth.

The group stage draw is predicated on seedings, but teams are randomly assigned to every group, increasing the potential of an uneven finish within the knockout rounds. With tournaments compressed right into a 4 or five week period and matches happening within the host country, it is useful to have a pre-established structure for planning, travel and ensuring each team gets enough rest between matches.

However, there are inconsistencies. Austria has a seven-day break between the tip of the group matches on Tuesday and the round of 16 next Tuesday, while Spain's round of 16 opponent (who has yet to be determined) only has a four-day break.

Everything in knockout football is variable. But you may predict with some certainty that a team that performed miserably at Euro 2024 will reach the semi-finals or, probably, the ultimate. After a difficult group stage, England, Switzerland, Italy and others have made a soft landing. For considered one of them, it could even be a springboard.

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