Euro 2016: Three crucial matches that could decide group standings

Euro 2016With the Euro 2016 curtain on the brink of rising, fans of the continent's finest football nations are suspended in a state of supreme anticipation. More teams and more chances play like sweet music to the ears of underdog enthusiasts and it's sure to be one of the most open European Championships in a long time.

Put the champagne on ice though, for there's still the small matter of the group stages before any team can get carried away with themselves. Progression to the knockout phase is more accessible than ever, with 24 sides competing and the fact that, along with all the group winners and runners-up, the four best third-placed teams also advance to the first ever Euro last 16 stage.

The groups are tight though and the chances of qualifying for the knockout phases hinge on specific fixtures, here's a select three that could decide the final standings, which you should keep an eye out for...

England vs Wales

Sandwiched between England's opener with a stagnating Russia and their final group game against debutants Slovakia, this battle of the British will have added spice for a host of reasons.

It is likely that these two will be favourites to progress; Russia are without key man Alan Dzagoev and the heart of their defence has a combined age elapsing seventy, while debutants Slovakia lack any real firepower from back to front.

Therefore it is expected that both England and Wales will have won their opening encounters, or at the very least picked up a point, and so the victors of this clash would undoubtedly secure qualification, meanwhile casting a cloud of doubt over the advancement of their geographical neighbours.

On the contrary, this match could also prove important if England suffer a shock opening match defeat to Russia, as a follow-up loss to Wales would send the Three Lions packing in one of the worse scenarios possible.

Ukraine vs Poland

This iconic pair-up sees the hosts and co-hosts of Euro 2012 square up on match-day three in Group B. Both sides would've already locked horns with Germany and potential whipping boys Northern Ireland.

The belief is that having most likely both experienced defeats to group favourites Germany and victories against Michael O'Neill's side, this will be a straightforward battle for second spot and automatic progression to the last 16, so it carries a great deal of significance in both a historical and modern context.

If events pan out as expected on paper (let's be honest, it's international football so this is unlikely) then victory here would hand the winning side a total of six points, while their rivals across the border will be left with a meagre three.

Alternatively, if the poor form of Joachim Löw's side continues in France, and the Germans stumble, this match could even decide the winner. Poland and Ukraine could very well take points off Die Mannschaft and have the chance to top the group with victory in Marseille, while Germany would aim to lock in third with a win against Northern Ireland. Phew.

Italy vs Sweden

Antonio Conte's last major tournament as manager of Italy could well be over before it's even started. The Azzurri's campaign kick-starts in Lyon against Belgium, who are among the favourites to progress and will be eager to rectify the disappointment of the years prior to the 2014 World Cup.

That spells out danger for the Italians who could face up against the formidable Zlatan Ibrahimovic on match-day two knowing defeat would almost certainly boot them out of the competition.

This game's outcome could even dent Belgium's chances of topping the group. Sweden lock horns with the Republic of Ireland in their opening group game, the oldest squad in the competition, who seldom navigate their way much further than the group stages.

So victory could be on the cards there, meaning three points for the Swedes against Italy would fill them with confidence ahead of the final game against the Belgians, where they could hold the mental edge and pip The Red Devils to the top spot.