2016: The Year of the Underdog

2016 has been an amazing year for football fans so far. Major upsets have occurred in so many instances by teams not generally considered favourites. Teams that were written off as also-rans defied the odds to upset others who thought they merely had to turn up to claim victory. Regardless of whatever occurs in the next five months, 2016 is unquestionably the year of the underdog.

Premier League

The most obvious example is Leicester City going from relegation candidates to Premier League winners in under twelve months. Despite having a squad that cost a fraction of the price of the usual contenders, they claimed their first ever league title.

Teams like Manchester United and City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham should be kicking themselves. When Chelsea’s title defence imploded, it was as if the bait was being dangled. Leicester were the only team who really bit, although Tottenham sniffed around it. It was almost as though nobody wanted to win it; except Leicester.

From the first weekend they went at opponents with the attitude that they would not be intimidated by anyone. This helped Jamie Vardy score almost five times the number of league goals he managed the previous season. With players such as N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez showing the form that would make them household names, Leicester were worthy winners.

The 2015 – 16 Premier League season was a breath of fresh air for the neutral football fan. Unless you support Chelsea, Arsenal or either of the Manchester clubs, the title race never seems to raise many pulses. It always seems to be the same teams involved, with Liverpool occasionally pushing. Although Tottenham eventually finished third, they were Leicester’s main challengers during the run in.

Many have written off Leciester’s chances of retaining their title. This is understandable, given the kind of sums that the usual contenders will probably spend to get back on top. But take into account that so many unpredictable things have happened in 2016, and the thought of a second successive crown isn’t quite so ridiculous. The reason they won the Premier League wasn’t down to luck, but hard work and self-belief. This should also give other “unfancied” clubs the notion that anything is possible.

Copa América Centenario

Chile shocked the football world, at least those who were paying attention, by lifting their first Copa América last year. 2016 would see the tournament celebrate its 100th birthday, but nobody expected them to lift a second successive title. The strange thing is that wasn’t even the biggest shock of the tournament.

Brazil were considered one of the favourites, as is always the case prior to any tournament in which they participate. They must have fancied their chances in a group that included Ecuador, Peru and Haiti, particularly as the latter two didn’t qualify for the previous tournament or the last World Cup. Brazil didn’t even get out of the group, with the 7 – 1 rout of Haiti their only victory. A goalless draw with Ecuador and a surprise defeat to Peru saw them eliminated.

Costa Rica were one of the surprise packages of the 2014 World Cup. Only a penalty shootout defeat to the Netherlands prevented them from reaching the semi-final, and much was expected of them. Despite beating Colombia in their final game, the 4 – 0 defeat to USA and a 0 – 0 draw with Paraguay left too big a mountain to climb. This meant an early exit for a team who were fancied to make an impact.

Uruguay were hampered by an injury to Luis Suárez suffered in the Copa Del Rey final. Despite this setback, most would have considered them favourites in a group with Mexico, Jamaica and Venezuela. The reality was that they lost their first two games and finished third, which surprised most people.

Colombia were another team who had an excellent World Cup in 2014. They followed this up with a poor effort at last year’s Copa América, where they scored just once. Nobody was sure what to expect from them this time around, and they sprung a few more surprises. Having successfully negotiated the group stage, they defeated Peru on penalties on the quarter-final. After losing 2 – 0 to Chile in the semi, they defeated host nation USA to claim third place, and returned home with their heads held high.

Despite being the holders of the trophy, Chile were not predicted by many to retain their title. For the second successive year, they met pre-tournament favourites Argentina in the final. For the second successive year, Chile won on penalties following a goalless draw. To add to the surprise factor, Lionel Messi even missed a penalty. He followed that up with announcing his international retirement straight after the game.

The year of the underdog had infected England and America. It would soon add Europe to its collection.

Euro 2016

Unlike previous years, Portugal were not seen as among the favourites to lift the trophy. Prior to the tournament they were given odds of around 20/1 to triumph in France. Many saw this as Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to lift a major international trophy. He will be 33 by the time of next World Cup, and will more than likely be past his peak.

In addition to the surprise winners, there were many shocks throughout the tournament. England were expected to top Group B, being the highest ranked team. In the end, they scraped through the group, with neighbours Wales finishing ahead of them.

In Group D, Croatia were expected to be qualify for the knockout stage but finished top after beating the holders Spain. This elevated them to be tipped as a surprise contender for the trophy.

Many of the biggest surprises of the tournament emerged from Group F. Austria were expected to light up Euro 2016 after winning nine of their ten qualifying games. They collected just one point and one goal to finish bottom. Hungary, Iceland and Portugal all qualified from the group managing just two wins between the three of them.

Having excelled in the group stage, Croatia were expected to be too strong for Portugal. Many eyebrows were raised when Portugal beat them in extra time in the last 16. Even the most optimistic Portugal fan would not have heavily fancied their chances.

Iceland had entertained at their first ever international tournament, but most expected England to beat them. Although Roy Hodgson’s side caused all of their own problems, nobody could deny that Iceland deserved their 2 – 1 victory. Their luck did not stretch to the next round, with France beating them 5 – 2.

The most impressive result of the quarter-finals was undoubtedly Wales’ 3 – 1 victory over Belgium. Having a so-called “Golden Generation” these days seems to be something of a curse. Like England ten years ago, much has been expected of Belgium with so many of their players plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues but, once again, they failed to deliver.

The fact that Germany made it to the latter stages is no surprise. The fact that they beat Italy in the quarter-final made history. Prior to Euro 2016 Germany had never beaten Italy in a competitive match, and even this was on penalties following a 1 – 1 draw.

The semi-final match between Portugal and Wales meant that at least one rank outsider would be in the final. The suspension of Aaron Ramsey for a booking picked up against Belgium meant that Wales would be without their star performer in midfield. Having already exceeded everyone’s expectations, Portugal was just a bridge too far as they were beaten 2 – 0. This was their first European Championship qualification and they were a credit to their country.

France were most people’s favourites to win Euro 2016, with a strong squad and home advantage to their credit. They further enhanced their credentials by beating World Cup holders Germany in the semi-final. Portugal had shocked many people by just being in the final, having won just one match inside ninety minutes. Circumstances dictated that they would have to spring a few more surprises.

Ronaldo was forced off with a knee injury midway through the first half, and it seemed their luck had finally run out. They were forced to play the remainder of the match without their talisman. Portugal’s response was to carry on regardless, and do what they had for the whole tournament. They got the job done, with goalkeeper Rui Patrício particularly impressive as France repeatedly tested him.

Renato Sanches was voted Young Player of the Tournament, but he had been ineffective in the final. He was replaced by the only recognised centre-forward in Portugal’s squad, Éder, in the 79th minute. If France were not too worried at facing a striker with only three international goals to his name, they were given a wake-up call in extra time. There seemed to be no danger when Éder received the ball thirty yards from goal. Taking a run at the defence and holding off Laurent Koscielny, he hit a low shot past Hugo Lloris from just outside the area.

This is Portugal’s first international trophy and the surprise is that they have done it with one of their weakest sides. Apart from Ronaldo, this is not a star-studded side packed with names like Eusébio, Rui Costa or Figo. Passion, hard work and a sprinkling of good fortune have been the key to their triumph. For this reason alone, nobody can say they don’t deserve it.

2016: The Year of the Underdog

 

Although 2016 still has almost five months left, most of the year’s silverware has been won, but the shocks continue. The Champions League qualifiers have just kicked off, and seen Celtic beaten by a semi-professional team from Gibraltar. The year of the underdog may have a few chapters still to write.


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