Euro 2016: Superstar names grace opening round of knockout games | FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 | DW | 24.06.2016
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World Cup 2018

Euro 2016: Superstar names grace opening round of knockout games

Potential fairytales, possible upsets and the road to a blockbuster clash. The opening Euro 2016 knockout games have it all, including two of world football's biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Following a turbulent and unpredictable Euro 2016 group stage, Saturday sees the beginning of the knockout matches for the 16 teams remaining, with three mouthwatering games on the schedule after two rest days.

Switzerland and Poland, who finished second in their respective groups, meet in Saint-Etienne, before two of world football's biggest names, and club colleagues, will look to take the next step on the road to a possible meeting in the semifinals.

Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal face Croatia in Lens and Wales, with Ronaldo's Real Madrid teammate Gareth Bale leading the charge, take on fellow minnows Northern Ireland in Paris.

"We've come through a massive journey," Bale, the tournament's joint top scorer with three goals, said on Friday.

"We've been in some bad places," added the 26-year-old. "We were 112th in the world and now we're in the last 16 of the Euros. These are the days to enjoy."

The rise of Welsh football in some ways mirrors Bale's career. Starting as a full-back with English side Southampton, he is now a key part of Real's potent “BBC” attack. The chance has finally arrived for him to have a moment in the spotlight playing for his country at a major tournament.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is still searching for international glory

A potential blockbuster

Bale is hoping his nation's dream run continues on to a last-four showdown with Ronaldo, who is often seen as a mentor, or even a rival, for the Welshman.

The three-times World Player of the Year scored his first two goals of the tournament in the final group stage match against Hungary and appears to have rediscovered his best form at just the right time.

"Everyone knows Cristiano and what he can do at any time, in any minute in a game. I am 100 percent sure he will go on and score more goals now," Portugal teammate Nani told reporters on Friday.

"No one can say anything against him. He is a fantastic player. He showed it again against Hungary when everyone was talking about him - he has shut them all up now," Nani added.

Bale and Ronaldo have never faced each other on the international stage and only on three occasions were they on opposite sides at club level: when Bale was with Tottenham Hotspur and Ronaldo with Manchester United in the Premier League.

Northern Ireland fans

It's been a tournament of pure joy for Northern Irish fans

Northern Irish heart, Croatian class

Wales' opponents on Saturday are another team who unexpectedly made it past the group stage: Northern Ireland. The support from the Northern Irish fans has been hailed, along with their Republic of Ireland counterparts, as the best at the tournament.

Spurred on by their cheering hordes, the likes of Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley and in-form goalkeeper Michael McGovern will be hoping to shatter Welsh dreams, and thwart their world-class striker.

Portugal's opponents Croatia have been one of the tournament's best teams. Despite conceding two late goals in a draw with the Czech Republic, beating Spain and Turkey with an unexpected confidence has made them one of the favourites on the 'weaker' side of the draw.

Despite missing the final group match, star-man and another Real talent, Luka Modric, is expected to be fit to take his place alongside fellow midfielders Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic. Croatia will be counting on their more consistent form prevailing.

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