Forty-four games into Euro 2016 and we’re finally at the quarter final stage. The way things have panned has done little to appease any concerns over the inflation of the tournament format; however the underperformance of a few of the major nations and the resulted skewing of the draw has served to make things slightly more interesting than perhaps they would’ve been. Otherwise, the competition has been categorised by the cautious approach the majority of teams have taken, and looking ahead to the final seven games, it’s a trend that looks likely to continue.
Poland v Portugal
Portugal are probably the least popular team left in the competition. After Cristiano Ronaldo’s spectacularly ungracious remarks after the Iceland draw, and after putting out likable underdogs Croatia in the most boring game of the competition so far, they will have few neutrals left casting a sympathetic eye. Fernando Santos’ side have been okay, but it feels like they should’ve been better. His midfield look disjointed, which is surprising given most of them play together at Sporting Lisbon; the talented Valencia winger Andre Gomes has been disappointing as well.
Poland meanwhile have been impressive, keeping out Germany and fully deserving to progress against the Swiss in the previous round. After four consecutive draws over 90 minutes, Poland are arguably exactly the sort of team Portugal don’t want to be facing. Solid off the ball, happy for the game to be slow and happy to wait for chances to fall, with both Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik looking sharp.
Prediction: A slow, but tidy and intense game, with one of the superstar forwards on the pitch probably grabbing a late winner. (Probably Ronaldo, sadly)
France v Iceland
Even as an Englishman it’s hard not to be extremely impressed and pleased for this Iceland squad, who’ve reached the latter stages of a major tournament for the first time ever, beating Roy Hodgson’s abject team in the previous round. What’s most charming about Iceland is the fact they don’t even particularly play like plucky underdogs – for the most part they press high, whilst remaining organised and making full use out of the two or three genuinely top class players in the team. And now with absolutely nothing to lose, they should be fun to watch going forwards.
France have definitely improved as the tournament has gone on but still have done little (if anything) to justify their billing as favourites. Almost all of their best players (Paul Pogba, Dmitri Payet, Antoine Griezmann) have shone in moments but have failed so far to look convincing as a unit. It’s hard to escape the fact France’s likely progression to the semis has been the result of a relatively favourable draw. Iceland represent another stubborn though likely surmountable obstacle on their path to the final stages. On the basis of their performances so far, it’s hard to feel optimistic about their chances against the likes of Germany or Italy.
Prediction: France win, but another unconvincing display
Wales v Belgium
This should be an excellent game. Of all the teams in the tournament, Wales have probably improved the most over their first four games. Each of their starting XI looks good in their 3-5-2 system, and two consecutive clean sheets is evidence of a strong defence and intelligent game management – historically Belgium’s weakness has been dealing with sides who show these qualities in particular.
Marc Wilmot’s team have been fortunate with the draw after a poor start against Italy and laboured win over the Swedes but they look set to make the most of it after an emphatic 4-0 win over Hungary, in which Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Toby Aldeweireld and Radja Nainggolan were all finally able to find the form in which they finished the season for their club sides. Hungary however, despite being arguably the most limited team at the tournament were fairly open in their approach, whereas Wales will be extremely well organised, as they were in their two recent qualifiers against the Belgians which saw them keep two clean sheets. Even as underdogs they must fancy their chances of reaching a historic semi-final here.
Prediciton: Wales to frustrate Belgium, before a piece of genius from De Bruyne or Hazard opens the game up and secures a narrow win.
Italy v Germany
Clearly the stand-out game of the round. Germany are the favourites to win the tournament now, after Coach Joachim Low has worked out for the third consecutive tournament that his team play better once he’s dropped one of his many gifted attacking midfielders for an actual centre forward. There are no perceptible weaknesses in the German team; Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil all look in good shape and they’re the only team yet to concede a goal in the competition.
Italy meanwhile has been excellent as well, over the space of four games the reputation of Antonio Conte seems to have gone from that of a national to an international premier coaching talent – his side were exceptional in their defeat of Spain yesterday afternoon. Thanks to not only the sophistication of their system but the almost mechanical execution from his players led to the complete nullification of the defending champions, they were also ruthlessly efficient, attacking at speed; three fine saves from David De Gea prevented the game from becoming a rout.
Germany are still favourites, but that will arguably suit the Italians, who’ve always historically performed better as the underdog. Germany are a team who (over the last 10 years) have never really adapted throughout a competition, giving Conte and his staff a chance to prepare. If his midfield can nullify Kroos to the same extent as they did Sergio Busquets then the Germans could have a really tough time.
I’m looking forward to a potential classic, and maybe Germany’s first ever tournament win over Italy!
Prediction: Germany to score first and just about hold on. (And Conte to start his important work on Monday)