France, 28th June 2016: Hosts France, world champions Germany, Portugal and Italy.Belgium are beginning to meet expectations.
Then there are the surprise stories. Cristiano Ronaldo claimed Iceland were “not going to do anything in the competition.” Well, they sure showed him. Poland have reached the quarter-finals for the first time in their history as well. So have Wales. Who would have thought they would be the last Brits standing?
Poland v Portugal – Thursday June 30,
It makes for an exciting week ahead and it kicks off with Poland taking on Portugal inMarseille on Thursday night. Both needed extra-time to get this far. Both then have had the same time to recover. Even though Portugal have still yet to win in 90 minutes, they look in better nick.
The Poles faded after half-time against Switzerland. Maybe their nerves got to them as well. Adam Nawalka didn’t help by resisting the temptation to go to his bench until 10 minutes into extra-time. That said, the Poles have been solid – the only goal they have conceded at the tournament so far was Xherdan Shaqiri’s entry into the Goal of the Tournament competition. Without the ball, Poland should keep it close.
With it, Robert Lewandowski has gone 643 minutes without a goal and is carrying a metatarsal injury. Alek Milik, his strike partner, has missed some glaring opportunities and has an ankle knock. A lot will depend on their fitness – if they are healthy then Poland still have another level to go to. This team has created a lot of chances and quality chances as well. It should only be a matter of time before they take them.
Portugal looked better after the introductions of the dynamic and anarchic Renato Sanchesagainst Croatia. Fernando Santos must start him in my opinion. Generally their play has been pretty, but also ponderous and predictable. Cristiano Ronaldo was quiet until Ricardo Quaresma followed up his rebound and scored to knock Croatia out. I’m still picking Poland to qualify
Wales v Belgium – Friday July 1
Next up is Wales’ reunion with Belgium in Lille. These two nations know each other well – they were in the same qualifying group for Euro 2016 and while Belgium came out top of the pile, Wales went undefeated against their higher ranked opponents. Gareth Bale won the game for them in Cardiff following a stalemate in Brussels, and Wales have had a day longer to prepare for this encounter and are under no pressure whatsoever. They are in the quarter-finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1958 and, as such, are have exceeded expectations. There is nothing to lose.
The same cannot be said for Belgium and their golden generation, however. They have impressed since their curtain-raiser defeat to Italy, bouncing back with three wins in a row, scoring eight goals without reply. Eden Hazard looked fantastic against Hungary. But I still think there is justification for taking Wales on the Double Chance market Renaissance man Thomas Vermaelen is suspended and Belgium are less of a team than Chris Coleman’s outfit.
Germany v Italy – Saturday July 2
The main event, however, comes on Saturday night in Bordeaux. Germany-Italy is a game worthy of a final. It is a tournament classic. The Germans were at their fluid best against Slovakia, and manager Jogi Löw has also figured out his best XI. One Mario has been swapped for another up front and Germany look more dangerous with Gomez, a proper centre-forward, than Götze, a false nine. His combination play with Thomas Müller is far better.
Strangely Müller has never scored at the Euros. He has missed Miroslav Klose and Philipp Lahm, but looks better for Gomez’s promotion and that of Bayern Munich teammate Joshua Kimmich at right-back, who has got forward more on the overlap than Benedikt Höwedes.
Italy, meanwhile, continue to astound. They have made those pundits who wrote this squad off as the worst that the Azzurri have sent to a tournament in more than half a century look very foolish indeed. But that assessment still stands and only makes the job Conte has done all the more impressive. We’ll perhaps only appreciate just how much Antonio Conte has got this group of players, particularly those in midfield and attack, to surpass themselves once he is at Chelsea. He has maximised the minimum. Squeezing everything out of his players. It has been a triumph of coaching and team building.
No team other than Italy has put in two outstanding performances at the Euros so far. History is on their side this weekend. Germany have never beaten Italy at a major tournament. They lost the 1982 World Cup final, the 2006 semi-final at home and another semi-final at the Euros four years ago when Löw was out-coached by Cesare Prandelli. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he was out-coached again, this time by Conte. At times the Germans have looked satisfied, lacking the intensity they showed at the World Cup in Brazil. The same can’t be said of Italy.Back them to go through.
Iceland v France – Sunday July 3
Last but not least we turn to Iceland-France in Paris. Surely this is where the fairytale ends for Iceland, right? Like Wales – in fact, more so – they are under no pressure. Whatever happens at the Stade de France, Lars Lagerback and his player will be given a heroes welcome in Reykjavik. Apparently they will receive the Icelandic equivalent of a knighthood.
France by contrast have often looked uncomfortable as hosts. They have shown signs of stage-fright. The exchange still has them down as favourites but so far I have not found Didier Deschamps‘ side entirely convincing. They conceded against Romania, only beat Albania in stoppage time and should have perhaps been 2-0 down against Ireland at half-time in the Round of 16.
The defence looks a weak point. Patrice Evra and Paul Pogba have given away silly penalties and Deschamps often hasn’t helped with his team selections. If he plays 4-3-3 on Sunday, it must include a ball-playing midfield player like Yohan Cabaye. If he goes 4-2-3-1Antoine Griezmann must play off Olivier Giroud and not out-wide. Griezmann has played through the middle all season for Atletico.
France must also get their approach right. They can’t already think that they are in the semis. They underestimated Greece in 2004 and went home with their tails between their legs. If they take Iceland lightly, then they will suffer the same humiliation as England. The French should progress but I think the semi-finals is where their tournament will end. Back them to be eliminated in the next round.