Eight countries remain, and Iceland is one of them. Portugal, too, though they have the brand new format to thank for that. What can we expect from the quarterfinals? (All times Eastern).
Our own Andrew Bauer wasn’t perfect in his Round of 16 predictions, but he did finish a solid 5-3. We’ll gloss over the fact that he lost one off his finalists (Croatia) already, who bowed out to Portugal in what was easily the worst match of the tournament thus far.
Now it’s my turn. Are there any giant-killings on the card? Will Iceland continue their memorable run? You’ll really have to watch to find out, because taking my word for it would be a big mistake. That, or the best choice you’ll ever make.
Poland versus Portugal
Thursday, June 30a��3:00 p.m.
Poland have been solid, if underwhelming, all tournament long. Their strongest performance was a scoreless draw back in the group stage against the current World Champions, Germany, as throughout their journey to the quarters they’ve done just enough to keep going. That’s all that matters.
Against the Swiss, it was all Poland in the first half up through the goal before they decided to coast and invite pressure from the Swiss the rest of the way. Eventually that backfired, as a memorable Xherdan Shaqiri strike leveled the match, ultimately sending it to extra time. Over the next 30 minutes, the majority of the chances fell to the Swiss, but goalkeeper A?ukasz FabiaA�ski consistently weathered the storm.
It was decided in a shootout, when Granit Xhaka of Switzerland was the only player to miss. In this one, Poland will need FabiaA�ski at his best again, because…
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo will not go quietly into the night. His Portugal side only got out of the group due to the extended format, taking no more or less than a draw against Austria, Hungary, and Iceland. How? I don’t know, but in their final group match against Hungary, Ronaldo and company came alive.
And they had to, as Hungary took not one, not two, but three leads in that matcha��one that finished level at 3-3. Croatia, who had just come off a stellar group campaign, was made to look flat in every area of the pitch. Portugal was somehow flatter, but caught Croatia out on a counter attack and Ronaldo’s saved shot was tapped in moments before penalties would have begun.
Of course Ronaldo is the man to watch for Portugal, but we’ll see if Poland’s superstara��Bayern striker Robert Lewandowskia��can finally get on the score sheet. It’s been a tough tournament for him, but he’s been good at taking bodies away from the rest of his side, thereby opening up space for the others. That could be enough against a shaky Portugal defense Thursday afternoon.
Prediction: Poland 2-1 Portugal
Wales versus Belgium
Friday, July 1a��3:00 p.m.
Unlike Sweden with Zlatan IbrahimoviA�, Wales with Gareth Bale are much more of a complete team. There’s also a much greater supporting cast around the Welsh superstar than there ever was behind the Zlatan. And Bale is going to need all of them as they step up against a lethal-on-paper Belgium side that is hitting their stride.
Wales was not impressive against Northern Ireland. They created and threatened very little, but did just enough to edge out their opponents through a hard-struck Bale cross that resulted in a tough-luck own goal for the Northern Irish. It is highly unlikely that will suffice against Belgium.
After getting thoroughly outclassed by Italy in the group opener, Belgium responded well against Ireland and should have scored several more against Sweden en route to a second-place group finish. Then in the Round of 16, after failing to convert several chances against group-winners Hungary, Eden Hazard and friends poured it on latea��scoring three times in the final 12-plus minutes to put Hungary away.
I can’t imagine the same exact scenario plays out against Wales, as I believe Bale’s boys are stronger overall than Hungary, but that doesn’t mean this match will be all that close either. If Belgium plays the way they’ve played since losing to Italy, it’s over quicklya��if they can finish their chances more often. I’m not saying they’ve created and failed to convert more than Ronaldo did in Portugal’s first two matches, but I’m saying it’s close.
Lineup-wise, it looks like we’re going to see both Lukaku’s in the team for this clash, as Jan Vertonghen is said to have seriously injured his ankle in training. Initial speculation was that it was serious, and possibly ligament damage, but we’ll have to wait and see.
That shouldn’t deter Belgium from advancing in this one. This side of the bracket is theirs to lose.
Prediction: Wales 1-3 Belgium
Germany versus Italy
Saturday, July 2a��3:00 p.m.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, friends, but Germany have never beaten Italy in a major tournament. Not even once. And if this is your first time hearing this fact, you haven’t been watching ESPN’s coverage of the event. Because now that Bob Ley has discovered this, he will not stop saying it.
On the pitch, the Germans hadn’t found themselves on the receiving ends of rave reviews until the three-goal dismantling of Slovakia in the Round of 16. Rave reviews or not, who cares? The World Champions didn’t allow a goal in the group stage, and carried that into their first knockout match.
Joachim LA�w seems to have found his lineup as well, starting 21-year-old Bayern midfielder Joshua Kimmich at right back in place of Benedikt HA�wedes the last two time out, who has offered very little going forward. He replaced Mario GA�tze with Julian Draxler against Slovakia, which worked wonders, and striker Mario GA?mez has started the last two contests as wella��scoring once in each.
Germany boasts arguably the best center pairing in the world between Mats Hummels and JA�rA?me Boatenga��the latter arguably their best player of the tournament thus fara��and the midfield will always be overwhelming. Will Thomas MA?ller get on the score sheet? That’s all this side seems to be missing. In case you haven’t heard, he’s never scored at a Euro.
Drinking game idea: take one whenever they mention Germany’s competitive record against Italy in major tournaments, and MA?ller’s goal-scoring record at Euros. I’ll give you 15, 20 minutes tops.
In all seriousness, Germany will have their feet full with Antonio Conte’s disciplined Italy squad. They coasted through the group stage; Yes, I’m not counting their one-goal loss to Ireland because Conte made nine changes heading into that one and, oh yeah: Italy had already won the group. That’s coasting, friends.
In a Round of 16 clash against Spaina��winners of the previous two European Championshipsa��Italy dismantled them, yet only scored the second goal moments into stoppage time. If not for David De Gea, who probably should have done a little better with Italy’s first goal, Spain probably would have lost by four or five.
Going into this tournament, almost everybody doubted this teama��one that failed to even make it out of the group stage in Brazil. But here we are. Despite their weak-on-paper forwards, and despite MLS supporters being very critical of Conte’s decision to exclude Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco almost solely based on where they play domestically, we’ve seen one of the stronger teams of the tournament in this Italy squad.
And Conte, who looks like he could be a Bond villain, has probably been cackling to himself all along. Or so I like to tell myself.
Italian squads are nothing if not disciplined, and will obviously present a much stiffer challenge than Germany have faced thus fara��particularly in terms of creating chances and carving out space. But, I think this is the year the Germans finally topple them.
Prediction: Germany 1-0 Italy
France versus Iceland
Sunday, July 3a��3:00 p.m.
A penalty within two minutes sent Republic of Ireland supporters into a frenzy as the hosts were on the ropes early last match. But the second half showed adjustments and eventually a commanding 3-1 victory. A red card (deserved, albeit) for Ireland didn’t help. And yet, the host nation has not been as strong an many predicted they would be going into this one.
They haven’t been Poland underwhelming, but then again, they boast much more star-power than Poland does. Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann have worked very well with one another up top, even if they’ve both failed to convert numerous chances time and again. Giroud was involved in the build-up for both of Griezmann’s goals against Ireland, but the hosts will need more than their strikers to step up if they hope to challenge in the final.
Paul Pogba has struggled, as has Blaise Matuidi at times, and N’Golo KantA� was sacrificed against Ireland for a more offensive-minded player (Kingsley Coman). Plus, the back line is easily the shakiest part of their entire squad.
On the other side of things, Iceland’s hard-nose defending has continued to pay dividends. After also going behind early on a penalty, I believed the match was going to get away from them and England were going to coast. Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Iceland responded almost immediately, added a second several minutes later, and took a lead into halftimea��one they never surrendered. They even had the best chance(s) of the second half.
So while their disciplined defending and counter-attacking style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s worked, and it’s been fun to watch this countrya��in their first-ever major tournamenta��reach the quarterfinal stage. They are not as big of underdogs as everyone has been so happy to point out (that narrative has been overwhelming), and the upset over England wasn’t the biggest of all time, despite the fact that it was an upset.
Iceland are good. They beat Turkey and the Czech Republic, not to mention Netherlands twice, en route to qualifying. They’re underdogs, yes, but not your every day they-have-no-chance-of-winning type. They overhauled their soccer program, and thus far have been rewarded marvelously. How far can they go? Is Euro 2016 just the start? Well before we look forward to Russia 2018, Iceland would like to get past France first and reach the semi-final.
And they can. I just don’t think they will.
Prediction: France 2-1 Iceland
How do you see the quarterfinals playing out?