After a slow start, the 2016 European Championships are beginning to take shape with just eight teams remaining as the tournament heads into the quarter-final stages. With some big teams going out in the round of 16 – including defending champions Spain- there is now no room for error for the remaining sides with the stakes having been increased. So who will make it to the last four?
Poland v Portugal
Two sides who some people might be surprised to see still in the tournament at this stage, Poland and Portugal have had some nervy moments en route to the quarters. Having come through a difficult-looking group unbeaten and with no goals conceded, Adam Nawalka’s Polish side looked in fine shape going into their last 16 tie against Switzerland. However despite an encouraging start that saw Jakub Blaszczykowski grab his second goal of the tournament to open the scoring, Switzerland responded with a strong second-half performance which eventually saw the Polish defence concede their first goal at the tournament when Stoke City winger Xherdan Shaqiri equalised for Switzerland with an incredible over-head kick which will surely be a strong contender for goal of the tournament. Shaqiri’s goal saw the match go into extra-time where Switzerland, buoyed by Shaqiri’s wonder goal, dominated proceedings with Polish goal-keeper Lukasz Fabianski forced into a number of saves. Despite all this pressure, the Swiss could not find a winner in the extra thirty minutes so the game went to penalties. In an expertly-taken penalty shootout, Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka was the odd one out as he blazed his penalty wide of goal. That proved to be the only miss of the shoot-out with Poland’s Grzegorz Krychowiak stepping up to win the shoot-out and send the Poles into the last-eight.
For Portugal, this tournament has been something of a roller-coaster. Having somehow failed to beat Iceland and Austria in their opening two games despite dominating both matches, Fernando Santos’ side went into their final group game against Hungary knowing that defeat would see them exit the tournament in the first round. With captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo yet to score in the tournament after two below-par individual performances, the pressure was on. What followed was arguably the game of the tournament so far with Hungary taking the lead three times in the match only for Portugal to equalise each time and secure a 3-3 draw which was enough to see both sides progress to the last 16. Having had a shocking tournament by his own high standards, Ronaldo answered his critics with a virtuoso performance that saw him assist Nani for the first equaliser before scoring two goals himself. Although they had qualified, the prospect of facing an impressive Croatian side who had just beaten defending champions Spain to top their group, was something to fear for the Portuguese seeing as they failed to win against weaker opposition in their group games. Yet in a pretty dismal game that looked to be going all the way to a penalty shoot-out, Portugal grabbed a winner with what was incredibly the first shot on target in the whole match, as Quaresma headed home the winner in the 117th minute.
A tough one to call given that neither side have really lit the tournament up so far with their performances. Poland have shown throughout the tournament that they are very well-organised and hard to break down, yet going forward they remain something of a work in progress despite possessing two quality front men in Arkadiusz Milik and Robert Lewandowski. A partnership that worked so well in qualifying for this tournament, the two players have often seemed to be often different wavelengths so far in the Euros, with captain Lewandowski still to score in the tournament. However with a number of technically adept midfielders such as Grosicki and Blaszczykowski creating openings for the two strikers, they may yet prove to be crucial in helping Poland go even further in this year’s tournament. For Portugal, after a slow start they seem to be finding form at just the right time and with a number of strong attacking options going forward they have the ammunition to break down this strong Polish defence. However with their defence looking somewhat suspect at times, they will need to improve if they are to keep Milik and Lewandowski quiet.
Belgium v Wales
Two teams who are very familiar with each other having met in qualifying, Belgium will be looking to get one over on a Welsh team who have been something of a bogey team for Marc Wilmot’s talented squad. Having drawn two and lost one of their last three matches against Chris Coleman’s Welsh side, the Belgians know not to take Wales lightly especially with Gareth Bale in starring form.
The Belgians took some time to get to the party but their 4-0 hammering of Hungary in the last 16 was a statement of intent from Wilmot’s side to the rest of the competition that his side believe they are good enough to go all the way this year. Having started the tournament with a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Italy, many people had come to speculate that once again this group of talented individuals would struggle to gel as a team. However The Red Devils have responded in the best way possible with three mightily impressive performances including a 3-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland and a 1-0 win over Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden side.
Playing in their first major tournament in nearly 60 years, this Welsh side have been one of the most impressive teams of the tournament. Having started the Euros with a nervy 2-1 win over Slovakia, all eyes soon turned to the big match against England in Lens. With Gareth Bale having got off the mark with a well-taken free-kick against the Slovakians, hope was high amongst the Welsh fans that Bale could deliver once again. Bale did get on the score-sheet once again with yet another free-kick, however this was not enough to see Coleman’s side grab all three points as English pressure told in the second-half, Jamie Vardy equalising before Daniel Sturridge scored a late winner for the English. Going into their final game of the group stages against Russia, the Welsh needed a win to be sure of their place in the last 16, and a win they most certainly got. In one of the most impressive performances of the tournament and arguably the best Welsh performance in years, Wales comfortably dispatched a poor Russia side with a performance full of attacking verve and invention. With Joe Allen pulling the strings marvellously from the middle of the park, Wales created a number of chances with Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor and that man Bale scoring as Wales ran out 3-0 winners in a match they could have won by an even bigger margin. With results in the other game going their way, that result meant Wales topped their group and their reward was a tricky-looking last 16 tie against Northern Ireland. In a tight match where both sides seemed nervous at times, Wales narrowly overcame their fellow home nations side, when Gareth Bale’s cross was turned into his own net by Northern Ireland centre-back Gareth McAuley. In a match of poor quality and few chances, Bale’s expert delivery proved to be the defining moment.
On paper, Belgium look to be strong favourites for this tie. With Eden Hazard looking back to his marauding best against Hungary and Kevin de Bruyne continuing to occupy opposition defenders as well, Wales’ defence will have a tough job on their hands keeping Belgium’s dangerous attackers quiet. Yet Wales have shown before that they can hold firm against this side having kept two clean sheets against the Belgians in qualifying and with Bale having proved the match-winner in this fixture just over a year ago in Cardiff, Wilmots will be wary of the impact the Real Madrid star can have on a defence that when tested can be fragile, as seen against the Italians. With Wales priding themselves on their strong defensive unit, Belgium will need to be at their attacking best to get past the likes of Ashley Williams, whilst also being wary of the pace of Wales’ counter-attack through the likes of Ramsey and Bale.
Germany v Italy
Without a doubt the tie of the quarter-finals, as the two most impressive sides at this year’s tournament face off.
World champions Germany have moved through the gears in imperious fashion so far, gradually improving their level of performance as the tournament wears on. Having started their Euro campaign with a routine 2-0 victory over Ukraine, a goalless draw against a dangerous-looking Poland side followed, before yet another routine victory over Northern Ireland sealed top spot in their group, just shading out the Poles on goal difference. In the last 16 they faced Slovakia, and this time Joachim Low’s men stepped it up a gear with a performance that sent a message out that Germany are hungry to add to their world title. Goals from Jerome Boateng, Mario Gomez and Julian Draxler sealed a comfortable victory against a Slovakia side who posed little threat of causing an upset.
Under Antonio Conte, Italy do not possess the star individual talent that can be found in the German ranks but have proved to be a very effective team unit. An impressive 2-0 win over Belgium got the ball rolling for Conte’s men and Eder’s late goal against Sweden secured their place in the last 16 with a game to spare. A much-changed Italian side from their opening two games then suffered a 1-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland but that has proved to be the only blot on their copybook so far. Despite finishing top of their group, the Italians were given the unenviable task of taking down the defending champions Spain in the last 16. With their last meeting in a major tournament being the 4-0 defeat in the European Championships final of 2012, Italy went looking for revenge. In an absorbing contest, Italy deservedly won the match 2-0 with goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle securing a victory that ended Spain’s eight-year reign as European champions.
A titanic contest that would have been a worthy final, Italy have enjoyed impressive victories over much-fancied sides such as Belgium and Spain and look like a team that could go all the way. To do that however they will have to get past a defence yet to concede so far in the tournament. Manuel Neuer’s defence have been excellent so far, although they have yet to face a side as dangerous as Italy and will have to be on their guard. Italy themselves have looked strong in defence, with the likes of Bonucci and Chiellini expertly protecting Buffon’s goal. However they themselves will be up against it with Germany possessing a wealth of attacking options including Ozil, Draxler, Muller and the classy playmaker Toni Kroos. Two excellent defences, this game could go the distance.
France v Iceland
Once again on paper, the easiest of ties to call as the hosts come up against the smallest nation to be competing at this tournament. Lars Lagerback’s Iceland side have already overachieved by making it to this stage and having famously knocked out England in the last round will hold no fear against a French side who have yet to fire at their home tournament.
Pre-tournament favourites, France have made their way through the tournament with a number of patchy displays that have seen key individuals often step up to inspire their team. In their opening match it was West Ham’s Dimitri Payet who rescued his nation with a wonderful late winner to break Romanian hearts and seal a narrow 2-1 win. Against Albania it was Antoine Griezmann who grabbed the crucial goal in injury-time, with his side having toiled for 90 minutes against the minnows, before Payet once again got on the score-sheet just a few minutes later. An uninspiring 0-0 draw against Switzerland rounded off their group campaign with a last 16 tie against Republic of Ireland awaiting them. A nightmare start resulted in the Republic grabbing a shock lead early on through a Robbie Brady penalty. 1-0 down at half-time and losing for the first time in the tournament, the French once again needed inspiration and once again it was Antoine Griezmann who stepped up with a second-half brace that saw them over the line against a plucky Irish side who had to play the final 25 minutes a man down when Shane Duffy was sent off for a professional foul on Griezmann.
Iceland came into the tournament with no expectations, having overachieved in just qualifying for the finals. In a tough looking group for them, they started off with a brilliant backs-to-the-wall defensive performance that saw them hold Ronaldo’s Portugal to a 1-1 draw. They followed that up with yet another 1-1 draw, yet in very different circumstances as Birkir Saevarsson’s late own-goal cancelled out Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty to hand Hungary a share of the spoils. In their final group game against Austria a first-half lead was cancelled out by Austrian Alessandro Schopf. With a draw good enough to send Iceland through, and Austria needing a win to qualify, the Austrians threw everyone forward late on to grab a winner, only for Iceland to counter and score a winner through Arnor Ingvi Traustason with almost the last kick of the game. The goal proved to be crucial as with it Iceland overtook Portugal to finish second in the group and secure a last 16 tie against England. Iceland went into their last 16, with all the pressure on their opponents and it told. Despite conceding an early goal with Wayne Rooney scoring from the spot, the Icelandics hit back almost immediately as the English defence failed to deal with a trademark long throw from Iceland with Ragnar Sigurdsson bundling home from close range. As if things couldn’t get any better just over ten minutes later Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scored the goal which would prove to be the winner. With over 70 minutes to hold on to their lead, Iceland went back to preserving their lead and with England providing little in attack sealed their most famous win.
Given Iceland’s shock victory over the English, France will surely not make the same mistake and underestimate Lagerback’s side, but Didier Deschamp’s side should have enough quality to seal a place in the last four. Yet with the team still struggling to hit top form, the onus may once again fall on the likes of Griezmann, Payet and the indomitable N’golo Kante to lead their team further in the competition. Iceland will once again be dependant on Swansea midfielder Sigurdsson to pull the strings and hopefully provide good ball to the strikers, in the hope that they can grab an early goal like against England. Yet they come up against a defence yet to concede a goal in open play and having done their small country proud in getting this far this game may prove to be one too many for these Icelandic heroes.