We’re all over the map here at 1a, we bring you heartfelt memoirs, we bring you book reviews, we bring you hockey. I’d comment on the trades today in the NHL (R.I.P. Canada) but I think my colleague James has you covered there. Writing about Iceland earlier has prompted me to go and write up a little predictions for how the rest of the tourney pans out.
For what it’s worth, before the tourney started I pegged 4 teams to make some noise: Austria, Croatia, Iceland, and Wales. The latter 2 have made me look prescient. Croatia looked clinical in the group stage but apparently couldn’t get past a pedestrian Portugal side so I’m not sure what happened there (I didn’t catch the game and was advised it was 2 hours that could be far better spent doing literally anything else). Austria underwhelmed to say the least.
So overall it’s been a mixed bag – if Croatia kept rolling I would’ve looked really good but still not a bad return overall. Here we go with the quarters:
Poland vs. Portugal
This will be the one game I know I won’t be around for and I’m not all that bummed about it. Just an atrocious-looking quarterfinal here. Poland nicked two 1-0 wins in the group stage over a sorry Ukrainian side and a pesky but starless Northern Ireland sandwiched between a draw with Germany that is certainly their best result of the tournament. Then they went through on penalties over Switzerland in a tie they really had no business advancing from based on their 2nd half and extra time displays. They offer little going forward with their star man Robert Lewandowski apparently spent from his grueling campaign with Bayern. The Dortmund man Jakub Błaszczykowski will look to provide the spark through the midfield, and he has shown flashes, but it is certainly his Dortmund teammate Łukasz Piszczek and the rest of his backline backstopped by Swansea’s Łukasz Fabiański that has gotten them to this point only conceding a wonder goal to the Swiss Shaqiri.
As for Portugal, as we know, the side will go as far as Cristiano Ronaldo takes them. He was quiet in the first two group stage games, but came alive against Hungary and pretty much single-handedly ensured progression (albeit finishing on 3rd with 3 points in a soft group). Then they bested a Croatian side I liked a lot, again I didn’t watch the game, but they had to do something right to go through here and Ronaldo was instrumental in the build-up play for their lone tally. Nani can be nice to watch but he can also really struggle at times, I’ve liked Moutinho in the past but he’s looked off the pace a bit in the midfield, Fonte and Pepe are decent centerbacks along with Fonte’s Southampton teammate Soares at right back and have managed to only concede 4 times in the tournament thus far and two of those goals were off Hungarian deflections.
There isn’t much to separate these squads. They’ve both defended well but have found offense tough to come by. This has all the makings of a low-scoring tight battle (bit of a snoozer).
Poland looked completely out of answers against the Swiss and they have Fabiański to thank for progression. Ronaldo’s in better form than Lewandowski at the moment and I have to think he generates a few chances and either sets up or finishes off one of them over the course of 90 or a buck 20. Poland will look to boss the midfield and if they can do then they’ve got a fighter’s chance.
Prediction: I like Portugal to go through 1-0 in a game no one will sing songs about.
Wales vs. Belgium
Now we’ve got some fun clashes to talk about with the first being Wales vs. Belgium. This may look like a bit of a mismatch on paper, but in qualifying the Welsh drew Belgium in Brussels and topped them in Cardiff.
Real Madrid’s record signing Gareth Bale of course leads the way for Wales but this is a team full of Premier League talent: a couple Swansea defenders (maybe the star club of the tournament really), big club midfielders in Aaron Ramsey and in-form Joe Allen of Liverpool. They can hang on quality, but what separates them from England, also a side with Premier League stars and better ones at that, are that they are playing without much pressure and as a unit. I write this understanding that England nicked them in the group stage, but come the knockouts it makes all the difference in the world to be playing pressure-free. They won an ugly Round of 16 tie against fellow UK country Northern Ireland but, although it was close, they never looked like losing it. Now they take on Belgium in their preferred underdog role.
Belgium has managed to recover nicely from being outcoached and outworked in their opening loss drubbing at the hands of Italy. They’ve since made relatively easy work of Ireland, Sweden, and Hungary and haven’t conceded in the process. Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne hardly ever puts a foot wrong in his attacking midfield role, Hazard looks better coming off a dismal Chelsea campaign, Lukaku scores when he’s supplied, and their back-line consisting of Alderweireld, Vermaelen (who can’t get game time at Barcelona but still looks fine), and Vertonghen who I personally rate very highly don’t give up much and, even if they were to, Thibault Courtois is world-class in net. The question for Belgium isn’t so much its talent but its chemistry. They play like individuals at times for long stretches with no clear leader, and even in the Hungary game it took a while for them to kill off a team that clearly shouldn’t be on the same field as Belgium. In their one match against quality opposition, they were exposed by Italy as the disjointed team they can be on their worst days.
I also see this one as a low-scoring affair, albeit more exciting than the first quarterfinal. After all, these teams played out 0-0 and 1-0 games respectively in qualifying. I think Belgium’s quality gets them a goal, and Welsh persistence in the midfield matches. Otherwise, the defenses will play well, particularly aerially.
Prediction: 1-1, Belgium get tight during penalties and Wales go through.
Italy vs. Germany
Here’s the heavy-weight clash of the quarterfinals featuring in my opinion the two best teams left at Euro 2016 (and, no, there isn’t a close 3rd). This game should be the final, but the draw is the draw, and what should be the match of the tournament comes a week or so early. Italy took a Belgian side with more talent on paper to footballing school in their opening fixture, got by Sweden who never looked likely to score, rested their starters against Ireland, and then put on a masterclass display to knock off the defending European champions Spain. It was 2-0. It could’ve been 3, or 4, or 5. They’re filled with longtime Juventus servants in net and on defense, the midfield has names in Italy that I’m not terribly familiar with but based on their displays I should be, Southampton man Graziano Pelle and Inter’s Eder have proven to be more than capable and what was considered to be Italy’s weakness in attack. They’ve been nothing shy of brilliant.
And they’ve been rewarded with having to face the defending World Cup Champion Germans. They’re filled with mostly Bayern and Dortmund stars. They didn’t look completely up to form in the group stage but they could’ve put 10 past Slovakia in the Round of 16. They haven’t conceded. Julian Draxler and Mesut Ozil look in fine form in particular, and Mario Gomez is the reliable aerial threat he’s always been for club and country. I could go on and on but to no one’s surprise Germany is really good at this sport.
Needless to say, I think the winner of this game is poised to win the whole tournament. There isn’t much between them, but my mind keeps going back to the Juventus-Bayern Munich Champions League clash this year and how Juventus were seconds away from advancing when Bayern tied up the tie on aggregate and then proceeded to score a couple more in extra time to seal Juve’s fate. This matchup is of course not literally Juventus vs. Bayern but a lot of the players keen to play a part will be. Italians haven’t lost to Germany in competitive play apparently (which is a remarkable stat), and I can’t see the like of Bonucci, Buffon, and Chiellini getting bested by German sides twice in a matter of months. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
Prediction: Italy 2 – Germany 1
Iceland vs. France
The people’s champ takes on the host nation. Germany-Italy should be the best football, but this may well be the best script for a Disney movie.
I’ve written a bit about Iceland today, but I can spare a few more words. These aren’t players I know a ton about, I can’t claim to have watched much Swedish or Nordic football in my day. Maybe I should start.
What I do know is these guys deserve to be here and they play as a unit. I know Arnason and Sigurðsson have been valiant at the back. They clear their lines, it’s no nonsense, it gives you a chance on any given day. I can read Kolbeinn Sigþórsson scores a goal every other time he puts on an Icelandic shirt and I don’t care if you play for Iceland or U-10’s at Town Forest (shoutout to Merrimac’s own Town Forest) that’s a return. I am familiar with Gylfi Sigurðsson. He dazzles for Swansea in the Premier League, and Spurs should’ve never let him leave. It’s poetic justice that he’s shined in this tournament as Harry Kane weltered.
With this being said, France is far the better side on paper. I love Lloris in goal, Payet’s earned himself a big money move somewhere with his showing, Antoine Griezmann continues to score timely goals, and on his day there are a handful of names in the world better than Paul Pogba. Laurent Koscielny is as steady as it gets at center back. On their home soil they should win the game.
But like Belgium, they’re under pressure. Apart from Payet, Griezmann, and Koscielny, they’ve generally been poor. They left it until the last to dispatch a couple weak sides in the group stage, and they were trailing a lovable but lacking Ireland side an hour into their Round of 16 match. They have it all to do, and Iceland can play their game because they’ve already won. This one could blow up in my face because my head says the French are better, but in this tournament thus far I really don’t know if that claim stands.
Prediction: Iceland 2 – France 1, because that’s the scoreline that Iceland prefers of late.
Rest of the way: Wales over Portugal because **** Ronaldo & Italy over Iceland because all good things fall apart. Italy over Wales in the final. Forza Azzurri