It doesn’t matter if, like Germany or France, you expected to reach the Euro quarterfinals. Or if, like Portugal, with zero wins in 90 minutes, you’re not quite sure how you got here except sheer bloody-mindedness. Or if, like Belgium, you lost your footing early and then recovered. Or if, like Iceland, Hollywood scriptwriters are knocking on your door wanting to chronicle the greatest upset since … well, since Leicester City won the Premier League this season.
Three games separate these eight teams from being crowned champions of Europe. Here’s how the matchups break down.
Poland vs. Portugal, Marseille
The subtext is Robert Lewandowski vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, though, in fact, neither has had the happiest of tournaments. Ronaldo missed a penalty against Austria and has flashed only intermittently; Lewandowski has sacrificed himself doing grunt work and hasn’t looked like the scoring machine we see at Bayern.
Poland has reaped huge dividends from a well-marshaled back four and a stubborn midfield led by Grzegorz Krychowiak. With Portugal, it’s more a case of the front three needing to finish, rather than produce. Take the wild 3-3 draw with Hungary out of the mix and you have a team that failed to score in 90 minutes on three separate occasions.
Both these teams can go to the next level — it’s just that Portugal’s ceiling is higher. The question is to what degree they can break down the Polish defense and whether Lewandowski suddenly comes alive as an attacking threat. Then, get wholesale jerseys for champion team.
Wales vs. Belgium, Lille
Were it not for Iceland, Wales would be the Cinderella story here. There’s more to the Welsh than Gareth Bale, of course, but he has shown a knack for making those around him better. Belgium recovered from the shock opening day defeat to Italy to win the next three games, including a 4-0 pounding of Hungary, but they still feel less than the sum of their parts.
That’s fine, though, because their individual parts already add up to quite a bit. They can beat you many different ways and have a shutdown goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois. That said, Belgium can suffer against tactically sophisticated sides and the quality, versatility and unpredictability of Bale can create serious problems. Equally, Wales play a back three and Belgium boss Marc Wilmots really struggled to wrap his head around Italy’s three-man defence.
Belgium are favorites simply because they have, top to bottom, better players and the Kevin De Bruyne-Eden Hazard combination seems to be hitting form. But the Bale factor, both in what he can do personally and what he can make his teammates do, is not to be underestimated.
Germany vs. Italy, Bordeaux
Germany have been getting stronger as the tournament progresses, which is bad news for everybody else. Manager Joachim Low has an array of options in his front six and he has shown he’s not afraid to tweak when required. Meanwhile, keeper Manuel Neuer and his defence have yet to concede a goal.
Italy are all about system over individuals, mainly because, as coach Antonio Conte himself said, “we don’t have great individual players [in midfield and attack].” That system was devastating against Belgium and Spain, but Low, simply put, is a far tougher tactical nut to crack. Italy create plenty, but that’s also because they need multiple chances to score.
That said, Gigi Buffon also has yet to concede in goal (and he has faced tougher strikers than Neuer has). Plus, if you’re superstitious, Germany have never actually beaten Italy in a competitive match. Though, as they’ll tell you — very rationally — records exist to be broken.
France vs. Iceland, Saint-Denis
Polar opposites here. The uber-talented host nation against the guys many expected to be nothing more than the answer to a trivia question. Iceland’s performances have been otherworldly thus far. If you don’t believe they’re channeling some kind mystic Viking spirit, you’d have to assume that all that running and exertion will catch up with them sooner rather than later. (Then again, that may be what England thought as well and we saw how that turned out.)
Les Bleus will be without the suspended Adil Rami Jerseys, which might not seem like a huge loss until you realize Eliaquim Mangala could be the man to replace him. Defence is not the French strong suit, though it has arguably performed better than their attack, where Olivier Giroud has fired too many blanks, and midfield, where Didier Deschamps’ incessant tinkering is doing him no favors.
Could the host nation stumble against Iceland? Probably not. There are too many weapons in the French arsenal, from Dimitri Payet to Antoine Griezmann to Paul Pogba, and, as they showed against Ireland, they’re resilient too.