If you didn’t get the memo about Euro 2016, you’re missing out. The twenty-four team field, the largest ever for the European Championships, has been narrowed down to eight. And much like Stefon hyping up a hot, new New York nightclub, this tournament has EVERYTHING. Vikings conquering. Titans falling. Even the occasional ball fondling/sniffing. The increased field of twenty-four teams has given us a tournament that under previous rules, would have never been possible. The result is four marquee matches in the coming days. Let’s take a day-by-day look at the upcoming action:
THURSDAY – POLAND VS. PORTUGAL
The first match of the quarterfinals is arguably the least interesting in terms of stakes. But that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. On one side, there’s the tour de force that is Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid forward first made headlines this tournament when he criticized the Icelandic National Team after their 1-1 draw for their “small mentality…they are not going to do anything in the competition.” Little did Ronaldo know that Iceland would be joining them in the quarters (more on them later).
Portugal advanced to the final eight by beating Croatia in the most uninspired game of the tournament (according to reddit, but still). Both teams were tired from having played in the last day of the group stage, only to play in the first day of knockout play. The only standout was the performance by Portugal center back Pepe, who led the Portuguese back line in preventing Croatia from putting up a shot on target.
Pepe will have his work cut out for him, though, as he takes on a Poland side led by Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski. The Poles are undefeated in Euro 2016, including holding world champions Germany to a 0-0 draw in the group stage. However, the Polish are lacking the usual spark normally provided by Lewandowski. The striker has yet to net a goal during this tournament, but his presence has certainly been distracting for opposing defenses, whose diverted manpower have given players like Jakub Blaszczykowski and Arkadiusz Milik enough space to operate effectively. This match will likely be low-scoring, physical, and might even need extra-time or penalties to decide a winner.
Prediction: Poland 1-1 Portugal, Portugal advance on PK’s
FRIDAY – WALES VS. BELGIUM
Now we’re talking. This tie will no doubt be an action-packed display featuring a Welsh side riding the momentum of a tight tournament, and an inconsistent Belgian side that may have finally found their footing.
Wales is led by their greatest player in a generation, Gareth Bale. Bale netted two free kick goals during the group stages from distance, as well as forcing a crucial own goal against Northern Ireland in the round of 16 that sent the Welsh through as the only British team remaining in the quarters. Wales boast a decent defense and a decent midfield, but it is Bale that will be the center of attention for the Belgian back line on Friday night.
The Belgian defense is, like the rest of the team, talented but inconsistent. For one, they play without a true left back, as Tottenham center-half Jan Vertonghen has been performing the duties out wide. Wales will likely exploit that irregularity. But Belgium outclass the Welsh in the midfield and up top by quite some distance. For one, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard put on arguably the best individual performance of the tournament during Belgium’s 4-0 rout of Hungary. The winger weaved his way down the left side and delivered an assist to possible new teammate Michy Batshuayi in the 78th minute, only to follow with an impressive solo goal two minutes later. Hazard will be joined by the always solid Radja Nainggolan and Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, with Everton target man Romelu Lukaku at the top. Unfortunately for the UK, I think they’ll be leaving Europe for good on Friday night.
Prediction: Belgium 3-1 Wales, with a late counter-attack goal sealing Belgium’s place in the final four.
SATURDAY – GERMANY VS. ITALY
The match of the tournament so far. Italy were written off by many before the tournament, and for good reason. Their front six lacked the usual flair the Italians are known for, opting instead for a more practical and industrious feel to compliment their indestructible back line. And when I say indestructible, what I mean is that they haven’t given up a goal at Euro 2016. The Juventus back three of Bonucci, Barzagli, and Chiellini, as well as Gigi Buffon in goal, have repelled attacks from the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eden Hazard, and most recently, the previous European champions, Spain. Future Chelsea manager and 12th man Antonio Conte has tailored his Italian side like a club team, opting for the same lineups in pre-tournament friendlies as opposed to experimenting. His decisions have paid dividends, as Gli Azzurri played cohesively to defeat La Roja 2-0. But now, they face the world champions, and will have to deal with the absences of Thiago Motta and Daniele De Rossi in midfield.
Germany’s defense have also yet to give up a goal during their time in France. They are led by the center-back-of-the-future Jerome Boateng, who can do cool things like this from time to time. The Germans advanced by defeating a Slovakian side that looked conceded to defeat from the opening kick. Indeed, Die Mannschaft have yet to face a real challenge at this tournament, and Italy’s back line will certainly provide them with one. That back line goes up against a German attack that has been mediocre at best. Some thought forward Thomas Muller would win the tournament’s golden boot. However, the Bayern Munich player has yet to score. Same goes for his club teammate Mario Gotze and Arsenal man Mesut Ozil.
Ultimately, I think this game comes down to who makes mistakes on defense, and I just don’t see the Italians making any mistakes. This will be a hard-fought defensive battle that may resemble the 2014 World Cup Final, only with the Germans on the losing end.
BOLD Prediction: Italy 1-0 Germany after extra time. Conte immediately ascends to heaven (e.g. West London).
SUNDAY – FRANCE VS. ICELAND
Mesdames et Messieurs, we arrive at our headliner. It’s hard to imagine that a match could be more tantalizing than Germany-Italy, but this match has more stories and drama behind it than this season of Game of Thrones.
Let’s start with the Cinderella team, Iceland. Iceland were on the winning end of a match against England that shook the continent. However, based on the tremendous performance of the Icelandic lads, the fact that they won wasn’t the shocking part. Rather, it was just how poor their English opponents were. Iceland stayed composed after conceding an early penalty, netting two goals to go up 2-1 in the first twenty minutes. What followed were a grueling seventy minutes that saw the Viking nation repel shitty attack after shittier attack by England. Regardless, Iceland have by no means stumbled into the quarterfinals. With leaders like Gylfi Sigurdsson in midfield and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson up top, as well as the brick wall of Hannes Halldorsson in goal, Iceland will be no walk on the Champs-Élysées for the French.
That being said, France are the heavy favorite coming into this match. The host nation have conceded only two goals all tournament, and both of them were penalties. Manager Didier Deschamps has struggled to find his groove with selecting the right team and formation. This was exemplified in their last match against Ireland. France conceded the fastest penalty in Euro history when golden boy Paul Pogba bulldozed into the box for no apparent reason. At the end of the first half, the hosts were still down 1-0, and clearly were lacking chemistry. It was when Deschamps came back out in a 4-4-2 with Atletico Madrid frontman Antoine Griezmann playing more centrally that the French found their footing, and cruised home for a 2-1 victory.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Iceland give France a scare in the first twenty minutes, maybe even netting a goal. However, I don’t think the host nation will be outdone, possessing simply too much quality to be overtaken by everyone’s new favorite island.
Prediction: France 3-1 Iceland. A Viking funeral is held in the middle of the pitch.