Thursday 30th June
20.00 Poland v Portugal
It’s quarterfinals time and first up we have the battle of Poland and Portugal. Of the two, Poland have been the more impressive throughout but still required extra-time and penalties before they saw off a game but limited Swiss side in the round of 16. Main man, Robert Lewandowski, has still to register a shot on target and Poland will be hoping that he finds his shooting boots soon because their opponents give the impression they might be about to lace up theirs.
Portugal gave the tournament one of the most disappointing matches thus far in their late, late win against Croatia. The fact that their winning goal, scored in the 117th minute, was only the second shot on target during the match (the first shot came roughly one second before the goal, its save becoming the ‘assist’) doesn’t speak promisingly about the scoring threat they pose.
What does count in their favour was the performance of recent Bayern Munich recruit, Renato Sanchez. The 18 year old gave an electric performance when he was brought on in the second half, always demanding the ball, bursting forward with intent and, crucially for their wining goal, using his intelligence to hold off on the pass that Ronaldo demanded in favour of teeing up Nani, who was in a better position and provided the scoring pass.
It’s worth remembering that Portugal have not won a game in regulation time yet in this tournament. For all that, the bookies have them as firm favourites. If Renato Sanchez was to start, then this column would be inclined to agree with them and go with the price of 13/10 that most places are offering. If they don’t start the youngster, Poland should be able to exert more control in midfield and win out in the end. MarathonBet are offering 58/19 for that outcome.
Friday 1st July
20.00 Wales v Belgium
To the surprise of many, Wales find themselves in the last eight of a major tournament. The Welsh team and management seem less surprised, however. This is a side full of confidence and camaraderie and even with bona fide world star in their ranks, it’s a team without airs and graces. Passion and desire will only get them so far, though, and this match is by far their toughest yet.
After their first round loss to Italy, Belgium won their next three matches, scoring eight and conceding none along the way. The worry for Wales is that they seem to be getting better as they go. In their 4-0 win over Hungary, Eden Hazard produced one of the performances of the tournament so far and reminded everyone of the outlandish skills he possesses. They are coming close to resembling the team many hoped they would be.
It is highly likely that Belgium will score at least once so Wales will need to be clinical with every chance they get. In their favour, Thomas Vermaelen’s suspension will necessitate a shuffle in defense, likely drawing Jan Vertonghen from his full-back berth into the centre alongside club mate, Toby Alderweireld. Whilst this move can only strengthen that position, it will mean the left-back position must be filled by an inexperienced player (possibly Lukaku’s brother), a potential area of weakness that Wales must look to work.
So although it looks like there will be a chink in their defensive armour, this Belgium team’s performances have displayed a palpable growth in the confidence and comfort of the players. They must now fancy themselves as genuine contenders for the title. Wales will not go down without a fight but they’re likely to go down all the same. The best price for a Belgium win is ¾ from BetVictor.
July 2nd July
20.00 Germany v Italy
This is a mouth-wateringly exciting tie. Both these teams put in some heavyweight performances in the last round. Germany tore apart a tired and scared Slovakia to the tune of three goals to nil and whilst it might be argued that most of the big teams would do much the same, it was the performance that mattered most
Germany had been having an identity crisis in the forward line, flitting betwixt and between a false and orthodox no. 9 but they have finally settled on the orthodox. Mario Gomez might not be everyone’s cup of tea but few can carry off that old-fashioned role with such accomplishment. His movement (or lack thereof) helps to pin opposing centre halves, leaving a lot more space for the host of more technically minded midfielders to weave their magic. And he can score, too. What else can you really ask for?
Italy sent reigning holders, Spain, home in some style. It is this columns contention that their performance in that game (especially the first half) was on of the most complete and fully realized you are likely to see from an entire team. Many teams wax lyrical about the fans being their ‘12th man’ but Italy literally have one on the sidelines in the shape of Antonio Conte. Talk about micro-managing, the man is quite literally conducting every Italian move and reaction on the pitch in a manner befitting the wildest of maestro’s.
The market made Italy favourites to go out against Spain and is doing the same for this tie, with Germany being variously touted at prices of 5/4 to win. Once more, though, we are going to back Italy. If they can come close to replicating their play in the last round, this should be in the bag. BetVictor are offering 31/10 for that outcome.
Sunday 3rd July
20.00 France v Iceland
France came alive in their second half performance against Ireland, a tie that saw triumph on a score line of 2-1. They had it put up to them, though and needed to dig deep to find the fight to overcome. Having conceded a goal in just the second minute, France were pinned to their collars for much of the first half, not looking sure of themselves at all.
Changes made at half time saw them throw caution to the wind by swapping their defensive midfielder for an attacking winger and switching to a more attack-minded 442 formation which got the best out of both Giroud and Griezmann. The fact that once again it required the manager to redress an initial imbalance leaves one questioning his decision-making but he seems to eventually get it right.
To be honest, there’s very little point in writing anything about Iceland because it looks like as if every superlative and word of praise has already been used up by most of the worlds media. What we will add is that, judging by their performance in the biggest match their country has ever seen, they have ice running through their veins. Even with the concession of an early goal, never once did they show a lack of nerve or poise and in the end ran out comfortable winners.
Iceland are at once the easiest and hardest team France could have hoped to face. Because of the assumed chasm in talent between the teams, France will be fully expected to win but that is exactly the type of pressure that Iceland will feed off. They are not scared. France might be. Once again, this column will eschew common sense and back the Nordic folk for an upset. The likes of Bet365 and others are offering 9/1 for the Iceland win. Vive le rêve.