Poland v Portugal
Friday 1 July 2016, – Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Of the four quarter-finals, many will perceive this as the weakest. And that’s probably fair enough, given Portugal haven’t won a single game at these championships in regulation time. Now they’re hot favourites to go through to a semi-final, which shows how fickle football can be.
Let’s be brutal – it’s the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo that provides Portugal an edge in what is an otherwise evenly-matched pair of teams. The form of Nani and the excellent William Carvalho is another reason to be optimistic about an Iberian triumph.
But Andre Gomes might be benched after struggling against Croatia, a performance that could affect Manchester United’s reported interest. Veteran Joao Moutinho offers a tried and true option if required.
Poland will again be reliant on the dogged energy of Jakub Błaszczykowski on the right, while Arkadiusz Milik needs to make good on the pre-tournament hype. The Ajax man has only been so-so and has missed some chances.
With neither side inherently attacking or defensive, an early goal would be terrific to open up the play.
Poland’s key man: Robert Lewandowski
The Bayern Munich star has been a total flop so far. He’s just not looked a patch on the player we all love watching in the Bundesliga; the striker who might just be the best number nine in the world. So what gives here? Fatigue? Injury? Nope. He’s just not found his rhythm. Everyone else has carried him to here, but if Poland are to progress, he must lift. But will Pepe let him?
Portugal’s key man: Cristiano Ronaldo
Who else could it be? CR7 simply has to be at his very best from now until the end of the tournament, or Portugal might as well pull out now. He wasn’t great against Croatia but his previous performance against Hungary was sublime. This Polish defence hasn’t given too much away – it took a freak effort from Xherdan Shaqiri to get behind them in the quarter-finals.
Prediction: Draw 1-1. Portugal on penalties.
Wales v Belgium
Saturday 2 July 2016, – Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
They coughed and spluttered about in their opening to these championships but Belgium are now flying and have to be rated as a huge chance of going all the way.
They’ve hit a Welsh side that can’t believe they’re in France, let alone in the last eight of the Euros. They don’t want the journey to end but unless Gareth Bale pulls out something extraordinary, this would seem to be it.
Indeed, the Welsh had to rely on an own goal to get past Northern Ireland in the round of 16 while the Belgians hammered Hungary 4-0, which provides an indicator of who might be in better form. Chris Coleman has done a sterling job regardless.
Wales’ key man: Gareth Bale
Shouldering the entire hopes of a nation, Bale now knows the pressure of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar. He’s handling it well, too. But an off day for him would mean the end of Wales from here. At least he’s getting plenty of support from Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsay, who are doing their part to ease the load on the big star.
Belgium’s key man: Eden Hazard
The brilliant winger came to life in the second half of the match against Ireland and hasn’t stopped running since, producing the individual performance of the tournament against Hungary, both scoring and setting up goals. A barometer of his team, if Hazard fires, this side looks world class.
Prediction: Belgium 2-0 Wales.
Germany v Italy
Sunday 3 July 2016,– Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
This is surely the pick of the knockout matches, with the reigning world champions up against a side that has swept all before them – save for a minor blip against Ireland.
However, the response from the Italians to outwit and then starve Spain in the Round of 16 was as impressive as anyone else, ensuring their hopes of a success nobody predicted stays on track. Antonio Conte and his 3-5-2 are quickly developing cult status.
Germany is the big dog, however. And it will bark loudly if provoked. So far, they haven’t really shown us what they’re capable of, although you can only beat what’s put in front of you. And that hasn’t been much, frankly.
Italy’s hardy band will test the Germans for any weakness and it might just be the toughest match they’ve had at a major tournament in four years – since Italy dumped them out of the Euros at the semi-final stage.
A thigh injury to Antonio Candreva – Italy’s best player in the group stages – will be cause for national attention in the next few days, although they did just fine without him against Spain.
Italy’s key man: Gianluigi Buffon
The sole surviving link the Italy’s glorious past, Buffon still plays as well in 2016 as he did in 2006. He was superb against Spain, hardly made an error in the group stages and still commands everything and everyone around him. May he rule between the posts forever more.
Germany’s key man: Mario Gomez
This has been a masterful change from Joachim Löw, switching out the ineffective Mario Götze for a number nine who was born to play at the point of the attack. It’s not that Götze doesn’t have a role to play, it’s just that he’s better when out on the right or coming off the bench. Let Gomez prove he’s still a great player.
Prediction: Germany 2-1 in extra time.
France v Iceland
Monday 4 July 2016,– Stade de France, Saint-Denis
The host side are invariably the most important side in any tournament but their story has been sidelined by the greatest underdog tale in international football since Greece in this very tournament 12 years football.
Granted, it’s not quite at Greek levels just yet, but in advancing from their group stage and eliminating England, Iceland are now the automatic fairytale of these European Championships.
Now they and their 323,002 fans – about a tenth of whom are in France, by the way – are about to embark upon what is their own cup final. Either way, they’re winners already.
Not France, however. Didier Deschamps knows he’ll be under pressure to make sure he doesn’t slip on this Atlantic banana skin and go the same way as Roy Hodgson.
France’s key man: Antoine Griezmann
Has stood up just when his country needed him too. While Dimitri Payet was the star of the group stages, it’s Griezmann who took over in Lyon, performing superbly when his side was looking at risk of getting sucked into an Irish quagmire. Few players of his height can head a ball so well – even Tim Cahill would admire it.
Iceland’s key man: Ragnar Sigurdsson
Man of the match against England, Sigurdsson is an imposing defender who is currently regarded as one of the best in the Russian Premier League at FC Krasnodar. He showed his attacking prowess in grabbing the equalising goal in the match in Nice but his best defensive efforts will be needed against France. He’ll need to mind Olivier Giroud, but then keep an eye on Griezmann and Payet as well.
Prediction: France 1-0 Iceland.