Of the 8 knockout round games, I went 6-2. Only losing with Croatia, who dominated Portugal for much of the match, and England, who lost to a country of 330,000 people. Now we are onto the quarterfinals. The stakes are raised. Here are my predictions:
Poland vs Portugal
Neither one of these teams been very productive offensively. Aside from Portugal’s outburst against a B-side from Hungary, the Portuguese have only scored twice in three games and one of those goals came in extra time against Croatia, a game they were clearly second best in. However, they are here, Cristiano missed penally against Austria aside. The win against Croatia was Portugal’s first win this Euros and they needed extra time to find the net against a Croatia team that controlled most of the game. Take Portugal’s goal. It came moments after the Croatians hit the woodwork on one end. The slimmest of margins. And if I’m being honest, Ronaldo does not look 100%. It will be interesting to see how he looks today after player 120 minutes.
On the other end is Poland. They have been quite impotent offensively. Which is strange, because in qualifying they netted 33 goals, more than any other team. Also interesting to note, Poland’s +23 in goal differential during qualifying was second behind only England. Star Robert Lewandowski has yet to score this tournament, so I am expecting that to change against a Portugal side that has looked fairly pedestrian on defense. Poland’s organization has been something to note.
Goals will be few and far between, as I don’t see either team creating that much. This match is essentially a toss-up. Give me Poland. I just don’t have faith in Portugal, who seem too reliant on Ronaldo to create everything.
Wales vs. Belgium
If it weren’t for Iceland, this Wales side would be the story of the tournament. They have clean-sheeted their last two matches and Gareth Bale has been the player of the tournament. But unlike a star-centered team like Portugal, there is more structure and cohesiveness to Wales’s game. Captain Ashley Williams has brought a toughness to Wales defensively. He took a knock last game, but he has been deemed fully fit. Missing him would hurt almost as much as Bale.
For Belgium, they are on a nice three match winning streak and come into this after tearing apart Hungary in the second half. They are riding high after looking mediocre in their group. However, that mediocrity was rewarded handsomely, since they have a super easy draw to get to the finals. In their last match, Belgium were on the verge of dominating, but Romelu Lukaku struggled up top. Sub Michy Batshuayi came in and the floodgates opened. It will be interesting to see how subpar manager Marc Wilmots handles this. Does he go with the big name in Lukaku, even though he has not done much? Or does he go with youngster Batshuayi? Or throw in Divok Origi. Safe bet is Lukaku, but if they are scoreless around the 60 minute mark, expect a change. Honestly, I have disliked how this team has played almost every minute. The 45 against Hungary was nice, but they need to look like that for a full 90 and not just rely on the super-talened Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne to make individual plays. As a collective team, they have seemed disjointed.
As much as Wales has the collective fortitude to pull off this upset, combined with the inept Wilmots for Belgium (you can’t be out-managed more than Wilmots was against Italy), I still see Belgium winning this one. Though perhaps this stage with this sort of expectancy might crumble the Belgians, as it did to England the other day. This is new ground for a Belgium team expected to make the finals.
Germany vs. Italy
For all intents and purposes, this is the finals. These two sides have easily been the two best. Shame both of these squads won’t make the semifinals. Damn shame. Italy came into this tournament in total flux and with very little expectations, but incoming Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has managed this Italian side with such ferocity and tactical genius. In the two “big games” against Belgium in the group stage and Spain in the knockout round, Italy won both 2-0 and eviscerated each. Limiting the space and time in which the opposition has to operate and countering with such precision. As a Chelsea supporter, I have to say they made a great choice in hiring this guy.
Germany did not need to do much to get out of the group and they knew that and drew Slovakia in the knockout round. They took that match 3-0 and essentially just toyed with them. Italy will be a much different foe, but for the best team in the world, I think they will be able to break down the Italian side once. Interesting stat to note, Germany has never defeated Italy in 8 tournament meetings. Will this be the time? Thomas Muller has not scored yet and he has a penchant for scoring big goals. Look for him to be the difference maker in this tough match.
France vs. Iceland
Iceland!? Are you kidding me!? In their fist major tournament ever, they have proven quite the foe. And you would not know they were newbies to the world stage with the poise they have shown on the pitch. A collective will. After going down 1-0 to England a few minutes into the match, they stormed back to take a 2-1 lead and held it. Though this was mostly due to the lack of quality everywhere from England, Iceland still did what they had to do and looked strong in doing so. This was no fluke. They defeated the Netherlands twice in qualifying, so there is confidence there. They are a tough team to break down and France will have a tough time breaking this team.
Speaking of France, they have yet to hit their stride in this tournament. Paul Pogba, who many believed to be the most talented player in this tournament, has been MIA for the most part and put his team in a whole against Ireland last match by conceding a silly penalty. However, I fully expect him to rebound and play up to the level Antoine Griezmann is playing at. If those two guys hit their stride together, along with Dimitri Payet, then every team will struggle to play the French.