Another competition has started, and already a few surprises
It is commonly accepted to say in football - in any sports really - that the knockout stage is the beginning of another competition. It is a moment when true favourites raise their game and show their worth, when the slightest error can knock you out and lead you home. In that context, nobody expected Northern Ireland, Hungary, Slovakia or Iceland to perform. Yet, a football game is 90 to 120 minutes - and penalties if necessary, that everyone can miss - and everything can happen during that time, especially in a competition like the European Championships.
France shouldn't be the exception and we expected the main teams to show up and fight against each other in the last rounds of the tournament. But that was before Iceland's heroes, representing 300,000 proud people isolated on their northern island, played it like David and made English Goliath fall. The last game of the 16 round for the biggest surprise of this Euro 2016 so far. A warning to every remaining candidate that there is speculation on paper, and then the truth on the pitch. They opened the lower part of the draw and showed that heart and organisation are much more important that names and talent. The French are warned.
ROUND OF 16
Goals: Błaszczykowski [36th] for Poland, Shaqiri [82nd] for Switzerland
It was probably not the greatest game we have seen during these Euro 2016. The promise of an interesting opposition between two outsiders was never really fulfilled during the game, although the show was made by the Swiss, especially in the second half. Since the competition's kick-off, Poland have struggle to develop their game, and didn't really show what is expected from them and their very powerful attacking line.
On the other hand, the Swiss have done what they were able to do, securing second place behind France and fighting with their own weapons. Although they scored first thanks to Błaszczykowski, the Polish players never seemed to be really able to score a second. Switzerland never stopped believing and, following a remarkable bicycle kick, Xherdan Shaqiri equalised and gave the Swiss people reasons to hope. Unfortunately, nothing was scored during the extra-time and out of a spectacular penalty shootout, only Arsenal's latest recruit Granit Xhaka missed.
Poland are through, without being impressive, and Switzerland go home after the round of 16, just like in the last World Cup. Clearly, both teams have room for improvement, except Poland will be tested again on Thursday, against Portugal.
Goal: McAuley [og, 75th]
Wales know the risks of depending on just the one man, so Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen had considerably raised their game to match their star teammate's performance, leading Wales to win their group and appear as the ultimate outsiders previous to this Euro 2016 round of 16. Up against them, Northern Ireland seemed largely inferior and much more powerful in the stands than on the pitch. In the end, Will Grigg will not have set foot on the French grass and despite being on fire, he went home just like his teammates.
It could have been otherwise though, given the Northern Irish solidarity and solidity during Welsh attacks. But clearly, when Gareth Bale is the only one up to the challenge, things are much harder for his team. Joe Allen was perfectly held by Corey Evans, while Aaron Ramsey struggled to find the rhythm and accuracy that made him one of the best passers in the tournament. It had to be a Northern Irish player himself that scored against his own team, while trying to get rid of a dangerous cross destined to Bale. McAuley was unfortunate to put the ball in the net, but it won't be enough to stop the fans from singing, and Michael O'Neil's men to have enjoyed their first ever European Championships experience.
Goal: Ricardo Quaresma [117th]
On paper, this game was the perfect occasion for Croatia to make a statement and show that their status of favourites wasn't questionable. After a great group stage where they displayed a spectacular, refreshing attacking game, Ante Čačić's men struggled in this round of 16 to impose their style and create chances up front. Portugal on their part, had nothing to lose in a competition in which they almost had to face humiliation in the group stage. But European mastodonts like Portugal never really die, they only patiently sleep before they strike again.
Croatia were probably the better team on the pitch, despite their unusual incoherences and bad choices, yet in the end Portugal hit hard on the break and crushed the Croatian dreams. Not Rakitic nor Modric were able to take care of things and it was Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other end, that was decisive, as his shot, deflected by Subasić, was followed by Quaresma who freed the Portuguese people thanks to a late header. Fate was cruel on the Croatians, but the Portuguese proved deadly and went through to be now one of the outsiders.
Goals: (Griezmann [58th, 61st] for France, Robbie Brady [2nd, on penalty] for Ireland
Footballs fans expected revenge but what happened in Lyon between France and Ireland had nothing to do with regrets or hatred. Instead, the game was pleasant, with a lot of suspense from the very beginning thanks to - rather because of - Paul Pogba, who gave out an early penalty to the Irish players, after just 1 minute. Robbie Brady, the left-footed from Norwich City, took his responsability really well and scored against Lloris, touching the inside of the post in the process. This marked the beginning of an attack-defence game, in which France struggled really long before to be productive. Didier Deschamps had had enough of the passivity of his players and decide to force the action by putting Griezmann as the main striker, and making Matuidi switch back to his favourite side, the left one. The result was spectacular. In just 3 minutes, Antoine Griezmann stoke twice and proved he can score whenever he wants. From 0-1, the game turned around and it was 2-1.
It could have even been a larger win for the Frenchmen after Shane Duffy was shown a red card for preventing Griezmann from going one-on-one against the goalkeeper Randolph. For many it is a enigma to see France play so well in an amount of time so little. Didier Deschamps' men will have to be more consistent if they want to avoid being knocked out before the final. Especially with Iceland ahead.
Goals: Boateng [8th], Gomez [43rd] and Draxler [63rd]
Finally, Germany put their feet down and respected their status, to completely crush Slovakia. Is it the end of all doubts surrounding the the Mannschäft? Probably not, as Slovakia made for a very small opposition, totally unable to upset the established order. But it is still a huge improvement on the German's group stage. Depite being unbeaten in the competition, Joachim Löw's men were unable to beat Poland in the group's "final", and won on narrow margins against Northern Ireland (1-0) and Ukraine (2-0, the second goal scored by Schweinsteiger in the added time).
We expected more from the World Champions and they seem to finally have found their rhythm. Of course, it will require a confirmation in the quarter-finals, given that Slovakia looked exhausted after their last game against England, where they defended very hard. This time was no different but unlike the English, the Germans know each other really well and attacked relentlessly with calm, assurance and efficiency. The result is a score of 3-0 with three different goal scorers and even a missed penalty, by another Arsenal player (see Xhaka for Switzerland above), Mesut Özil. Unlucky in front of the goal, the German number 8 had a good game nonetheless. Promising for what is ahead: Italy.
Goals: Alderweireld [10th], Batshuayi [78th], Hazard [90th] and Ferreira-Carrasco [90+1st]
There is one main danger for any team designed as favourite in an international competition, and whose part of the draw is supposedly "easier": listening to what the media say and thinking that the next game will be easy. Marc Wilmots, although criticised foor his poor tactical sens and his favouritism inside the squad, is a smart man who knows nothing is sure until it happened. It is especially true when the opponent is a team like Hungary, a surprise of these Euros, that won their group before Austria, Portugal and Iceland. Unexperienced despite the nation's glorious past, Hungary were completely helpless against a Belgian team on power mode.
With Eden Hazard finally up to the expectations, Belgium completely mashed Hungary, scoring four goals in the 90 minutes of the game. The Hungrian fought will all they had left after an emotional group stage, and they did force Courtois to make a few saves, but they completely dropped physically in the last 10 minutes, conceding 3 of the 4 goals scored on the night. With an open way to the final, and a confidence boost after this goal party, Belgium are looking more dangerous than ever.
Goals: Chiellini [33rd], Pellè [90+1st]
A promising clash between two titans of European football was highly anticipated in the Stade de France of Saint-Denis, with 80,000 spectators dying to see those two huge teams face each other, 4 years after the Euro 2012 final that Spain had won without shaking one minute. The tactical display shown by Antonio Conte, to counter Spain and Del Bosque's possession game was as splendid as it was efficient.
Never in this competition before Spain had looked so weak. Piqué and Ramos, Spain's guarantee for clean sheets [2 out of 3 games in the group stage] were taken by storm by the Italian quickness on the break, whether it was Giaccherini on the left-hand side, or Florenzi on the right flank. In the mix, there was also a hesitant David De Gea, would didn't know exactly where to position himself on the Italian free-kick of the 33rd minute. With a clear sight on the ball thanks to the hole he had asked his wall to left, Manchester United's goalkeeper couldn't deflect the strong shot of Eder on the right side but in the middle instead. Giaccherini and then Chiellini, who had followed the ball, put it in to make it 1-0.
Afterwards, De Gea went back to being extraordinary, saving Spain from definitely sinking, but he couldn't avoid Italy's second goal, scored by Graziano Pellè after a model of a counter-attack. The end of an era for Spain, the beginning of an incredible story for Italy, the so-called underdogs that prove week in and week out that they are more than credible candidates for the win.
Goals: Rooney [4th on penalty] for England, Sigurdsson [6th] and Sigthórsson [18th] for Iceland
There we have the first major surprise of the tournament. A real surprise, an upset in the shape of an humiliation. It had to be England, a team full of talent but whose coach seems completely helpless when the time comes to find a solid tactic to go by. Roy Hodgson has always been criticised since he took over the management of the national team. He will be able to rest this time, and forget about this crazy night in Nice, where Iceland, against all odds, gave them a lesson about solidarity, passion and efficiency.
It did start well for England as Sterling was taken down in the box and Rooney scored the subsequent penalty. However, the Englishmen got distracted by this early opener and conceded the equaliser by Icelandic defender Ragnar Sigurdsson. Far from beeing a lucky strike, Iceland went right back at it and scored thanks to Nantes' striker Kolbeinn Sightórsson, who finished an amazingly fluid collective movement, with the help of Joe Hart. From then on, it was a race for England to avoid a prematured elimination and save what still could be. But their techincal inaccuracy on the night, as well as an abundance of failed first touches, bad decisions - why does Harry Kane keep taking set pieces - and lack of motivation overall.
The players might say it is not true, but on the pitch, there was clearly an organised team, getting pleasure out of their spectacular performance, and a team without solutions, already thinking about the papers of the following mornings. Only Marcus Rashford seemed to be able to destabilise Iceland's defence in the last 5 minutes. But it was too late, a usual problem for Roy Hodgson whose turnaround against Wales was considered by many as lucky. The promising France - England of the quarter-finals will be replaced by an equally promising France - Iceland. The French should be warned.
Thursday 30 June
Now that they overcame one of the favourites, Croatia, Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo look very confident. They have a solid defence (despite the 3-3 of the last group stage game against Hungary), true talents all over the pitch and this bit of luck that characterises the winning teams. CR7 surely dreams of a final and another chance to put Portugal in history books, as well as taking the lead on Messi in the run for the Ballon d'Or. But it won't be anything easy against Poland, who defend well failling to score much. The duel between Lewandowski and Pepe will be very interesting to follow, just like Poland's defence against Cristiano, Quaresma and Nani. Very uncertain, it should be a tight game.
Prediction: Portugal win
Friday 1 July
The outcome of this game will mostly depend on Williams and Bale's form. The defender, whose arm made him suffer against Northern Ireland, should be on the pitch although it is not sure whether he'll be in top form or not. As for Gareth Bale, he will probably need the help of his lieutenants Ramsey and Allen to surprise the Belgian defence. Belgium, launched in the competition, will look to kill the game in the first half and make sure there is no compassion when they are in front of the goal. Given the last game and the comparison between both teams, it is very likely Belgium will go through.
Prediction: Belgium win
Saturday 2 July
This is a masterpiece of a game, at least on paper. In reality, it will depend on Italy's capacity to recover from their previous masterpiece, against Spain, and on Germany's form offensively. Presenting a similar style as the Spaniards, Joachim Löw's men are very aware of the danger that Conte and his team represent. They were well aware of that four years ago, in Warsaw, when Balotelli came out of nowhere and scored an assassin screamer to Manuel Neuer. Things have changed and Germany have lifted the World Cup, but it is the exact kind of reminders Germany will have to keep in mind in order to prepare the game properly. Maybe it will be time for Thomas Müller to shine and take advantage of Draxler and Özil's form. As for Italy, the team facing the Mannschäft should be the same than the one that kicked Spain out. It is the most anticipated game of the competition so far.
Prediction: Germany win on extra-time
Sunday 3 July
Maybe France and Didier Dechamps would have preferred to play against England and not Iceland. The reason for that is pretty simple: although full of talents and friends, the French team doesn't seem ready enough to win a competition such as the Euros. Despite being at home, France are looking for a reference game that will lead them to glory. Against Ireland, the French only really did play in the second half, lacking imagination and movement in the first half. They should face a similar opposition as Ireland, with Iceland surely being more skilled technically than the Irish. On a hostile land, the Iceland players won't have any pressure, unlike the hosts. A game not as easy as it seems for the Frenchmen and a very interesting one to watch.
Prediction: France win
Here are the top goalscorers and the best players in terms of assists, with Griezmann and Bale leading the former: