UEFA EURO 2016 has reached the quarter-final stage and the only certainty is that the trophy will be changing hands, with Spain’s eight-year reign having come to an end. The two-time defending champions went down in their Round of 16 with Italy, who now face reigning world champions Germany in the last eight’s stand-out tie.
Joining those two big guns and fellow favourites France and Belgium in the quarter-finals are Iceland and Wales, who have already defied the odds by thrusting themselves into contention for the European crown, which comes complete with a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017.
FIFA.com looks ahead to the quarter-finals.
Poland-Portugal (30 June, Marseille)
Wales-Belgium (1 July, Lille)
Germany-Italy (2 July, Bordeaux)
France-Iceland (3 July, Saint-Denis)
The big match
Germany-Italy, 2 July, 21.00 CEST, Stade de Bordeaux
Italy did not seem to be having much going for them heading into the tournament, with coach Antonio Conte due to move on at the end of it, Andrea Pirlo deemed surplus to requirements and the midfield trio of Claudio Marchisio, Marco Verratti and Riccardo Montolivo all out injured. Some even predicted an early exit for them in a group featuring Belgium, Sweden and Republic of Ireland. La Nazionale are never stronger than when underestimated, however, as they proved in their last two FIFA World Cup™ wins, in 1982 and 2006, both of which came during stormy times for Italian football. They made that point yet again in winning their section and then clinically negating Spain’s strengths in the Round of 16, converting two of their many chances to advance in style.
While none of that will be reassuring to German ears, the fact is Die Mannschaft have many reasons to be confident themselves. Yet to concede a goal at the tournament, Germany flexed their muscles with a 3-0 defeat of Slovakia in the previous round and also have the aura of being the reigning world champions. That said, Italy have never lost to Germany at either the World Cup or the European Championships. Though Joachim Low’s side can take heart from the 4-1 friendly defeat they inflicted on the Azzurri in March, memories of their own 2-1 loss in the EURO 2012 semi-finals will cause Germany to be rightly wary of their opponents on Saturday.
Poland expected much from skipper Robert Lewandowski, but the star turn of their run to the last eight has been their miserly defence, which has conceded just once in four matches. The Bayern Munich striker has yet to score at France 2016, though he should need no motivating on his country’s first appearance in the EURO quarter-finals, especially as it comes against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. The misfiring Portuguese were indebted to their captain as they scraped into the knockout rounds, with Ronaldo finding his form to score twice in a 3-3 draw with Hungary that only just saw them into the last 16.
Unfancied Wales’ remarkable fairy tale is being driven by another star of world football, with Gareth Bale’s three goals playing a large part in them reaching the last eight on their first appearance in the competition. If the Welsh are to achieve yet more history, they will need to get the better of a Belgium side now in the habit of controlling games in the first half and killing off their opponents in the second, as Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Hungary can all testify.
In the other quarter-final, France take on Iceland in what would once have been a straightforward-looking tie, given the hosts’ experience, individual talent and the support of the home fans, not to mention their opponents’ pre-tournament status as rank outsiders. Tipped by many to return home pointless, new boys Iceland nevertheless qualified unbeaten from their group, ahead of favourites Portugal, and then registered the most momentous win of their history against England. Can they spring yet another surprise against a Bleus side that is banking on the finishing of Antoine Griezmann, but which will be without the suspended N’Golo Kante and Adil Rami?
3 - Belgium’s Eden Hazard has three assists already at EURO 2016. Should he conjure up one more against Wales, the Chelsea man will equal Ljubinko Drulovic’s tally for Yugoslavia at EURO 2000. The Belgian attacking midfielder should feel right at home in Lille, having started his career there in 2007 before going on to win a league and cup double with the French club four years later.
What they said
“We don’t have any hang-ups when it comes to Italy. It’s a completely different team. That discussion is cold coffee as far as we’re concerned. We prefer a nice hot espresso.” Germany coach Joachim Low