It took two searches of my socks and three of my bag to enter the Parc des Princes under the watchful scope of a French sniper – the sobering reality of Euro (and increasingly global) angst that has blanketed this sporting summer. This is a European Championship of flares over flair; where hooligans make headlines and bore draws make the hooligans more interesting. A tournament where sitting on your hands in a stand full of Turks while Luka Modric submits his goal-of-the-tournament entry just seems like the safest option – though the Turks were passionate and friendly which is more than can be said for a lot of England fans.
The expanded tournament format has bred defensive football and it has infected most games like a plague, targeting the vital organs of teams – Zlatan, Lewandowski, Pogba, Kane; all tipped for greatness on the European stage and all falling short. Perhaps the next round will turn futile sparring into knockout – easy enough when knockout is assured? Or perhaps not; better hope your fantasy players can take a decent penalty. Someone has to progress – the everyone’s a winner system ends at the knockout stages – so whose immune system can best stand up to the plague?
Switzerland v Poland
Switzerland were unbeaten in Group A but two draws and only two goals scored left a lot to be desired. Xherdan Shaqiri hasn’t been at his best and the glimpses of young talent Breel Embolo have been fleeting, while the usually solid Stephan Lichtsteiner gave away a stupid penalty against Romania. The silver lining for the Swiss is that they only conceded one goal but are yet to be properly tested defensively. At least their defence is stronger than their shirts.
Poland were also unbeaten and did not concede a goal in Group C though, like their round of 16 opponents, they also only scored twice. Robert Lewandowski has failed to transfer his remarkable goalscoring form at club level to the international stage and nobody else has really picked up the slack. They kept a good clean sheet against Germany so look like a team that can compete with the best if they can start scoring.
Prediction: Switzerland 0-2 Poland – A comfortable win with Lewandowski finding the net
Croatia v Portugal
Croatia are the real losers of the expanded tournament format. They finished top of a group that contained Spain, went unbeaten and arguably only dropped points due to the stupidity of their own fans, but they play Portugal as their reward (though Spain do play Italy so Group D was always destined for difficulty). Modric, Rakitic and particularly Perisic have played excellently and Perisic is probably the player of the tournament so far. They beat Spain even without Modric and are serious contenders to go far in this tournament.
Portugal’s game against Hungary epitomised everything about them as a team – if Cristiano Ronaldo plays well they play well. Despite firing about a hundred free kicks into all corners of the stadium, Ronaldo had a great game to make up for his previous poor performances, including a penalty miss against Austria. They still didn’t manage to beat Hungary, even with Ronaldo at his best, and only went through as a third place team. Personally, I don’t fancy them to beat a very strong Croatia side.
Prediction: Croatia 3-1 Portugal – Ronaldo to have another quiet game
Wales v Northern Ireland
A sad game to have to predict as it would be nice if both could go through. Wales topped Group B despite forcing Gareth Bale to watch the paint dry on the Wales team bus that was parked in front of fairly meaningless England possession. They were simply more clinical against Slovakia and Russia than England were and are on the right side of the draw as a result. Bale has been putting Ronaldo to shame with his free kicks (even with the diabolical goalkeeping in both instances) and you can tell that it’s killing Cristiano to see Bale having so much fun. Wales look like a very solid team with a lot more to give in this tournament.
Oh Michael O’Neill, just bring Will Grigg on for a few minutes so the fans can have their fun. Not that Northern Ireland fans haven’t had anything to cheer about, winning spectacularly against Ukraine. As brilliant as it is to see them through, they struggled against Germany and Poland and it’s hard to see them getting much further.
Prediction: Wales 2-0 Northern Ireland – Bale to be too much to handle
Hungary v Belgium
Hungary are the surprise team of the tournament, topping Group F with a surprise win over ‘dark horses’ Austria and draws against Portugal and Iceland. They have scored six goals in a tournament lacking in attacking football and Dzsudzsak looked brilliant against Portugal. They certainly have the potential to cause an upset or two on top of their remarkable achievements so far but Belgium is a tough draw.
Belgium have been very hot and cold at this tournament. A shock 2-0 loss to Italy seemed to kick start their tournament as the followed it up with a very comfortable win over the Republic or Ireland but struggled against a fairly bland Sweden team, needing a Nainggolan screamer to seal the win. Romelu Lukaku has struggled to find the net (and not for the want of trying) while Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne showed glimpses of what they can do against Ireland but are yet to properly light up the tournament. Their squad is very strong and it might just be a matter of time before they click.
Prediction: Hungary 1-2 Belgium – A nervy win in extra time
Germany v Slovakia
Germany have been nowhere near their best but you get the feeling that they are just getting warmed up. The win against Ukraine was nervier than it should have been and they really struggled offensively against Poland. The inclusion of Mario Gomez against Northern Ireland gave them a much better attacking shape and purpose so he might feature more in the knockout rounds. We all know how good they are but they have a tough run to the final.
Slovakia have a very good player in Marek Hamsik but England showed how easy it is to take him out of the game with some organised defending. They defend fairly well but struggled against Wales and never got close to England’s goal. Against a good side like Germany they might end up looking out of their depth.
Prediction: Germany 2-0 Slovakia – A routine win with Muller getting on the scoresheet
Italy v Spain
What a game this should be (although it probably will end 0-0). Italy have looked like one of the best sides in the tournament with a good win against a talented Belgium side and another against Sweden. They faltered against Ireland but had made a lot of changes and Italy are historically poor in games that don’t mean anything. Their defence is arguably the strongest in the tournament and the only concern is scoring, especially if they end up chasing a game.
Spain also looked very strong with routine wins against Czech Republic (albeit thanks to a late winner from Pique) and Turkey. Morata looks like he could score a load of goals at this tournament and Nolito has also been very impressive so far. They also looked very solid defensively before a nightmare game against Croatia which is the reason for their tough draw. Ramos probably won’t be on penalty duty for much longer. Spain are masters of this competition so it’s very difficult to rule them out at any stage.
Prediction: Italy 0-1 Spain – A very tight game but Spain will just about scrape through
France v Republic of Ireland
France’s incredibly talented squad is yet to really get off the ground. Payet has been sensational, scoring a dazzling winner against Romania, but nobody else has really shone. Pogba has been disappointing and Giroud has struggled, despite numerous chances. They have some really excellent players and sooner or later they will start playing – let’s just hope it isn’t against England. Payet is the difference between France and average teams currently and that got them through the group; they need more players to step up if they want to make it to the final. The fullbacks look like the weakness in the team with Evra committing sloppy fouls and Sagna not looking comfortable.
Ireland made it through a very tough group and very deservedly too, following a great win against Italy. They looked very poor against Belgium but played well against Sweden to earn a draw and they have been a credit to Martin O’Neill. It’s difficult to see them getting any further in the tournament, though it would be great to see them take on England, and there is certainly no shame in their achievements so far.
Prediction: France 2-0 Republic of Ireland – Two late goals will end Irish dreams
England v Iceland
England always have to take the hard route to the final. We looked very comfortable in all three games and yet only won one of them – a stupid goal conceded against Russia in the last minute and meaningless possession against Slovakia mean we face Iceland in the bad side of the draw. Harry Kane has had a nightmare tournament but Vardy and Sturridge have been fairly good, both scoring in the win over Wales. The standout player has been Eric Dier who has solidified our fairly frail defence and scored a nice free kick against Russia. Sterling has been poor and Adam Lallana has been bright but simply cannot be that bad at finishing as a professional footballer. We have a great squad but I don’t know if that will be enough.
Iceland are everyone’s second favourite team in this tournament which means everyone will be cheering for them against England. They have had a dream tournament, finishing second in Group F without losing a game. Draws against Portugal and Hungary and a win over Austria have established them as a very credible team and not one to be overlooked. Gylfi Sigurdsson has played well and their team spirit is brilliant; it’s a true fairytale story. Unfortunately we need it to come to an end.
Prediction England 1-0 Iceland – too close, too nervy. We’ll make it, just about