Guest post from a friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali
Belgium v Portugal – Sunday 3 PM
We start with the number one team in the world – Belgium – facing off against (arguably) the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. This game could easily be the championship and unfortunately someone is going home in the round of 16. I could probably spend an hour telling you all the things that I’m excited to see in this one, but I will try to brief. In their final group game Belgium was finally able to field their ‘A’ team. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve noticed Romelu Lukaku [3 Goals, created 2 others, built like a horse] and Kevin DeBruyne [1 goal, 2 assists in only a game and a half, best passer of the ball in the world] but they also trotted out Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel against Finland. Both are recovering from injury and are legitimate world class talents. That being said, Belgium’s Golden Generation has yet to actually win anything, and the window is starting to close on this team.
Portugal is led by the Ronaldo machine [5 goals, 1 assist], but unlike some of the past Portugal squads, this team is loaded with talent around Cristiano. Diogo Jota has really developed since leaving Wolves for Liverpool last summer and poses an excellent threat opposite Cristiano. They also have probably the best centerback over the past year – Ruben Dias of Man City – and an in form keeper in Rui Patricio. Portugal barely escaped the group of death, but they have the talent and experience [defending Euro Champions] to beat anyone at any time.
Look for a lot of offense in this one. While Belgium has only yielded one goal to date, they have faced nothing like the firepower Portugal will bring. Both sides play super aggressively and are going to load up on offensive talent to try and avoid their defense becoming the focus. One big X-factor to me is Bruno Fernandes. The Manchester United midfielder was an absolute superstar during the past Premier League season, but his form has been so poor over the past few weeks that he found himself on the bench for Portugal’s final group game. I thought Renato Sanches actually played excellent in his place, but not having full Bruno is definitely a hit. I am going to lean Belgium in this one. I look for them to be aggressive in the midfield and control possession in a fairly open game with lots of chances.
Italy v Austria – Saturday 3 PM
After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy has been far from anyone’s idea of a powerhouse. Oh what a difference a few years can make. Italy became (I believe) the first team to win all of their group stage games without allowing a goal. For their third game they essentially rested their entire team, and still won 1-0 without ever really being tested. Led by streaky goal scorer Ciro Immobile [record holding 36 goals in Serie A two years ago] and 22 year old keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma [3 clean sheets, only 2 shots faced] Italy has won their last 11 contests by a score of 32-0. They play an aggressive style, constantly moving the ball forwards with their various talented midfielders making deep probing runs in behind.
I have to admit I didn’t know much about Austria coming into this tournament. They played really well in their first game against North Macedonia, struggled in a 0-2 loss to Netherlands, and then pulled out a 1-0 win over Ukraine to advance to the knockout stages. They have been led by the excellent David Alaba [Bayern] who they have deployed literally all over the field in their three matches. More predictably, they will have Stefan Lainer deployed on the right as an aggressive winger. Fun fact, Lainer was actually ranked #1 in the EURO player ranking [every player in the tournament is ranked upon their play to date] following Austria’s third game. He is at 10th following the end of the group stages.
Austria is definitely game and they have enough talent to trouble Italy, particularly defensively, but it won’t be easy. Hopefully Christoph Baumgartner [winning goal against Ukraine] can return from the head injury he suffered in the last game to give Austria a little more attacking talent. I don’t see it being enough though. Italy is rolling right now and I don’t see that stopping here. Look for them to control the middle of the field and just apply too much pressure for Austria to handle.
France v Switzerland – Monday 3 PM
Oh France. They have legitimate world class players at every position and several on the bench. You probably know Kylian Mbappe [fastest man around], Paul Pogba [Blond streaked afro], and Antoine Griezmann [now long haired] – but they also have N’Golo Kante [recently won man of the match in both legs of the champions league semi-finals and also the finals] and the recently reinstated Karim Benzema [was exiled from the France national team for a strange sex tape blackmail scandal]. Long story short, they are loaded through and through and are the defending World Cup Champions.
Switzerland qualified as a 3rd place team in their group behind Wales and Italy. They had a big 3-1 win over Turkey in their final group game that saw them through. They have been led by midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri [Liverpool, 2 goals, 1 assist] who had an absolute worldie of a goal against Turkey. They have a few more big names dotted around the lineup and I have personally enjoyed watching their striker Breel Embolo, a big man with lots of pace.
Switzerland is a game side and they definitely have some skilled players, but they can’t match up with France. The French have really not been impressive so far in this tournament, but even so they went through the group of death without a loss. When they were pushed against Hungary and had to have a goal, they got it. When they sat back against Germany and lost out big in expected goals, they still won the game 1-0. France may lose at some point, but it wont be to Switzerland. Willing to say this is the biggest lock of the round.
Croatia v Spain – Monday 12 PM
Croatia was my bandwagon team for the last World Cup. First, Dubrovnik is probably my favorite place I have traveled to, and second, Luka Modric is a legitimate stud. He is the only man other than Cristiano or Messi to win the Balon D’or [footballer of the year] since 2007!!! They did lose Mario Mandzukic off of the team that challenged France in the last World Cup Final, but they still have Ivan Perisic marauding on the right side and in their third group game, Modric was at the peak of his powers assisting Perisic for one and scoring a sublime strike of his own.
Here is something that I found stunning about Spain after three games. They lead the tournament in attacks with 209 [next is Germany on 177] and clear chances with 7 [next highest is 4]. It took them awhile to break out – putting up a goose egg against Sweden and 1 against Poland – before breaking out for a 5 spot against an undertalented Slovakia. In classic Spain fashion, they have loads of talent in the midfield – Sergio Busquets returned against Slovakia after missing the first two games – and some on defense (particularly Jordi Alba) but not so much in front of goal. Hence the chances and the relative lack of goals. They don’t play quite the same style that helped them to titles at EURO 2008, World Cup 2010, and EURO 2012, but the biggest issue is the lack of a goalscoring assassin up top.
I’ve gone back and forth on this game a lot. Croatia fits the crafty veteran role perfectly and I always will have a soft spot for that. Combine that with Modric’s play in the last game and they are a more than game underdog [+400 when I checked]. In the end I am going with Spain because, although he hasn’t played much, my guy Adama Traore is an absolute freakshow and that tips the scales for me.
Sweden v Ukraine – Tuesday 3 PM
Sweden topped Group E with two wins and a draw. They played possibly the most conservative game of anyone at the tournament in their first match against Spain, at one point in the second half Spain had possession numbers up near 90%, but managed a 0-0 draw and followed that up with 1-0 and 3-2 wins over Slovakia and Poland respectively. Far and away Sweden’s best player has been Emil Forsberg [3 goals], a dangerous wide midfielder who has a tendency to make deep probing runs in behind the defense. Their game has been built on a combination of defensive rigidity, and well timed offensive spurts.
Ukraine was surprisingly one of my favorite teams to watch during the group stages. They have a couple of recognizable names from the big leagues around Europe, probably most notably their manager Andriy Shevshenko former AC Milan and Chelsea star. They have been led at this tournament by Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk. Both have 2 Goals and an assist. Yarmolenko in particular is trying to prove his worth after a season spent essentially on the bench for West Ham United. That said, they advanced with only 3 points as the last team to make it, interestingly scoring all 4 of their goals over two separate 5 minute game periods.
Not going to lie I got fired up both times Ukraine pulled the Yaremchuk/Yarmalenko doubles in their first two games, but its tough to see them moving on here. They took advantage of Netherlands essentially falling asleep for two goals in their first group game (which they still lost) and did the same against North Macedonia for their only win. Sweden is the pick here. If they could keep their composure over 90 minutes against a Spain side that constantly had the ball, I don’t see them letting their guard down against the Ukraine here.
England v Germany – Tuesday 12 PM
Much like Belgium/Portugal, I could probably write an entire dissertation just on this game. If you watch soccer at all, you know England’s biggest names. Yes, Harry Kane is still on the team although you may not have noticed since he has done about as much on the field in this tournament as I have. England did not face a particularly difficult group round, but along with Italy they were the only two teams to allow 0 goals. The problems have come on the other end. Raheem Sterling has emerged from the Manchester City bench to score the only two goals for England so far. It will be interesting to see if Mason Mount can clear COVID protocols prior to the game (it should be close from what I am reading) and how that effects the XI that Gareth Southgate goes with. Mount would seem to be a no brainer as a pseudo number 10 in the middle of the field, but the most fluid England has looked offensively was probably the first half of their third group stage – with Jack Grealish filling in for Mount.
Germany has been one hell of a roller coaster ride this tournament. After failing to escape the group stage at the last World Cup, there was a lot of pressure on the Germans to make some noise here. Another roster that is absolutely loaded with talent, but is really missing that in form striker up top to tally the goals. Timo Werner has been nothing short of awful, basically since moving to Chelsea last summer. Kai Havertz, after scoring the only goal in the champions league final, has started to get his form back and has been particularly dangerous at this tournament. Germany played excellent against France, but could not get past the Kante wall, and still easily could have lost 0-3 [Mbappe had a goal and assist called off by VAR]. Then they came out flat against Portugal, went down 1-0 on a penalty, and seemed to be on their way out of the tournament. Eventually a Portugal own goal tied the game right before half and seemingly changed Germany’s whole demeanor. Over the next 25 minutes or so they scored 3 more goals (could have been 6) and essentially abused Portugal wide on both wings. Robin Gosens [1 goal, 2 assists] and Joshua Kimmich [2 assists] have been particularly dangerous.
As I mentioned, Germany played very well against both France and Portugal despite some clear defensive issues. Germany is playing a particularly aggressive style essentially playing with 1 defender on occasion and forcing their wing backs incredibly high up the field. France used their supreme talent and a low block defensive gameplan to hold Germany down. Portugal refused to adapt and got beaten out wide repeatedly (they played 3 different guys on the right to try and mark Gosens and no one could). The reason I mention this, is that both of these teams play with a back four, the same way England has so far in the Euros. England has the personnel to play a back 3 (one of the biggest reasons Hungary was able to slow Germany so well), but I imagine it would hard to justify moving to a more defensive formation after scoring only twice in three games. Germany is my pick here although I wouldn’t be surprised by anything. Germany is essentially all in on their offense and England appears to be all defense at this point so we have a bit of a strength on strength, weakness on weakness thing going on here.
Netherlands v Czech Republic – Sunday 12 PM
The Oranje! I love the Netherlands, their style is extremely pleasing to watch. They are led by their talisman Memphis Depay [2 goals, 2 assists] and captain Georginio Wijnaldum [3 goals]. They have also gotten a huge boost from wingback Denzel Dumfries [2 goals]. Outside of a 2 goal in 5 minute lapse against Ukraine, they did not allow any goals and racked up an impressive 8. They are talented, attack minded, and in excellent form.
The Czech Republic advanced on the strength of a 2-0 win over Scotland a 1-1 draw with Croatia. They have a couple of very good Premier League players in wingback Vladimir Coufal and Tomas Soucek [both of West Ham]. Their main man so far in this tournament has been Patrik Schick [3 goals]. Unfortunately, those are the only 3 goals they have been able to score, most recently getting shut out by England. They did manage to ask some questions in the second half of that game, but it was inevitably not enough to push one over the line.
The Czech Republic has been more than game so far in this tournament and I would expect nothing different here. The only problem is, they may be running into a buzzsaw. Netherlands is going to possess the ball, they are going to attack, and they are more than likely going to score multiple goals, all things England did not really do against the Czechs. Netherlands is the pick here and is currently my dark horse finalist pick. Too much offensive firepower, and too much oranje.
Wales v Denmark – Saturday 12 PM
To me, Wales’ story starts and ends with Gareth Bale [2 assists]. After being loaned to Tottenham mid-season, Gareth settled down towards the end of the season and really started to find his form again. He doesn’t quite have the pace to run past defenders as he used to, but there is still wonder in those boots and he has evolved his game accordingly. He routinely drops deeper into midfield to link up play and has been creating absolutely wonderful opportunities for his teammates all over the field in this tournament. Supported by the pace of Daniel James [Manchester United] and Aaron Ramsey [Juventus], Wales has a couple of weapons that they will lean on heavily.
As I am sure everyone knows, Denmark’s story starts and ends with Christian Eriksen. His on field collapse and subsequent cardiac episode have been well covered and I will not try and find the words to reiterate how difficult that must have been for everyone involved. Luckily Christian appears to have recovered to some degree, is out of the hospital, and hopefully is on the path to someday getting back on the pitch. Make no mistake, before this tournament started Denmark was among the leading underdog picks, largely based on the absurd talents of Eriksen. Not to disparage the rest of the roster as they have talent at all four levels – attack [Yussuf Poulsen, 2 goals], midfield [Pierre-Emil Hojberg, 3 assists], defense [Andreas Christensen, 1 goal] and in goal [Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City]. They clearly were emotional in losing following Eriksen’s game one collapse, but they bounced back to dominate the first half against Belgium [only falling off after Kevin DeBruyne entered at half] and crush Russia 4-1 in a had to have it game. They appear to be starting to get back in rhythm at the right time.
I could honestly see this game going either way. Bale is playing world class right now and he has the kind of ability that can win a game on its own. Also remember that in the last iteration of this tournament, Wales made an epic underdog run to the semifinals. That said, I have to go with Denmark here. Their play is trending in the right direction, they have more across the board talent than Wales, and if anyone ever deserves anything in this game, it is the players that had to watch one of their teammates flatline on the field before being resuscitated.
DISCLAIMER – I literally started watching soccer 18 months ago. I have watched probably 90% of Premier League games in that time, a smattering of Bundesliga games, and as many Champions and Europa League games as I could. I have tried to read and absorb as much information as I can in that time period, but I often don’t really understand the gameplans and tactics. Long way of saying, I may have more information than you, but I am far from an expert. Don’t blame me if all my picks are wrong!