The Cardinali Corner: EURO Championship

**This is another great post from friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali**

2020(1) EUROs Final

Wow.  Another round of edge of your seat action.  Both games to extra time.  One to penalties, one ending after an extremely controversial penalty call.  When the dust settled, we are all set for England and Italy on Sunday afternoon.  Let’s hope for more intense, competitive soccer to cap this baby off.

I ended up getting both picks right last week, bumping me up to 9-5 in the knockout rounds and 5-1 over the past two rounds.  If you are still reading, I am guessing you don’t need me to introduce to you into all of the stars on these two teams again so I am going to try and get a little more into the weeds here about what we can expect to see on the field.  We will start by looking back at the semi-final games to see how we got here.

To this point in the tournament, Italy had not been questioned quite the way Spain questions teams.  Yes, Austria took them to extra time, but that seemed more due to Italian nerves and lack of finishing than what Austria did.  Italy has played all their games actively on the front foot, constantly pushing the ball forward and pressing the defense.  When they are on defense, they have relied on an impressive high press to force quick turnovers that they can turn into attacks.  Due to the experience of Chiellini and Bonucci along the back line, the Italians have more trust that they can press up field and still be covered.  Even against world number one Belgium in the quarterfinals, Italy was able to control the ball and play the game at their pace.  That just does not happen against Spain.  Instead, for the first time Italy was forced to play without the ball.  Not only that, but Spain dropped Morata (their starting striker) and started Olmo as a false 9 to really lean into the ball control mindset.  As a result, Italy really struggled to start the game.  They looked anxious without the ball and rushed when they had it.  Every possession seemed to be turned back over to Spain within two to three passes and then Spain would possess for five or six minutes.  However, all of Spain’s possession really did not amount to many chances, surely helped by the discipline of Italy’s backline.  After the half it was a different story as Italy appeared to realize that their chances on the ball were going to be limited and they needed to be more careful with them.  Immobile was able to find the channel on Spain’s right side several times early in the second half.  While Spain was still able to control possession, the Italian counter attacks suddenly seemed sharper.  None more evident that the run of play leading to the Italian goal in the 60’.  Following a Spanish cross from the Italian right side (which there are no Spanish players near because they have no striker on the field), Donnarumma pivots and rolls the ball out quickly to his left.  Within two passes Immobile is just about sprung in behind the Spanish backline.  The Spanish defenders cut the last pass out, but because of the speed with which the Italian attack was able to push them up field, the ball falls into tons of empty space.  Chiesa anticipates excellently, crossing from his position on the left and picks up the ball at the top of the box.  There are no Spanish players close enough to close his angle down, Chiesa gets the ball onto his daring right foot, and he absolutely buries it.  Interestingly enough, both sides made changes directly following the goal with Italy subbing off their star striker Immobile, and Spain bringing on theirs in Morata.  Italy clearly shifted to a more defensive philosophy but ultimately could not hold the clean sheet as Morata combined with Olmo on a beautiful 1-2 to beat the Italians for an equalizer.  Spain continued to dominate possession through extra time, ending up near 70% for the game.  Both sides had a few more chances, although Spain had more than Italy, but from the moment extra time started this game seemed destined for PKs.  As I mentioned after their last shootout, Spain has missed five consecutive in game penalty kicks.  Italy was able to win the toss for first kick, but a poor effort from Locatelli was saved.  With the chance to grab the game by its throat, Olmo missed way over the goal.  To me, that was the moment the game was over.  The next two kicks for each team were buried, and after Italy hit their 4th kick to take a 3-2 lead, the chance fell to embattled Spanish striker Morata.  He had been dropped from the XI for this game, only to come on in the 62’ and score the equalizer in the 80’.  Morata’s personal roller coaster ride continued as his kick was poor and saved easily by Donnarumma.  Jorginho then stepped up for Italy and spent the Spanish home with his trademark jump hop penalty.

Italy was forced to adapt to a style of game that they did not want to play.  All the talk before the game was about these two teams having the best midfields in the tournament and whether that would decide the game.  To be frank, the Spanish midfield dominated.  Pedri was probably the best player on the field, and Jorginho had possibly his worst ever game in terms of passing.  But the Italians still won.  And Spain needed to chase an equalizer to even force extra time.  The Italians were pushed by a game, albeit young, Spanish squad and they stood their ground.  After taking out the world number one in Belgium in the quarters and Spain in the semis, the Italians have no reason to believe that they cannot continue their winning ways against England.

The England – Denmark game brought us more extra time, more excellent Gareth Southgate managing, and more controversy.  Once again, England trotted out a different starting XI, with Saka returning to the side in place of Sancho after missing the last game with a slight knock.  Early on Denmark seemed to be controlling the pace of play with smooth and patient passing through the midfield.  England was sitting back and playing conservatively, as has been their wont early in games in this tournament.  Denmark was able to draw back-to-back fouls against Mount and Shaw to push the ball up the pitch just far enough so that their free kick could make England uncomfortable.   There has been a lot of debate over whether Pickford should have done better, but whether he should have or not, he was not able to stop Damsgaard’s strike and England had conceded for the first time in the tournament.  In the aftermath of the goal Harry Kane could be seen imploring his team to keep their heads, and he seemed personally determined to make sure that happened.  Kane was able to wriggle loose in behind on Denmark’s left side minutes after the goal, with an equalizer only denied by a wonderful Schmeichel save against Sterling.  Not two minutes later, Kane dropped deep into midfield before playing an absolutely beautiful through ball to Saka, once again in behind on Denmark’s left.  Saka’s cross to a sprinting Sterling didn’t quite get there, but an intercepting Kjaer’s clear attempt did nothing other than steer the ball into his own goal.  A huge staple of Denmark’s tournament to this point has been their ambitious wing back Maehle’s aggressive runs into attacking areas up Denmark’s left.  England made it a clear point to attack the space that his runs left in behind.  Saka repeatedly made runs in behind. Mount got in behind a few times.  Kane drifted out to the flank a few times.  England found a weakness and there was just not much Denmark could do about it.  After a very competitive first 65 or so minutes, Denmark went with a triple substitution, and it did not work out in their favor.  Removing Damsgaard was a big blow to their midfield dominance to that point and slowly but surely England started to take control of the game.  When Saka was subbed out for Grealish, Sterling moved to the right side to fill Saka’s spot and continue the assault on the Denmark left.  Denmark held admirably through regular time, but it was clear that Sterling was exacerbating their defensive hole with a couple of nice runs to the by line.  From the first minute of extra time Denmark looked to be playing for penalty kicks and the English lions could smell blood in the water.  England held basically all the possession at this point against a side that looked to be exhausted and it felt like only a matter of time before they would get the game winner.  Not surprisingly, that winner came by way of a penalty drawn when Sterling once again got in behind Denmark’s left.  Sterling angled his run into the box, took a minimal amount of contact, and went down.  In the few days since there has been PLENTY of debate on the merits of the penalty and whether England deserved the call.  On top of that, Kane’s penalty was actually saved by Schmeichel before he was able to hammer in the rebound.  England got the goal they needed and fairly easily saw the game out through the second period of extra time.

The way I look at it is that England was clearly the better team over the last hour plus of the game.  There was at least one other occasion where Sterling went down in the box and the call didn’t go England’s way.  And in the 15’ of gameplay after the go-ahead goal, Denmark was barely able to get a kick of the ball.  England deserved to win the game, its just a shame that it had to come under controversial terms because to some degree it overshadows their excellent performance.  They have still yet to allow an open play goal at the tournament.  After limping to two goals in three group stage games, England has scored eight in their last three games, including four from Harry Kane.  England is in top form and is playing in front of their home fans.

I expect the final to be an absolutely riveting game.  For the first time this tournament I anticipate Southgate will trot the same starting XI out.  He has been very much horses for courses so far in this tournament, but what England did against Denmark would be a sound strategy to attack Italy.  Italy’s 4-3-3 formation looks very much like a 3-2-5 when they are on the attack.  Left back Emerson (filling in for the injured Spinazzola) pushes high up the field in a manner very similar to Maehle of Denmark.  England repeatedly punished Maehle for his attacking runs by getting in behind and I would expect them to look for more of the same against Italy.  I think Southgate will stay with Saka starting on England’s attacking right.  Saka has been excellent in all of his appearances in the tournament to date and his defensive responsibility is surely a part of the manager’s trust in him.  Grealish has seemed to become the instant offense super sub for England so look for Saka to run himself into the ground for as long as he can, and if England needs a goal Grealish will come on.

Italy has gone with essentially the same XI in all of their games, other than injury substitutions.  Despite some pretty poor performances in the elimination rounds, expect Immobile to stay in the lineup up top.  He is the ultimate counterattack artist – full of pace and always on the defender’s shoulder.  He was called for offside twice with in the first 5 minutes against Spain, and his run in behind was a huge part of the run up to Italy’s goal.  I mention this because without Spinazzola last game, Italy’s offensive game shifted much more towards balls over the top and in behind to Immobile.  His pace can cause a lot of problems for Maguire if the service is right.

I have seen a wide range of predictions for how this game will go.  I fully expect England to continue their defensive style early in the match.  Personally, I thought their possession play against Denmark down the stretch was impressive, but I doubt they will be able to do that over 90’ against Italy.  The Italian midfielders really struggled against Spain, but England’s lineup doesn’t really present the same kinds of challenges.  These teams have combined to allow one goal from open play so do not be surprised if it is a low scoring affair.  This one is a total tossup.  Generally, I would lean to the in form stud striker (my guy Harry Kane in this case), but I have to go with my heart here – Italy is the pick.  Forza Azzurri!!

Some fun bets with decent odds:

  • Final to be decided in extra time (+400)
  • Final to be decided in penalties (+550)
  • Kane to score anytime (+165)
  • Insigne to score anytime (+350)
  • Sterling to score anytime (+300)
  • Chiesa to score anytime (+400)
  • Final score bet Italy 2-1 England (+1050)



The Cardinali Corner: Euro Semifinal Preview

**Another great post from the friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali

Friday gave us two extremely entertaining quarterfinal contests, with Spain winning possibly the ugliest shootout of all time and Italy leveraging an early lead to eliminate world number one Belgium 2-1.  Saturday’s games didn’t have quite the same pizazz, although the Czech Republic was able to push Denmark before eventually failing to equalize in a 2-1 Danish win.  England finally flexed their offensive power in a dominant 4-0 win over the Ukraine to round out the weekend.

My picks went 3-1 in the Quarterfinals, with the only loss being an Italy team that I was actually rooting for.  Reverse jinx for the win!  More seriously, I picked Belgium despite thinking that Kevin De Bruyne would be out for the game.  He ended up playing, and playing pretty well, so I deserve that loss.  The remaining games will all be played at Wembley Stadium in London in front of 60,000 plus spectators.  England will essentially be playing in front of English fans only.  There will assuredly be some home field advantage, but I’m interested to see if it can help to galvanize in the event England ever do fall behind.  So far in 5 games they have not had to face that situation.

Italy v Spain, Tuesday 3 PM
Italy played a complete game against Belgium.  They got contributions from all over the field.  The return of Giorgio Chiellini [Juventus] the 36-year-old Italian captain really bolstered the back line.  After Being essentially untested to this point in the tournament, Gianluigi Donnaruma made multiple excellent saves in the first half to keep out both De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.  Nicolo Barella [Inter] chipped in with an early goal to get the Azzurri on the board, and Lorenzo Insigne [Napoli] added a wonder strike which ended up being the game winner.  Italy looked dominant and well poised to go all the way in this thing, that is until the 79th minute when Leonardo Spinazzola [Roma] pulled up lame.  Spinazzola has been an absolute monster on the left side for Italy.  He plays some combination of left back in a four-man defense and a left wing back making deep probing overlapping runs.  Being clocked at the fastest top speed of anyone in the tournament is a big reason he is able to perform in this manner and has been a big reason Italy has been such a difficult matchup so far.  Insigne is a right footed player that plays advanced on the left wing, ahead of Spinazzola.  This allows Insigne to cut infield to his stronger foot while Spinazzola keeps the attacking width to stretch the opposing defense laterally.  As previously mentioned, Italy is deep.  They have a capable back up in Emerson [Chelsea] who performed solidly filling in for Spinazzola in match day 3, but when you lose arguably the best player of the tournament to this point, it is a blow.

Spain seemed to be actively trying to lose at various points against Switzerland.  Their collapse seemed imminent only to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Spain started out on the front foot with their infamous ball domination.  This led to an early Jordi Alba [Barcelona] chance resulting in a Denis Zakaria [Monchengladbach] own goal.  Tough break for Zakaria as it seemed like Alba’s shot was on target.  Bad day for him all around as he was unable to take a couple of chances in his first game back from injury.  Anyway, Spain seemed to be happy with the 1-0 lead and played pretty conservatively after the early goal.  Switzerland took some time to adjust to Spain’s constant possession, but they eventually started to take control of the game on the back of an aggressive high press.  A couple of good chances eventually resulted in a defensive misplay from Spain that the Swiss pounced on.  Xherdan Shaqiri [Liverpool] was able to calmy slot home to even the score in the 68th minute.  Switzerland seemed to have all the momentum but just under 10 minutes later Remo Freuler [Atalanta] was shown a straight red for a harsh challenge, taking the wind out of the Swiss sails.  If not for the red card, I don’t think Spain would have even made it to extra time.  Credit does have to be given for the Spanish effort in extra time as they repeatedly bombarded the Swiss goal, only to be denied over and over by Swiss keeper Yann Sommer [Monchengladbach].  Substitute Dani Olmo [RB Leipzig] spent a lot of time on the ball in extra time – although he didn’t look particularly dangerous – and fellow sub, Mikel Oyarzabal [Real Sociedad], came close a few times before ultimately the game headed to penalty kicks.  Spain won the toss and first kick.  Continuing a stunning trend of FIVE CONSECUTIVE penalty misses, Spain missed their opening kick.  Both sides traded goals before a save from Spanish keeper Unai Simon [Athletic Bilbao] evened the score.  Spain again failed to take the lead, only to get bailed out when Ruben Vargas missed the target for Switzerland.  Spain finally managed to take the advantage provided to them, scoring the next two kicks to move through.

Italy has been the most consistently high performing team in the tournament.  They have won all five of their games by a combined score of 11-2.  They allowed one goal in extra time and one via penalty kick.  Spain has been a much more up-and-down side.  They are the highest scoring side in the tournament on 12 goals, but they have played 60 minutes of extra time.  They have been prone to defensive lapses at various times in the tournament and I think those momentary occasions where they lose their focus will be their downfall here.  Italy seems like a team on the rise, and they are fully prepared to use this tournament as their coming out party.  I look for a low scoring contest here with high possibility of an Italian clean sheet.  The loss of Spinazzola will definitely hurt but look for this Italian side to adapt their shape and tactics accordingly.

England v Denmark, Wednesday 3 PM
In the only game where they had to leave their home country, England ensured that would not be to their detriment.  They made their trip to Rome a business trip, calmly and clinically dispatching of the Ukraine.  England jumped in front early when Raheem Sterling [Man City] finally decided to pass to Harry Kane [Spurs], who not surprisingly produced a technically sound finish.  Kane would be heard from again later along with Harry Maguire [Man U] and Jordan Henderson [Liverpool] adding set piece goals for England.  With Bukayo Saka [Arsenal] unavailable due to injury, Jadon Sancho [recent Man U signing] was awarded his first start of the tournament.  Mason Mount [Chelsea] returned to the team as well as Gareth Southgate shifted back to defensive back 4.  Sancho provided an interesting new dynamic to the English attack. To this point England had used Saka and Phil Foden [Man City] on the attacking right.  Both are left footed players who are more prone to tucking infield onto their stronger left foot.  As a right-footed player, Sancho was much more aggressive pressing down the right-hand touchline and keeping England’s attacking width.  Sancho also has excellent feet and, on several occasions, attacked defensive one on ones, unbalancing the Ukraine defense. It will be interesting to see how the XI lines up against Denmark.  Saka will be fit and he played very well in his two starts.  But Sancho has provided a bit of a different look for the three Lions and the team doubled their goals tally in his only start.

Denmark came out very hot in their quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic.  Thomas Delaney [Dortmund] came completely uncovered on an early corner kick for a 1-0 Denmark lead.  The Czech side had several early set pieces of their own but were unable to convert any of them.  Just a few minutes before half time the Danes tacked onto the lead when a cool Kasper Dolberg [Nice] finish came on the end of an exceptional cross from the outside of Joakim Maehle’s [Atalanta] right boot. The Czech got one back on Patrik Schick’s [Leverkusen] calmly slotted volley.  That put Schick level with Christiano Ronaldo in the golden boot race.  The Danes didn’t sit back, but Maehle and Mikkel Damsgaard both had good efforts rebuked as they were unable to extend the lead.  The Czech’s continued to press for an equalizer and there was some excellent effort by Denmark to keep the lead.  In particular, substitute striker Yussuf Poulsen [who seems to have lost his spot to a red hot Dolberg] tracked back 60 plus yards on one occasion to break up a Czech attack inside the 18-yard box.  The Danish back three of Jannik Vestergaard [Southampton], Simon Kjaer [AC Milan] and Andreas Christensen [Chelsea] have been the backbone of this team.  They have worked together beautifully, adapting as Christensen makes probing jaunts up field on occasion, and still staying sound and sturdy at the back.  Denmark may not have been very highly regarded coming into this tournament, but they have lots of young talent, even without Cristian Eriksen, and they play excellently as a team.

Andreas Christensen has already sad that Denmark knows what their plan is to stop Harry Kane.  I agree that they have experience on their side between Christensen and Vestergaard matching up with Kane on the field and midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg [Spurs] playing with Kane for years.  But when Kane gets rolling, he is very difficult to stop.  3 goals in the past two games for Harry, who seems to be creeping up on the golden boot race.  There is a path here to a Denmark win.  Ukraine had a period late in the first half against England where they seemed to be causing problems down the English right side and if Denmark were able to get out in front, England could be put into an awkward position trying to chase.  Ultimately, I think England goes through on the strength of their sound defensive foundation and the support of their home fans.  I say they finally concede but look for Kane to get back on the score sheet and set up an Italy v England finale.

The Cardinali Corner: Euro Quarterfinal Preview

This is part of recurring guest posts from friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali

Let’s start with a quick recap of the round of 16 games.  Of the 8 total games, 4 went to extra time with one lasting all the way to penalty kicks.  Belgium seemed to utterly control the game against Portugal and cruised to a 1-0 victory on the strength of a Thorgan Hazard missile.  Unfortunately, they lost both Kevin DeBruyne and Eden [The Elder] Hazard to injury and neither will be playing in this next round of games.  Italy really struggled on their first trip outside of Rome.  They needed VAR to bail them out on a regular time Austria goal, scored 2 in extra time, then conceded their first goal of the tournament and had to hang on for dear life to survive.  France (my self-proclaimed biggest lock) attempted to win a game by only playing for 25 minutes of it.  Switzerland had other ideas.  They fought with everything they had for 120 minutes, were nails on all their penalty kicks, and got a save on Kylian Mbappe’s PK to seal it.  A fitting end to Mbappe’s tournament that was filled with missed chances and 0 goals.  Don’t be surprised if he is a man on a mission at the World Cup next year.  Spain played a roller coaster of a game ending in a 5-3 extra time win over Croatia.  They gave up a horrendous own goal, and then tried to collapse by conceding 2 in the last 5 minutes plus stoppage time, but in the end they have 10 goals in their last two games (more than any other team has scored in the entire tournament) and they are moving on.  Sweden vs Ukraine was an exciting back and forth affair with each side scoring on a great chance early, hitting the woodwork several times after, and a game changing red card in extra time.  For anyone that saw the slow-motion replays, Marcus Danielson’s challenge looked nothing short of painful.  That being said, I am not convinced it was even a foul.  He played the ball, his leg was below knee level, and the Ukrainian player came in late right into Danielson’s leg.  Either way, Sweden tried to hang on but the Ukraine was able to find the game winner late in extra time.  England continued their stout defensive ways (they have yet to concede a goal), yielding really only one big chance.  Two if you count Timo Werner’s, but no one who has watched him play the last 6 months thought he was scoring there.  England also continued the trend of Jack Grealish being the key to their goal scoring.  He entered with a little over 20 minutes remaining and was directly involved in both of England’s goals.  The Netherlands looked rather unlike the team from the group stages, showing their nerves through a combination of bad misplays and missed chances.  An early second half red card for an intentional hand ball proved to be too much for the Dutch to handle and the Czech Republic picked up the 2-0 victory.  Lastly, we had Denmark utterly dismantle Wales.  The Welsh had a few early Gareth Bale chances that he was unable to take and eventually they just got totally over run.  Denmark took it 4-0 and it easily could have been 5 or 6.  That’s 8 goals in the last 180 minutes for Denmark.

After starting out at 4-1 on my picks, I dropped the last three games of the round to finish 4-4.  2 losses because of red cards (Sweden and Netherlands), 1 game that everyone on the planet got wrong (France) and one toss up that didn’t break right (Germany).  I think the thing that I underestimated the most was the match sites.  Italy had to leave Rome for the first time, and it clearly impacted them.  England got to play at home in front of entirely English fans (due to travel restrictions, foreign fans have not been permitted into the country).  To that end, this round is the ONLY TIME that England will not be playing in London.  There doesn’t seem to be other location related impacts to the round, but I will mention them in the previews below for informative purposes.

Switzerland v Spain, Friday 12 PM – St. Petersburg, Russia
These two teams were a part of the highest scoring day of elimination games in EURO history.  Switzerland played their ideal game against France.  Yes, they missed a penalty kick that could have made the game 2-0 and followed it up by giving up 3 goals in the next 20 minutes.  But they kept their poise, fought back to tie in the 90th minute, and earned the well-deserved win in PKs.  If we are being honest, they played much better than France.  Granit Xhaka [Arsenal] put on a stunning man of the match display in midfield.  Pogba and Kante outplayed by Xhaka and Shakiri.  Who could have guessed?  Unfortunately for the Swiss, Xhaka also picked up his second yellow of the tournament and, due to the very harsh disciplinary rules at the EUROs, he is ineligible for the match with Spain.

Ever since the Cava bottle was popped by a hilarious Dubravka own goal in their final group game, the goals have been flowing for Spain.  In the first 210 minutes of the tournament, they scored exactly one goal and missed two penalty kicks.  In their last 180 minutes they have scored 10 times.  Of course, they also had some unexplainable defensive plays against Croatia.  One silver lining was that it gave embattled Spanish star Alvaro Morata [Atletico] a chance to score a truly special game winner in extra time.  Spain seems to be rolling on offense right now, but at the same time they just don’t seem like the type of squad that will be feared.

Switzerland had maybe the best performance of any team in the round of 16.  It can not be understated how talented France is and coming back from a two-goal deficit to knock out the defending World Cup champs is truly something that will be remembered in Switzerland for a long time.  They have recently played Spain in tight low scoring affairs which is what I expect we will see here.  Spain allowed Croatia back into the game far too easily for the position they put themselves in but managed to keep their composure and scored twice in a relatively stress free extra time.  I’ll go with Spain here in a tight one.  Sergio Busquets [Barcelona] has been hugely impactful after returning on match day 3.  That combined with Xhaka’s absence, and the fact that Switzerland may have exhausted all their bullets against France, is the decider for me.

Italy v Belgium, Friday 3 PM – Munich, Germany
On the surface, it may seem like Italy got lucky in their extra time win over Austria, but when you dig a little deeper that isn’t quite the case.  Italy dominated in attacks (74 v 49), and attempts (27 v 16) and just missed a cracker of a goal early when Ciro Immobile’s knuckleball rocket clanged off the post.  The thing with Italy is that they don’t have your prototypical superstar.  Their roster is talented top to bottom with no real drop off from starters to the bench.  Federico Chiesa [Juventus] came off the bench to score the first Italy goal with a left (off) footed finish following an absolutely wonderful first touch off the chest and second touch off his right foot.  Oh, by the way, he was the man of the match when he started in match day 3.  Don’t be surprised to see him in the starting XI against Belgium.  Their second goal was also scored by substitute Matteo Pessina [Atalanta].  If there was one word for Italy, it would be deep.

Despite Belgium’s comfortable 1-0 win over Portugal where they completely nullified Christiano Ronaldo, any Belgium fan is down after that game.  Just when it seemed like their train was going to really get going with KDB and Eden both appearing to be at the height of their powers supporting Lukaku and the other studs, they lose both to injury.  Tough few months for De Bruyne if they get bounced here after Man City couldn’t muster anything when he left the champions league final against Chelsea.  It does appear that both injuries are minor and both guys could be available for a semi-final match, assuming Belgium can get there.

I go back and forth on this game every time I think about it.  I do think getting a win outside of Rome last round galvanizes Italy a bit going forward.  But here’s the thing, even without two of their biggest guns, Belgium still has probably the best player and he’s an absolute man.  Romelo Lukaku plays in Serie A against all the guys on Italy’s backline week in and week out.  All he did this year was score 24 goals (second in the league to Ronaldo) in 32 games and has been in excellent form in this tournament.  I am interested to see if Belgium deploys him in a more central role with De Bruyne out as he has been playing wide on the right the past few games, but wherever he is, Italy will need to look out for him.  My heart is with Italy, and honestly my head kind of is too, but I just have a weird feeling about Belgium in this one.

Czech Republic v Denmark, Saturday 12 PM – Baku, Azerbaijan
I have to say that I was very impressed with the way the Czech Republic played against Netherlands.  I still think the Oranje would have eventually pulled it out if not for the red card, but the Czechs kept the pressure constant and never allowed the Netherlands to get into the game.  When they did get the break of the red card (which probably would have been a goal if Matt De Ligt had not handled the ball), they leveraged that advantage and ground the game until they could break through.  Tomas Holes [Slavia Praha] was particularly impressive in the midfield and Patrick Schick [Leverkusen] tallied his 4th goal of the tournament.  He will be looking to tie Ronaldo in the golden boot race, and push himself closer to a $100 million transfer evaluation, against Denmark.

Denmark’s front line through the group stages had been led by Youssuf Poulsen [RB Leipzig] and his 2 goals.  He had a bit of a thigh/glute issue and was unavailable against Wales, replaced by Kasper Dolberg [Nice].  What did Dolberg do? Only score two goals including an absolutely beautiful right to left bender around a defender and into the bottom corner.  Poulsen may be available for this one, but I expect Dolberg to hold his place after that performance.  Plus, there is an epic photo of him after one of the goals with his hair sticking out in all directions as if he’s getting electrocuted and that has to count for something.  Denmark had far too much for Wales and their wing back Joakim Maehle [Atalanta] has been especially impressive this whole tournament.  Fun fact: I am going to make a point to watch Atalanta more this upcoming year.  They have guys performing at super high levels all over these EUROs.

Both of these teams play very similar styles and I expect another well played game.  Lots of organized smart play with pointed and sharp counter attacks.  Denmark really appears to be hitting their stride following the early difficulties they faced in these EUROs, but as a favorite in this one, does the pressure start to become a strain on them?  I’m hoping not as Denmark is my pick here.  Let’s hope the goal train keeps rolling.

England v Ukraine, Saturday 3 PM – Rome, Italy
I have often said that Gareth Southgate has a job I would envy during the club season, and dread when the English team is actually playing games.  Hanging out at whatever premier league games you want, being sharply dressed, strong beard game – all good things.  Having the media over analyze each and every decision you make, getting blamed for anything that isn’t perfect and not getting credit for when you’re right – not so much.  To that end, I questioned last week if Southgate would switch his formation to match up with Germany’s wide wing backs and, if he did, would it work out?  Well, the answer was that yes, he would change – starting Kyle Walker [Man City] on the right of a back three, and a resounding yes as his decision worked out beautifully.  England totally neutralized the German attack with an extremely defensive formation, before Southgate brought in wonder boy Grealish who immediately paid dividends in the lead up to the first goal and eventually combined with Harry Kane directly to put the game away (that’s two assists and an involvement in the last three England goals).  One interesting observation is that Raheem Sterling continues to seem very reticent to pass the ball to Harry Kane.  I’m not sure if this opinion is shared by a lot of people, but Sterling has always seemed a bit selfish to me.  However, he did manage to score his third goal here to get England on the board.  He also followed that up with a horrible give away to Thomas Muller in a position where, frankly England were lucky not to concede.  The full Sterling experience.

I wrote last week about how much I had enjoyed watching the Ukraine and that did not change in the round of 16 matchup with Sweden.  Andriy Yarmolenko [West Ham] had another goal contribution setting up Oleksander Zinchenko [Man City] for an excellent finish early on before Sweden leveled.  Both teams ran themselves ragged with the Ukraine eventually subbing off 5 of their 6 forward players before the end of extra time.  The game seemed destined for penalty kicks as Ukraine couldn’t capitalize on 20 minutes of a one-man advantage, only to see a wonderful Zinchencko cross in the 120’+1 find Artem Dovbyk’s head to send Ukraine onwards.

I told multiple people this week that I was glad England beat Germany because now when they lose to someone else it will be really crushing.  The thing is, I’m not so sure that is going to happen anymore.  They have been so well organized defensively, and the talent up front doesn’t need much to eventually find a goal.  This is the only game they will play outside of Wembley and while I think that plays a part, I just don’t think Ukraine can match the talent levels.  England is the pick here.  I expect them to continue their clean sheet record and find a goal or two to move on.  Maybe they will start passing to Kane now that he proved he can get a goal even when they seem to be actively avoiding him.