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.