Tuesday, June 14th:
Austria v. Hungary
Just two years shy of the 100 year anniversary of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these two formerly united nations face off on the soccer pitch. Neither team is considered much a power in the sport, but Austria does come in riding a ton of buzz and have become a popular darkhorse pick to make a run here. I’ve seen it mentioned so many times that I’m almost ready to call it overblown and ready for them to fall flat on their faces.
David Alaba is the star Austrian player. The 23-year-old has become a fixture in the Bayern Munich line-up at left back, but will play in a midfield role for Austria, putting him right in the middle of the field where he can orchestrate as much as possible for them. It also helps that their captain, Christian Fuchs, is also a left back and he will man that position, as he did for EPL champions Leicester City this season.
The bulk of the goal-scoring responsibility will go to Marc Janko and Marko Arnautovic. They haven’t had illustrious careers but come into this tournament off of career years for their clubs, Janko with an impressive 16 goals in just 17 games for FC Basel of the Swiss league and Arnautovic with 11 goals for Stoke City in the EPL. Both are big, physically-imposing forwards.
Back in the 50’s and 60’s, Hungary was one of the best teams in the world, but this is their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup and I don’t have much else to say about this team. If Austria is actually for real to any extent, they should dispatch the Hungarians, who might be the worst team in this field, with relative ease.
Prediction: Austria 2, Hungary 0
Portugal v. Iceland
It’s crazy that Iceland is in this tournament. A country of just over 300,000 people on an island out in the north Atlantic on a stage against the best footballing nations in the world. Apparently back around the turn of the century the Iceland government and football association decided to really focus on building their program and clearly they’ve done an amazing job.
As part of that effort, this team has played together more than most, which gives them an edge. In particular, their front six players are all between 25 and 28-years-old and have all been logging major time for this team for a good number of years.
The star for Iceland is Gylfi Sigurdsson. I was impressed with him when he played for Tottenham a couple years ago and was surprised when he took a “step down” to move to Swansea. He’s clearly been their best player and he will be the do-it-all box-to-box midfielder for this Iceland team. He and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson are their two biggest goal-scoring threats.
For the Portuguese, there’s not much new to report here. There is, of course, the best player in the tournament surrounded by a solid but far from great supporting cast. Nani is still heavily involved up front and the always annoying (and potential red card waiting to happen) Pepe will be in central defense. Expect them to get through this group stage but not last long after that. The biggest question is if Ronaldo is fully healthy and how badly he wants to push himself here.
Prediction: Portugal 3, Iceland 1