If the quarter-finals are as action-packed as the last-16 matches were then we’re in for a treat once again. Hollywood’s greatest script writers would struggle to write the storylines of the last round which had everything a football lover can ask for. Shock upsets, late comebacks, historic wins, unbelievable goals, extra time and penalty shootouts – it was almost impossible to look away from your television. Now that we the fans, the coaches and the players have had a few days break to take it all in and reflect on what we watched…We move on to the next round.
First up on Friday night is the side who took most of the headlines in the last round - Switzerland –facing a Spain side who seem to be finding their mojo. In a tie in which almost nobody would have given them a chance against world champions France, the Swiss produced an incredibly spirited performance to achieve one of the most memorable giant killings that this competition has ever seen. Spain will have been delighted to learn that they’ll now avoid the tournament favourites but make no mistake: this game will be no walk in the park. Aside from the Swiss performance against France, these two sides have met very recently with Spain only narrowly winning 1-0 and then drawing 1-1 in Basel. One factor which will be a major blow to Switzerland though and could swing it in the Spaniards’ favour is the loss of captain Granit Xhaka through suspension. Winning all of his battles, dictating the play and leading his side by example, the departing arsenal midfielder put in a colossal display against the French and quite possibly the best by any player at this tournament so far. Add his absence to the fact that Spain have scored 10 goals in their preceding two games and it’s hard to envisage Switzerland producing another upset.
Two of the remaining favourites for the competition, Belgium and Italy, meet in what will surely be the tie of this round. Both sides won their respective groups at a canter as they took nine points from nine before finding it trickier in the last 16. Belgium came out on top in a battle with another pre-tournament favourite in Portugal who boast a squad bulging with stellar talent. Romelu Lukaku remains a couple of goals behind Cristiano Ronaldo whom he helped knock out of the competition and the powerful Inter Milan forward will now have his eyes set on the golden boot. An enormous blow to the Red Devils will be the loss of two of their main men in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard who are doubtful for this game although manager Roberto Martinez has said he’ll make a call at the last minute as he obviously knows these two could very well make the difference. Should they fail to be fit in time then favourites for this game, you would have to say, will be the Italians who have taken this tournament by storm. Right from the opening match when they brushed aside a Turkey side who were fancied by many, they have played with intensity and a ruthlessness as they carry out their orders from manager Roberto Mancini. It has to be said that they look the most complete team in the tournament in terms of structure and coherence – where other sides may be able to call upon the big names, the Italians evidently know their system and are willing to fight for each other. We fancy them to edge out the Belgians.
There’s always a team with a fairy-tale story at these tournaments, a team which every neutral cheers on as their own and in this case it is undoubtedly Denmark after the emotional scenes with Christian Eriksen in their opening match (thankfully he is recovering well). Not only do they have the support of the wider football community for this reason but one would imagine that their squad of players has that little extra motivation in their determination to succeed for him. Remarkably, the Danes qualified for the knockouts after losing their first two games and since those matches, they have gone from strength to strength as they thrashed Wales 4-0. After causing an upset themselves in putting out footballing giants the Netherlands, the Czech Republic will fancy their chances of going one further again here against a side perceived to be of a similar level. In fact, the Czechs somewhat upset the odds in simply making out of the group but their defensive resilience and lethal instinct in front of goal when chances present themselves has proven fruitful for them thus far. Few would have put their money on Patrik Schick to finish top scorer of the tournament but the Bayer Leverkusen has taken it by storm and is only one goal behind the leader Cristiano Ronaldo who has now exited the tournament. Schick will know that even if he is to go out tonight, if he bags a goal or even better two then it could be enough to claim the prestigious award.
England fans went into their crunch match with old foes Germany having several considerations weighing on their mind: they hadn’t been greatly impressive in the group stage, they hadn’t beaten Germany in knockout football for over 55 years but if they could get past this tie against one of the favourites then the route to the final afterwards looked rather favourable. Indeed, the expectation was immense, the tension unbearable. However, all of that was converted into sheer joy and a sense of relief for Three Lions supporters everywhere as they ran out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. Football is well and truly on its way home if you ask any fan around the country now as Southgate’s men have a straight forward route to the final – and this is important – on paper. Yes, England will be undoubted favourites when they take on Ukraine but they’ll approach it with the same respect they gave the Germans as anything can happen in a one-off tie as we’ve already witnessed at this tournament.
Having said that he’ll give Ukraine the respect which they deserve, Southgate is still expected to ring a few changes for this tie and it has to be said that with the strength in depth he has, making changes would not necessarily present a “weakened” team by any means. If it is to be the case that England play another three matches then it would be prudent to rotate his squad now. Raheem Sterling will be wanting to add to his goal tally as he chases the Golden Boot however he may be one who’s chosen to have a rest with the following games in mind and more than qualified to deputise could be Marcus Rashford who would be more of a like-for-like switch. Jack Grealish has been used as an impact sub (and an extremely effective one) but may be given an opportunity to show his abundance of talent from the first whistle in this one although it could just as equally be Phil Foden or Mason Mount that replace young Bukayo Saka who himself should be proud of his contribution so far. Much like the tie with the Germans on Tuesday, it’s likely to be quite a cagey affair in which England may need to bide their time in breaking the Ukrainians down. England fans are already dreaming however for Gareth Southgate and his players it’s very much a case of one step at a time.
Let’s hope the drama and excitement continues and…come on England!