Euro 2016 quarterfinals: Cream finally rises in France

By Samuel Charles

Iceland's upset for the ages over England made headlines across the world, and sees a country with a population less than that of Honolulu joining a Euro 2016 quarterfinal that finds Europe’s best teams having finally decided to play like it.

It took 44 games just to reach the quarterfinals at this 24-team tournament, which is 20 more games than it took under the 16-team format, and a far cry from any European Championship ever played before 1996, which never involved more than eight teams.

Favorites find form. After numerous forgettable performances in the group stages, a lamentable state that extended into the first day of the knockout rounds -- when Portugal's 1-0 win over Croatia didn't produce a single shot on goal until the 117th minute -- the four remaining favorites (France, Germany, Belgium and Italy), all offered their most impressive performances in the round of 16.

Down 1-0 to Ireland at halftime, and facing a humiliating exit on home soil, France responded with a dominant second half that included a pair of goals by Antoine Griezmann, with Les Bleus demonstrating the kind of confidence, chemistry and character that has been sorely lacking, showing glimpses of why many picked the host nation to win this tournament.

Germany's comprehensive 3-0 win over Slovakia in the round of 16 began taking shape in its last group match, when Joachim Loew resigned himself to the fact that starting Mario Gomez, a 30-year-old striker who plays for Besiktas in Turkey, would help everything else fall into place for the reigning world champions, and it has.

Written off after being outclassed by Italy in its opening game, Belgium won its last three games while scoring eight goals without conceding. The Red Devils have long been (accurately) pegged as a group of talented individuals who have collectively underperformed -- but perhaps no one has benefited more from this tournament's extended format than Belgium and Eden Hazard, who after a dreadful season at Chelsea has been reborn. Hazard was transcendent in Belgium's 4-0 knockout win over Hungary.

Italy owns the two biggest scalps in this tournament, with 2-0 wins over Belgium and Spain surrounding less impressive outings against Sweden and Northern Ireland (with a rotated squad in the latter). Antonio Conte won three Serie A titles in three season at Juventus, returning the club to prominence, and now that the 46-year-old coach is headed the Premier League, and Chelsea, he’s finally getting his due as a master tactician and motivator. The Azzurri were a step ahead of La Furia Roja at every turn, handing Spain its first major tournament knockout loss in a decade.

Quarterfinal notes.

Portugal-Poland, Thursday, Stade Velodrome, Marseille

This matchup may have the two best players remaining in the tournament, in Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski, but other than Ronaldo's two goals and an assist against Hungary, which helped Portugal progress by the skin of its teeth as a third-place team, neither player has lived up their billing.

Consensus holds that Portugal has more talent while Poland is more cohesive. The Poles have only scored three goals in four games (while allowing just one). Thirty-year-old former captain Jakub Blaszczykowski has accounted for three of them, with two goals and an assist from the right wing.

Verdict: Portugal is listed as the heavy favorite, but I see this contest as a toss-up, where Poland's harmony can overcome a Portuguese team that seems to be perpetually monitoring Ronaldo's involvement, and mood. Barring upsets, the winner emerges as the weakest semifinalist; nevertheless, both are just two wins away from the final.

Belgium-Wales, Friday, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Villeneuve-d'Ascq (Lille)

The stars have somehow aligned for these Red Devils, as Belgium has not only gained momentum throughout the tournament, its humbling opening defeat to Group E winner Italy dumped Belgium into the far weaker side of the bracket.

Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey are the stars for Wales, which won its group while scoring six goals, defender James Chester and midfielder Joe Allen have also played well, but they're facing a Belgium team littered with talent, with Kevin DeBruyne and Hazard joining Bale as the tournament's three highest rated players thus far.

Highest rated players at Euro 2016 (per WhoScored): Kevin DeBruyne 8.35, Gareth Bale 8.33, Eden Hazard 8.22, Dimitri Payet 8.17, Toni Kroos 8.03

Verdict: Welsh fans will be in full throat for their first quarterfinal at a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, and while it's plain anything can happen at these Euros, Belgium’s good fortune endures, with this game being played minutes away from the Belgian border, aiding Belgium’s progression to face the winner of Poland-Portugal.

Germany-Italy, Saturday, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux

If Italy were to win Euro 2016, it will require overcoming what may be the toughest road in the history of the tournament. Italy's reward for winning its group and knocking out two-time defending champion Spain, a date with 2014 World Cup winner Germany in the quarterfinals, thank you very much.

Italy fields three of the world's best central defenders -- Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci -- in front of the ageless soccer treasure that is Gigi Buffon in net, with all four of them having played together for years in a similar system at Juventus. The only goal Italy’s conceded came when Conte fielding several reserves and his backup keeper after having already won the group. Perhaps the only time Italy's defense looked troubled against Spain was the 35 minutes on the field spent by striker Aritz Aduriz, an aerial specialist, who prompted more traditional crosses into the box by Spain.

This may bode well for Germany, which only righted itself at these Euros after abandoning Mario Goetze as a false nine and starting Gomez, a traditional striker. Gomez scored in both his starts, but more importantly his presence has dramatically improved the spacing and understanding of the German attack, with 21-year-old Joshua Kimmich, who started the last two games at right back, also contributing to Germany's upswing.

Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil have rarely misplaced a pass in France, and keep an eye out for 22-year-old attacker Julian Draxler, who was sensational in the 3-0 win over Slovakia in the round of 16.

A titanic clash of proud soccer nations with eight World Cup titles between them, Italy has never lost to Germany Italy in eight competitive meetings, with four wins and four draws. This includes Italy's 2-1 win in the Euro 2012 semifinals, which Joachim Loew credited for being a key part of Germany's evolution into World Cup champions.

"I am very much looking forward to playing Italy. ... They are not the Italians you usually see. They are not only focused on the defense but are also strong in attack," Loew said. "It will be a very tight match, and the outcome is relatively open. We don't fear the Italians, but they are on a top level. Their defense has been playing together for ages, and they are a much better team than they were in 2008, 2010 and even 2012."

Verdict: If Germany were to win this tournament, its lackluster qualifying performances and first two outings in France will be forgotten, vaulting this generation of German soccer into the game's lore, but it has found a worthy adversary in Italy, and Conte. The Italian coach will once again look to befuddle more gifted individual opposition, but Germany's talent, and newfound chemistry, may prove too much.

France-Iceland, Sunday, Stade de France, Saint-Denis (Paris)

This tournament was long hailed as Paul Pogba’s coming out party, with his visage plastered across Europe as the face of France and this tournament, but the gifted 23-year-old midfielder’s performances have embodied that of his team, with Les Bleus feeling the weight of expectations, often trying to do too much individually, and only occasionally playing exceptional. Only Dimitri Payet, who was nearly left off this roster, has been consistently impressive, a creative force apparently allergic to the crisis in confidence, and judgment, that has often afflicted his teammates.

With N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Pogba, France is blessed with three of the world’s best central midfielders, but their strengths are somewhat redundant, clogging up the midfield conduit. With Kante suspended for this game you would expect to see the formation that thrived against Ireland in the second half, with Pogba and Matuidi behind a more central Payet, Griezman and the lightning fast Kingsley Coman out wide, with Olivier Giroud up front.

Iceland has already given this tournament so many great moments, with a team featuring just two players from Europe’s top five leagues, Gylfi Sygurdsson at Swansea City and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson at Nantes.

Ragnar Sigurdsson, no relation to Gylfi, plays for Krasnador in the Russian Premier League. The central defender scored and was the best player on the field against England, afterward Ragnar sounded more like a hipster leaving yoga class than a guy who'd just spent a historic evening vanquishing the Three Lions:

"It went well. We didn't feel that they created any chances. We were just heading away long balls. I wasn't stressed in the second half."

Verdict. Iceland isn’t stressed. It’s already won. There is no way this team or these players leave this tournament as anything but heroes, which must be a scary thought for French coach Didier Deschamps. France is the heavy favorite, but it’s easy to envision a scenario where the jitters that have plagued Les Bleus for much of this tournament, and the burden of its nervous fans, return to the national stadium just outside Paris, especially if Iceland can keep this game close into the second half.

It’s not likely to happen, but far be it from me to tell this Iceland team, or its thousands of fans who’ve traveled to France, what’s possible.

"If someone had told me a few years ago that we would reach the last eight I have to say I would not believe it," said Heimir Hallgrimsson, one of Iceland's joint head coaches, and a part-time dentist. "No obstacle is too big for these guys now."

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