The first knockout round at Euro 2016 may not have exactly started in thrilling fashion, with just four goals scored in the three Round-of-16 matches Saturday. But the round certainly finished with a flourish, thanks to Iceland upsetting England on Monday to continue what is undoubtedly the competition’s standout story.
The quarterfinals bracket features a tantalizing mix of major tournament thoroughbreds and outsiders sensing a new opportunity. The winner of Poland and Portugal takes on the winner of Wales and Belgium on one side of the draw, while the other side includes the heavyweight duel between Germany and Italy, along with host nation France facing tournament darling Iceland.
Here's a breakdown of the upcoming matches.
Poland vs. Portugal (Thursday, 3 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)
Portugal played its part in one of the dullest matches in recent modern tournament history when squeezing past Croatia in the last 16. Well, one has to hope its quarterfinal against Poland on Thursday won’t be quite that bad, there is reason to think that it will hardly be a wide-open goalfest. It took until the 117th minute of Portugal’s clash with Croatia for there to be a shot on target; Cristiano Ronaldo’s effort was saved before Ricardo Quaresma headed in the rebound. Portugal has showed the stubborn, organized qualities coach Fernando Santos utilized with Greece and upon being appointed Portugal coach in 2014. But there was little else.
It has been a similar story for Poland throughout Euro 2016. Making the quarterfinals of a major tournament for the first time since 1982 already counts as a major success. Still, there remains the feeling that there is more to come. Poland has scored just three goals in its four games and conceded only one. Against Switzerland, Poland went into its shell once more after taking a first-half lead, ultimately appearing happy to wait for a penalty shootout. Remarkably, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski has yet to find the net. And a quarterfinal between two teams suddenly with real hope of going all the way to the final could come down to which talisman, Lewandowski or Ronaldo, delivers best.
Prediction: Poland win
Wales vs. Belgium (Friday, 3 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)
Belgium showed the potential within its ranks with a stirring finish to its Round-of-16 contest, firing three goals in the final 12 minutes to finish with an emphatic 4-0 win over Hungary. But the Red Devils are unlikely to hold huge fear for Wales in the last eight. The two countries squared off in qualifying for Euro 2016, and while Belgium ended up top of the group, it was Wales that got the better of their two meetings. After securing a goalless draw in Brussels, Wales gained a 1-0 victory in Cardiff en route to reaching its first major tournament in 58 years.
And Chris Coleman’s side is likely to be more comfortable playing against a team like Belgium than it was against Northern Ireland in a dour Round-of-16 contest. Better equipped to sit back and counter through the huge threat that is Gareth Bale, Wales struggled when given the responsibility to break down a defensive-minded team. Still, Belgium has certainly improved from its opening loss to Italy and subsequent talk of insurrection within the squad. And a place in a first European Championship semifinal since 1980 presents a powerful motivation.
Prediction: Wales win
Germany vs. Italy (Saturday, 3 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)
If there is one team Germany does not want to face at a major tournament it is Italy. In eight previous competitive meetings between the two European powerhouses, Germany has not won a single one. And there have been plenty of painful losses along the way. Most notably, Italy came out on top in the 1982 World Cup final. But there have also been three semifinal defeats for Germany, in the World Cups of 1970 and 2006, when on home soil, as well as most recently at Euro 2012. For a country that has been as successful as Germany, the record is painful. It is unsurprising, then, that even before the quarterfinal matchup had been set, Germany coach Joachim Low faced questions about it.
“We don't have Italy trauma,” he insisted. “It's a different team we are facing under different conditions.”
Germany should draw confidence at least from putting in its most impressive display of Euro 2016 so far last time out, when the presence of striker Mario Gomez helped to brush Slovakia aside, 3-0. Italy will arrive in Bordeaux, though, fresh from a superb performance to beat two-time defending champion Spain. While Germany clearly has the better talent in this matchup, in Antonio Conte, Italy has the coach of the tournament.
Prediction: Germany win
France vs. Iceland (Sunday, 3 p.m. EDT, ESPN)
After producing the standout result of Euro 2016 so far, Iceland will now be seeking to pull off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the European Championship. And it would be dangerous to rule out Iceland doing just that. There was nothing freakish whatsoever about the country of less than 330,000 people beating England in the Round of 16 on Monday. Iceland thoroughly deserved its 2-1 win, and France would be playing with fire to underestimate the tournament’s Cinderella story.
Already France has been given a real scare as it seeks to deliver the trophy on home soil. For the fourth game in a row in the competition, France put in a poor first-half display, leaving the host trailing the Republic of Ireland in the Round of 16. Only a halftime switch from Coach Didier Deschamps and a desperately tired Irish side that finished with 10 men helped France to emerge 2-1 winners with two goals from Antoine Griezmann. But rather than relying on late flourishes, as the tournament reaches its latter stages, it is now imperative that Deschamps gets his team right from the start. If not, Iceland will be ready to pounce.
Prediction: France win