Having been dropped on the side of the Euro 2016 knockout draw that contains not a single previous winner of a major international tournament, both Croatia and Portugal will feel there is a real opportunity to go a long way in the competition. Yet there Round-of-16 match Saturday in Lens presents a sizable hurdle for both to overcome before dreaming of a place in the final and perhaps even getting their hands on the trophy.
There can be little doubt that Croatia will go into the contest in the better spirits. Ante Čačić's side earned its place away from the side of the draw that contains the winners of nine of the last 14 European championships by beating two-time defending champion Spain in its final group match. Having survived a penalty from Sergio Ramos, saved by goalkeeper Daniel Subašić, Croatia grabbed the win thanks to an 87th-minute goal from Ivan Perišić to secure top spot in Group D.
It was a victory made all the more impressive by the fact that Croatia was without two of its most influential players, Luka Modrić and Mario Mandžukić. With them in the side, Croatia had seen off Turkey and appeared set to do the same to the Czech Republic, when leading 2-0 with just over 15 minutes remaining. But two late goals, sandwiching a delay after a flurry of flares thrown onto the field from the Croatian end, dramatically undid the team’s previous good work.
Still, with the trouble in the stands not reappearing against Spain, and Modrić and Mandžukić set to return on Saturday, there is plenty of reason for positivity once more for the Euro 2016 dark horses. Still, Čačić insists his side will not be looking past Portugal.
“We are facing a team consisting of extremely talented individuals,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “They perhaps weren't exceptionally impressive in their group in terms of points won, but they really played well. If we look back, we will remember that they were the dominant team in their matches and created many opportunities.”
Portugal progressed to the last 16 despite failing to win a single game in the group stage and repeatedly teetering on the brink of elimination in its final match against Hungary. After throwing away superiority and a lead against Iceland and then seeing Cristiano Ronaldo miss a penalty in a frustrating goalless draw against Austria, Portugal went into the game with Hungary under threat of an early exit.
That threat was exacerbated yet further when going behind three times during the course of 90 minutes. On each occasion, it took something special from the team’s star man Cristiano Ronaldo to haul the team back level. The Real Madrid forward had previously appeared more of a hindrance than a talisman for his team, but, as so often, delivered when it really mattered, first playing an inch-perfect through ball to set up Nani and then scoring twice himself in a thrilling 3-3 draw.
With eight goals, the 31-year-old is now just one shy of equaling Michel Platini’s record for most goals in the history of the European Championship. The question for both Ronaldo and his team is whether the performance against Hungary represented the start of things coming together or just another example of their unpredictability and fragility.
Prediction: If Portugal plays to its potential, with Ronaldo performing the role that is most beneficial to his team and his supporting cast stepping up and not fading into Ronaldo’s shadow, Fernando Santos’ team can certainly go toe-to-toe with Croatia and come out on top. But the vulnerability Portugal showed against Hungary, repeatedly allowing the opposition chances to score, even after getting back to 3-3, suggests it faces an uphill task. Croatia has appeared a team ready to make the step up from dark horse to real contender in this tournament, and with Modrić and Mandžukić back must be favorite to progress.
Predicted Score: Croatia 2-1 Portugal
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN