In a tournament filled with upstarts and surprises, Switzerland and Poland lead Euro 2016’s rather long list of unexpected entrants in the knockout stage and opens the wildly intriguing round Saturday at Stade Geoffrey-Guichard in Saint-Etienne.
Along with the likes of first-time participants Wales and Iceland, as well as Hungary and Northern Ireland, the Swiss and Polish have seized on the tournament’s inaugural expansion from 16 teams to 24. Still, one of the two top defensive nations will make it to the quarterfinals after a solid showing in the group stage.
Vladimir Petkovic’s side pulled off a 1-0 victory over Albania behind defenseman Fabian Schar’s fifth-minute header, and the Swiss followed by drawing with Romania 1-1 and kept attack-loaded France in check for a scoreless result to earn second-place finish in Group A.
With forward Admir Mehmedi netting Switzerland’s only other goal, the stellar work of goalkeeper Yann Sommer, as evidenced by his nine saves, and Stephan Lichtsteiner, Ricardo Rodriguez, and Schar have led to a stingy defensive unit in the group stage.
The Swiss were one of only five teams to allow one or fewer goals in the group stage, but the Polish defense was even stronger. Poland earned shutouts over Northern Ireland, Germany and Ukraine. Prior to the start of the tournament, the White Eagles had shut out three out of their last four opponents in European friendlies.
Another major storyline has been Bayern Munich forward Robert Lewandowski failing to score in the first three matches of the tournament. Lewandowski’s been limited to four shots thus far, and none have been on target, but the Swiss are still leery of the dynamic scorer’s skill.
“Robert Lewandowski is still a threat,” Lichtsteiner told reporters. “Just because he hasn’t scored in three games doesn’t mean he’s not good anymore.
“It’s been an outstanding tournament and we want to prove our worth on the pitch. So far we’re very satisfied and we want to do our next step tomorrow so our fans back home can be even more proud of us.”
Nawalka had to dig into his bench after top goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny suffered a thigh muscle injury in the group opener against Northern Ireland. Szczesny has since missed the last two matches and is doubtful to appear against the Swiss, but Swansea City’s Lukasz Fabianski has stepped up tremendous with eight saves.
Prediction: Poland over Switzerland, 1-0
Start Time: 9 a.m. ET
TV Channels: ESPN, ESPN Deportes TV (USA)
ORF 1, RSI La 2, SRF zwei, RTS Deux, RTS Sport (Switzerland);
Polsat Sport 2 HD, Polsat TV, Belarus 5, Polsat Sport (Poland)
Live Stream: ESPN3