Just under three weeks have passed since the Euro 2016 opener, and the expanded field has been whittled down to its final eight teams.
The 15th European Championship has served up its fair share of surprises along the way, with dark horse Croatia withdrawing in heartbreaking fashion at the hands of Portugal, two-time defending champion Spain thoroughly beaten by Italy and, of course, England bowing out to minnow Iceland in the Round of 16.
As the tournament approaches its latter stages, we grade the quarterfinalists.
En route to topping Group B in their first ever appearance at the Euros, the Welsh bulged the back of the net a joint-high six times in their opening three matches, but found chances difficult to come by when they confronted Northern Ireland in the knockout stage. Despite punching slightly below their weight, luck fell their way and their true mettle shone through as Gareth Bale & Co. set up a date with red-hot Belgium.
No task seems too tall for surprise package Iceland.
Undoubtedly the fairytale of the tournament, Iceland may as well be Leicester City in disguise. OK, that may be a stretch. But as the smallest nation, clad in blue and capable of producing seismic upsets in the form of toppling the Three Lions; their results in qualifying, and most importantly on the grand stage, speak for themselves. Beware, France.
After combining for 51 goals at the club level during the 2015-16 campaign, Euro 2016 has proved to be all but fruitless for Arkadiusz Milik and Robert Lewandowski, who’ve notched just a goal between them in a combined 780 minutes. Fortunately, Kuba Błaszczykowski picked up the slack as Poland eked out a victory over Switzerland. More impressive, though, was the backbone, grit and fearlessness on display that pushed them to their first-ever Euros quarterfinal berth.
Bereft of intent and ingenuity, Portugal somehow managed to scrape by Croatia in a stultifying 120 minutes in the Round of 16. The Seleção have largely underwhelmed throughout the tournament, relinquishing leads and having to come from behind during the group stage. At some point, one would expect Cristiano Ronaldo to put matters into his own hands and take another step towards international glory.
While most of the spotlight heading into the tournament shone in on France’s suspect back line and menacing attack, Didier Deschamps’ tactical rearrangement of the midfield in the second half of Les Blues’ narrow, 2-1 win over Ireland took center stage. Antoine Griezmann’s shift from out wide to his favored shadow-striker role caused fits for the Irish as the hosts finally appeared to have stumbled upon their set formation. Can they press on and have it bear fruit in the next round is another question.
Eden Hazard and Belgium look to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
After dropping the Group E opener to Italy, there was some cause for concern for Belgium, but the Red Devils haven’t looked back since. Eight goals in the ensuing three games, including the four-goal haul against Hungary in the Round of 16, has them brimming with confidence ahead of the clash with Wales.
Questions surrounding Germany’s defense were widespread leading into the tournament, but after four games and no goals allowed — the world champions are the only team yet to concede – Joachim Low’s delegation is sitting pretty. Jerome Boateng has anchored the back line admirably, and capped off another fine display with his first international goal as the Germans cruised past Slovakia, 3-0.
On paper, Italy don’t look the most formidable side, but Antonio Conte has worked wonders with the players at his disposal. Case in point: The master tactician outwitted and outclassed Vicente del Bosque as the Azzurri blanked holders Spain, 2-0, in arguably the performance of the tournament. At this rate, anything seems possible.