The Euros are now all business: it's win or go home for some of the biggest teams in Europe. Here's a look at the top ten guys you have to pay attention to as the knockout rounds get underway.
Milan Barros, F, Czech Republic
The aging Czech striker has been the target of fan cat-calls this tourney but coach Michal Bilek has kept faith with him and expects him to be a vital part of their quarterfinal against Portugal. With Tomas Rosicky sidelined (Achilles) more pressure will be heaped on a man who once was one of the world’s top strikers.
Mario Balotelli, F, Italy
Brilliant a frustrating in equal measure, the Manchester City man struck what may be the goal of the tournament to condemn the Irish to a 2-0 defeat and insure Italy’s path to the quarters. Yet he has also been curiously absent in other key games and has frequently been subbed for Antonio Di Natale, with more positive results. When on, he’s magic. When he’s off, he’s a disaster.
Wayne Rooney, F, England
The world-class player on England’s squad. He scored the winner against Ukraine but showed some signs of rust after having to sit the first tow matches out on suspension. At his best, he’s both critical and clinical. But even when he’s having a sub-par night, he’s a player England must have on the field. His famous temper has to be kept in check: he’s been sent off more times that England fans care to count.
Fernando Torres, F, Spain
Spain’s mercurial striker is a question mark for Saturday’s game against France. He looked brilliant in the reigning champ’s demolition of Ireland but was yanked after only an hour after a tepid show against Croatia. He should prosper against a backline absent Philippe Mexes (suspended) but will manager Vincent del Bosque give him the chance?
Mario Gomez , F, Germany
The German striker has been brilliant this tournament, erasing all those memories of his May collapse at the hands of Chelsea. Paired with Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the supply roles, Gomez looks like he is riding a hot streak. But the Bayern striker’s problem is his streaky nature – he can just as readily miss easy chances as he can score hard ones. Which Gomez shows up against Greece may decide the game.
Steven Gerrard, M, England
The captain has rewarded manager Roy Hodgson’s faith with three assists in three games and three man of the match performances. His cross to Wayne Rooney Tuesday ensured England would progress to the quarters and his measured play in midfield has taken the English further than many thought they could go. A vital cog for England and a player Italy will have to contain.
Georgios Samaras, F, Greece
The Celtic striker has yet to find the net this tournament but his surging runs downfield have caused teams problems: against Russia, his aim was woeful but his presence down the gut forced Russia to stay back and helped lead the Greeks into an unlikely quarterfinal slot. He’s got to show better judgment in front of the net, but if he finds his form, he can hurt teams.
Franck Ribery , W, France
France’s only true star, Ribery has looked increasingly frustrated with the collection of talent around him. Hard-working and insightful, he has been the playmaker this time around, feeding Karim Benzema and fuelling Samir Nasri out wide. What he hasn’t done is score a goal of his own. If he can get hot, he can lead France past Spain. If not, they may be in for a long night.
Antonio Cassano, F, Italy
Cassano had an up-and-down week. First, he made homophobic comments to the media that were widely condemned. Then, he slammed the winning goal home against Ireland to book Italy’s place in the quarterfinals. That was heady stuff for a man who nearly died last December after suffering a heart ailment. He’s going to be a key player Sunday in Kyiv that the English will have to mark out of the match.
Cristiano Ronaldo, W/F, Portugal
CR7 finally made good this Euro with a two-goal performance against Holland to lead Portugal to the quarterfinals. That was a dominant show, and one that has been rare for the striker in big games – in fact, he has been taunted all month long by detractors with the name of a man who isn’t even here. (That, of course, is Lionel Messi.) But Ronaldo is clearly a great player – maybe the greatest left in this tournament – and if Portugal can get big games out of him, they can prosper.