Euro 2016 last-16 previews: Part one

Date published: Friday 24th June 2016 8:21

Aaron Ramsey

Switzerland vs Poland

When is it?
Saturday, 2pm

Why so interesting?
Because of the similarities, and not just the red-and-white flags. Switzerland and Poland both finished second in their groups, drawing 0-0 against the eventual winners, to progress beyond the European Championship group stage for the first time. They are both also struggling to fire in front of goal, scoring twice each in their three group matches. Poland will head into the match as favourites, but Adam Nawalka must find a way to get Robert Lewandowski more involved in the final third.

Thing to look out for?
Having initially given him a substitute role, Vladimir Petkovic started Breel Embolo against France in Switzerland’s final group game. The 19-year-old did not score, but finally gave Petkovic’s team some pace and dynamism around the opposition penalty area. The suspicion is that, without Embolo, Switzerland are a very easy team to defend against, particularly with Xherdan Shaqiri struggling for form. Given Poland’s impressive defensive record (yet to concede a goal), Embolo simply has to start.

Which player to watch?
It can only be Lewandowski. Euro 2016 is littered with misfiring strikers, but Poland’s best player has not even had a shot on target during his 270 minutes on the field. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the outcome of the match depends on Lewandowski’s ability to finally create chances or space for himself. Do that, and Poland can go deep into this competition.

What will happen?
Some of the last-16 matches may be free-flowing, open affairs, but this is unlikely to be one of them. Switzerland will look to keep it tight for as long as possible, in the hope of utilising their threat from set pieces. Expect 0-0 at half-time, with Poland sneaking a 1-0 win by the end.

 

Wales vs Northern Ireland

When is it?
Saturday, 5pm

Why so interesting?
To see new paths being trodden, and new ground broken. Never before have two home nations met in the knockout stages of a major tournament. Never before have Wales or Northern Ireland won a knockout match at a major tournament. Add in the joyous hysteria of both sets of fans, and we’re set for a party in Paris. Turn the volume on the television right up and drink enough booze to make you feel like you’re there.

Thing to look out for?
A surprisingly open game. Wales’ players defended their ‘park the bus’ tactics against England, but they have nothing to fear from Northern Ireland and should play accordingly. Michael O’Neill too will be mindful of sitting too deep and suffering from the stagnancy that hampered their performance against Poland. Both teams have been most successful when on the front foot, which is the exception to the Euro 2016 rule.

Which player to watch?
Michael McGovern. The goalkeeper might have left Hamilton after the end of last season, but he is the primary reason for Northern Ireland’s qualification from the group stage. Michael O’Neill’s side finished ahead of Turkey and Albania by a margin of two goals, and McGovern was solely responsible for restricting the defeat to Germany to a single goal. With Northern Ireland facing the competition’s top scorers, McGovern is likely to be busy again.

What will happen?
Can’t shake the feeling that Northern Ireland peaked in the group stage, where beating a rotten Ukraine side was enough to qualify. Wales will aim to start quickly as against Russia, and I can see them scoring in the opening half hour. 2-0 to Wales is the shout.

 

 

Croatia vs Portugal

When is it?
Saturday, 8pm

Why so interesting?
Given that Euro 2016’s knock-out stage is probably the most lopsided in major tournament history, Croatia and Portugal will now consider anything other than a place in the semi-final as a major disappointment. Even then, Belgium are the likely opposition for an unexpected place in the final. Croatia will be favourites after their comeback victory over Spain, but Portugal are that most tricksy of teams: rotten so far, and yet still unbeaten. Surely Fernando Santos’ side will click soon?

Thing to look out for?
Two of the four best midfields in the tournament (alongside Spain and France) going head to head. Portugal haven’t yet impressed, but any team that can leave Adrien Silva, Renato Sanches, Danilo and Rafa Silva on the bench is alright in my book. William Carvalho vs Luka Modric. Ivan Rakitic vs Joao Mario. Hold me, thrill me, kiss me.

Which player to watch?
I’ve twice had good intentions to do either a broad or tactical piece on Portugal’s matches, and twice Ronaldo has taken over the story. So this time I’m branching out. While most are still cherishing the chubby wonder of Dimitri Payet, Ivan Perisic has made his own claim to be the tournament’s best player. Two goals, one assist and the ability to shine brightest of all in a midfield that contains Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Some effort.

What will happen?
Goals, surely. Croatia and Portugal conceded seven goals in the group stage, and the latter especially seem prone to defensive lapses in almost every scenario. It might sound like the dreaded ‘lazy journalism’ to remark that Ronaldo holds the key to the match’s outcome, but not too far from the truth either. If I’m allowed to be biased for a moment, comethef**konCroatiapleasepleasewin.

 

Daniel Storey

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