Euro 2020 really gets going this weekend. Wembley hosts the most in-form nation before the reigning champions face one of the favourites.
Game to watch – Belgium v Portugal
Bobby Martinez and Fernando Santos will be down to their socks on Sunday night because it’s business time at the Euros.
The defending champions meet the world’s top-ranked side in the most hotly-anticipated last-16 clash of the weekend – one the holders are relieved to be a part of.
Portugal stumbled their way through Group F with a win, a defeat and a draw to take one of the third-place qualifying spots. Santos’s side have seen their odds drift, especially having had their pants pulled down by Germany. But Cristiano Ronaldo got them out of a hole against France and while the joint-highest men’s scorer ever in international football is on a mission, Portugal have hope.
Which extends beyond the skipper. Portugal, with Ruben Dias, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and Berardo Silva in addition to an in-form Renato Sanches, have a stronger squad than five years ago when they went all the way. The fear is that Santos is yet to suss out how best to deploy the talent at his disposal.
At least Portugal won’t be going cold into this meeting in Seville. Quite the opposite. Santos has had a moan, with some justification, over the two days’ extra rest Belgium have ahead of the knockout stages. But a consequence of coming through the hardest group means Portugal have no excuse for not being up to speed.
In contrast, Belgium have been allowed to feel their way into the tournament, which was handy with their injury concerns. Only now does the Red Devils’ Euros really start.
At least Romelu Lukaku is into his groove. The rest of the golden generation had best get up to speed to avoid blowing their last big chance of achieving their potential.
Player to watch – Kevin De Bruyne
De Bruyne is certainly catching up quick. The Manchester City star’s fractured cheekbone in the Champions League final threatened to derail Belgium’s hopes but De Bruyne seems to be approaching full fitness.
His contribution since sitting out the first game suggests so. After missing the opening win over Russia, De Bruyne inspired a come-from-behind win over Denmark with a goal and an assist, before turning in a man-of-the-match performance against Finland on Monday.
De Bruyne has directly contributed to a goal for each half of football he has played since missing the opener. No player played more key passes in the group stage despite De Bruyne participating in one game less than Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, David Alaba and Andy Robertson, who all matched the Belgian’s tally of nine.
Not bad since he was having surgery to put his face back together barely a fortnight ago…
Team to watch – Italy
Something is brewing with the Azzurri. Roberto Mancini’s men cruised through the group stage with a perfect record: three wins, seven goals scored and, of course, none conceded. Because Italy don’t concede goals anymore. It’s been more than 1,000 minutes since their net was breached and 30 matches since they lost.
But to analyse Mancini’s winning machine with numbers alone doesn’t do justice to their achievement so far. In an era when pragmatism is the order of the day in international football, Italy are taking a different route back to the top.
And how far they have travelled. When Mancini took over, Italy had just failed to qualify for the World Cup finals and they were a mess. Now they are Europe’s most in-form nation – against Wales, Mancini felt they “couldn’t have been better” – and they are imposing themselves on the Euros in a way no other team has.
France could. Portugal could. England probably could. But unlike those nations, all fancied far more heavily than the Italians prior to the tournament, Italy are embracing their potential. It has been a joy to watch.
Next up for the Azzurri is Austria at Wembley. Which could be important. Italy have so far played all their games at home in Rome, where the team and supporters have buzzed off each other. Can they carry that electricity to north London?
Probably. On the road, Italy have won 11 of their last 12 and kept clean sheets in all dozen matches since October 2018. But the feeling persists that Mancini’s side haven’t been properly tested yet against one of the continent’s big-hitters.
Austria certainly could not be placed in that category so to the doubters, Italy will remain unproven even if they sweep Franco Foda’s men aside. But then would come Belgium or Portugal in the quarter-finals, and potentially France or Spain in the semis. In this form, though, Italy fear no one.
Manager to watch – Frank De Boer
While Mancini can do no wrong in his country, the Dutch were flying planes over their team’s training ground with tactical advice for De Boer.
The Netherlands coach ignored the first plea, to play 4-3-3, and to this point, supporters can’t argue with the results. From three games in Amsterdam, the hosts took maximum points while scoring more goals than anyone else.
The final group game, which Netherlands approached having already sealed top spot, saw De Boer both highlight the strength and depth at his disposal while also maintaining their momentum. For the first time since his appointment less than a year ago, the coach has earned himself a little breathing space.
It’s an unfamiliar feeling for De Boer, one he perhaps hasn’t experienced since leaving Ajax, even then after consecutive Eredivisie failures. In the five years since, his reputation has taken a battering in stints at Inter Milan, Crystal Palace and Atalanta United.
So you can understand why many in Netherlands feel the need to spell it out 12ft-high in the sky for De Boer. But maybe, despite all the previous evidence to the contrary, the manager knows what he’s doing after all.
Because as the Oranje prepares to face Czech Republic in Budapest on Sunday afternoon, De Boer has his side purring with 3-5-2. “I think with this set-up we have the best people in the right places,” he explained, those “best people” apparently being Gini Wijnaldum, Memphis Depay and Denzel Dumfries.
Netherlands aren’t watertight at the back, as their brief capitulation against Ukraine highlighted, but they are a threat to any team in attack, especially on the break. Italy may be breaking defensive records, but on De Boer’s watch, the Oranje are setting new attacking benchmarks, having now scored two or more goals in 10 consecutive matches.
One-on-one battle to watch – Kasper Schmeichel v Danny Ward
The Wales and Denmark keepers won’t engage directly with one another, unless one of the sides is searching for a madness in the dying stages in Amsterdam. But the clash of the Leicester stoppers will likely be key in determining which side progresses to the quarter-finals.
Kasper Schmeichel has been exactly the dominant presence we have come to expect. The Foxes No.1, alongside Simon Kjaer, took charge of a desperately grim situation while Christian Eriksen required resuscitation, acting as a pillar of strength as he did at the King Power after the helicopter tragedy in 2018. On the pitch, he played his part in the wonderful 4-1 win over Russia with some important first-half saves.
Ward’s influence has been rather more unexpected. Only just prior to the tournament did the Wales keeper claim Robert Page’s No.1 spot, which certainly wasn’t earned by his club form. Because he hasn’t got any.
Schmeichel’s stand-in hasn’t started a league match since 2017 – almost 1,500 days – but Ward is seizing his opportunity at international level. He has made more saves than any goalkeeper to have reached the knockout rounds and with Denmark having had more shots on target than any other team through the group stage, Ward could be a busy man once more. Which presumably remains a novelty for the 27-year-old.