The field of 16 has been reduced to eight at the 2012 UEFA Euro 2012. Some of the teams that advanced (Germany, Spain) clearly made their presence felt in the group stage. Others (England, France, Portugal) were inconsistent. And a couple (Holland, Russia) are kicking themselves for failing to make it out of their groups.
The remaining nations now enter the knockout round, which begins today with Portugal taking on the Czech Republic. The stakes are raised even higher with the win-or-go-home format shift, so to prepare you for the action, here is a quick rundown of the matches with predictions for each quarterfinal game.
(Numbers in Parentheses are my own power rankings for the remaining teams)
Portugal (5) vs. Czech Republic (7) – Thursday June 21, 2:45 p.m. EST – ESPN After being dismantled by the Russians on the first day of the tournament, few expected the Czechs to be in this position, but they stuck to their attacking philosophy, and rallied to win Group A with victories against Greece and hosts Poland. Likewise, Portugal was written off by many when they were drawn in a group with Germany and the Netherlands. Thanks in part to the team’s own solid play, and in part to the catastrophic performance by the Dutch, the Portuguese were able to advance to this quarterfinal, and they are now clear favorites to reach the semifinal.
Prediction: The Czechs have played some attractive soccer, and posted two straight solid results, but Portugal wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani should have a field day against an unreliable Czech defense. Portugal 3 – 1 Czech Republic
Germany (1) vs. Greece (8) – Friday June 22, 2:45 p.m. EST – ESPN
Political overtones abound in this one (German bailouts seem to rescue the Greek economy on a weekly basis) as the Germans attempt to overwhelm the pesky Greeks. Germany is the only team with a perfect record left in the tournament, and their three Group B opponents (Portugal, Netherlands, Denmark) each presented a more difficult challenge than they’ll expect to face vs. Greece. However, it is still dangerous to write off Greece, who continues to get by with a stingy defense, and an opportunistic attack.
Prediction: Greece will put up a valiant fight, but Germany is simply too good, and will break down their opponents over time. Germany 2 – 0 Greece
Spain (2) vs. France (4) – Saturday, 2:45 p.m. EST – ESPN2
The defending European and World champions were able to get through a tough group, but apart from a 4-0 thrashing of Ireland, the Spaniards showed some vulnerability for the first time in years. They were outplayed by Italy for large portions of the game, and were probably fortunate to beat Croatia in the Group finale. Their French opponents look like an enigma once again, after impressing against England and Ukraine, but dropping a 2-0 result to Sweden in their last game.
Prediction: Spain may not be as dominant as they once were, but they should have enough to see off the French, who don’t appear quite ready to be real contenders again. Spain 2 – 1 France
Italy (3) vs. England (6) – Sunday June 23, 2:45 p.m. EST – ESPN
Two traditional powers who faced a number of questions heading into the tournament, Italy and England are probably somewhat relieved to have made it through their groups. The Italians were a pleasant surprise in their 1-1 draw with Spain, but struggled against Croatia, before beating up on a sub-par Irish team. England wasn’t as bad as the English public feared, but apart from a brilliant second half display against Sweden, their performance has been underwhelming. Getting Wayne Rooney back in the squad should help, but they just appear to be lacking quality players in the midfield.
Prediction: Italy has looked a little better so far, and their track record for improving as a tournament progresses bodes well for them, as does England’s habit of missing penalty kicks. Italy 1-1 England (Italy wins on penalties.)