UEFA Euro 2020 has already provided us enough spectacular goals, jaw-dropping plays, and enough action to make up for the year-long delay of this tournament. Now it’s time to ratchet up the intensity even more.
16 teams remain, each with the hope that they can go on a run that will be remembered throughout the course of history. 10 of those 16 teams also made it to this point in 2016, including the reigning champions Portugal and the runners-up in France.
The eight Round of 16 matches set to take place starting this weekend feature of a mixture of high-profile matchups and teams looking to pull off a surprise or two. As far as how things play out is anyone’s guess, but here’s my attempt to preview the next stage of Euro 2020:
Wales vs. Denmark
Wales come into this match having finished second in Group A behind Italy and showed steady improvement over the course of their first three matches. Many people thought that Denmark wouldn’t be able to recover from what happened to Christian Eriksen during their opening loss to Finland, but the Danes came through with a big 4-1 win vs. Russia to finish second in Group B.
While he has yet to score this tournament (he missed a penalty vs. Turkey), Gareth Bale has still assisted on two of Wales’ goals so far and is still their main source for offense. Striker Yussuf Poulsen leads Denmark with two goals this tournament as they have been at their best when utilizing the width of their formation.
Leicester City fans won’t know which team to root for as starting goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel will be in net for Denmark while number two Danny Ward will start for Wales. Denmark hold an edge in defense with captain Simon Kjær and Andreas Christensen among others. Denmark don’t have to rely on the individual brilliance of a few players like Wales to score goals, and along with their motivation to play for their recovering teammate, they should be able to find a way to move on.
Italy vs. Austria
The Italians were arguably the most impressive team in group play, becoming the first team in Euro history to win all three of their group stage matches and keep a clean sheet in each one. They were able to showcase their new found offensive firepower during a pair of 3-0 wins to kick off their campaign. Austria come into this match having won two of their three matches in Group C with a loss to the Netherlands the only blemish on their record.
Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne form a dynamic duo up top for Italy and the return of Marco Verratti to the midfield make them even more of a juggernaut. Trying to stop them will be Austria’s David Alaba, who has featured in a variety of defensive and midfield roles at this tournament. On the other end, Marcel Sabitzer and Christoph Baumgartner will have to be at their play-making best in order to unlock the Italian defense.
While Austria have the personnel to make this a low-scoring game, they don’t offer enough up top to truly frighten Italy. Even if Austria take an early lead, Italy have the players to complete a quick comeback and continue on at this tournament.
Netherlands vs. Czech Republic
After missing out on the Euros in 2016, the Dutch have returned with a vengeance, winning all of their group matches and scoring at least two goals in each one. The Czech Republic squeaked into the knockout stage as one of the top third place teams in the tournament thanks to an opening match win vs. Scotland and a draw vs. Croatia.
The key for the Czechs in this match is stopping the highest scoring offense from the group stage. The Netherlands feature three players who have scored at least two goals so far in Georginio Wijnaldum (three goals), Memphis Depay, and Denzel Dumfries. Striker Patrik Schick has scored all three goals for the Czech Republic so far.
If the Netherlands’ defensive success from their past couple of matches continues, the Czechs will struggle to keep up in this match. However, manager Frank de Boer’s tactics aren’t always the most structurally sound and the Czech Republic have been in every game they’ve played so far. The overall talent of the Dutch makes me lean towards them, but this one isn’t as cut and dry as you may think.
Belgium vs. Portugal
A clash of two heavyweights a little earlier than people predicted, Belgium were the top team in Group B as they won each one of their matches while only conceding one goal. Portugal had to scratch and claw their way out of the Group of Death, but a 2-2 draw vs. France was enough for them to qualify as one of the top third place teams.
The number of offensive stars in this match is staggering. The return of Kevin De Bruyne to the Belgian midfield has their attack at full throttle and striker Romelu Lukaku already has scored three times. However, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is the current tournament leader, scoring five goals so far for his country. The amount of excellence in attack for both teams means that the play of both defenses will be a major key as to who advances from this match.
Belgium were excellent in the group stage, but Portugal will be their toughest test yet. On the other side, Portugal were exposed on the defensive end in their matches vs. Germany and France. Both goalkeepers have been solid for their teams so far.
Portugal are the reigning champions and they’ve got Ronaldo, so counting them out against a top opponent is a big mistake. However, Belgium’s “Golden Generation” are on a mission to finally capture their country’s first trophy and based on their play from the group stage, are the more reliable choice in this match.
Croatia vs. Spain
Croatia were unconvincing in their first two matches in Group D but a 3-1 win over Scotland catapulted them to a second-place finish in the group. As for Spain, they finished second in Group E thanks to a pair of draws to start their campaign, only to let loose and score five vs. Slovakia.
This match will be a midfield clinic and it’s where the game will be won. Despite their age, the talented Luka Modric and Ivan Perišic still know how to unlock opposing defenses. They will have to make up for a lack of forward options on Croatia when it comes to scoring goals. Spain face a similar problem with striker Álvaro Morata showing a lack of confidence in front of goal at times.
Both teams never conceded more than one goal in a match, so this has the makings of a close game. In the end, I favor the slightly younger and more dynamic midfielders of Spain to come up with the goals necessary to get them through.
France vs. Switzerland
Despite a few lackluster performances, France still managed to top what was known as the “Group of Death” at Euro 2020. Meanwhile, Switzerland had to find their own way to survive, picking up enough points in Group A to qualify as one of the top third place teams at the tournament.
The talent discrepancy between the two sides is obvious. While the Swiss have gotten good play from the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Steven Zuber, and Breel Embolo, they’re going to have a hard time staying on the ball with N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba roaming the midfield. The Swiss also don’t have the speed on the outside to deal with the runs of Kylian Mbappé.
The only thing that can stop France in this match are themselves. We’ve seen their disinterest at times to press forward and extend their lead. If this match stays close, they open themselves up to a potential letdown. This is a good test for them going forward to see if they can assert themselves for a full 90 minutes.
England vs. Germany
You can choose any rivalry you like, there’s not one that combines the historical aspect and soccer aspect quite like England vs. Germany. England were expected to fall into this slot as they took first place in Group D behind three clean sheets. Germany held on for a 2-2 draw vs. Hungary that earned them second place in Group F despite their haphazard performances.
The English Premier League players on the German national team will of course be familiar with the English players. Consequently, the two Borussia Dortmund players on England will know a thing or two about their German opponents. Both teams have a wide variety of young, midfield talent to choose from.
The pressure will be on England playing a Germany team that look like a shell of themselves in front of their home supporters at Wembley Stadium. The fact that they were only able to score twice during the group stage against lesser opposition is a bit of a concern.
Germany’s inconsistencies in front of net and on defense also make them a risky pick to make a lot more noise going forward. If this match goes to a penalty shootout, it’s quite obvious who you would bet on. However, this match makes perfect sense as a test that England have to pass if they want to ensure that it is, in fact, coming home.
Sweden vs. Ukraine
While the amount of blue and yellow in the stands might end up burning a hole in your retina, you won’t want to take eyes off this match that features two of the surprise teams of the tournament.
Sweden surprisingly finished at the top of Group E after they won their final two group matches, including a breathtaking 3-2 win vs. Poland. Ukraine were only able to win their first match before losing the other two, but the fact that they tied for second among third place teams in goals scored helped them advance to the next round.
Both teams have two or three players that have stood out on the offensive end. Emil Forsberg led Sweden during the group stage with three goals while 21-year-old forward Alexander Isak also impressed. Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk each scored twice for Ukraine.
The difference in this match might be Sweden’s defense which only conceded twice during the group stage and kept a clean sheet vs. Spain. They’ll be happy to soak up pressure and look to hit Ukraine on the counter. Ukraine could take advantage of having the ball more, but in the end, I think Sweden finds a way to win a low-scoring match.