Traditional heavyweights and underdogs on display at Euro 2016

Janek Speight Columnist

By Janek Speight, Janek Speight is a Roar Expert

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    And then there were four. The semi-finalists are set in stone and not many would have predicted the entire quartet making it this far.

    On one side of the draw we have Germany and France, two heavyweights that were pre-tournament favourites. Yet on the other side lies Portugal and Wales, one of whom has not won a match within 90 minutes, and another who has already exceeded expectations in their first tournament appearance since 1958.

    The overriding narrative throughout the tournament has been team unity and spirit triumphing over more illustrious individual talent.

    We saw Iceland and Hungary progress through to the group stages against the odds, while Croatia brilliantly pipped Spain to top Group D but then played appallingly conservative football to fall to Portugal in the round of 16.

    Similarly, Italy overcame injuries to two key midfielders – Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio – before the tournament to play some neat football and find themselves within one kick of the semi-finals.

    But now that Iceland have been eliminated, Wales are the story of the tournament.

    The Welsh topped their group over a fancied English side, who once again maintained their tournament credentials. Their progression through the knockouts has been an extra surprise.

    Their success could be pinpointed to the talents of one man, Gareth Bale, who has been arguably the only top talent to play consistently in Euro 2016, but that would ignore the forces of a more influential member of this team.

    Coach Chris Coleman has performed wonders with Wales, overcoming a tough initial period in charge of the national team to lead them to qualification. He has instilled a fantastic spirit within this squad – also likely strengthened in the aftermath of predecessor Gary Speed’s tragic death – and made them a tight unit, capable of frustrating opponents but also adept in attack.

    Aaron Ramsey has been superb, especially in Wales’ 3-1 win over Belgium, providing two assists. The Arsenal midfielder is suspended for the semi-final against Portugal, but Wales are more about the system than their individual parts.

    There is no question that Bale’s influence is irreplaceable, but Coleman has made Wales tough to beat and installed a smart gameplan going forward as well.

    To see Hal Robson-Kanu, recently released by Championship club Reading, score one of the goals of the tournament with a deft Cruyff turn shows how this team is firing.

    Based on Euro 2016 they should defeat Portugal, who have been extremely conservative but are getting the job done. As it stands, it is entirely possible Portugal wins the competition without winning a game within 90 minutes, an astonishing prospect.

    Coach Fernando Santos has also implemented a tight tactical plan, and although it won’t have impressed the neutrals, it has been effective. Renato Sanches was a beast in the victory over Poland and the 18-year-old looks set for a bright future. His tenacity in midfield could well prove the key to unravelling Wales.

    In the other semi-final, Germany are in the middle of a crippling injury crisis. Their defence has not been a strong point ever since the retirement of Philipp Lahm following the 2014 World Cup success, and coach Joachim Löw only found balance during Euro 2016 by elevating Joshua Kimmich into the starting XI.

    Now, they face hosts France without the suspended Mats Hummels, who works sublimely in tandem with new club teammate Jerome Boateng.

    Yet the real problem lies in midfield. Just like Italy were dealt a blow with the injury to Daniele De Rossi and suspension of Thiago Motta, Löw has to make do without Sami Khedira and possibly captain Bastian Schweinsteiger. That leaves a massive hole in central midfield, where Löw has to make a decision on who partners Toni Kroos.

    Emre Can is one option, but Julian Weigl makes much more sense. He may only be 20 years old, and was playing in the 2. Bundesliga one season ago, but he is a mature and level-headed central midfielder. Löw needs to trust youth and bring him in to replace Khedira.

    Up front, Mario Gomez, who was enjoying a rejuvenated spell in the German national team, has been ruled out for the tournament with a hamstring strain. It is a huge blow for Germany, as he gave them a target in the box which previous false nine Mario Götze cannot provide.

    The performance against Italy was less than convincing and they have to lift their game to have any hope of making the final.

    France will go in as favourites. They have grown throughout the tournament and may be reaching their peak at the clutch stages. The 5-2 victory over Iceland was emphatic, though not without glitches.

    Their defence is yet to convince, however their offence can be breathtaking, led by top goalscorer Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Olivier Giroud. This should be a cracker of a semi-final in Marseille.

    Whoever makes it to the final, the overriding narrative of Euro 2016 will continue. An unfancied underdog will have a chance of upsetting a more illustrious opponent.

    In an age where money ensures such match-ups are impossible in Champions League football, that is a prospect that has to be celebrated.

    Janek Speight
    Janek Speight

    Janek is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. You can follow him on Twitter, @JanekSpeight

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    The Crowd Says (3)

    • July 5th 2016 @ 7:49am
      AZ_RBB said | July 5th 2016 @ 7:49am | ! Report

      Don’t quite get your final comment re UCL. The knock out stages are drawn out of a bowl and are completely random. It’s very common to see match ups early in the tournament which could be a worthy final.

      As much as I like Ronaldo, I’ll be strongly backing Wales. But no doubt Portugal will be tough to break down. Bale might need to have a big night.

      I’ve been backing France from the start and will remain so against Germany. The injuries will be a challenge for the Germans but they have such incredible depth they might not even notice. France will again be very vulnerable on set pieces. If they manage to fix that up they’re on their way to the final.

      France v Wales final will be a cracker

      • July 5th 2016 @ 12:07pm
        Mark said | July 5th 2016 @ 12:07pm | ! Report

        The Round of 16 is teams that finished first in their group vs teams that finished second in their group (with country protection and teams can’t draw the other team from their group that qualified), but after that it is an open draw.

        You don’t see too many underdogs get through to the late stages of the UCL because the format requires them to win at least two games in the group stages and beat teams over two legs in the knockout stages.

    • July 5th 2016 @ 10:18pm
      pacman said | July 5th 2016 @ 10:18pm | ! Report

      France will need to tighten up their defence. Allowing Iceland to score 2-1 in the second half was less than convincing. The fact that they led 4-0 at H/T is no excuse for losing the 2nd half. They won’t find scoring against Neuer easy.

      Portugal will probably rely on Ronaldo finding form. If he doesn’t, Wales will likely prevail. Close result, or a blow-out; it revolves around Ronaldo and his form on the day.

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