A day of two halves. A large punt landed on Wales to get through was wiped out by Croatia’s exceptionally frustrating defeat to a Portugal side that took the initiative before being driven back, with a number of good chances missed. They will play a Poland side that was in the end lucky to make it through to the quarters after a penalty shootout decided by a shock miss from Granit Xhaka. Neither side impressed and this side of the draw looks as open as promised – their semi final appearance is not going to fear them.
France is the country but green is the colour in Lyon as the Irish story rolls on with a last 16 tie against the hosts France. Whilst more than a million people to the right hand side of the border look for a chance at revenge with a second referendum on the EU, the Irish Republic has a personal matter to settle with hosts who handballed their way into the 2010 World Cup.
Three tournaments and six years since, much has changed for the two sides. Both are much improved in spirit and personnel, with France having impressed many on their way to the quarter-finals of the World Cup before hosting this tournament. The hosts have not impressed many on their way here, but I find such criticisms harsh; They slugged their way past Romania but defeat against either Albania (12 shots off target in a game they dominated through the second half) or Switzerland (struck the post three times through Paul Pogba, once through Payet and had much the best of the chance that were there) would have been a travesty.
Didier Deschamps’ problem has been finding the best mix of a midfield that arguably has the most depth in the tournament; On the opening night he played Pogba, Matuidi, and Payer as the midfield three; He subbed Coman in for the 2-0 win against Albania, and then had Pogba back in alongside Moussa Sissoko and Cabaye getting starts for the Swiss.
It remains to be seen what trip he lines up with here but France had improved in terms of making chances with each game and one would be sure of Payet, right at the head of the betting for the Player Of The Tournament, whilst the power and intent of Pogba’s performance should have earned him a place. Some had worries beforehand of the defence that would rightly have been exaggerated by a shaky start, but they were more comfortable against Albania and Switzerland and Deschamps has kept his centrebacks together since then for a decent amount of stability – having N’Golo Kante present is a major boost to the cause.
Ireland are here thanks to a 1-0 win over Italy that cannot be put down even in light of a much changed Italian team, where they outran and also outthought the Azzuri. A similar performance will obviously be the roadmap here and the mental boost they would have received from that success after a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Belgium cannnot be underestimated given the disappointing nature of a draw against Sweden where they made much of the early running and prevented them from having a shot on target but took home only a point.
They need a repeat of the superb performances of Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady, and Daryl Murphy tonight but will face an entirely different dynamic in terms of intensity today, playing a side which had more passing quality than any they’ve played so far. The second best on paper was probably Belgium, who beat them 3-0,. Although the fact that they had to chase the game in a search for points didn’t help and it’s hard to imagine them being as poor. The extra quality of the hosts should just win but in an Ireland side on a high they will face one of the tournament’s most motivated outfits and bar an early goal – France have not scored in the first half – it is not hard to see this being a tight contest. The hosts to win by one appeals and so does a late goal – we’ve had more than you can count this year. Paddy Power offer 11/10 on one coming in the last 21 minutes and 13/8 on one in the last 9, both of which could appeal.
Germany haven’t impressed many so far during the tournament but they will have hardly dropped their heads at being given Slovakia to the start the knockout stages and the market expects them to make it to the quarter-finals with ease in Lille later this afternoon. On face value it is understandable; the Germans, World Champions to boot, topped Group C with seven points whilst Slovakia went through third in Group C.
The reality is a little different however. Jogi Low has struggled to find a forward to take advantage of the chances they’ve made in those three games and worryingly for the knockouts, they’ve not made an abundance of those opportunities either so far. The midfield control of Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil has been complete at a level that even rivals what Spain at the height have been doing in possession terms – in a 1-0 win against Northern Ireland they had over 20 shots on goal and 9 of them were on target, whilst they had nearly 70% against Ukraine and Poland, but Poland should have left the Stade De France with victory and they have struggled to make chances and especially clear cut ones.
Mario Gomez looks to be working far better than the false nine option although should Thomas Muller return to form then the equation changes significantly – he threatned to do against Northern Ireland.
Slovakia, who qualified impressively, have given three good and honest performances in going through third and will be encouraged by the several chances Ukraine and Poland fashioned, alongside a 3-1 friendly win, although that came against an experimental side which will bear no resemblance to the one they face here. That said, Marek Hamsik has had the tournament his country has needed with a fantastic goal against Russia when he drove his side to victory and he was also a menace for Wales in their opener.
Hamsik was one of three scorers along with Michal Duris and Juraj Kucka and those three will be players for Germany to watch closely. However the Germans are known for improving through a tournament and Slovakia themselves were clearly second best to an England side that had made several changes ahead of the game, and this side will hope to make plenty of chances. Expect Slovakia to be tight and compact before springing on the break; Germany beat Northern Ireland by a single goal and should have had the same score against Ukraine, so that or a Slovakia handicap punt looks the best option. Slovakia are ⅘ with Bet Victor for a +1.25 Asian handicap start and that option should have legs.
Belgium couldn’t have imagined that things would work out so well for them after a dire opening performance against a thoroughly professional Italian side but they should count no chickens against Underdogs Hungary. That defeat against Italy exposed a fractured squad that was not going under the duress of Marc Wilson and was – as is so often levelled at them – less than the sum of its parts.
Two wins to nil on the bounce since will have done a great deal of good for their confidence ahead of what must be seen as a huge opportunity and two goals for Romelu Lukaku against Ireland, who has sometimes struggled up top for the National side, could well prove crucial here. In that game a couple of changes – notably the addition of Yannick Ferriera-Carrasco gave them the cohesion and width missing on the opening matchday but they made hard work of beating a very average Sweden side afterwards.
Hungary, the rank outsiders before the tournaments, pulled off one of the first major shocks when easily beating an Austrian side tipped to go far when they contained the impressive qualifiers easily before pinging them twice on the the break during a performance where they showed superior work-rate, organisation and quality. In these pages much had been written about their lack of goals – especially Adam Szalai, the former Real Madrid youngster who hadn’t scored a goal in 49 games for club (Hannover) and country (Hungary) – but his opener defied that drought and the return to form on Zoltan Gera as well has given them threats potent enough to bother a defence that is playing their best centre-backs at fullback.
A rollercoaster 3-3 draw against Portugal was the least they deserved and on the evidence of their their three games so far they look to be a side at least equal or better than Sweden and certainly capable of testing Belgium more than 6/1 odds suggest. Bet365 are 7/10 on Hungary with a +1 start on the Asian Handicap and that looks a fair start.
1 pt France to win by 1 goal (9/4 Sky Bet)
1 pt Slovakia +1.25 on Asian H’Cap (4/5 BetVictor)
1 pt Hungary +1 on Asian H’Cap (7/10 Bet365)