Saving your best for last is a typically football situation – and never more so than at a Euros that has seen a record amount of late goals – but today’s clash between Italy and Spain, a re-run of the final four years ago, may just be the clash of the Round of 16. And there’s a lot for the two to live upto after three attacking games that made up for a tepid Saturday, with Belgium and Germany staking major claims after the French made the quarters.
Defending Champions Spain blew out at the World Cup when it looked as if their era of dominance was over but they have shown signs of returning to their best during the Group stages. The scoreboard showed a late Pique header earning them a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic but that could have been any amount had one of the numerous chances that had been created went in and an outstanding game from Peter Cech kept the underdogs in it along with some last ditch defending. Against Turkey they were once again in total control and two goals in three minutes set the stage for one of the most impressive performances of the whole tournament.
They are here thanks to a 2-1 defeat against Croatia, which cast them into the tougher half of the draw, and whilst that defeat obviously has cast a cloud over their preparation for this tie. That said, one would not have guessed that this was a side that went out at the group stages just two years ago and they started with just as much slickness and cutting edge as they’d shown in their first two games.
Andres Iniesta runs the midfield and the team but David Silva is finding space in the way he used to do four years ago whilst Alvaro Morata has scored three goals so far and Nolito has already notched on the scoreboard to boot.
It is fair that they are favourites, but this Italy side – which I did widely deride before the tournament – will be no small task for them to pass. There had been doubts over the Azzuri’s quality going forward and their strength in depth, both of which still persist, but their defence is without equal at the tournament and the way that they shut down one of the leading contenders for the tournament in Belgium (so much so to the point that there were open recriminations over Marc Wilmots as manager) was one of the most impressive performances of the tournament so far.
That day Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi were marshalled into silence by Chiellini and Barzagli although it was Bonucci, who set up the winner, who played the outstanding role – for all that Graziano Pelle was wasteful before the game was was over. Since then Conte’s side have very much saved themselves, doing the bare minimum against a deep sitting Sweden side before doing Ireland a favor with a raft of changes.
The gameplan will be simple; Run for your lives (no side has run as much as the Azzuri so far) press and squeeze the Spanish midfield (as they did to Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bryne) and then nick a goal on the break (which looks improbable based on the tournaments that Pelle and Eder have had). It is obvious that Spain are no Belgium, and that there is the potential for them to slip through the gaps left when tackles are missed, but this will be a significant challenge for Del Bosque’s side, and likewise for Conte. The most appealing option of the three matchbets is the draw, which will grow in likeliness for the longer the game is 0-0. Many will refer back to Euro 2012 and the fantastic final where Spain won 4-0, but that came against Italy exhausted themselves against England and Germany, heading to the final with a depleted team. This will be tough work today and if Spain are to win, then it may come through tired legs in a narrow fashion. A Spanish win in extra time looks to be large at 10/1. Stats bettors should avalid themselves of the evens offered by SkyBet on a -2 corner handicap; Spain have won a total of 28 corners in their three matches so far, conceding nine, while Italy’s two matches with the likely starting line up here have produced a total of 25 corners. There is evens for 11 or more and 9/2 for 15 or more, which looks far too big.
Later on, the hopes of a Great Nation with a Warrior Culture outside of the EU rest on the shoulders of Glyfi Sigurdsson. But whether Iceland can topple plucky dark horses England is in no doubt according to bookmakers who have the Three Lions odds on to set up a blockbuster clash with France tonight.
England’s tournament has been one of imperfection, with a domination of Russia, the worst side in the tournament, unrewarded after a late equaliser, victory from Wales snatched at the last minute after an all out attack plan from Roy Hodgson which involved four strikers and a raft of changes after going in 1-0 down at halftime.
The source of most pessimism is the 0-0 draw against Slovakia, the result of poor finishing rather than a raft of changes that were made through a side that is perhaps still searching for it’s best 11 given that players such as Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane have performed below expectations. That said, the fitness of Daniel Sturridge – and his general impact – have been a huge boon whilst Wayne Rooney has proved himself an asset rather than a hindrance and Adam Lallana has taken his place with aplomb. Fullbacks Danny Rose and Kyle Walker have played as extra singers, such has been their eagerness, and the only two goals conceded have come from a freakish looping header and a long range free-kick that Joe Hart should have stopped.
That is not to say that this will be easy for Iceland. The astute managerial double act of Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson has created a team that is able to withstand large amounts of pressure and respond with clinicality in kind. They grabbed results from three games in Group F despite having 34& possession against Portugal, 33 against Hungary and 37% against Austria, losing the shot count 27-4, 12-8 and 23-9 respectively.
Whilst that shows England should expect to be having plenty of possession and making plenty of chances this evening, Iceland scored in each game and even the ability of Swansea playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson alone should be enough to keep Eric Dier watchful at some stage. Otherwise, they will be relying upon long balls to the Kolbein Sigborsson and England will hope that Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling could handle all that is thrown at them.
A market for corners – England have won the count easily in all three games and Iceland lost the count in all of theirs – is interesting but the 11/10 on more than 10 is interesting here. A more interesting market may be total goals – if England score before halftime then there is the case to be made for them cutting Iceland apart as they go forward and 65 on over 2.5.
1 pt Spain to win in extra-time (10/1 SkyBet)
2 pts Spain -2 on Corners Handicap
1 pt Over 14.5 Corners in Italy v Spain (9/2 Bwin)
1 pt Over 2.5 goals in England v Iceland (6/5 general)