After ending their 55-year hoodoo against Germany in major tournaments and winning their first ever European Championship knockout game, England are into the last eight of Euro 2020.
They are joined by tomorrow’s quarter-final opponents Ukraine, the last in a round of fixtures also featuring Italy vs. Belgium, Switzerland vs. Spain and Denmark vs. Czech Republic.
This columnist doubted England’s ability to pull through when the going got tough, but the way in which Germany were professionally dispatched has made me believe that this might finally be the year that we deliver on the promise of a talented squad.
I won’t be predicting that however, as when I do, the opposite seems to happen! Just look at France for example. I backed them to fall short at the 2018 World Cup as they appeared to be a bunch of talented superstars unable to form a cohesive team, only for them to sweep to victory barely breaking sweat.
Fast-forward to my previous article and I wasn’t to be mistaken again, backing them to go a step further than their runners-up spot in Euro 2016. Lo and behold, they crashed out in the last 16 amid rumours of players’ families squabbling in the crowd and their young superstar Kylian Mbappe forced to walk off the pitch and down the tunnel alone after his crucial penalty miss without a sympathetic arm around him from any of his teammates!
So, how do I see the rest of the tournament playing out?
* Let’s begin with the first quarter-final.
Switzerland pulled off the shock of the last-16, defeating Les Bleus on penalties, as just mentioned. Captain Granit Xhaka and striker Haris Seferovic were the driving force in the comeback to take the game into extra time. Arsenal midfielder Xhaka’s passing and determination has been as striking as his blonde hair, while Seferovic’s double against the French took his tally at the tournament to three.
In Spain they face the most free-flowing team in terms of goals, with 10 scored in their past two games. Alvaro Morata silenced a few critics with a superbly taken goal in their 5-3 win over Croatia, but it was his all-round performance that really caught the eye. Few front men have a better standup game than Morata and Spain’s midfielders need little encouragement in bombing beyond the Atletico Madrid man knowing he is so comfortable controlling the ball at his feet.
Unai Simon atoned for his gaffe that led to Croatia’s first goal with some outstanding saves but there is a nagging sense that ‘La Roja’ have been made to look good by inferior opposition.
Still, I back Spain to just about eke through, perhaps after extra time.
If Belgium’s golden generation are going to finally win something, they are going to do it the hard way. Belgium breezed through the group phase before dethroning reigning champions Portugal.
* Next up is Italy, who survived a ferocious Austria onslaught over 120 minutes to secure their place in the quarter-finals. Roberto Martinez turned to experience for the match against Portugal with Thomas Vermaelen lining up alongside Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld and will likely place his faith in the old guard once again. A 1-0 win was secured courtesy of a Thorgan Hazard screamer and he may be called upon again with the news that midfield superstars Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard are both unlikely to be fit .
The Italian defence is likely to be made even harder than granite by the expected return of Giorgio Chiellini, with the 36-year-old Juventus centre-back returning to training after sitting out the last two matches.
This is the hardest game of the round to predict, but I feel that Belgium have too many key players missing to dent the steely defence of Italy, whose own pacy, tricky forwards will be able to pick holes in an ageing Belgian rearguard.
Italy to win by a single goal.
* Whichever team comes up against the Danes can assume the role of villains. The heartbreaking collapse of Christian Eriksen in their opening game against Finland has led to a huge outpouring of support.
However, the Czechs won’t mind playing the party-poopers if it secures them a first semi-final appearance at the Euros since 2004.
They surprisingly dominated the disappointing Dutch in the previous round, the 2-0 scoreline flattering the Oranje. Tomas Holes went from unknown to the second-most known Czech player behind Tomas Schick with a man-of-the match performance, with a goal and an assist.
While the focus invariably falls on Schick, the Czechs have quality all over the pitch. Ondrej Celustka has been rock solid at the back while Vladimir Coufal is one of the best attacking full-backs in Europe, as shown during West Ham’s outstanding Premier League season.
Denmark are not here out of sympathy though. The Danes demolished Wales 4-0 after putting four past Russia to make it out of a tough group.
Kasper Dolberg was simply unplayable, giving the Welsh defence a masterclass in protecting the ball. He only played because of an injury to Yussuf Poulsen but Dolberg’s link-up play with Martin Brathwaite, who starred in a wide attacking role, looks a winning combination.
Five of the last six games between these two have ended in draws, and it feels like a tie that may need penalties to decide who advances.
I’ll buy into the fairytale and go for the Danes.
* After needing results to go their way to make it to the last 16, Ukraine emerged victorious from a tough match against Sweden, making their numerical advantage count following Marcus Danielson’s red card in extra time.
Few balls will be struck better than the one Oleksandr Zinchenko hit to open the scoring but it is in defence where Ukraine will need to vastly improve if they are to cause an upset.
England will be oozing confidence after their famous Wembley victory and Gareth Southgate looks to have found a winning formula. Some may say it is slightly cautious, but solid defence wins championships and this time there looks to be enough creativity and options on the bench to score goals and compensate for the extra defender.
While much has been said about England’s supposed easy route to the final, in some aspects this match poses a bigger challenge than Germany.
Euro 2020 has been a home tournament for England so far, but they travel to Rome where support will be in shorter supply.
Still, they should have enough and secure a 2-0 victory.
Beat Ukraine and they head back to Wembley for the semis and, a nation hopes, the final.
* I’ll stick my neck on the line and say that the Three Lions will face Italy in the showpiece on July 11, but I certainly daren’t pick a winner there.
I could never live with myself picking another team ... but if I back England and they lose, I’d feel incredibly guilty with my track record.