One way or another, history beckons for one of the four nations in the top half of the Euro 2016 bracket, Poland, Portugal, Wales or Belgium. Each have made the quarterfinals, which take place in the next few days. The bottom half of the draw contains Italy, Germany, France and Iceland, with the big former three having won a combined 15 major international tournaments. The total for the top half is zero (though Portugal did reach the Euro 2004 final, losing to Greece on home soil, while Belgium fell to West Germany in the Euro 1980 final).
Each of the four sides on the top half boasts at least one world-class superstar, and one of the four is guaranteed a place in the final. With that said, here is how each shapes up entering its quarterfinal match and the case for each to set a July 10 final date at the Stade de France in Saint Denis:
Its quiet progress to the last eight came about after a masterclass in high-pressing against Switzerland in the last round. One Polish newspaper, Sport, went a little overboard on coach Adam Nawalka’s tactics, not even calling him the Polish Diego Simeone, but wondering if Simeone should be called the Argentine Nawalka.
Poland represents more than just a banana skin for Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. It did not concede a goal in three group games, and the only time Lukasz Fabianski was beaten was by Xherdan Shaqiri’s overhead kick, which is a contender for goal of the tournament. Jakub Blaszczykowski has been one of its outstanding players, scoring a perfect goal on the counter against Switzerland that originated with a Fabianski throw.
The team has shown it’s so much more than Robert Lewandowski, who has yet to score in France. Center back Kamal Glik is on the verge of joining Monaco, Bartosz Kaputska is a star in the making and no one can quite believe that Michal Pazdan is still playing in the Polish league, albeit for champion side Legia Warsaw. Poland is the underdog in its quarterfinal matchup, and it might just surprise Portugal with its tactics.
It is almost a default favorite to make it to the final, although surely not based on what we have seen in its first four games in France. Portugal hasn't lost any match but it also hasn't won a single one after 90 minutes yet, either. Its captain Ronaldo has another record under his belt, after becoming the first player to score in four straight Euro tournaments, but he has shone only in fits and starts.
The fact the Portugal drew a blank against Austria and only managed its first shot on target against Croatia in the 115th minute shows that that Fernando Santos is hardly throwing caution to the wind. Ronaldo or Nani, whose fantastic pass set up Portugal’s dramatic winner against Croatia and who says he is in the best national-team form of his life, can create something, are expected to create and finish their chances while the midfield gives them a solid platform.
This game could be surprisingly unpredictable.
If Belgium thought that beating Hungary 4-0 laid down its marker as Europe’s top-ranked team in the tournament, according to FIFA, then maybe the Wales staff might not have minded. For a 20-minute spell in that second half, the Belgium defense was all over the place and only woeful finishing prevented Hungary from pulling even.
The 4-0 scoreline greatly flattered Belgium, who may have added confidence–and the performances of right back Thomas Meunier, a late decision from coach Wilmots, have encouraged talk of a bid from PSG–but those gaps at the back will look inviting to Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, who have been outstanding this tournament. Eden Hazard played his best game for a year and Kevin de Bruyne remains a game-changer on his day.
Unless Belgium sorts it out at the back (starter Thomas Vermaelen is suspended for the quarterfinal), though, it could be another tricky time for Wilmots. His side struggled against Italy’s three-man defense in its opening match and will face another such alignment against Wales.
Working in Belgium's favor is the overall draw, with the sides that can match it player-for-player in terms of pure talent all on the opposite side of the bracket.
There is no danger of unfamiliarity for Wales, which beat Belgium 1-0 at home–yes, Bale scored –and drew 0-0 away in qualifying for Euro 2016.
The strength of this Wales camp is that Bale looks like he’s under no pressure and is simply enjoying the moment. His easy wind-ups of English lack of pride and passion–without that, what does the team have, after all?–and claiming that his only motivation is “the Welsh dragon on my shirt” show a man in his element. He scored three goals in the first three games and set up the own-goal winner against Northern Ireland.
It is not just about the Real Madrid man, though. Joes Allen and Ledley have been heroic in midfield while Ashley Williams is a commanding presence marshaling the back three. Were it not for Iceland, Wales would be the story of this Euros. It might yet prove to be.