They might be getting used to this feeling, but will Spain be standing atop another winners’ podium come July 1? (Image |

After last night’s nervy performance from Portugal, we already know one of the four teams headed to the European Championships’ final four. After Germany presumably cruise past Greece tonight, the last two places will be set by the two most intriguing quarter final encounters.

Spain, reigning European and world champions, have failed to reach their own heady heights thus far at this tournament. They will face a France side looking to bounce back from an unlikely defeat at the hands of Sweden, while the last quarter final features the resurgent England and the ever unpredictable Italy.

Saturday 23rd June – Donetsk – Spain vs. France

The third quarter-final features two teams who limped into the knockout stage. Spain were distinctly average and were lucky to beat Croatia 1-0, whilst France were completely outplayed by Sweden and deserved to get beaten 2-0. But I believe this makes the tie the most interesting of the bunch and the hardest to call. Each side is full of creative talent and on their day can beat anyone in the world. Spain were rightly the pre-tournament favourites. However despite beating Ireland 4-0 the Spanish have not lived up to their reputation when faced with the tougher opposition of Italy and Croatia.

Coach Vincente Del Bosque has been widely criticised for employing the intriguing tactic of not playing with a recognised striker, preferring a front three of attacking midfielders in Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas at times during the group stage and there is a fear he will return to this for the quarter final. Whatever tactics Spain employ they are, on merit, the number one-ranked side in the world and should not be underestimated at any cost.

France, meanwhile, started the tournament brightly and seem to have relapsed. Les Bleus dominated England and were unfortunate not to win, had a hatful of chances against Ukraine and should have won by more than 2-0 and then produced an awful display against Sweden and were deservedly beaten. Before the Sweden match Laurent Blanc’s men had gone 23 matches without defeat, an impressive feat considering the devastating mess the French were in after the 2010 World Cup. But this is knockout football and the French have made it to ‘the show. Winning at this stage of the competition is all that matters and, on their day, France have more than enough quality to beat whoever is put in front of them.

Key Men:

Spain: Xavi – In a team full of brilliant passers of the ball, Xavi is the king. Never has the comparison between a central midfielder and the quarterback in American football been so apt. Although he is ageing Xavi excels at sitting deep and putting the ball into space; he can still pick apart any defence in the world and will dictate the game if allowed to do so. If France can neutralise Xavi then the threat of his Barcelona teammate Iniesta will significantly diminish and Spain will suffer.

Against Spain’s notoriously attack-minded back line, France could use a huge performance from Karim Benzema

France: Karim Benzema – The Real Madrid man has not been at his best in the competition and has yet to bother the score-sheet, but his class is indisputable. With a creative midfield of Samir Nasri, Yohan Cabaye and Franck Ribery behind him, Benzema will receive good service and I will be very surprised if he does not have a few good chances in front of goal. It is v

ital that he takes these chances if France are to get anything out of the game.

Odds at William Hill: Spain 4/5 France 19/5

Prediction: This has the makings of an end to end match, full of attacking ability and could be the game of the tournament. I think it will go to extra time but Spain have more about them than the French and will advance to the semi-finals. SPAIN 3 – 2 FRANCE (After Extra-Time)

Sunday 24th June – Kiev – England vs. Italy

A combination of disciplined performances and luck helped Roy Hodgson’s men top Group D. England may not have been pretty on the eye in the draw against France but were rigid in defence, limiting the opposition to mainly shots from outside the box. A stupid ten minutes nearly cost them against Sweden but great character was shown to come from behind and claim a much-needed win.

For much of the Ukraine match England were second best and can be thankful for the huge slice of good fortune they received. What is clear to see from the group stage matches is the defensive discipline Hodgson has instilled, and, while England need to be more inspiring going forward, this team will always be very tough to break down which in turn keeps them in matches. If the attacking mentality improves, which I feel it will, England will go far in the tournament.

Italy are a team moulded in a similar way to England, but are crucially missing their best defensive player, centre-back Giorgio Chiellini, due to a thigh injury. This is a big loss as Chiellini is the rock of the Italian defence and his absense may mean abrasive midfielder Daniele De Rossi is moved to centre-back – decreasing the influence he can have on the game. Still, Italy are a side full of top players: Gianluigi Buffon is still a fantastic goalkeeper; Thiago Motta & Andrea Pirlo are a highly experienced core to the team; forwards Antonio Cassano, Antonio Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco provide an undersized yet pacy and extremely dangerous test to any defence they face. And who can forget the loose cannon that is Mario Balotelli? Regardless of whether he features from the outset or comes of the bench Balotelli has the ability to change the game and seize all the headlines for the right or the wrong reasons.

With three assists in England’s group games, captain Steven Gerrard will look to continue leading by example (Image | The Sun)

Key Men

England: Steven Gerrard – The England captain is wearing the armband with pride and has been the driving force for his team in the tournament so far. Gerrard has provided the assists for over half of England’s goals and will need to be at his imperious best against a strong Italian midfield to provide scoring chances for the likes of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young. Having played at international level for a decade this is Gerrard’s chance – possibly his last – to become a national hero and firmly entrench himself as one of the finest midfielders of his generation.

Italy: Andrea Pirlo – This game will be a midfield battle and Pirlo is Italy’s best. After rejuvenating his career at Juventus, Pirlo has brought his best form to this championships. He stood out above his more revered Spanish counterparts in the group stage and scored a sublime free-kick against Croatia. Set-pieces could be vital in this game and Pirlo is one of the world’s best, be it in a delivering or shooting capacity. The winner of the Gerrard v Pirlo clash will likely be on the winning side on Sunday evening.

Odds at William Hill: England 7/4 Italy 9/5

Prediction: This will be a tight, cagey affair between two similar, highly disciplined teams. However the Italian midfield has seemed to tire in the second half during the group games. England will look to take advantage of this with the possible introductions of Theo Walcott, Andy Carroll and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the game drags on. ENGLAND 2 – 1 ITALY (After Extra-Time)

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