With just over 24 hours until the first of the Euro 2016 semi-finals kicks off, it is fair to say that the final four are not who many people would have predicted at the opening of the tournament on June 10th. Granted, two of the four are European heavyweights who many have tipped to emerge victorious one way or the other, but the other two semi-finalists would not have been touted by many to reach this stage.
Tomorrow night’s match gives us the chance to see these two underdogs come up against each other, as Portugal face Wales in the first of the semi-finals. The Portuguese have snuck through to the semi-final without winning a game in 90 minutes, needing a 117th minute winner to see off Croatia in the last 16 and penalties to beat Poland in the quarter finals, whilst the Welsh have convincingly dispatched first Northern Ireland then Belgium after winning their group; fair to say that one team has made a significantly stronger impression on the tournament than the other. Whilst Portugal have arguably the best individual in the tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo, and one of the hottest young prospects in the game in Renato Sanches, Wales have proved throughout the tournament that they have the capabilities to null their individual threats. Ashley Williams and James Chester have enough between them to keep Ronaldo, who has been very hit-and-miss throughout the tournament, under control ,whilst the ever-impressive Joe Allen has the ability to keep Sanches quiet and limit his impact. Although Aaron Ramsey’s influence will be missed, following his booking against Belgium in the quarter final, Wales have a world class outlet in Gareth Bale, who has more than enough to cause the aging Portugal defence numerous problems. It may be a tough battle, but the Welsh spirit that has been on show throughout the tournament could be enough to see them through to the final, and keep the fairy tale alive.
The second semi-final, on the other hand, is much more what people were expecting; the hosts, France, take on the current World Champions, Germany. The hosts breezed through their quarter final, seeing off England’s conquerors Iceland by a cool five goals to two, after being 4-0 up at half time. Germany, meanwhile, managed to squeeze past an impressive Italy side after a poor penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw. Given the difference in the quality of the oppositions, however, it is difficult to judge who goes into this semi-final as favourites based on the quarter-final results. The impact of injuries and suspensions could play a vital factor in the outcome of the match; Germany will be without striker Mario Gomez and midfielders Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger though injury, whilst centre back Mats Hummels misses out through suspension.
The French, on the other hand, will be at near full-strength, with Adil Rami’s experience likely to see him replace Samuel Umtiti at centre back, and Ngolo Kante expected to return in the place of Moussa Sissoko to bolster the midfield. With such major damage to the spine of the German team, Joachim Low will have some crucial decisions to make in order to nullify the threats of Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and other members of the French forward line; will he opt for a younger, less experienced midfielder such as Liverpool’s Emre Can, or move a more experienced member of the squad like Benedikt Howedes out of position to sit in front of the defence? Will Low move Thomas Muller up front to replace Gomez, or opt for Mario Gotze in a ‘false nine’ role? Or will he turn to veteran former Arsenal forward Lukas Podolski to lead the line? What is for certain is that there is little to choose between the two sides, and Germany’s tactical nous will compensate for their missing key players. The French, however, looked like they had finally found their rhythm against Iceland, and their full strength side may have enough about them to see off the weakened German line up.
It is clear to see that both semi-finals are finely poised; both Portugal and Wales will rely on their team working towards a world-class focal point in order progress to the final, whilst both France and Germany will look to their world-class individuals to use their technical ability and experience to see off their opponents. Based on the performances in the knockout stages of the tournament, though, the neutral may well see the plucky underdog in Wales, achieving far more than was ever expected of them, come up against the host nation, France, desperate to win the trophy on home soil. Whilst this may not be the eventual outcome, it is hard to argue that there would be a more fitting way to draw the curtain on the tournament.