A look ahead to the next two last-16 games at Euro 2020. Belgium v Portugal should be a cracker.
Another chance for the Netherlands to flatter to deceive
The Netherlands are yet to face serious opposition at this tournament and luckily for Frank de Boer they might not have to until at least the semi-final stage, although there is every chance whichever of Wales or Denmark qualifies through to the last eight will cause an upset. De Boer’s side have looked pretty rope despite their wins, playing a brand of high-pressing and expansive attacking football that leaves holes everywhere – and will appear badly disorganised as soon as a strong opponent comes along.
There is an outside chance this will happen against Czech Republic, who will approach this match as they did the 1-0 defeat to England; by sitting back and hoping to force the Netherlands into dull sideways possession. So far, De Boer’s greatest asset has been his overlapping wing-backs in a 3-5-2 that sucks play into the central column of the pitch to create space out wide, with Denzel Dumfries in particular catching the eye. But a deep-lying defensive shell like Czech Republic’s may nullify Dumfries and Patrick van Aanholt.
Instead, the Netherlands most important player will be Georginio Wijnaldum, who has excelled in a more advanced role at international level and will be expected to pull the strings from the number ten position, drawing defenders towards him to release Memphis Depay. It is difficult to imagine either playing getting much success, and indeed the most likely outcome in Sunday’s early game is a low-scoring affair and a pretty drab watch.
Ultimately the Netherlands should have enough to advance, although looking at the way they (almost) collapsed against Ukraine in their first group game it is not inconceivable that Czech Republic will provide the first major upset of the knockout stage. Ukraine’s first goal exposed some seriously poor positional play through central midfield, with a woefully large gap left open for Andriy Yarmalenko to pick his spot. Patrik Schik will have taken note of that.
And Ukraine’s second goal was a header from a set-piece. Czech Republic scored a header from a free-kick against Scotland and won a penalty against Croatia from a very similar situation. Set-pieces could give them the chance to take the Netherlands to extra time, although on balance the difference in quality between the two nations should allow De Boer to once again flatter to deceive.
Creaking defences point to one of the games of the tournament
This is undoubtedly the standout game of the round, and not just because both nations expect to reach the latter stages of the competition. For Portugal, this is probably Cristiano Ronaldo’s last chance to add to his trophy collection at international level, while Belgium would be embarrassed to see their Golden Generation end with such an early exit.
But tactically speaking it also promises to be an exceptionally good match. Roberto Martinez’s tactical approach is remarkably open and attacking for international football – especially when central defence is Belgium’s weakest area – and that should allow Portugal to break through repeatedly on the break.
But one thing we’ve learnt from some high-scoring Portugal games at this tournament is that if you lure them forward you can hit them with a counter-punch; Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, and Kevin De Bruyne will anticipate finding joy on the counter-counter, once the game gets stretched, up against 38-year-old Pepe. All the signs point to a match that swings from end to end with a huge volume of chances for both teams – but that does not necessarily mean it will be evenly matched.
Portugal looked far more solid against France with Renato Sanches in the team ahead of Bruno Fernandes, moving from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, and should they continue with this approach Santos’s side hold a major advantage. This will give them a three on two in midfield, and with Sanches’s line-breaking dribbles and press resistance, that platform can set Cristiano Ronaldo and Diogo Jota away behind that worryingly high Belgian defensive line. Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Jason Denayer are far from secure.
If that wasn’t enough to worry Belgium, Portugal are also significantly stronger down their right side of the pitch. Bernardo Silva hasn’t had his best tournament so far, but he can spring into life on Sunday up against Belgium’s Thorgan Hazard or Yannick Carrasco, neither of whom are natural left wing-backs. Picture Nelson Semedo overlapping and it’s tough to look beyond Portugal advancing. Belgium have had an easy ride so far at Euro 2020. Portugal could be a huge shock to the system.
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