And then there were eight. We are two-plus weeks into Euro 2016, and Spain are crawling their way home, England have followed their countrymen out of Europe, and there are just seven games left. Before the matches resume on Thursday, let’s take a look at the teams we’re feeling best and worst about heading into the quarterfinals. It’s time for our Confidence Rankings.
8. Wales: If you show me a professional-level soccer game, I can usually find something interesting to take from it — but not Wales–Northern Ireland. It was like watching a mediocre lumberjack try to chop down a tree with a piece of spaghetti.
Coming into the knockouts, Wales were dependent on their bend-don’t-break defense (which gave up a lot of shots but not many on goal), and Gareth Bale’s ability to turn a stationary soccer ball into an asteroid. Against Northern Ireland, the defense held, but the Welsh attack created almost nothing, needing a late own goal from Northern Ireland’s Gareth McAuley to advance.
As José Mourinho’s managerial career has proven, you can play boring soccer and still be overwhelmingly effective. But Wales lucked into a knockout-round matchup with maybe the worst team in the tournament, and instead of blowing them off the field, they played them toe-to-toe.
7. Poland: Poland’s best player still hasn’t scored. There are two ways to look at Robert Lewandowski’s slump: (1) He’s due, or (2) Something’s up. We’re gonna go with the latter: Lewandowski’s whole game is predicated on finding a high volume of high-quality shots inside the box, and at the Euros, he’s taken only four of them. His expected goals number is less than 0.75. Poland’s defense has given up just one goal so far, but they’re not getting much further unless they find a way to get their superstar to come out of hibernation.
6. Iceland: This team probably isn’t good. They’ve allowed more shots on goal than they’ve taken, and after surviving a Portuguese hailstorm in their first game, they qualified for the knockouts on the back of an otherwise weak group. They beat England straight-up, but well, doesn’t England always beat itself?
On the other hand, YOU CAN TAKE YOUR ANALYTICS AND DIVE HEADFIRST INTO EYJAFJALLAJӦKULL. MAYBE SOMETIMES IF YOU JUST WRANGLE TOGETHER ENOUGH DUDES WITH WOOLEN BEARDS, POSSIBLY INTERTWINING GENETIC HISTORIES, AND AN OVERWHELMING NUMBER OF CONSONANTS IN THEIR LAST NAMES, MAYBE THEN MAGICAL SHIT CAN HAPPEN. STOP WORRYING ABOUT REGRESSION, GO DIG YOUR TEETH INTO A FERMENTED SHARK CARCASS, AND ACCEPT THAT THE GOD KVASIR, THOUGH HE WAS SUPPOSEDLY KILLED BY DWARVES, IS SMILING DOWN ON THIS TEAM.
5. Belgium: Take some notes, Wales. Over the weekend, these guys played a below-average Hungary team, and Belgium’s attacking players took turns burning their names into the grass with a flamethrower. They’re no higher than no. 5 because they’re managed by a guy who treats tactics like an air-freshener display at a car wash, their defense is (somehow) still kind of wack, and they haven’t beaten anyone good. But if they’re not gonna be a cohesive side, at least they’ve settled into playing a wild, wide-open style that lets all those kinetic attackers stretch their legs.
4. France: We’re still waiting for these dudes to put together a comprehensive performance. They’ve dominated the overall shot battle in every game, but Didier Deschamps’s side still haven’t tilted the field in the opposite direction for a full 90 minutes. And, you know, maybe they don’t have to: Most of the roster’s elite talent is concentrated in central midfield [whispers Pogba] and attacking positions [screams PAYET!], but they don’t have the kind of rangy fullbacks needed to give the team real width. So, instead we get uneven games like Sunday’s closer-than-it-should’ve-been win against Ireland. France is talented enough to win the tournament with that kind of patchy dominance, but we still haven’t seen them dominate against an above-average side.
3. Portugal: As in, the team that hasn’t won a competitive game in regulation since last October? The one that needed Ricardo Quaresma’s multiple teardrop tattoos to save its ass against Croatia? The one that couldn’t beat a team with a 40-year-old keeper who’s still trying to earn that elusive Russell Athletic sponsorship?
Hear me out: Portugal played in a terrible group and got unlucky. More times than not, they convert a higher percentage of those shots and finish in first. We can make fun of Cristiano Ronaldo for missing chances, but I guarantee you Poland would take a misfiring Lewandowski over one that’s not firing at all. And after playing a relatively open style over the first three games, manager Fernando Santos shut things down against a Croatia team that might’ve been the best team of the group stages.
Portugal have shown the ability to play at multiple tempos, and they still have the best soccer player in the (international) world. No one else can say that.
2. Italy: Just:
Antonio Conte has taken a bunch of older, mostly unspectacular players and turned them into a classic Italian defensive bear trap, with the added wrinkle that this team will bite your hand off on the other end, too. They didn’t just beat Spain; they totally stripped them of their powers. I’m not sure how Conte’s side will react if they go down by a goal, but they know themselves better than anyone else.
1. Germany: Jérome Boateng is a center back. On Sunday, he did this:
Here’s how this works: Enough time goes by since the last international tournament that we talk ourselves into different teams. Germany coasts through the group stages at a low gear, then they decide to play with a striker, and we are reminded that no one stands a chance. They’re going to win the whole thing, and I’m ashamed that I ever thought otherwise.