There were several teams during the group stage of Euro 2016 that caused a surprise by being much more competitive than anticipated, and of those, Iceland will surely rank among the highest. Written off by many a pundit in the lead up to the tournament, they went through with an unbeaten record and will now feel that they belong at this level.
The dramatic win against Austria on Wednesday will go down as a definitive moment in their footballing history, and it ensured that they would face England in the last 16. Make no mistake, the Three Lions will be pleased with this draw and are expecting to go through, but Iceland have shown no clear evidence that they are about to crack.
Failing to win their group was extremely foolhardy of England despite three reasonable performances, as – on paper at least – they would have inhabited a much more favourable half of the draw. Although their squad a long list of attacking options, they have so far found goalscoring a problem and have thus failed to put teams away, much to the frustration of supporters.
Against Slovakia last time out Roy Hodgson made the curious decision to make six changes to his starting XI, and the team he fielded dominated possession but could not summon the invention they needed to unlock a stubborn and well-organised defence. This one is expected to follow a similar pattern with Iceland defending in numbers, so England will really need to buck their ideas up in order to avoid the potential for an upset.
The most eye-catching encounter of the first knockout round takes place earlier in the day as Italy meet Spain in a repeat of the 2012 final. Italy were confirmed as winners of Group E with a game to spare and boss Antonio Conte has done all he can to make sure his key players are well prepared, resting several of them for the game against the Republic of Ireland, one which exposed the lack of depth in the squad.
The holders saw a 14-game unbeaten run in the European Championship come to an end on Tuesday as they lost out to Croatia, meaning that they could only come second in the group and thus face a theoretically more difficult route to the final.
However, they will be favourites to progress from this tie and it might be another occasion where considerable patience will need to be shown until the Italian defence is finally worn down into submission. Alvaro Morata now has three goals for the competition and is impressing alongside attacking midfielder Nolito, a player who has taken to international football so very well since making his debut at the age of 28.
Italy will largely rely on counter-attacking football and in doing so will hope to reproduce the kind of display which saw them defeat Belgium in impressive style in their opening match.
Graziano Pelle will be a pivotal figure, as he will be called upon to hold the ball up and bring teammates into play, and in a game where possession is likely to be scarce, he cannot afford to waste any promising situations that arise.
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