By Lothar Matthäus
It came as a huge relief to me that the French, finally freed of the pressure of being the host team, played superbly and with a 5-2 victory, ousted Iceland, the new darlings of European football. Nothing against Iceland's quality. But the prospect of two rank outsiders in Iceland and Wales — who meet Portugal in the semi-finals — both reaching the final four stage would have been a bit too much. It was enough of a triumph for Iceland to have sent the desolate England team packing.
In Germany versus France we have a second, worthy semi-final. Both teams would deserve to reach the final. I regard Germany as the favourites in this duel. I say this despite the penalty shoot-out between Germany and the tough Italians taking 16 players to shoot from the spot. Even among the Germans, who have a reputation of being the masters in penalty-shooting, such greats as Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger failed with their shots.
The final 6-5 quarter-final victory of Germany over Italy was a match with defects, but one which could scarcely be topped in terms of tension. Italy might have had a chance to go through if Daniele de Rossi, the brains of their midfield, had not had to miss the match due to injury.
Germany paid a high price for its victory. Backfielder Mats Hummels, who I saw as the best player against Italy, is now barred after a second yellow-card warning. And in any case, centre-forward Mario Gomez is injured and won't be able to play against France, and Sami Khedira and Schweinsteiger are also questionable due to their injuries.
The loss of Hummels and Gomez hurts the team more than a possible loss of Khedira and Schweinsteiger. If the latter two are missing, it would not be as massive a problem for Germany. The young backfielder Joshua Kimmich could play the Number 6 defensive midfield position. But German coach Joachim Loew also has Julian Weigl of Borussia Dortmund, a young man who so far has not played a minute but who is not afraid of the big moment and has a lot of self-confidence. I would play him.
With Gomez in the team, the German game has been a lot better in this tournament. With his powerful, improved playing style, he will be sorely missed up front. In his False 9 position could come Mario Goetze or Thomas Mueller or even — as crazy as it sounds — the old-timer Lukas Podolski. This may seem surprising coming from me, since he has never completely convinced me. But he has such a great rapport with coach Loew and with the German fans that he would play his guts out.
The French have meanwhile shown that they are well-staffed with Antoine Griezmann, Oliver Giroud and Dimitri Payet up front. And midfielder Paul Pogba has woken up. But, Iceland did again manage to score two goals. The French four-man back line is vulnerable and this could pose huge opportunities for Germany. But then again, the French may now profit due to the German depleted squad.
Portugal's chances of reaching the final are naturally huge. They are better organised now than in the preliminary round. And this even though Cristiano Ronaldo does not play as flashy. But now that he has stopped all the gesturing — something that I greatly welcome — and is willing to help out the defence, the Portuguese are better organised.
Then there is the huge presence of 18-year-old Renato Sanches, who is playing like a veteran and is willing to take responsibility. It's the reason that Bayern Munich has paid Benfica Lisbon 35 million euros for him, in what looks like money well-invested. And, as said, he is worth his weight in gold for Portugal, since Ronaldo apparently has some physical problems after his long season. But giving Ronaldo his due, his two goals against Hungary in the group stage kept the Portuguese alive.
Wales has more quality than their English neighbours. They have played an extremely strong tournament, they are physically imposing, and I don't mean just Gareth Bale, who towers over everyone else on the field. The Portuguese will have to muster up a top performance in order to prevail over Wales. In any event, I am really looking forward to the duel between Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
And, I'm hoping for a final between Germany and Portugal.