The gloves are off, as we enter the business end of Euro 2016. Having had a period of acclimatisation and a chance to get into their grooves, all the remaining 16 teams will know that the sprint to the finish line begins here and now. There are no more second chances, and the team that makes the fewest number of mistakes and capitalises on the mistakes of others, will emerge unscathed, come the first week of July.
Switzerland and Poland kick off the set of fixtures for the round of 16 of Euro 2016, to decide the quarter-finalists. For Switzerland, the group stage was characterised by gritty displays which saw them earn a victory against Albania and draws against France and Romania. The Swiss, while solid in midfield, are yet to discover their mojo in attack and managed only 2 goals in their 3 group matches.
Poland emerged second only to reigning world champions Germany in group C on goal difference. Tied for the top spot with 2 victories and a draw, qualification for the next round was never really a doubt once they accumulated 4 points in their first 2 games. With a promising set of players who ply their trade at some of the top clubs in Europe, an exit in the round of 16 might be underwhelming for the Poles.
Let’s look at 5 players who will influence the outcome of the first round of 16 match of Euro 2016:
1) Robert Lewandowski
When a player scores 5 goals in 9 minutes, he is earmarked for something special. Lewandowski’s feat in the recently concluded Bundesliga season has ensured his name shall be writ in the annals of goal-scoring feats in bold.
The Polish forward was also top scorer in Euro 2016 qualifying, bagging 13 goals as Poland qualified with the highest number of goals scored with 33. However, cometh the hour, and the man certainly has not arrived, yet.
Robert Lewandowski has turned up at Euro 2016, a shadow of the man who was terrorising defences across Europe a few months back. Poland will desperately hope the Bayern Munich forward can turn a corner in the knockout stages.
While the talismanic striker has looked out of sorts that will not be of much solace for the Swiss, as they know, on his day Lewandowski has no equal in Europe when it comes to movement, positioning and finishing in and around the opposition's penalty area.
2) Arkadiusz Milik
With Lewandowski’s indifferent form the bane for Poland thus far, the boon has come in the form of Arkadiusz Milik’s performances in the final third of the pitch. The 22-year-old is an accomplished goal-scorer whose performances are often overshadowed by those of his captain, Lewandowski.
Come Saturday and Milik will once again have an important role to play, as the number 10 who shall play just off the back of Lewandowski. Milik is the ideal counterpart of Lewandowski and they complement each other well in attack.
The youngster is an incisive passer of the ball, a quality that has seen Lewandowski in particular, and Poland in general, reap immense benefits. Milik’s winning goal against Northern Ireland handed Poland a crucial fillip in their bid for qualification for the round of 16 and he will be hoping he can put on a similar show on Saturday to help Poland into the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
3) Jakub Blaszczykowski
Blaszczykowski has been a regular feature in the Poland line-up for a while now and is an instantly recognisable face for followers of the Bundesliga, having served Borussia Dortmund from 2007-2015.
Having made his debut in 2006, Blaszczykowski has gone on to make 81 appearances for the national side, scoring 16 goals. His combination down the right-hand side of the field with long time club and national teammate Lukasz Pisczek has borne fruitful for both club and country.
Blaszczykowski’s second half strike ensured all 3 points for Poland in their final group match against Ukraine, and confirmed their progression as the 2nd best team of group C. Now with greater things visible on the horizon, fans of the Biale Orly will be hoping Blaszczykowski is at his creative best against the Swiss, which would certainly lend a helping hand towards progression to the quarters.
4) Granit Xhaka
Euro 2016 has been a bit of a record breaking spree for Granit Xhaka. Having played against his brother in the match against Albania, to having his name up in lights in the elite company of Pirlo and Xabi Alonso for the most number of touches in a match.
A calm composed presence in the middle of the park, Xhaka has brought much-needed stability in the heart of the Swiss midfield. Partnered by Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami, Xhaka has been the pivot of a strong midfield, extremely difficult to breakdown for opponents.
The Swiss had a no frills group stage, scoring 2 goals for their 5 points. However, the fact that they conceded just one goal is largely due to the solidity in midfield, brought by Xhaka.
Predominantly an enforcer, a rare breed in the world of football nowadays, Xhaka will have to be at his imperious best once again, for Switzerland to limit the threat posed by the Polish midfield.
5) Xherdan Shaqiri
The Swiss Messi, much like Robert Lewandowski has not yet been anywhere near his best in Euro 2016. Shaqiri had dazzled the world with his mesmerising skill, speed, control and a rocket of a shot in the world cup in 2014 and Switzerland enjoyed an amazing run until they were knocked out by eventual runners-up, Argentina.
However, the Xherdan Shaqiri of Euro 2016 has thus far looked like a ghost of the Xherdan Shaqiri of World Cup 2014. Having made his international debut in 2010, Shaqiri has made 52 international appearances and scored 17 goals.
Many of those goals have been audacious attempts from outside the box, a testament to his unquestionable ability. The main problem with Shaqiri is his non-reliability and lack of consistency on the biggest stage.
One can never be quite sure which Xherdan Shaqiri will turn up for the match. The brooding morose disinterested one or the lively, sprightly one, willing to take on and commit defenders, and not afraid to have a pop at goal from distance.
On Saturday, Swiss fans will be fervently praying for their talismanic winger to come up with the goods and ensure their progress to the next round.