Iceland headlines European Championship last-8 lineup
PARIS >> Somehow, a classic encounter between Germany and Italy is not the main attraction of the quarterfinal-stage at the European Championship.
Iceland's next act in what is already one of the most surprising stories in European Championship history is the match that's drawing most attention.
Can the team, which surprised so many by beating England 2-1 in the round of 16, do the same to host France when they meet at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis?
The island nation of just 330,000 people has undoubtedly taken the spotlight from all the others in the final eight, including Wales, which other times would be basking in its underdog status. And it's overshadowed other themes, such as Cristiano Ronaldo's quest for an elusive first title with Portugal.
Here's a look at how the Euro 2016 drama is peaking after what most concede to have been a lackluster group stage:
A truly memorable day in European Championship history whetted appetites for the quarterfinals.
Two-time defending champion Spain lost to an Italian team that's defied its old reputation for dour, defensive play.
That was just a warm-up act.
Iceland's 2-1 victory over England is one of the most surprising results in European Championship history. After all, as England great Gary Lineker quipped on Twitter, Iceland has more volcanoes than professional soccer players.
ICE, ICE, BABY
Next up for Iceland: France in its national stadium on Sunday. Now, home fans are starting to believe their team can replicate the Euro 1984 and 1998 World Cup teams by winning on home soil.
But, given what happened to England, and others, French fans will likely be a little wary now about the match that concludes the quarterfinals.
Iceland, in its first appearance at the European Championship, has other achievements to brag about. The team also drew 1-1 with Portugal, daring to celebrate to the seeming annoyance of Ronaldo.
Then came the late drama of Iceland's last two group games against Hungary and Austria; the global discovery of national TV's hysterical match commentator; culminating in the delicious upset of England.
Quietly, ominously, Germany cruised into the quarterfinals without conceding a goal.
Italy coach Antonio Conte says the 2014 World Cup winner is the best team in France, which is part-truth and part-psychological.
If one team can intimidate Germany, it's Italy.
Italy's 2-1 win in a Euro 2012 semifinal extended a tradition of German losses that includes World Cup semifinals in 2006 and 1970, and the 1982 World Cup final.
Italy has played two top-class teams at Euro 2016 — Belgium and Spain — and comfortably won both 2-0
If not now, then when for Belgium?
A so-called "golden generation" is finally shining ahead of playing a Gareth Bale-inspired Wales that is united and must not be underestimated.
Belgium failed to impress at the 2014 World Cup when tamely losing a quarterfinal to Argentina, and its inhibited play in losing to Italy in the first game of the group stage looked more of the same.
Since then, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne have starred in three straight wins — the combined score, 8-0.
However, how good were those opponents? Ireland, Sweden and Hungary all came through the Euro 2016 playoffs and would not have qualified under the old 16-team format.
Wales need not fear Belgium in Friday's match after they advanced through the same qualifying group. Wales drew 0-0 in Brussels, then won 1-0 at home with Bale scoring.
Belgium is unlikely to be short of fans. After all, the match takes place in Lille, near the Belgian border. And Hazard is a local hero, having started out his career in the city.
At 31, this is likely Ronaldo's last good chance to win a trophy with Portugal, an achievement that could propel him to another Ballon d'Or over great rival Lionel Messi.
Now at his seventh finals tournament, Ronaldo came closest at his first, but the Euro 2004 host lost in the final to Greece.
A quarterfinal against Poland and a so-far misfiring Robert Lewandowski is an offer Portugal would surely have taken before the tournament. Belgium or Wales await the winner.
Euro 2016 picked up welcome momentum in a round of 16 spread over three days, each one having its own distinct character.
Saturday's slow start slumped to a dire end; on Sunday, the big boys roughed up the underdogs; Monday peaked with two compelling dramas.
The first half of the tournament was memorable mostly for the fans: A happy, noisy and friendly majority, but with nasty outbreaks of fighting and flare-throwing.
The final two weeks needs to be remembered for the quality of the games and the goals.
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