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Traditional heavyweights and underdogs on display at Euro 2016

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And then there were four. The semi-finalists are set in stone and not many would have predicted the entire quartet making it this far.

On one side of the draw we have Germany and France, two heavyweights that were pre-tournament favourites. Yet on the other side lies Portugal and Wales, one of whom has not won a match within 90 minutes and another who has already exceeded expectations in their first tournament appearance since 1958.

The overriding narrative throughout the tournament has been team unity and spirit triumphing over more illustrious individual talent.

We saw Iceland and Hungary progress through to the group stages against the odds, while Croatia brilliantly pipped Spain to top Group D but then played appallingly conservative football to fall to Portugal in the round of 16.

Similarly, Italy overcame injuries to two key midfielders – Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio – before the tournament to play some neat football and find themselves within one kick of the semi-finals.

But now that Iceland have been eliminated, Wales are the story of the tournament.

The Welsh topped their group over a fancied English side who once again maintained their tournament credentials. Their progression through the knockouts has been an extra surprise.

Their success could be pinpointed to the talents of one man, Gareth Bale, who has been arguably the only top talent to perform consistently in Euro 2016, but that would ignore the forces of a more influential member of this team.

Coach Chris Coleman has performed wonders with Wales, overcoming a tough initial period in charge of the national team to lead them to qualification. He has instilled a fantastic spirit within this squad – also likely strengthened in the aftermath of predecessor Gary Speed’s tragic death – and made them a tight unit capable of frustrating opponents but also adept in attack.

Aaron Ramsey has been superb in the tournament, especially in Wales’ 3-1 win over Belgium, providing two assists. The Arsenal midfielder is suspended for the semi-final against Portugal, but Wales are more about the system than their individual parts.

There is no question that Bale’s influence is irreplaceable, but Coleman has made Wales tough to beat and installed a smart gameplan going forward as well.

To see Hal Robson-Kanu, recently released by Championship club Reading, score one of the goals of the tournament with a deft Cruyff turn shows how this team is firing.

Based on Euro 2016 they should defeat Portugal, who have been extremely conservative but are getting the job done. As it stands, it is entirely possible Portugal wins the competition without winning a game within 90 minutes, an astonishing prospect.

Coach Fernando Santos has also implemented a tight tactical plan, and although it won’t have impressed the neutrals it has been incredibly effective. Renato Sanches was a beast in the victory over Poland and for an 18-year-old, looks set for a bright future. His tenacity in midfield could well prove the key to unravelling Wales.

In the other semi-final, Germany are in the middle of a crippling injury crisis. Their defence has not been a strong point ever since the retirement of Philipp Lahm following the 2014 World Cup success, and coach Joachim Löw only found balance during Euro 2016 by elevating Joshua Kimmich into the starting XI.

Now, they have to face hosts France without the suspended Mats Hummels, who works sublimely in tandem with new club teammate Jerome Boateng.

Yet the real problem lies in midfield. Just like Italy were dealt a blow with the injury to Daniele De Rossi and suspension of Thiago Motta, Löw has to make do without Sami Khedira and possibly captain Bastian Schweinsteiger. That leaves a massive hole in central midfield, where Löw has to make a decision on who partners Toni Kroos.

Emre Can is one option, but Julian Weigl makes much more sense. He may only be 20 years old, and was playing in the 2. Bundesliga one season ago, but he is an extremely mature and level-headed central midfielder. Löw needs to trust youth and bring him in to replace Khedira.

Up front, Mario Gomez, who was enjoying a rejuvenated spell in the German national team, has been ruled out for the tournament with a hamstring strain. It is a huge blow for Germany, as he gave them a target in the box which previous false nine Mario Götze can not provide.

The performance against Italy was less than convincing and they have to lift their game to have any hope of making the final.

France will go in as favourites. They have grown throughout the tournament and may be reaching their peak at the clutch stages. The 5-2 victory over Iceland was emphatic, though not without glitches.

Their defence is yet to convince, however their offence can be breathtaking, led by top goalscorer Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Olivier Giroud. This should be a cracker of a semi-final in Marseille.

Whoever makes it to the final, the overriding narrative of Euro 2016 will continue. An unfancied underdog will have a chance of upsetting a more illustrious opponent.

In an age where money ensures such match-ups are impossible in Champions League football, that is a prospect that has to be celebrated.

© 2016 The Roar | This article was written by Janek Speight and first appeared on Roar website on 05 July 2016.

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