One of my very favourite facts in the world is that England is only 30,000 km² bigger than Iceland, yet accommodates 52,500,000 more people than the Nordic island. Volcanic wasteland inhabits the space that 350,000 Icelanders do not; geysers, geothermal spas and jaw-dropping national parks are its main attractions. 1,000 miles south-east 53m Brexiters and Bremainers squabble in the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. It is a nation divided.
One thing the English population do come together on, however, is Raheem Sterling. There’s a general acceptance now that the 21-year-old is a spoiled, overpaid and, quite frankly, not very good footballer who does not deserve to play another game at Euro 2016. The grim treatment of Sterling has snowballed across British media outlets since his £49m departure from Liverpool last season, gathering substantial amounts of muck on its journey. Sterling played no part in England’s final group game against Slovakia and is not expected to return to the side when Roy Hodgson’s team meet Iceland in the last 16 on Monday – a decision that I’d back. To see Raheem silence his critics with a monstrous performance in that game would be so satisfying, but I feel his confidence has sunk to a level that would make a reply of that kind impossible. Hodgson is making a wise decision keeping him out of the limelight and Raheem should take this opportunity to clear his head and ready himself for next season.
And while this may be a dark time for the Jamaican-born winger, he will not be alone. I was lifted by reports yesterday confirming that Pep Guardiola had contacted Sterling to reassure him that he remains a “big part of my plans” for the approaching Premier League season. A simple gesture, perhaps, but that’s one hell of a piece of management.
Away from England and Iceland and Sterling and the referendum, a City player is still yet to score at the Euros. On a more positive note, every single City player at the Euros is still there and will aim to help their countries into the quarter-finals. Poland were the victors in an entertaining encounter between themselves and Switzerland in the early kick-off on Sunday, while Wales and Portugal progressed in their ties, sending Northern Ireland and dark-horses Croatia home.
The fourth side to reach the quarter-finals were France. After going behind to a Shane Long penalty in the second minute, Antoine Griezmann scored two in four minutes – the first from an excellent Bacary Sagna cross – to save the hosts blushes. Bacary is the sort of energetic, reliable full-back that Guardiola loves and I’d expect him to remain in and around the first team next season.
As we speak, Germany are 3-0 up against Slovakia thanks in part to a powerful Jerome Boateng strike. What a player he has become. And later, Kevin De Bruyne is in action as Belgium face Hungary. Kev was so much more effective playing in the centre in Belgium’s 3-0 win over The Republic of Ireland last week and got his first assist of the tournament, bursting past his man, cutting inside and laying off Romelu Lukaku. Marc Wilmots was absolutely slated for effectively suffocating his best player by playing him on the flank in their 2-0 loss to Italy but appears to have learnt his lesson.
And finally, if there’s one side that really look like winning this tournament, it’s Spain. They’ve improved with every game and finally have Alvaro Morata hitting the back of the net after questions were raised about their lack of cutting edge in the final third. After netting a brace in the 3-0 win over Turkey, Morata took his personal tally to three. ‘El Mago’ David Silva provided the assist of the fortnight in that game, sliding in a smooth reverse pass for his sides first. A fully-fit Silva is an absolute joy to watch.
Poland, Wales, Portugal and France are through and I’d expect Germany, England, Belgium and Spain to join them. If my predictions are correct, the City reps will live to fight another day. More time for them to get injured, yes, but also more time for them to impress Guardiola who will return from his Ibiza holiday to officially take charge in four days time. I’m buzzing.