Euro ramblings – And then there were eight by Jade Craddock
OK, hands up, who predicted this final 8 before the tournament started – or, for that matter, before the Round of 16 – but that’s why we love football isn’t it – the unpredictability – unless, of course, the unpredictable goes against us. As we head into the Quarter-Finals, there’s just time to reflect back on a memorable few days of the beautiful game.
Bye-bye to the big boys: Well, at least it’s farewell to a fair few of them, with the death knell sounding on all of the aptly named Group of Death teams, including reigning Euro champions Portugal, reigning World champions France and perennial contenders, Germany – three teams that many would have seen as being in it for the long haul, if not the actual winners. Netherlands, too, who, despite recent tournament disappointments, had looked so promising in the group stage fell at the first knockout hurdle, whilst Italy, who have impressed so much in the early stages, were pushed to the limits of extra-time by a team in Austria who many had written off before the starting whistle was blown. The early exit of these teams means that going into the Quarter-Finals, of the eight remaining teams, there are four nations who have previously won the tournament and four nations who have not – a 50/50 chance therefore that there will be a new national team lifting the trophy at Wembley. Of the teams who have already triumphed, Spain are the most recent victors in 2012 (with success also in 2008 and 1964), whilst Italy, the Czech Republic and Denmark all have one victory a piece, some 53 years ago for Italy, 45 years ago for the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), and 29 years ago for Denmark. Of the teams still looking for their first Euro triumph, both Ukraine and Switzerland have surpassed their best Euros campaign already, by reaching the Quarter-Finals, whilst Belgium’s best result was as runners-up in 1980. As for England, only an appearance in the Final will guarantee their best ever showing at the Euros, having finished third in both 1968 and 1996, but why not finish the job?
Underdogs: Who doesn’t love an underdog story (aside from those on the wrong end of said underdog story, of course)? And the Round of 16 delivered its fair share, after some generally predictable results in the group stages. Both Austria and Croatia gave it their best shot, with Austria denying what had been a rampant Italy side for some 95 minutes before the Azzurri broke the deadlock. But even when Italy doubled their lead, Austria ensured a dramatic finale by getting one back in the 114th minute, but, alas, it wasn’t to be. Whilst, in the Spain game, La Roja were nearly victims of their own possession-based success when Unai Simon ceded a goal against the run of play to that most prolific of Euro 2020 marksman – Own Goal – with the Euros longest ever own goal, some 49 yards out. When Spain brought it back to a seemingly comfortable 3-1 on 77 minutes, it seemed that the game was virtually done and dusted, only for Croatia to draw level with two goals in the 85th and 92nd minute. After a concerted effort, Spain proved too much in extra-time, but Croatia more than played their part in an eight-goal spectacle. And as for the triumphal underdogs, the Czech Republic eased past Netherlands, whilst Ukraine sealed their victory over Sweden with the latest match-winning strike in Euros history. Denmark may not have been obvious underdogs against Wales, yet they came into the knockout stage on the back of a hugely difficult group stage with just one win, but booked their place in the last eight in emphatic style. But underdog performance of the round surely goes to Switzerland, led from the front by Haris Seferovic. Whilst many had France already booked in for the flight to Russia for the Quarter-Final, and even the final at Wembley, Switzerland had other ideas, taking the game to the World champions and getting their just rewards after 15 minutes. They should have sealed the deal in the 55th minute, but after Rodriguez’s penalty was saved, France looked to have killed Switzerland’s hopes with two goals in two minutes by Karim Benzema. Like Croatia, however, Switzerland, who undoubtedly put in their most impressive performance, fought back to take the tie level, before dispatching Les Bleus on penalties. Spain and England will need to tread very carefully in the last 8.
Managerial fashion stakes: For managers as much as players, tournament football is the pinnacle. The spotlight is on them – literally – and all of their big decisions are scrutinised – Was he right to go with a back three rather than a back four? Should he have gone with striker X instead of striker Y? And, most critically, what on earth is he wearing? We can all discuss managerial tactics until the cows come home – or at least until football comes home – but, let’s be honest, what we’ve really been thinking is: who’s Roberto Mancini’s tailor? Is Vladimir Petkovic’s squared-off tie inspired by 90s schoolkid fashion? And where has Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat gone? But my own personal inquest concerns Luis Enrique’s Round of 16 choice of jeans. I had to wonder in the quick turnaround from Spain’s last group game in Sevilla to the tie in Copenhagen whether he’d misplaced his trousers in packing and the jeans were a last resort or whether this really was his matchday attire. But each to their own, and we’ve all been there, receiving an invite with that dreaded nouveau term ‘smart-casual’ and wondering what exactly smart casual means – will a Hawaiian shirt suffice? Can flip-flops ever be smart-casual? Mancini is clearly a man who errs on the side of smart, Enrique on the side of casual, and maybe Mancini is just trying to get his money’s worth out of his Italian tailor, whilst Enrique is playing the long game and just holding his designer suit in wait for the final. Actually, maybe that’s why we haven’t seen Southgate’s waistcoat, he’s saving it for July 11th.
England: Has there ever been quite a build-up to a match as the one that seemed to dominate the media agenda for nigh on a week since it was discovered that England would be facing Germany in the Round of 16? There will be a few in politics who will be thankful for the shift in the media’s attention and, let’s be honest, we’d all rather see replays of the 1966 triumph and hear It’s Coming Home on a loop for twenty-four hours than any of that debacle. Going into the game, it seemed as if there was an equal helping of optimism and nerves – England a team full of potential and quality but not quite clicking, against an under-par German side who, typically, were likely to pull off the result when needed. Gareth Southgate’s selection underwent the inevitable scrutiny, but only time would tell if it was a masterstroke. In the first half, it perhaps looked more like a backstroke than a masterstroke, although the Three Lions never looked troubled by the German line-up. Jack Grealish was arguably the game-changer once more, having a role in both goals, with a welcome return on the goalscoring front from Harry Kane, and suddenly Southgate’s decision didn’t look so bad after all, well, unless it was something a little more entertaining you were after. But, in tournament football, it doesn’t matter how you win, just that you do, and at no point in the match did it really seem that England would lose, which isn’t a bad thing at all. And whilst credit goes to Sterling and Kane, and particularly to Grealish, for ensuring the win, Phillips and notably the back three of Walker, Stones and Maguire did much to give England an impressive defensive foundation. Though, for me, it all started with Jordan Pickford, who didn’t put a foot – or a hand – wrong – and perhaps deserved more of the accolades.