Euro ramblings – That’s All Folks by Jade Craddock

Fifty-one matches across eleven cities in thirty-one days and Euro 2020 concluded, sadly, with a whimper rather than a bang for England at Wembley, whilst the Italians claimed their second ever Euros victory, some fifty-three years after their first, but it’s been a tournament of highs and lows that at least offered some distraction – and, briefly, glorious, glorious hope – from the last eighteen months. With the trophy back in Rome and football fever once more subdued back home, let’s take one final look back.

The Final – Before the start of the tournament, this was a Final that few would have predicted. Italy barely entered anyone’s thoughts and England were spoken of more in hope than expectation. From Italy’s first match against Turkey, however, it was clear that this Azzurri side was one to watch – and rightly so, on the back of an impressive run of victories and clean sheets. What made this Italy team stand out was its genuine attacking intent and dynamism – something not necessarily associated with the defensive-minded Italy of times gone by, but a welcome breath of fresh air. England, meanwhile, took some by surprise as well, in their measured, pragmatic approach, patiently seeking out results, building on a solid defence and looking quietly confident. As many of the big guns crashed and burnt, Italy and England progressed steadily but surely, so that by the Semi-Final stage, they were the clear favourites to face off for the Final, and so it turned out. It was generally felt that the Final would be a close-run thing, no out-and-out favourite, a 50% chance of England winning their first trophy in 55 years and a 50% chance of Italy claiming their first Euro victory in 53 years. Tactics were once again the order of the day prior to kick-off, with Southgate opting for a back three, and England couldn’t have wished for a better start, with Luke Shaw, who has emerged as one of the best full-backs in football throughout this tournament, scoring the fastest goal in a Euros Final in 1 minute 57 seconds. With a rocking Wembley, the Italians didn’t know what had hit them and this was the chance for England to capitalise. The measured approach that had done so well for the Three Lions, though, allowed Italy to get back into the game, and when they scored early in the second-half, there was a sense of growing inevitability. England had come from behind against a dogged Denmark, but otherwise fairly easy progress in the tournament meant they hadn’t been in a position of being pegged back before, and certainly not by such a strong, and canny, team as Italy. Chances were largely few and far between and it did seem, rather counterintuitively given England’s past, as if the Three Lions were counting on penalties. It would, in many ways, have been a fitting finale for a team who had conquered ghosts of Germany past, Semi-Finals past, to win a Final on penalties, but, alas, not all stories have a happy ending, and arguably the cruellest decider in sport crushed England’s hopes once more, but only after this brave Three Lions team had proved a lot of doubters wrong, overcome every other obstacle to the final and galvanised spirit and a nation. Looking at it objectively, Italy were far and away the best team and deserving winners, but this England team has much to be proud of.

Penalties – Is there any worse way to decide a sporting contest than penalties? How does kicking a ball from 12 yards at all fairly capture the competition of a football match? In many ways, it’s the antithesis of football – static, robotic, poised – there’s none of a game’s spontaneity, energy, flow, but until an alternative is found, it’s the only option available. Even prior to this game, the notion of penalty shootouts had plagued my mind – surely, there’s a better solution? But, in truth, they can’t be matched for sheer drama or tension. Despite the routine practice teams now increasingly put into penalties, there is no way to replicate the situation of a penalty shootout, in a European Final, at home, with the weight of 55 years of history and 65 million people resting on your shoulders. Every player that even considered stepping up for England and Italy deserves huge respect. And those ten players, and not forgetting the two goalkeepers, who took part, are all champions in my mind. The walk from the halfway line is something that often gets mentioned and even that seems virtually impossible in the context of a night such as last night and again seems so out of keeping with the emphasis it places so squarely on individuals in this most collective of team sports. For the England players, especially, the sight of 6’5” Donnarumma surely would have been extra imposing. Watching on, he seemed to typify that old football adage of a goalkeeper ‘filling the goal’. Maybe, it was my own nerves, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a goalkeeper look so substantial and the goal look so small. His height is one thing, but the fact he backs that up with incredible talent is another – and that he was named Player of the Tournament perhaps proves just how much England’s penalty takers had to contend with. Pickford, too, played his part with two vital saves, particularly taking the shootout down to the final spot-kick when he saved from Jorginho. And, of that final spot kick, I cannot praise Bukayo Saka enough. Regardless of what people say about who should and shouldn’t be taking them, the duty fell to Saka, and it couldn’t have carried any more pressure. For a nineteen-year-old to accept that responsibility and step up for his country is inspiring (I could barely take responsibility for myself at nineteen, let alone a nation’s dreams) and in no way will that one penalty define his tournament, let alone his career, for me, except in it cementing his incredible maturity, his courage and his spirit. Saka’s tournament included memorable appearances in the victory against Croatia, that meant England topped their group, and the Semi-Final against Denmark where his cross led to the own goal that pegged Denmark back. Saka was instrumental in England getting to the Final, and Rashford and Sancho too played their parts, and aged just 19, 23 and 21, these are three lion cubs with big hearts.

Team of the tournament – There were some standout performances across the tournament from players from all nations, so as a nod to some of them, this is my team of the tournament:

Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy)

Denzel Dumfries (Netherlands)

Simon Kjaer (Denmark)

Harry Maguire (England)

Leonardo Spinazzola (Italy)

Kalvin Phillips (England)

Breel Embolo (Switzerland)

Renato Sanches (Portugal)

Pedri (Spain)

Mikkel Damsgaard (Denmark)

Patrik Schick (Czech Republic)

Player of the Tournament – I love to see players that catch the eye and do so consistently, and from the very first match, Leonardo Spinazzola was that player. It’s great that a so-called defensive player can steal the spotlight, when a lot of attention is always placed on the more naturally positioned forward players. Indeed, one of the highlights of this tournament was the full-backs in general – Maehle of Denmark, Gosens of Germany, and Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw of England, to name a few, but Spinazzola was on another level in terms of his attacking play in particular. He was a delight to watch, always playing as high up as possible, and it was such a cruel shame that he didn’t get to feature in the Final after picking up an injury, but his four performances before that were enough to make a significant impression. We’ve got used to full-backs bombing on in recent years, and the days of a full-back rarely venturing across the halfway line are long gone, but in this tournament Spinazzola showed attacking full-back play at its very best.

England – As someone who is usually entirely pragmatic and realistic about England’s fortunes when others are getting carried away, I found myself in the unusual position of actually feeling really calm and confident even before we’d kicked a ball this tournament, based on nothing but gut feeling alone. It was a decidedly refreshing – and stress-free – experience not to feel deflated when England weren’t firing on all cylinders, when they were held to a stalemate against Scotland and when they went behind against Denmark, and all the more so, because this team continued to deliver game after game. Ukraine aside, there was nothing seemingly mind-blowing in their football, but at the same time there was an assurance, a stability that perhaps hasn’t always been there, especially in the big moments. At not one point in their journey to the Final did I doubt this team and at not one point did they let me down. In the final, I knew, it was a tougher task, and in my heart of hearts I thought Italy would have too much experience and know-how in the circumstances, but this team allowed me to dare to dream in a way that no other England team in my lifetime has, and that is why I felt the disappointment of the result so much more keenly this time around – to the point of being a despicably sore loser and having to tun off the trophy celebration – but why I also felt not one ounce of disappointment in the players. In Phillips, Rice, Saka, et al, England have uncovered some gems for the future, whilst senior players like Walker, Maguire and Sterling stepped up. It’s hard to choose my standout England player as each of them genuinely contributed so much to the team, but whilst Maguire and Shaw made late charges, I’m going with Kalvin Phillips for having turned out at his first major tournament, featuring in every game and looking at home from the first group game through to the Final. But what made this England team great, and one I could find real confidence and pride in, was that it wasn’t about the individuals, this was a team that has played as a more united collective than any other England team I can remember. And that is why my disappointment is for them, not in them. Thanks for the journey, England.

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Final Review

Italy (0) 1 – 1 (1) England AET (Italy won 3-2 on penalties)

Goalscorers: England – Shaw (2’). Italy – Bonucci (67′)

Wembley Stadium, London

The morning after the night before.

Empty, gutted, disappointed, angry. Honestly, really hard to be objective right now. Besides the images of the pain felt by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka at missing their penalties, what will stay with me are the disgraceful Chiellini foul on Saka and that by Jorginho on Jack Grealish. Add to that Immobile’s play-acting in the Spain Semi-Final, and to the title of European Champions, you can add Masters of the Dark Arts.

There was post-match lots of talk of what an achievement it was to get to the Final, how this young side will be exciting for the next 5-10 years. All irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned. Getting to a Final is worthless if you don’t win it. Witness how many Three Lions players took their medals off after being presented with them – that tells you all you need to know about being a runner-up.

England will never have a better chance to win a World Cup or Euro title than in the last three years when, the draw and home advantage have been in their favour. The fact is that we have seemingly learned nothing from the Croatia Semi-Final defeat in 2018, with this Final following a similar pattern. As then, England went ahead early and didn’t make their first-half advantage pay, and there was an inevitability about the comeback in the second-half as Italy scored and England looked tired and ragged. Southgate has said blame him for the penalties and I’m at a loss as to why the responsibility for the fifth spot-kick was placed on the shoulders of such a young player. To me there were a number of more senior players who should have stepped up.

Inevitably the night was spoiled by idiots who forced entry into the stadium, others who sought out to attack Italian fans at the end and the on-line abuse that the cowardly key-board warriors dished out to Rashford, Sancho and Saka. All of this will do nothing to help any bid England may put out to host future tournaments.

Now the focus is on the journey for Qualification to Qatar for the World Cup next year. Right though now I need a break from football.

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 31

European Championship Final

Italy v England (Wembley Stadium)

Matchday – the last of the delayed 2020 European Championship. And incredibly, the Three Lions have made it to their first Final – that alone has seen history being made. As I write this morning, I feel pretty calm, but kick-off is still just under nine hours away.

Gareth Southgate will not doubt have been and continue to say to players that it’s just another game and will try and keep the routine today as it has been throughout the competition to date. As a fan the superstition bug has kicked in and I’ll be following my own routine that has served me well to date. I’ll once again be wearing my Umbro England Euro96 t-shirt (an original – and yes it still fits, if a little tighter!) a couple of hours before kick-off. There will only be me and my football-suffering other half, who has secretly enjoyed the tournament watching at home – no trips to another venue or anybody invited here, and it has to be the BBC coverage. Additionally, I’ve not shaved my beard since the start of the tournament and that will be left until tomorrow. I will also need to make the same trip to the local shop to get in a box of beers (has to be bottles, not cans) for match supply. During the game the action isn’t paused for going to the kitchen for more drinks and snacks or indeed toilet breaks! I surely won’t be the only one in the country who has suddenly been struck by some strange foibles in the build up to the game against Italy.

For me the Azzurri are the favourites, and although that usually brings pressure, in a strange way they will know that the expectation is even greater on England to win in front of a home crowd. Italy have shown adaptability in this competition, with their Semi-Final win over Spain showing their incredible defensive abilities without the ball, against their attacking prowess displayed in the group stages. England in the group games were functional at best but launched their push for the trophy with a stirring win over Germany, an incredible demolition of Ukraine in Rome and a gritty come-back victory over Denmark.

The Three Lions recent record against Italy is not a great one, with just two victories in the last fourteen matches between the countries. One of those in 1997 was in a tournament, the Tournoi de France a warm-up event for the 1998 World Cup in which England took the trophy against Brazil, France and Italy. The Three Lions beat the Azzurri 2-0 with first-half goals from Ian Wright and Paul Scholes at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes. The last victory was in August 2013, when England faced Italy at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in Switzerland. Italy led through De Rossi after fifteen minutes, with Phil Jagielka levelling twelve minutes later. The winner came from Jermaine Defoe eleven minutes from time sealing a 2-1 win for the Three Lions. In the Euros and World Cup Finals, the Azzurri definitely have the upper hand, with a 1-0 victory in Turin at the 1980 Euros Finals at the group stage and at Euro 2012, a Quarter-Finals win on penalties (4-2) after the game had finished 0-0. At the World Cup it doesn’t make for better reading either, England lost 2-1 in the Third Place Play-off game at Italia90, and it was the same score in Brazil at the 2014 tournament as both sides failed to make it out of the group.

It’s time then that this run of results is changed. C’mon England!

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 30

It’s been interesting to hear Gareth Southgate and indeed others in the media talk about this squad being unburdened by history. Indeed I remember writing back in 2018, pondering on the impact of that loss to Croatia at the World Cup would have on that squad. Just three years later of the 26 man squad England playing at the Euros, just nine players (a little over a third) were part of that defeat and are Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Kieran Trippier and Marcus Rashford. So given that the majority of the squad don’t have that negative experience in their locker and indeed they have seven players aged 22 or under, there is a freedom and fearlessness of youth that has served the Three Lions well during the competition to date.

At every opportunity the media have rolled out the 1996 Euro penalty miss by England boss Southgate and talked about redemption for the then Aston Villa defender. He instead has continued to focus on the job in hand, and whilst of course he will still carry those memories from that night at the ‘old’ Wembley, he responds to every media question always with his mind on the present and the objective of winning the European Championship for the first time in England’s history. Whatever happens tomorrow, he and his squad can be proud of what they have achieved. But of course, one more victory would be oh so welcome.

Euro Ramblings – England & Italy: A combined XI by Jade Craddock

Coming into Sunday’s Final, I think it’s fair to say that England and Italy have been the most impressive teams this tournament, in terms of both their collective performances and individual performances. Whilst Italy have perhaps been the most eye-catching team, pairing their typical Azzurri solidity with dynamism and energy, England have combined stability with patience and a quiet confidence and both sides have looked assured and resolute. Each player has played their role and stood up to be counted, so, as the two teams prepare to meet, why not let’s indulge in naming a combined XI based on the Euros so far.

Donnarumma – Perhaps one of the trickier positions to call. Pickford kept a record five clean sheets in the first five matches of the tournament and has conceded only once, to Denmark in the Semi-Final, whilst Donnarumma kept three clean sheets in the opening group games, being breached in the 114th minute of extra-time in their Round-of-16 match, but not before setting national records for the most consecutive victories without conceding a goal (11 matches), and most minutes without conceding a goal (1,168). Pickford arguably had a Man-of-the-match performance against Germany, but looked a little unsettled against Denmark, whilst Donnarumma perhaps has not had as much to do (making 9 saves to Pickford’s 11) but was integral to the Azzurri’s penalty triumph against Spain. Five years Pickford’s junior, Donnarumma has perhaps shown slightly more consistency so far.

Walker – For me, this has very much been a tournament for full/wing backs, with some of the most impressive performances coming from the likes of Denzel Dumfries, Robin Gosens and Joakim Maehle, to name a handful. But few can compete with Kyle Walker in terms of his recovery and pace. Whilst he hasn’t got forward as much as usual, his presence at the back has been reassuring. Even when not having the best of games, he can still be relied upon in high-pressure situations and one-on-one footraces with any player in the competition. And even after 120 minutes against Denmark, he still looked fresh as a daisy as he sprinted from one end of the pitch to the other to take the ball into the corner. Aged 31, he’d be forgiven for seeing a drop-off in his fitness, but he makes 31 look the new 21.

Maguire – In tournaments past, England have anxiously awaited the fitness of its attacking players – David Beckham in 2002, Wayne Rooney in 2006 – so it says a lot when the nation was holding its breath on the fitness of a centre-back prior to this Euros. Tyrone Mings deputised impressively in Maguire’s absence in the first two group games and his contribution shouldn’t be forgotten, but Maguire’s return against the Czech Republic proved the mettle of the man. Having not played competitively for weeks, it would be natural for a player to take a while to find his feet, especially in an international competition, but Maguire looked like he’d never been away, in fact, if anything, he looked like he was playing at a different level. He has been a behemoth at the back – and let’s not forget his goal against Ukraine up top – so whatever fitness regime he’s followed with the staff at St George’s Park needs rolling out on the NHS asap.

Chiellini – Chiellini or Bonucci? Bonucci or Chiellini? It’s like choosing between a pair of equally fine vintage wines, one slightly older and earthier, the other marginally more refined and supple. Whilst Bonucci is slightly more cultured in his passing, Chiellini is the man you’d want beside you when backs were against the wall. His passion for football, for winning, for the Italians is unbounded and, as has been regularly noted throughout this tournament, he just damn well loves defending, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, it might be said. But this is a man who would throw himself in front of every ball, head out every cross and lay down on the goal-line to prevent a goal. Indeed, he seems to view goals against his side like an affront, a matter of honour and integrity, but he also plays the mind games incredibly well too. A good old-fashioned throwback of a player, but someone you’d definitely rather have on your side than on the opposition.

Shaw – My earlier allusion to full-backs deliberately excluded two notable names – Leonardo Spinazzola and Luke Shaw. Spinazzola has arguably been the player of the tournament, consistently impressing as a right-footed left wingback with his attacking intent and energy – he’s not bad at defending either! For wont of a cruel injury, he would get the nod here, but that’s no criticism of Luke Shaw, as I’d pretty much have Spinazzola as the first name on my teamsheet. In fact, Spinazzola aside, Luke Shaw has been one of the best performers, particularly in the latter rounds of the tournament, growing into games and in belief. He has perhaps been the most complete of the full-backs, never neglecting his primary duty at the back, but also playing an integral part in England’s attack – indeed, he’s joint-second on the list of assists and the only defender in the top five, ahead of the likes of Memphis Depay, Kevin De Bruyne and Joshua Kimmich – you’d take that.

Phillips – One of England’s earliest revelations in this tournament, what a difference that extra year made. Indeed, twelve months ago, Phillips had just won promotion out of the Championship, but outside of Leeds was largely under the radar, and had yet to be picked for his country. That all changed in August 2020 when Phillips was first selected by Southgate and, as they say, the rest is history. It is almost impossible now to imagine an England team without Phillips – or to give him his rightful moniker, the Yorkshire Pirlo – who quickly settled into the side and announced himself on the world stage with his first performance in the Euros. Only Jordan Pickford and John Stones have played more than Phillips’ 545 minutes for England at the tournament and this for a midfielder who covers every blade of grass – in fact, he’s covered 67.3kms of grass – the further of any England player. If Walker is England’s sprint king, Phillips is their marathon man.

Rice – Midfield partnerships haven’t always been the easiest things to come by for England, but in Phillips and Rice, Southgate has hit on a formidable defensive duo. Both humble, hardworking and selfless, Phillips and Rice go together like Ant and Dec, like Baddiel and Skinner, like Bonucci and Chiellini. The rise of Declan Rice has been similarly impressive to his midfield buddy, first making his breakthrough for England in 2019 before a couple of particularly effective seasons at West Ham pushed him to the fore of Southgate’s plans. It is easy to forget that Rice is still only 22 and there is still plenty of time for him to push on even more, but he already has the heart and enthusiasm of a lion.

Barella – In truth, there is an embarrassment of midfield riches across both sides and one of a number of players could complete the set. Jorginho and Verratti offer composure and bite, Manuel Locatelli dynamism, Mason Mount intelligence and Jack Grealish craft. Grealish is arguably the most impressive of the lot, but his ability to genuinely change the game from the bench – which is something that not all players can do – has, to some extent, made him a victim of his own success in this limited role, and if this team could only have one sub, it would, without question be Grealish; if it could have twelve players by some quirk of the ref miscounting, that would also be Grealish, but, alas, I think VAR may spot that one. Barella’s ability to pop up with a goal and get in and around the box and recover the ball, however, makes him an effective option and he’s rightly been a mainstay in the Azzurri’s setup.

Sterling – Going into the tournament, there were questions over Sterling’s form at Manchester City, with 10 goals to his name last season, on the back of 20 the previous season, despite seven assists to his name, and another Premier League and League Cup title. Southgate, however, stuck by a player who has been a regular for him and has stood in as captain on occasions, and the manager has been duly rewarded, with Sterling netting the first three of England’s goals in this campaign, including the match-winners in both the Croatia and Czech Republic games, and playing a crucial part in England’s equaliser against Denmark and the penalty that would secure England’s first final in 55 years and first ever in the Euros. He has played some 521 minutes and covered the third-most distance for England in his six appearances and is being widely touted as the Player of the tournament.

Kane – Oh how Spain and Germany must wish for Harry Kane – and oh how grateful all England fans are that he’s English. Despite a slow start, there never should have been any doubts over the three-time Premier League Golden Boot winner and having been written off after a ‘goal drought’ of three games at this tournament, Kane is now only one goal behind front-runners Ronaldo and Schick in the race for the tournament’s Golden Boot. And while his goals are crucial of course, this tournament has seen him play a real team role as a true captain does, going deeper to effect play and look to start attacks. When England were awarded their penalty in extra-time against Denmark, there is absolutely no other player you would have wanted stepping up then than the England captain, and even when the initial shot was saved, he was the first to react and to finish at the second time of asking. Kane proves the value of having a top-class striker in your side – just ask Spain.

Chiesa – Another position that is blessed with talent on both sides, including Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi for the Italians and Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden for The Three Lions. But while my heart screams Bukayo Saka, my head says Federico Chiesa to complete the line-up. At 19, Saka took to his first senior match at an international tournament just as convincingly as he has done all season for Arsenal and put in the performance of a seasoned pro. Four years his senior, Chiesa too has looked impressive in his first tournament for Italy. Despite not starting the first two games, Chiesa’s performances in his cameos, scoring the first in extra-time of the Round-of-16 game against Austria, has made him an integral part of Mancini’s thinking in the latter stages of the tournament and he hasn’t let his manager down, always looking to get into the box and take the shot on.

Manager: Southgate – Ultimately, the manager – and, to some extent, the players – will be judged only on what happens in the final, but really the job Southgate has done should not be limited to one game, however it goes. Of course, if (when?) England win, he will be heralded as a national hero, but he’s already made a very strong case for being considered as such right now. Indeed, the job of England manager has often been seen as the ultimate poison chalice in football and has taken some big scalps in the past, but Southgate has gone about his job both on and off the pitch in such a way that he has rewritten the script. Indeed, as much as he has helped to shape this England team on the pitch, his role in developing a new philosophy, building bridges with the media and fans and, crucially, leading from the front on important national and social issues is perhaps an even greater and more important achievement. He has united a nation, restored pride and instilled belief and he has done so with the utmost integrity, calmness and decency. Win or lose on Sunday, in Gareth, England should give thanks.

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 29

Football – it’s just a game right? Yes, essentially it is, but consider the positive impact it has had and could continue to have if England go on to beat Italy to become European Champions for the first time. The tournament as a whole will undoubtedly have boosted the economy as football fans have flocked to various venues (even with COVID restrictions), spending their cash on food and drink whilst watching games. Additionally, there is all the merchandise and associated spend, including shirts that have been purchased for the participating countries. And you can bet that if England were to win it, the current shirt would become iconic, and no doubt bring a wave of further sales as possible ‘limited edition’ variations would become produced by the savvy marketing team at Nike.

But there hasn’t been just a financial benefit to the country, there will have been a sense of well-being and pride that meant people have gone about their business with a smile on their face, uplifted by the Three Lions progress. Since the 2018 World Cup there has been a greater connection between the England squad and the country, and which again been evident, although it is still disheartening to hear fans boo the National anthems of other countries and the mixed reaction to England taking the knee before games.

Of course if England don’t overcome the Azzuri, there will be a negative reaction, as a small minority resort to mindless overreaction that has been seen in previous years as England have crashed out of tournaments.

But whatever the result, hopefully it will have encouraged people of all ages, colour, gender etc. to either get involved with the sport for the first time, whether grassroots, semi-professional or elite level. It would be great to see participation and volunteer numbers rise as a result of a remarkable competition for Gareth Southgate’s squad and also our grounds up and down the country filled at all levels of football as we hopefully return to some sort of normality post-COVID.

The last 18 months or so will always be remembered for COVID and what is has done to our everyday lives – wouldn’t it be great if England winning the Euros was a bright footnote to an incredibly difficult period.

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 28

England (1) 2 – 1 (1) Denmark [AET]

Goalscorers: England – Kjaer (39’og), Kane (104′). Denmark – Damsgaard (30′)

Wembley Stadium, London

Well, well, well…in the words of Chris Kamara, “Unbelievable Jeff”. I had noted yesterday how history had indicated that a 1-0 result was a common one between these two sides, and when Damsgaard bent in a marvellous free-kick and then Schmeichel saved from Raheem Sterling from point-blank range shortly after, that prediction had a worrying predictability about it. However, it was nice to be proved wrong when just nine minutes after going behind, England were level. Kane played a delightful ball inside the Danish defence allowing Saka to skip to the bye-line before delivering a tantalising cross that Kjaer could only knock into his own net with Sterling lurking for a tap-in. 1-1 at the break and the nerves were jangling. The second-half saw both sides look for the winner, with Schmeichel producing a save from Harry Maguire that mirrored the one that the Dane pulled off in the FA Cup Final, incidentally at the same end of the ground and also to a header which he pushed away to his right. England looked to have a decent penalty shout turned down when Kane looked to have been fouled, and one wondered what VAR had missed when turning it down. One aspect that helped the Three Lions during this period was that the Danes used five substitutions during the second-half, compared to Gareth Southgate’s single change. It meant that in extra-time, England were able to freshen the side with a number of changes, whilst the Danes simply had one further substitute to use. The winner came as the first period was coming to an end. Sterling who has been outstanding in this competition was bundled over as two Danes closed in on the Manchester City player. The referee pointed to the spot and after checking VAR the award was confirmed, whilst the Danes understandably complained about the decision. Captain Kane stepped up and although his spot-kick was saved, it fell kindly for him to stroke in and set off scenes of unadulterated joy in the stadium and across the country. It was all of a bit of a blur from then as England saw out the game and after 55 years return to a major Final. That turgid game against Scotland now seems a lifetime away.


Euro Ramblings – Final Four assessment by Jade Craddock

Two Semi-Finals, two periods of extra-time, three missed penalties, one ‘controversial’ penalty, a first Final for England in 55 years and the return of the tiny, tiny car. As a nation prepares for its biggest moment in sporting history for over half a century, there’s a brief moment to reflect on the teams that made it to the final four.

Spain: It was a case of so near, yet so far for a Spanish team, which, in all honesty, played their usual neat and tidy game in this tournament, but never looked completely convincing. Whilst their obvious issue was a lack of a clinical, decisive finisher, with Morata, Oyarzabal and Moreno all struggling to fill the berth, their World Cup victory in 2010 was predicated on the false 9, but La Roja came unstuck this time, despite impressive performances from 18-year-old Pedri and 23-year-old Dani Olmo, who will surely be integral to the Spanish side moving forward. Somewhat surprisingly, Spain are currently the highest goal-scorers at the tournament, with 13, to Denmark and Italy’s 12, and England’s 10, in large part to a five-goal demolition of Slovakia in the group stage and a 5-3 thriller against Croatia in the round of 16. So there is no doubt they can score goals and when everything clicks, they are still a hugely impressive and dangerous team, but, unfortunately, too many times in this tournament, it just didn’t click, including in their opening 0-0 clash with Sweden and a 1-1 draw with Poland in the next match. At times, they seemed to be crying out for something different, and with Adama Traore on their bench, a sum total of 13 minutes across six matches seemed bewildering. The Semi-Final against Italy looked to be the perfect set-up for a player who has tormented defenders in the Premier League against two centre-backs with a combined age of 70 and a majority of players who won’t have faced the tricky winger regularly, but Traore was brought off the subs bench to enter the affray only to return there without stepping foot on the pitch. Of course, one will never know whether he would have made a difference, but it all seemed a bit too safe and samey from Luis Enrique. With only three of the starting eleven for the match against Italy in their thirties, there is still time for this side to push on for next year’s World Cup.

Rating: 7

Denmark: If the Danes had been playing anyone else but the Three Lions, I think it could be safely assumed that we’d all have liked to see them in the Final. Theirs has been the most challenging tournament imaginable, with the events of the very first match inevitably casting a shadow over all that followed. Other teams would have most likely crumbled, and it did seem in the conclusion of that first game against Finland as if the Danes would struggle to overcome what they had witnessed, losing 1-0 in a game in which the result was largely insignificant. Despite rallying against Belgium, an impressive Kevin de Bruyne display led to the Danes’ second defeat in two and threatened to end their tournament prematurely. Bottom of the group with no points heading into the final game against Russia, Denmark had it all to do, but if there is anything this team have proved from that first match is that they rally in adversity. And in that decisive match, Denmark didn’t just rally, they conquered, with an impressive 4-1 thrashing. Having progressed out of the group stage against all odds, Denmark looked galvanised in their matches against Wales and the Czech Republic, with 21-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard growing into the tournament, alongside Kasper Dolberg and Joakim Maehle. From the brink, people began asking whether Denmark could repeat their triumphs of 1992 and it was a team that itself was obviously growing in belief. They made the Semi-Final a tricky affair for England but eventually bowed out after 120 minutes with their heads held high. Their journey was much more about football, and in everything that they did, they made a nation and a footballing community hugely proud and gained themselves a legion of fans for the way responded not only in their darkest of moments but in all they achieved thereafter. Whilst the hope would have been to win the tournament for Eriksen, themselves and their country, in many ways Denmark won so much more, and in Simon Kjaer they have the standout captain of the Euros.

Rating: 8

Italy: Whilst France, Belgium and Portugal all got the big build-up going into the tournament, Italy generally flew under the radar, until their first game against Turkey in which they clearly set out their stall with an emphatic 3-0 win. In truth, perhaps the Azzurri should have been on everyone’s radar, having come into the Euros with a hugely impressive winning streak and clean sheet run. Indeed, they continued to set records on both fronts in the group stage, with a second 3-0 triumph over Switzerland and 1-0 win, arguably with a second string XI, against Wales. Though Austria provided the first real test for Mancini’s men, it was clear that this Azzurri side were one with typical Italian grit and determination to go with the flair and skill. Many saw their Quarter-Final clash with Belgium as a potential banana skin, but they came through relatively untroubled, continuing to play an attractive and energetic style that perhaps has not always been characteristic of the Italians. Another difficult tie faced them in the Semi-Final against Spain, which was a much tighter affair, going all the way to penalties, but there is something about this group which gives them the edge. Indeed, it has felt throughout this tournament as if they have somehow been destined to make the Final and they have overcome every obstacle in their way through a combination of skill, talent, passion and tenacity. Their football has been amongst the most impressive on display, and as well as the team collective, there have been superb individual performances from the likes of Federico Chiesa and Manuel Locatelli, whilst Bonucci and Chiellini defy age in defence. However, Leonardo Spinazzola has arguably been the player of the entire tournament, putting in displays from left-back that are frankly mind-boggling. His injury against Belgium was a massive blow, not only for the Azzurri but for the tournament in general, but Italy’s strength in depth and squad quality has been another factor in their success. With an unbeaten run of 33 matches now – and a new record for the longest winning run in the Euros of 15 matches – Italy have set themselves as the ones to beat – but, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

Rating: 9

England: Oh, where to begin? Well, there’s only one place, surely, their progress to a first Final in 55 years. For the older generation, 1966 lives long in the memory, but for those born after that triumph, the Three Lions story has been one of varying degrees of hope and inevitable disappointment. Whilst there was the usual excitement and anticipation pre-tournament, few, I think, who would really have believed in England’s chances (I was one of the few), but three points in the opening game soon galvanised a nation, which had been kept out of football stadiums for some eighteen months. Of course, though, this wouldn’t be England without an anti-climax and that came in the next game against Scotland. A win against the Czech Republic secured England’s progress out of the group stage and a top-of-the-table finish and whilst hopes were high, a clash against Germany in the Round of 16 was viewed by many as the real test. A test that England came through with aplomb, but even better was to come three days later in Rome. England, away from Wembley for the first time, without their legion of fans and having had the extra hassle of travel, would be forgiven for being a bit sloppy, but no, this was the performance a nation needed to cement belief that this may just be England’s time. Ukraine may not have been the biggest scalp, but they still stood in England’s way, although not for very long, it has to be said, with Harry Kane’s fourth minute goal practically sealing the deal there and then. As Jurgen Klinsmann reflected, it had all been too perfect for England. Plain sailing is not something English football fans are familiar with, and this was the closest thing to plain sailing in recent history. We all knew it couldn’t last, but it was a question of how England would react to going behind, to adversity, to pressure, that would determine whether this team were just a carbon copy of those gone by or, indeed, the real thing. And Denmark posed that very question of the Three Lions, scoring first in their Semi-Final clash, with England conceding their first goal in over 600 minutes. With backs against the walls, an expectant home crowd and the ghost of 55 years, this would be the test of this team, and where England teams of tournaments past would have wilted, Kane and his band of brothers showed the resilience, determination and drive perhaps lacking in previous teams to cross that hallowed line into the Final. Italy will be yet a tougher test, but this victory – against a spirited Denmark side, coming from behind and with England far from their best – will surely add to the growing confidence and belief. Once again for me, despite the embarrassment of riches up front, it was the defence, so questioned pre-tournament, that were key. Pickford, who so impressed against Germany, had a nervier time of it last night, but hopefully he’s got that out of his system, while the four players in front of him – or make that six with Rice and Phillips’ dogged performances – rose to the occasion: Stones was largely unruffled, Maguire was imperious, Shaw tenacious and Walker just superhuman. Whilst there was controversy over the eventual penalty that separated the two teams, whether or not it was or wasn’t a penalty – and the same could be said of the Kane incident earlier in the match – England have been on the end of a fair few contentious decisions of their own and everyone knows you need some luck to win tournaments. There is more to this team than luck though, and Southgate’s men are doing a nation proud. With the Final at Wembley on Sunday, the trophy is in England waiting to be lifted – did someone say it’s coming home?

Rating: 9

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 22

The first of two days of action, as the Quarter-Finals begin and the path to the Final continues.

Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg (c) Wikipedia

Switzerland v Spain (Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg)

Many were expecting this tie to see France take on Spain, but instead the Swiss gate-crashed the party after beating the reigning World Champions on penalties. Spain themselves had a game full of intrigue as they saw off Croatia 5-3 AET in the Round of 16. Surely we won’t have such a dramatic game later? Is this a fixture too far for Switzerland? Or are the Spanish there for the taking if they don’t turn their expected dominance of possession into goals?

This will be the first time they have played each other in the Finals of the Euros, with their last meeting in a Finals tournament coming at the  2010 World Cup. In a group game, the Swiss won 1-0 with a second-half goal from Gelson Fernandes.

Spain have rattled in five goals in each of their last two games, and suggests they are more than starting to click. However, Switzerland showed against France they have a doggedness and skill to upset the best teams around. Indeed, Arsenal fans may not have recognised Swiss captain Granit Xhaka, and not just for his dyed hair in the France game, but a truly inspirational performance against Les Bleus. On that form he will be a major miss as he is suspended for this game.

For me, Spain will have too much for the Swiss, but don’t expect another five-goal salvo.


Allianz Arena, Munich (c) Wikipedia

Belgium v Italy (Allianz Arena, Munich)

A truly heavyweight contest in Germany later tonight. Probably the two favourites for the competition. Italy sparkling on a record-breaking run and seemingly playing with a freedom and flair not always associated with the Azzuri. They breezed through their qualifying group but were taken to extra-time by Austria as they had to leave the comforts of Rome to get through the Round of 16 at Wembley. Belgium like Italy went unbeaten through the group stage before dumping reigning Europeans Champions, Portugal, Ronaldo et al, out 1-0. They survived a late rally from Portugal, but with class all over the park, they came through. However, their concern from that game will be the fitness or otherwise of key players, with Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard serious doubts for the game in Munich.

These two nations are familiar foes down the years, with these two meeting at the last Euro Finals back in 2016 at the group stage. The Italians triumphed that day 2-0 in Lyon, with goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle.

Genuinely really hard to separate these two sides, and it may come down to a single goal in normal time and could conceivably require penalties to separate them. The deciding factor could whether De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are missing from the Belgian’s line-up.

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 21

A second rest day, as the last eight clubs prepare to raise themselves once more for the Quarter-Finals to come on Friday and Saturday.

Euro 2020 Official match ball (c) Adidas

So a chance to look at other aspects of the tournament and an item that any game can’t do without – the ball. Some balls have become iconic and associated forever by a particular competition. For those of a certain age, if you think of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, you will always have an image in your mind of the Adidas Tango which made it appearance as the Tango Durlast. It was so successful that variations of the Tango have been used down the years since for both the World Cup and European Championship Finals.

Whilst also being iconic they can also be controversial, step up (or should I say swerve) the Adidas Jabulani used in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The ball was widely criticised by managers and players alike for its unpredictability in terms of movement, with claims that at altitude the ball could make this even more pronounced. It certainly wasn’t on the Christmas list of too many goalkeeper’s.

For the 2020 Euros, Adidas has produced the Uniforia Pro Ball, which the company states represents, “a celebration of football and culture…The Uniforia Pro Ball knows no borders and speaks all languages. With design elements paying homage to the host cities.” I’m not sure the players would be too bothered by that market-speak but will just be relieved that it is a quality ball that they can get to grips with and does nothing out of the ordinary. Well it hasn’t as yet…and Jordan Pickford and his fellow No:1’s will be hoping it stays that way.