And then there were eight. Though not necessarily the eight we were expecting, not least because all three survivors of the “Group of Death” at Euro 2020 – France, Germany and Portugal – have fallen by the wayside.
By Dave Bowler
In the case of the latter two, it was less of a surprise perhaps, the Germans at their weakest for quite some time, Portugal too reliant upon Ronaldo to have enough to defeat Belgium. But France’s defeat to Switzerland on penalties was a shock, albeit that the French football had not quite lived up to their reputation thus far. At 3-1, they seemed to have the game won and perhaps it was that hubris that proved costly, allowing the Swiss back into the game and then on to penalties.
It was an object lesson that you should take nothing for granted in football and a reminder that the Swiss are no mugs either. Shaqiri and Seferovic tend to hog the headlines, but they are a well marshalled side that will not go meekly to the slaughter. The suspension of Xhaka could be very damaging to the cause however for he has been the glue that has held them together through the tournament thus far.
After a sluggish start, Spain have certainly found their way to goal now, scoring five in each of their last two matches. It looks to have come at a cost defensively though for against Croatia, they controlled possession and impeccable game management that we have come to expect from them as they conceded two late goals to be sucked into extra-time.
That they came back from that disappointment to win the game says much for their character, that of Morata in particular given the abuse he received earlier in the tournament for missing chances. The Swiss won’t make it easy, but Morata might just be the hero of the hour in St Petersburg on Friday as Spain squeeze through.
If they do come through, they face Belgium or Italy in what is clearly the much tougher half of the draw and the one where the sides are obligingly taking lumps out of each other ahead of the final. The game in Munich is almost impossible to call and a lot will depend on the fitness of key players such as De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Chiellini.
For this Belgian side, it feels very much as if it’s now or never, that this needs to be the moment when a highly talented side finally has to get its hands on a trophy. They have produced a disciplined rather than an especially showy tournament so far, and there’s no harm in that. When the moment has required it, the likes of Lukaku and De Bruyne have stepped up, they’ve defended well throughout and no side will relish playing them.
Italy come into the game with the hype that surrounded them in the group stages slightly dampened after they toiled to get beyond Austria. That slight drop in expectations won’t harm them at all and they will go into the game as slight underdogs which will suit them too. They beat Belgium 2-0 in the 2016 Euros when they were far less fancied than they are this time around and I think they might squeeze through again, though they could have to go all the way to extra-time and perhaps even penalties to do it.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that everything is going England’s way. The draw has hugely favoured the Three Lions, their quarter-final aside, it is essentially a home tournament, especially important in a time of covid. They were well worth the win over Germany, albeit that Phillips could very easily have received a red card at 0-0 and it’s still impossible to work out how Muller didn’t score an immediate equaliser to Sterling’s goal – would England have recovered from that?
In a tournament where a lot of the defending has been abysmal, England still have yet to concede a goal which makes them real favourites to go the whole way. One of the biggest dangers is the same kind of hubris that infected France. Back in Blighty, the population has already decided that England are going to win the competition and that Ukraine are no opposition at all, so perhaps it’s as well that this particular game is taking place in Rome.
Ukraine had some good fortune themselves in the last round, Sweden being reduced to ten men finally proving decisive at the death as they came through in extra-time. Having lost to Austria and the Netherlands thus far, for all that they will put up a fight, it’s hard to see past another England win and another clean sheet.
Baku hosts the other quarter-final on Saturday and an intriguing one it is, while simultaneously underlining what a flawed concept this pan-European competition is in requiring some sides to do so much travelling when others have done barely any.
The Czech Republic have looked tactically sound throughout and they certainly did a job on the Dutch, nullifying them and then going on to defeat them. Certainly de Ligt’s red card played a significant part in their win, but you have to capitalise on any luck you get and the Czechs did just that. Schick is becoming one of the stars of the tournament and they will offer a real test of Denmark’s growing belief.
Having recovered from losing Christian Eriksen in such horrifying fashion right at the start of the competition, the Danes are now a side to watch, scoring four times in their last two games, against Russia and Wales. Not the sternest tests perhaps, but the Euros have a habit of throwing up an outlier as winner – Portugal in 2016, Greece in 2004, the Danes themselves in 1992. The chance of the romantic end to it all, of Eriksen joining his teammates on the sidelines and lifting the trophy with them at Wembley, seems altogether too fanciful. But stranger things have happened…