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Euro 2020 has reached the quarterfinal stage after a thrilling round of 16 that ended with defending European champions Portugal and 2018 World Cup winner France being eliminated. Our writers weigh in with their views on some big questions.
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What were your round-of-16 highlights?
Gab Marcotti: The sheer drama of most of the games: Croatia’s comeback against Spain, Switzerland’s comeback against France, Ukraine’s winner against Sweden, the scares that both Belgium and Italy got. And there was a ton of breathtaking skill as well, though I think I liked Paul Pogba’s goal (and celebration) best. Overshadowed in all this is one of the best storylines of the tournament in my opinion, Denmark’s run to the quarterfinals. And while the England vs. Germany game was a bit of a dud, sometimes football is all about the outcome and that’s OK, too.
Mark Ogden: The day that gave us Spain vs. Croatia and France vs. Switzerland will go down as one of the most memorable and exhilarating at any tournament. But my highlight was being at Wembley for England’s 2-0 victory against Germany to witness, and hear, the explosion of joy and relief that greeted Harry Kane’s goal — England’s second — which confirmed the win. England hadn’t beaten Germany in a knockout game at a tournament since 1966, and it has weighed heavily on previous teams. But this victory was a cathartic one, and it seemed as though 55 years of pent-up frustration was released at the final whistle.
James Olley: Being at Wembley to witness England beat Germany in a tournament knockout match for the first time in 55 years. The stadium may only have been half-full, but it has never been louder for an international fixture. There was a real sense that anything could be possible, in part created by results elsewhere in what is surely one of the most entertaining knockout rounds there has ever been. Spain’s victory over Croatia will take some beating as the game of the tournament, but Switzerland’s comeback against France was more dramatic given they were 3-1 down with nine minutes left.
Julien Laurens: In terms of pure drama, and even if it broke my heart, France vs. Switzerland was just exceptional. It will forever be a classic in Euros history. There was everything: the upset, the penalties, Karim Benzema’s control for his equaliser, the Swiss comeback, Didier Deschamps’ tactical shambles, the belief. Another highlight was Raheem Sterling feeling at home at Wembley again and kicking the Germans out of London. Spain vs. Croatia was mad, too, another classic. Credit to Alvaro Morata and Luis Enrique for never giving up and believing in themselves and their team — it paid off.
Rob Dawson: Spain vs. Croatia and France vs. Switzerland were both thrilling games. If you’re a neutral, you can’t beat a late fightback from nowhere. In terms of individual moments, it’s hard to look past England’s win over Germany. In his postmatch interview, Gareth Southgate spoke about seeing his old teammate David Seaman smiling on the big screen at Wembley and that he hoped he had managed to ease some of memories from Euro ’96, when he missed in the shootout against Germany in the semifinal and England went out. You could tell something had lifted from his shoulders, and it was mirrored all over the country.
Tom Hamilton: We’ve been overindulged with this round of matches. Each was fascinating and exhilarating in its own way, with Spain’s 5-3 win over Croatia an astonishing seesaw of a game, and then later matched by Switzerland’s penalty shootout win over France. Pogba’s goal was fantastic, as was Thorgan Hazard’s winner for Belgium against Portugal. Also, spare a thought for Benzema’s Dennis Bergkamp-esque first goal against the Swiss, while will fall into the haze of France’s exit. And it’s been impossible not to get caught up with Denmark’s journey through these Euros with Kasper Dolberg their latest hero. But after everything he’s weathered in this tournament, you had to smile when Morata scored against Switzerland. He’s been near the headlines the whole way through this championship — for better for worse — and he deserved his goal.
Do you need to revise the final match-up you predicted before the last 16?
Olley: Er, just a little. France were my clear pre-tournament favourites, even in the tough half of the draw, and Switzerland looked the perfect springboard into the latter stages. To make it worse, I thought Netherlands would push on after three Group C wins. Italy against Belgium is too close to call, but Austria caused the Italians problems and Belgium’s greater firepower can win the day. England have it in their hands to reach the final from the other half.
Laurens: I do need to revise my final match-up because I predicted a France vs. Germany final and they have both been eliminated! One side of the draw is easy to call now: England will go to the final because no one in that bracket can stop them. The other side of the draw is tougher to predict. I will go this time for a place in the final for Belgium. They have learnt a lot from the 2018 World Cup and their semifinal defeat against France. Now this group of players are ready for their first final and for a first trophy in a big tournament.
Dawson: My prediction was France vs. England, but that was before France bottled it against Switzerland after being 3-1 up with 10 minutes to go. England should make it out of a bracket containing Ukraine, Denmark and Czech Republic. Even though Belgium have got the toughest quarterfinal against Italy, they have the players to get to Wembley on July 11, too.
Hamilton: Well my shout of France reaching the final and winning the whole thing now looks a little foolish, so let’s go for an Italy-England match-up on July 11 at Wembley. I tipped Denmark to go far in the tournament from the outset and they could yet surprise us all and win the championship, while Belgium are ticking along nicely, but I fear injuries could derail their bid. Italy are brilliantly coached by Roberto Mancini, and with England riding the crest of the wave after their win over Germany, that could be a very tasty match-up in the final.
Marcotti: I had Belgium vs. Germany, so obviously I need to revise Germany since they lost. Logic suggests England at this point, but I still want to believe in the Danish fairy tale, so I’ll go with them. I’m less confident about Belgium following Kevin De Bruyne’s injury, but feel I should stick with them.
Ogden: I predicted a France vs. England final prior to the round of 16, but wouldn’t have been surprised if England had succumbed to Germany. France losing to Switzerland was never in the equation, though, and the world champions’ defeat has blown Euro 2020 wide open. With Les Bleus out, I am going for Belgium to reach the final instead — but it all depends on the fitness of De Bruyne and Eden Hazard for their quarterfinal against Italy.
Tim Howard says Spain’s ten goals in two games make them a frightening prospect for any opponent.
Which coaches have impressed you, and who has struggled?
Dawson: Luis Enrique showed how strong a character he is by sticking with Alvaro Morata when the easy decision would have been to bow to outside pressure and pick someone else. It paid off, and not only because Morata scored Spain’s fourth goal in their 5-3 win over Croatia. His all-round performance was fantastic, especially the way he held the ball up and brought others into the game. Kylian Mbappe missed the decisive penalty for France against Switzerland, but Deschamps should take most of the blame for the result. There was no need to change his system, and it put France on the back foot from the first whistle.
Hamilton: Denmark’s Kasper Hjulmand has been my star of the tournament. He’s managed to navigate everything that’s been thrown at his side, and still they play wonderful football and have a real shot at winning this tournament. Luis Enrique has stayed true to his coaching philosophy and that’s finally paid off, while England’s Southgate and Italy’s Mancini have both made bold choices which have paid off. But for those who have struggled, look no further than the managers already back home, in France’s Deschamps and Germany’s Joachim Low. Both teams have been far poorer than the sum of their parts.
Marcotti: Mancini, tactically, has been hugely impressive in the way he reinvented Italy and this group of players. Luis Enrique, too, is very good, though his personnel choices leave me scratching my head sometimes. And I have to give a shout out to Hjulmand, just from a man-management perspective, given what Denmark have been through. On the flipside, Frank de Boer lived down to expectations I guess. I knew Low was going to struggle, I didn’t expect it to be to this degree. As for Deschamps, I’ve long been a critic, so I can’t say I’m surprised, but switching to a back three was such an extreme choice (and an extremely bad one), I can’t let it go without mention.
Ogden: Vladimir Petkovic has been in charge of Switzerland since 2014, but he rarely earns headlines or receives plaudits. Perhaps Deschamps and France underestimated him ahead of their meeting in Bucharest because Petkovic inspired the Swiss to a famous victory with a tactical game plan and smart use of substitutions. Switzerland are well organised, but they also have flair, and that is down to Petkovic’s astute coaching. As for strugglers, Low looked like a man out of ideas during Germany’s brief stay at the tournament. He has overseen a period of success during his 15-year reign, but he should have left after their group-stage exit at the last World Cup.
Olley: Southgate deserves credit for tackling this tournament with a clear plan. It has caused consternation among some England fans, chiefly because it isn’t what anyone expected: A squad brimming with attacking potential has prioritised safety-first football and defensive stability. It isn’t pretty — and there remains a suspicion the balance could tip too far the other way — but it is highly effective. Contrast that with Germany’s Low, who had talented players at his disposal but never moulded them into an effective unit during the tournament, albeit still finding a way to put four goals past Portugal. Equally, Deschamps’ decision to change system and personnel against Switzerland clearly contributed to France’s surprising exit given how much they improved when going back to a more trusted 4-4-2 shape in the second half, only to then fail to tighten things up to close the game out.
Laurens: Let’s start with the disappointments. France’ failure is on Deschamps. He picked the wrong tactics and the wrong players against Switzerland. Fernando Santos’ choices for Portugal were as bad against Belgium, while De Boer failed as soon as the level of Netherlands’ opponents rose, and it was still only Czech Republic. But well done to Luis Enrique for always believing and not changing anything for Spain, to Mancini and Hjulmand for giving Italy and Denmark a real identity and to Roberto Martinez and Southgate for having dealt well so far with extreme pressure.
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We have seen nine own goals; any theories as to why?
Ogden: When you consider the individual own goals, it can be nothing more than a bizarre coincidence that so many have been scored. There is no direct comparison, for instance, between Martin Dubravka’s own goal for Slovakia against Spain and Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon’s failure to connect with Pedri’s back-pass against Croatia. A lack of familiarity with the tournament ball may be a small factor, but a ball is a ball — it’s round and it moves, so blaming the ball would be looking for excuses.
Marcotti: I think it’s just sample size and randomness. Two of the goalkeeper own goals were freak mistakes. I don’t think there’s much to read into it other than domestic leagues seem to be a bit happier awarding goals even with big deflections, possibly because it suits both the attacker and the defender. UEFA seem a bit more rational in that regard.
Olley: A cynic might argue it is the consequence of a dilution in quality arising from an increase to 24 participants given the second-highest number of own goals (three) occurred at Euro 2016, when the format changed for the first time. But the elite nations have been heavily involved. And the two Portugal ‘scored’ came from overloads in wide areas and defenders left with little alternative. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Germany’s Mats Hummels against France. That can happen anywhere — Dubravka is unlikely to make the same mistake he did against Spain for the rest of his career. Ditto Simon’s error for Spain against Croatia.
Laurens: Is there a rational explanation? Not really; more bad luck and bad plays. There were moments of pure madness, from Dubravka smashing the ball into his own net or Simon thinking about his pass before even controlling the ball. And moments of pure mediocrity like when Hummels and Juraj Kucka couldn’t get their feet right. Merih Demiral, Ruben Dias and Raphael Guerreiro are all really good players but they were victims of great crosses. Wojciech Szczesny and Lukas Hradecky were unlucky with the ball bouncing off the woodwork onto them.
Dawson: It’s an anomaly. You can’t account for mistakes like Dubravka’s or Simon’s. Play the same tournament another nine times and you wouldn’t get the same number of own goals. It’s just one of those things that can happen in football.
Hamilton: A large swathe of players in this tournament will no doubt be suffering from mental fatigue after this never-ending season, and so this may have impacted some of the decision making at key moments. A couple of own goals — Demiral’s and Hummels in their respective openers — can be accounted for by poor positioning. Some have just been plain unlucky: Szczesny could have done nothing about his own goal against Slovakia when the ball rebounded off his post to hit him and go in. Then you had Croatia’s farcical opener against Spain, as Pedri’s back-pass slipped past Simon. There doesn’t seem to be any uniting factor between the nine, other than football’s staples of misfortune: bad luck and pressure.