Friday, July 30, 2021

EURO 2020: Five Takeaways from the UEFA European Championship

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It’s over. The European Championship, officially labelled as Euro 2020 due to the reason most obvious, came to its end on Sunday evening as Italy took the trophy and the crown of the continent from England, back to Rome. The prophecy the Azzurri fans had come up with in response to England’s “It’s coming home” – “It’s coming to Rome” has been proven true.

It was a rather exciting tournament, with plenty of good football and a few surprises along the way, two ingredients necessary to make an exciting international tournament. Mind, not everything went exactly as planned and not all we saw was positive. Let’s take it from the start.

Christian Eriksen

Italy had comprehensively beaten Turkey in the tournament opener and Wales had just drawn with Switzerland, when the fateful clash between Denmark and Finland in Copenhagen came. Minute 42 was on when Christian Eriksen stepped forward to receive the ball from a throw-in, before stumbling inexplicably and going to ground, where he remained unmoving.

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The medical staff reacted quickly to the frantic calls of the players of both teams as well as referee Anthony Taylor, and after a few minutes of bitter struggle, they managed to save the life of the Inter Milan midfielder whose heart had stopped due to a cardiac arrest. To this day it remains unclear, probably to Eriksen himself as well, whether he will ever play football professionally again. Common sense says it’s not very likely, despite the levels medical science has reached these days and the fact that top-level professional players get the best medical care out there.

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This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Most of the football lovers throughout the world remember Fabrice Muamba, whose heart stopped for 78 minutes during the 2012 FA Cup semifinal between his Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Muamba himself said that what happened to Eriksen brought back some painful memories for him.

The incident brought forth disputes about the burden laid on the players these days, when football institutions keep thinking up new competitions or devising changes for the existing ones, all with the aim of having more games played and more money earned that way. At the same time, TV broadcasters are fiddling with schedules to fit their own agendas as well, having paid handsomely for the right to do so.

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Rarely is a second’s thought spared for the welfare of the players themselves, and there are some who believe that is as it should be, given the vast wages they earn. But situations like the one that happened in the game between Denmark and Finland, when a 29-year-old man, a husband and a father, came within an inch of losing his life, remind that these people are still flesh and blood, not robots. The institutions in the game and the TV broadcasters would do well to remember that in the future.

That aside, the rest of the Denmark team showed fantastic levels of resilience and motivation in the days and weeks that followed, reaching the semifinals of the tournament against the odds and very narrowly missing out on the final.

Well done, Denmark.

Surprise, surprise

As has been said, there were a couple of unexpected results in this tournament. Some would perhaps name the final score between Denmark and Finland (0-1 Finland victory) among them, but with everything described in mind, it hardly qualifies. There have been, however, some other things that not many would have expected.

Hungary

In a way, Hungary were perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Pitted against reigning world champions France, defending European champions Portugal and 2014 World Cup winners Germany in Group F, they were mostly seen as the team to serve as goal-difference booster for the other three. In the end, they proved anything but that.

In the opening round, Marco Rossi’s team put out a fine defensive display and held out admirably against Portugal for 84 minutes, even threatening quite seriously at the other end on several occasions, before breaking down in the final stretch. They did more against France and Germany, scoring first (twice against Germany), forcing both these teams to chase the result and remaining undefeated.

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Naturally, the two points weren’t enough to see them through to the knockout stage, but like Denmark, Hungary left the tournament with their heads held high.

Switzerland

One glance at the Switzerland player list should tell you that this is a very good team, with a very good goalkeeper, classy defenders, powerful midfielders and creative attackers. Therefore, it was hardly a surprise that they managed to get out of Group A, featuring Italy, Wales and Turkey. But what followed certainly was.

France were seen as one of the favourites to win the tournament, and rightly so. If Switzerland boast good players, what can you say about the reigning world champions? What can you say about Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Raphael Varane,…?

Finishing top of the ‘group of death’, they went on to face the Swiss in the round of 16 and got a nasty shock. Overturning Haris Seferovic’s early opener through a Benzema brace and a superb strike from Pogba, they were 3-1 up going into the final 10 minutes, and few will have seen a way back for Vladimir Petkovic’s team at that point. But then Seferovic struck again, and substitute Mario Gavranovic stunned the onlookers with a last-gasp equalizer.

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With none other than Mbappe missing the final penalty for France, Switzerland booked their place in the quarterfinals with a victory set to be remembered for a long time in the country, despite the team going out of the tournament at the hands of Spain later.

The Czech Republic

In light of Switzerland’s triumph over France and many other important moments, many overlook the fact that the Czech Republic also reached the quarterfinals against all odds. Going through a difficult Group D, with England, Croatia and Scotland as the opposition, they did well in that alone, but like Switzerland, they were seen as heavy underdogs in the round of 16, facing up to Netherlands.

Jaroslav Silhavy’s team defended reasonably well against the uninspired-looking favourites for 55 minutes, and then a bad mistake by Juventus youngster Matthijs de Ligt left the Dutch a man down. The Czechs seized the opportunity and pounced, taking the lead through Thomas Holes 13 minutes later and doubling it through Patrik Schick with 10 minutes to go. The subsequent defeat to Denmark doesn’t make their success this tournament any less.

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Schick turned out to be a surprise on his own, it has to be said. Most people saw the likes of Benzema, Mbappe, or Harry Kane, as the forwards likeliest to challenge the incredible Cristiano Ronaldo for the Golden Boot, but in the end, it was Schick who ended level with the Portuguese five-time Ballon d’Or winner with five goals.

Not at home

Following the final played on Sunday evening, the tactics and personnel choices of England boss Gareth Southgate are being discussed far and wide. Meanwhile, looking at their matches throughout the tournament, England do appear to have been lucky right up to the last moment.

On paper, Group D wasn’t easy to win, but Croatia, their arguably main rivals for the top spot, delivered an uninspired performance in a 1-0 defeat at their hands and they are notably a better team than the Czech Republic and Scotland, even though they failed to beat the latter.

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It was expected that they’d have some difficulty against Germany in the round of 16, but they deservedly won that match, condemning Joachim Low to ending his long spell as the Germany boss with a bitter defeat. They had no difficulty in getting past Ukraine in the quarterfinals, which is more than can be said for the semi against Denmark when a debatable extra-time penalty helped them come within a step from taking football ‘home’.

The final started in the best way imaginable, with Luke Shaw breaking the deadlock in the second minute, but from that point on Italy were mostly the better team and deservedly equalized through Leonardo Bonucci in the 67th. The game once again went into extra time and this time the winner had to be settled in a penalty shootout. Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho (both were introduced very late to be among the takers) and Bukayo Saka all failed to score from the spot, making the misses of Andrea Belotti and Jorginho insignificant as Italy lifted the trophy.

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It was now England’s turn to leave the tournament with a bitter taste in their mouth, after their supporters chanted the famous “It’s coming home” throughout its course. Having reached a major international final for the first time since their World Cup triumph in 1966, the hopes of the nation that prides itself on inventing the game were truly high; but in the end it was not to be. It was as close as possible, but Italy proved too much to handle for their quality, and even their luck which obviously ran out at a critical moment, despite the booming support from the Wembley stands.

Further more, England have been fined €30,000 for a laser pen that shone in the face of Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel as Kane stepped up to take his penalty in the semi-final. There is probably more to come from UEFA on that front, after a large number of supporters caused a riot outside Wembley and broke into the stadium itself ahead of (and during) the final. Several journalists present described the situation as unsafe, and the police will no doubt have a lot of work on their hands to identify and duly process the numerous culprits.

And as if England players needed any more woe to hit them, the three players that missed in the penalty shootout have all received severe racist abuse via social platforms. A sad, despicable act of a group of mindless individuals, but hardly unexpected given all the examples of it we’ve witnessed in recent years.

On the bright side, England have a very good team built of players in or yet to reach their prime, and Southgate should certainly be given credit for giving it shape and purpose. Reaching a major tournament final, however lucky or otherwise the path to it may be, is no small feat. Every sensible person among their supporters will be looking forward to the 2022 World Cup with hope quickly renewed.

It’s gone to Rome

Whatever England fans may be feeling, Italy are the worthy winners of Euro 2020. Smashing Turkey in the opener and Switzerland in the second round, they completed the group stage with a win over Wales as well to clinch the top spot in Group A in a convincing manner. They went on to beat a very stubborn Austria side through extra time, then the team topping the FIFA rankings in Belgium, and eventually Spain on penalties to reach the final. Therefore, unlike that of England, their path to glory was anything but easy.

But throughout the tournament, Roberto Mancini’s team showed superb quality for most of the time, and when that wouldn’t serve, they had incredible amounts of desire and fight in them, sufficient in the end to overcome anything that stood in their way.

It certainly wasn’t easy for Italy in the final either. Faced with an extremely hostile Wembley atmosphere, where loud boos accompanied every touch of the ball and cheers followed every missed shot, they held their own well and reacted immensely to going a goal down within two minutes. They took control of the game completely, and never once wavered until they set the score level. A scrappy finish it was by Bonucci, but it did the job. In the end, luck turned its back on England for once, particularly for Rashford’s shot from the spot as the Manchester United forward sent Gianluigi Donnarumma the wrong way but hit the post.

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Italy also have a number of important player who will be playing for a while yet in Donnarumma, Nicolo Barella, Jorginho, Federico Chiesa, Manuel Locatelli and several others. However, it will be quite a job in the near future to sound out suitable successors to Bonucci (34) and Giorgio Chiellini (36) in the heart of defence. These two players have arguably deserved this trophy the most.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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