What a ridiculous day.
Even the most fanciful of script-writers couldn’t have come up with this.
You couldn’t help but laugh at it all.
CROATIA 3-5 SPAIN (After Extra Time).
FRANCE 3 - 3 SWITZERLAND (4-5 on PENALTIES).
What on earth happened? Where had the defences disappeared to? Why did a rather conservative Euros suddenly go all laissez-faire on us?
There was something in the waters on Monday.
It wasn’t our place to question it though – our job was just to be present and to revel in it all.
Firstly, I should express my sympathy for the goalkeepers in both of today’s matches.
Between Unai Simón, Dominik Livaković, Hugo Lloris and Yann Sommer, there was an incredible amount of quality that did not deserve their blatant misfortune.
Simón will be the most adamant of those to express that sentiment; he was the victim of the day’s first goal, an aberration in which he was beaten by a backpass from his teammate Pedri.
The Athletic Bilbao shot-stopper more than atoned for his blushes there, with crucial saves in the second half and in extra time to prevent Croatia from going through.
Livaković, meanwhile, was simply overrun by attacking quality from the Spanish and lethargy from his teammates after a great comeback.
Having inherited their positions from truly great goalkeepers, credit is due to both these men for their stern spirit.
Meanwhile, in Bucharest, we saw two goalkeepers who were simply outclassed by the craziness of the occasion.
Lloris was beaten twice by close-range Haris Seferović headers, and then by a 90th-minute equaliser from Mario Gavranović that defied all laws of probability to take advantage of a chaotic French defence.
Sommer will face no inquests for Paul Pogba’s absolute wondergoal in the second half, while Karim Benzema’s quick-fire double was predatory, feasting on the scraps of Ricardo Rodríguez’s missed penalty.
To be a defender is perhaps no easier, but at least you have company.
None of these sides took advantage of that offer; they were open whenever possible, easy to pass through, ceding space and time to create.
When attacking talent of the calibre of Pogba, Benzema, Kylian Mbappé, Ferran Torres and, *ahem*, Alvaro Morata is present, that proves to be quite foolish.
Even when you do something right in either of these positions, though, there’s always the chance to make a far greater error.
Lloris saved from Rodríguez’s penalty to set up the French treble – which looked like sealing victory – but was powerless to resist the Swiss in an actual shoot-out.
Sommer, meanwhile, was absolutely heroic – by complete fine margins – in extra time and on penalties too.
He crucially denied Olivier Giroud to earn that shoot-out, and when the final of ten obligatory kicks came his way, denied Mbappé not with a fingertip, but with a whole right hand.
The French were out, inconceivably; shattering their image of indestructibility.
Pogba, for one, was shocked. The arrogance which made him look like a champion all game was shattered; he looked lost, without purpose.
That typified the French, and by having their entire psychology checked here, who knows where they will go next.
The Swiss face the Spanish in the Quarter Finals though, and this Euros had a day that broke the entire concept of what we expected.
Boy, oh boy, to be a player in this competition tomorrow.
Performance of the Day: I really can’t pick one today. Honestly. I think Simón was superb after his early setback, Sommer will obviously be the headline-grabber for his single save and, of the great number of forwards to score today, Benzema was top-notch. Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba led Spain brilliantly, while Granit Xhaka should also take great credit as a player who is so often criticised at club level.
Up Next: You might’ve already heard about this, but there’s an England v Germany game tomorrow. Wembley, 5pm, so the papers say. Two young teams in search of their full identity, plenty of talent and confusion, plenty of flaws. It will be so interesting to find out what happens.
Sweden v Ukraine follows to decide who takes on the winner from London’s game; it could be an underwhelming second part to the double-bill, but the English won’t care if they get the right result tomorrow.
Sleep well, everyone…
Sunday, Sunday, here again, a walk in the park.
The eternal words of Blur there for you.
Sundays are meant to be for unwinding, taking things at a slower pace.
Try telling that to the four sides we had in action today; the Netherlands and the Czech Republic in Budapest as part of the more open side of the draw, and the Belgians and Portuguese on the Andalusian coast, with both looking to avoid being the tournament’s first big casualty.
The action was at times mesmerising, at others shocking, but for the full duration, it was breathless.
A big part of that atmosphere was due to the amazing support given to both sides in Budapest, in our first game of the day.
I don’t think many would disagree when I suggest that the most memorable games of the tournament so far have all taken part in the Hungarian capital.
From the first time seeing a full stadium for many months, to the stunning point the hosts gained against France and the highest quality we’ve seen in Portugal v France, the Puskás Arena has been a magnet to great matches.
The meeting of the Dutch and the Czechs may not have necessarily been one, had the sides lived up to their tags.
Joyfully, though, they did not; the Czechs were far from dour and defensive, willing to have a go against the talented Dutch, whose flying wing-backs and speedy forwards would pose a threat to most teams in the competition.
There were vulnerabilities to both, which in the first-half were regularly exposed.
The Dutch often got Denzel Dumfries and Patrick van Aanholt in behind the Czech full-backs, leading to a couple of decent opportunities for Memphis Depay and Donyell Malen, while Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side were a constant threat from corners.
Any talk of this game would be worthless if it did not confront the obvious controversy of the red card, however.
Matthijs de Ligt was initially yellow carded for his handball when seeking a foul from Patrick Schick, but VAR and referee Sergey Karasev overturned that decision to serve the Juventus defender a sending-off.
The handball was cynical, and de Ligt panicked where he shouldn’t have.
Schick and co. took full advantage, with the Dutch’s loss of height and defensive stability certainly a factor when another corner came in, and Tomáš Kalas headed to namesake Tomáš Holeš, who sent the ball past Maarten Stekelenburg.
Suddenly, the Dutch bubble had burst. Oranjeboom, if you will.
They responded with very little, and when Holeš skipped away from Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield in the 80th minute, his square ball to Schick was finished with aplomb, and the game was done.
De Boer will find himself cast as the villain for this result, owing to his tactical missteps in the match and the tournament as a whole.
He has been fortunate to possess a Depay who is at the peak of his powers in a Dutch shirt, and by failing to provide support for him has thrown away a chance for silverware.
The Czechs, meanwhile, will go on to face Denmark in Baku for a Semi Final spot. They will again be second favourites, but with such a prize at stake, it will set up an outstandingly tense game.
In Seville, there was a much more star-studded line-up, yet for the most part the quality on both sides resulted in something of a stalemate.
Tactically, it was an intriguing battle. 3-4-3, of Roberto Martinez, up against Portugal’s more naturally offensive 4-3-3.
But we weren’t here to see these sides preventing space for their opponents. We were here to see the quality of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and their equals on show.
What ended up happening was a victory for tactics, rather than star power; a great metaphor for football as a whole.
Thorgan Hazard, the man most obviously always overshadowed by his stellar teammates, was the man to provide the winning moment after 42 minutes of solid, unbreakable defending.
The left-wing-back’s audacity to shoot from 20 yards out past Rui Patricio was admirable; his precision in executing an effort that swerved perfectly en route to goal was even better.
Patricio was powerless to resist, and Portugal were impotent in their attempts to get back into the game.
Their closest attempt in this battle came from Ruben Dias’ second-half bullet header, but Thibaut Courtois was equal to it.
In fact, the two most important men to Belgium as they held out were Courtois and Lukaku.
Both were immense, which contrasted with Portugal’s key players – Ronaldo kept quiet in front of goal, and Pepe finally showing his age at the back.
Between those two, there was a revolving door of energetic, but ultimately unsatisfying midfielders trying to make the breakthrough.
It all got a little crazy in an entertainingly open closing stage, with João Félix threatening most of anyone on the pitch.
But even he could not reel in Belgium, and in the end, it was Martinez’s side who emerged victorious, ready to take on Italy in the Quarter Finals.
Performance of the Day: Naturally, Holeš will take a massive acclaim for his role in downing the Dutch today. A goal and an assist in a knockout game where his side were not favourites, for a man who wasn’t a starter in the Czechs’ opening game against Scotland, is an outstanding return.
My pick, for sheer romance, though, is Belgium’s Thomas Vermaelen. At 35 years of age, playing his football for Japanese side Vissel Kobe these days, he was part of an outstanding three-man defence that silenced the (joint) greatest goalscorer in international football history. Of course, he has pedigree from his time at Arsenal and Barcelona, but this a great return for a man whose starting place is uncertain. Bravo, Tommy.
Up Next: On Monday, we continue our frantic RO16 charge with a further two matches – Croatia v Spain, a replay of a superb 2016 group stage tie, and France v Switzerland, a match-up that took place at both the 2014 World Cup and Eurovision 2021.
You literally can’t separate these boys. I mean, they border each other, it would be quite hard.
Anyway, vive le foot, and away we go on another manic Monday.
The never-ending march of time goes on, and so must the stages of these Euros.
Yep, that’s right, it’s Round of 16 o’clock.
With eight of the nations that started the tournament culled, we’re left with the crème de la crème of European talent, including such highlights as… an insipid Austria… an underwhelming Switzerland… and a low-scoring Czech Republic.
Say what you will about UEFA’s current format for the competition – it means I get another few days of this spectacle of football to write about, keeping me from further mischief.
Anyway, the introduction of this round for 2016 meant that today we had Wales v Denmark, as well as Italy v Austria, beamed to our screens.
In Amsterdam, Robert Page and Kasper Hjulmand were out to tactically outfox one another, with the Danes the favourites in the build-up but turning up across the North Sea with a couple of injury problems.
The absence of Yussuf Poulsen meant only Martin Braithwaite remained from the front three that started the tournament against Finland, an obvious issue even if Kasper Dolberg was an able replacement.
If anybody needed reminding of that, then the former Ajax forward’s 27th-minute strike past Danny Ward was more than adequate.
It was a stunning effort worthy of opening this round, with the Dane’s shot sweeping past a couple of bodies into the bottom right corner after the Welsh had made the stronger start.
Dolberg was the main threat after his goal, and the Welsh turned to a fairly aggressive game plan to stem the one-way traffic.
They did not make the most of that period of calm, however, when conceding just three minutes after half-time.
A poor defensive clearance from Neco Williams found Dolberg, who crashed past Ward.
The Danes eased through the second half after that, and Joakim Maehle netted superbly in the closing stages.
Harry Wilson was harshly red-carded for the Welsh, and Braithwaite rounded things off for a complete rout of the Dragons.
It was a remarkable victory considering the effort the Danes had to put into their victory over Russia only five days earlier, and even more so in light of the obvious absence of Christian Eriksen.
But it was what makes sport amazing – the continuation of a fabulous story of fortitude and determination.
At Wembley, the evening game saw Italy widely favoured, particularly after their faultless performance in the group stage.
Austria were the second-best team from the weakest group in the tournament, and so hardly merited mention against a genuine title contender.
They were perplexingly competent in the first half, however, with their 4-5-1 set-up proving frustrating for Italy, who had less time in midfield than in any of their previous matches.
Austria weren’t negative, either.
Marcel Sabitzer, Konrad Laimer and Christoph Baumgartner all threatened behind Marko Arnautovic, while the four-man defence employed by Franco Foda – who should never become a coach in Brazil – was solid in the face of Italy’s attack.
The closest either side came in the first half, despite some good attempts, was with Ciro Immobile’s sumptuous 20-yard strike onto the frame of Daniel Bachmann’s goal.
That remained the case until the 65th minute, when Austria were growing in confidence.
From Stefan Lainer’s cross, David Alaba headed on to Arnautović and the striker, a big ball of pissed-off aggression, nodded past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
A VAR check ensued – it turned out that Arnautović was offside.
You try telling him that, I’m not sure it would end well.
Yet that blow didn’t distract Austria; they stayed true to their tasks and Italy continued to be frustrated, eventually accepting extra time.
On the first night of knockout action, we had exactly the type of drama that knockouts should deliver.
Then, a moment of magic arrived.
Leonardo Spinazzola lifted a ball to the right of the box, Federico Chiesa darted in the space and nodded down the pass rather awkwardly.
The decisive moments in these situations usually arrive from such slim margins though, with Chiesa’s control perfect to then poke inside Laimer and pick his spot past Bachmann.
The Italians were overjoyed.
They toiled with the Austrians after, and took advantage of their fresh legs when another chance came the way of Francesco Acerbi, arriving in the box in the 105th minute.
Italy’s centre-back had the nous to hold up the ball and find the onrushing Matteo Pessina.
For the midfielder, it was as simple as a side-step and a blast on target to bag his second goal of the tournament.
Austria roared back in the second half of extra time, with Louis Schaub forcing a great save and Sabitzer scuffing a chance, but Saša Kalajdžić actually netting with a stooping header from a corner.
It was not enough for a full comeback, though, and Italy marched on at full-time to seal a date with Belgium or Portugal in the Quarter Finals.
Mark the date down, and come back tomorrow to find out who completes that tie. It ought to be a cracking Sunday.
Performance of the Day: Dolberg, it must be said, was outstanding for Denmark on the occasion of his first start in a major international tournament.
His two goals were daggers to Welsh hearts; the first just as his side were getting into the game and then as the Welsh sought a quick second-half reply. His hold-up play was also mightily impressive, and his ability to vary that with runs in behind proved Denmark’s flexibility.
The boy from Silkeborg’s got it, ya know.
Up Next: A veritable super Sunday – better than the usual Sky Sports fare anyway – begins as we welcome back the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Prepare for Memphis Depay exploiting space in behind a not-so-mobile Czech defence while Patrik Schick gets frustrated by a three-man Dutch backline. C’est magnifique.
This drama will be followed by Belgium v Portugal, a game involving two small nations who’ll never amount to anything in this tournament. Tune in if you fancy it…
Tuesday was a late night of action at these European Championships, with both games kicking off in the United Kingdom and forcing eastern parts of the continent to stay up late for the drama.
Group D’s British sides were both at home, needing their fans to roar them on to important results.
England, quite simply, needed to beat the Czech Republic to seal top spot, while for Scotland and Croatia the equation was a little more complicated; both requiring a win to go through, but not knowing whether it would be enough for second or third place.
So, let’s get down to it.
Gareth Southgate made four changes to his Three Lions side after a minor setback against Scotland, with Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish coming in for Tyrone Mings, Reece James, Phil Foden and the unavailable Mason Mount.
The virtues of Mount’s exclusion from this game, alongside Chelsea teammate Ben Chilwell, can be discussed and debated, but really, it’s a matter of bureaucracy as Southgate stated before and after this match.
Fortunately, all four of the players who regained their spots hit the ground running, and England had an early lift-off against the Czechs.
Saka twisted one way and then another on the right byline, Harry Kane worked it out to Grealish on the left, and a dinked cross to the far post providing a bounty for Raheem Sterling, who is well versed in feeding on such close-range service at Manchester City.
The headed finish by the shortest player on the pitch was perfect, and England had the goal they desperately needed after only 12 minutes.
They continued to pile the pressure on, too, making life hard for the Czechs on their first tournament visit to Wembley since the 1996 Euros Final.
On that occasion, the likes of Patrik Berger, Karel Poborský and Pavel Nedvěd were beaten by Germany via Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal. This current generation had a real task to get back in this and wrestle back top spot in the group.
To be fair to them, the Czechs did press hard, and after their initially defensive game plan was upset, their approach was far more positive.
While most were playing a stilted international game, though, Saka was the breath of fresh air, capturing his exciting form for Arsenal with free, jelly-legged wing play for the hosts.
With no more goals before half-time, the introduction of Jordan Henderson followed, and England could control the game to an even greater degree.
With all of their leaders on the pitch, an appropriately mature performance followed from Southgate’s team, but there was little attacking threat to speak of in the second half – from either side.
The defensive aspect of that was an area to commend England for, as they completed a set of three group games without conceding.
Interestingly, they were only the fourth different nation to achieve that at the Euros, after Italy at 1980 and here in 2021, Germany in 1996 and 2016, and Poland in 2016.
Only once has that coincided with winning the competition.
Regardless, England will take confidence from their ability to restrict opponents from this group stage – even if those opponents sometimes restricted themselves.
They have much more to give, and it’s just a matter of whether they can adapt and switch it on when playing a different type of opponent; one of Group F’s titans next, for example.
We shall see.
Meanwhile, there were matters north of the border to conclude.
Both sides made attacking changes for this fixture, but Croatia’s quality was expected to triumph.
So it proved, quite honestly, as Nikola Vlasic opened the scoring for the Croats when a cross was headed back by Ivan Perišić and Scott McTominay – converted from midfield to defence – seemed to pass over responsibility for Vlašić, only for nobody else to fill in.
Callum McGregor of course scored his wonderful 18-yard laser of an equaliser just before half-time, which the Scots did deserve for their hard work, but more pressure was to follow.
It was just unfortunate for Steve Clarke and his men that when that pressure came, it was in the form of a frustrated Luka Modrić, who was keen to stamp his authority on the tournament after a quiet couple of matches.
The class of Modric’s no-look, outside-of-the-boot strike in the 62nd minute was unquestionable, while his assist for Ivan Perisic’s headed goal in the 77th minute only sealed his evening’s work.
That will teach anyone to doubt the Croatians, and as they await Group E’s second-placed side in the Round of 16, you’d have to give them a reasonable chance against sides lacking firepower – either Sweden, Slovakia or Poland, you’d have to presume.
So that was it; the night done, and contrasting fortunes for all four teams. Ultimately, the group produced the order of sides many expected, albeit not in the manner that most could have foreseen.
The goals were perhaps lacking, but there were plenty of interesting lessons to take into the next round.
Performance of the Day: Luka Modrić claims this accolade today, based off what you’ve only just read! His second-half performance was match-winning against Scotland, exactly what the Croatians needed from their leader after such a stressful group stage. Here’s to hoping that he retains such style for the next round.
Up Next: The final group stage action we’ll have at these Euros! A 5pm-8pm double-header awaits us this Wednesday, with Group E the first to finish as Spain host Slovakia and Sweden face off against Poland. Expect low scoring, and the potential for one defensive mistake to decide who goes through.
It’ll be quite the opposite in Group F, where the evening should bring nerve-jangling events in Budapest, where Hungary welcome Germany, and Munich, where France and Portugal replay the 2016 final as all four sides have a real chance of making it into the last 16. Prepare yourselves, it’s about to get funky…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!