Right, here we are. Crunch time, make or break, in the 2020 European Championships group stages. The ultimate in multi-screen drama in sport.
Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration.
Group A at least had a worthy collection of storylines to kick us off in this manic run of games.
Italy, the only side really fancied to do anything in the tournament here, only needed a point to seal top spot and were exempt of the real stress.
Wales and Switzerland were separated by three points in their scrap over second place, but with the former visiting Italy and the latter facing a downtrodden Turkey in Baku, there was a probability of goal difference being involved.
I could either write 500 words on how exactly the stars aligned to make such a prediction come true, or I could just tell you that those predictions were exactly right.
Italy, still effective despite their eight changes, largely overran Wales in the mode of side that is flowing with confidence.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci and Jorginho were the three players considered too important to drop by Roberto Mancini, but were hardly the busiest players at the Stadio Olimpico.
Robert Page’s Wales were nullified, with their own three changes going some way towards this.
Kieffer Moore was conspicuous in his absence from their frontline, with Aaron Ramsey taking over a false nine role but never posing too many problems to Bonucci and defensive partner Alessandro Bastoni.
Instead, Wales’ determination to stick to a 3-4-3 formation enabled the three-man Italian midfield to thrive, and for Marco Verratti to stake a real claim for a starting berth in the knockout stages.
The combustible Paris St Germain midfielder ended the day as the busiest man with the ball – responsible for 12.8% of all possession according to WhoScored.com – and of course sliced the Welsh defence open with his 39th minute free kick to first man Matteo Pessina, who tucked past Danny Ward.
I can’t say I disagree with Ethan Ampadu’s dismissal, as he was late in challenging Federico Bernardeschi.
Page most likely won’t lose sleep over the decision, as Chris Mepham and Ben Davies are far superior defenders upon reflection of Wales’ entire group stage.
Switzerland v Turkey was an objectively more entertaining match, in the manner of being much more like what I can only imagine World Cup and Euros games of the 1930s-60s were as a spectacle.
It was almost ceaseless in its abandon of all things defensive, becoming open at every opportunity as both sides just threw their entire attacking power at the opponent’s goal.
It was beautiful chaos, too, as it produced some excellent strikes – the second-half effort from Turkey’s İrfan Kahveci being the strike of tournament for me, regardless of the attention Patrik Schick’s lob against Scotland will receive.
Switzerland were all angst, too; Haris Seferović and Xherdan Shaqiri looked appalled as they celebrated their first-half goals, making a point presumably towards their media.
To be fair, it was Seferović’s first goal in tournament football after a 12-match barren run; his only previous strike being on his first appearance on the big stage, against Ecuador in the 2014 World Cup.
But I can understand their frustration; they haven’t played badly in this competition, and just ran into an Italian team that wouldn’t take no for an answer in their last match.
Fortunately, Shaqiri sealed the win with a fine second-half goal on the counter, and they should surely get a place in the next round via the best third-placed side system.
The merits of such a system can be debated, but to keep Switzerland involved on this occasion, I think it would be entirely fair.
We shall see how it pans out!
Performance of the Day: Marco Verratti must take the plaudits after a performance that couldn’t have been too easy after being omitted from Italy’s first two group matches.
To harness that frustration in the form of an energetic, bustling performance was exactly what Mancini wanted, and demonstrates how Italy will be able to rely on depth and motivation when the next rounds truly test them here.
I think I’ve said this before about them, but it’s a scary proposition.
Up Next: An equally intimidating set of four fixtures await us tomorrow! Group C, firstly, concludes almost anti-climactically, with the Netherlands already assured of top spot and playing North Macedonia, who have next to no hope of getting through. Instead, keep your eyes on Austria v Ukraine, where it will likely be steely in Bucharest – who would rather earn the honour of getting knocked out by Italy in the Round of 16? At least you’d get a free trip to Wembley…
Then, Group B gets finalised with Russia v Denmark – a battle for second place, you’d have to presume, despite the Danes’ lack of points so far – and Finland v Belgium, where the Scandinavians will try to hold out for as long as possible. It promises to be a fascinating, and tiring, day. Rest easy!
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!