Dejection for Ronaldo as Belgium sneak through
Cristiano Ronaldo looked towards the sky, threw off his captain’s armband, then sunk to the turf shaking his head.
This has been a tournament in which he has sent records tumbling, overtaking Miroslav Klose to become the top-scoring European player at major tournaments and equalling the all-time international scoring record set by Iran’s Ali Daei on 109 goals.
But the final whistle in Seville confirmed that it will not end with him holding the trophy aloft.
Portugal, the reigning champions following their triumph over France in 2016, are heading home at the last-16 stage after a 1-0 loss to Belgium which may turn out to be the 36-year-old Ronaldo’s final appearance at a European Championship.
He had his moments at Estadio Olimpico de la Cartuja, forcing a sprawling save from Thibaut Courtois with a powerfully-struck free-kick in the first half and pulling out some nimble footwork to tee up Diogo Jota after the break. But his best efforts were not enough in the end.
His extraordinary legacy will live on, of course, and his five-goal haul in the group stage suggests he may defy his age for a lot longer yet. But perhaps the future belongs to Belgium rather than Portugal.
Roberto Martinez’s side were a long way from their best in Seville. They only mustered six shots to Portugal’s 23 over the course of the 90 minutes and spent most of the second period with their backs firmly against the wall as the holders pushed for an equaliser.
But their show of resilience bodes well for a side whose attacking qualities are already well known, but whose defence is usually viewed as a weakness.
It certainly did not look like a weakness on Sunday night. Courtois provided a reminder of his world-class stature in goal, most notably when he denied Andre Silva from close range in the final few minutes, and the players in front of him were just as impressive.
Thomas Vermaelen marshalled the backline superbly, while Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, former team-mates at Tottenham, showed all of their experience either side of him, forcing Ronaldo to go looking for the ball in deeper areas and keeping clear chances to a minimum.
With doubts now surrounding Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard’s availability for Friday’s quarter-final against Italy, Belgium will need their defensive players to deliver again. But if they can keep Ronaldo at bay, then they can surely stop Ciro Immobile and the rest too.
Dutch critics sharpen their axes again
Frank de Boer cut a dejected figure at the final whistle at the Puskas Arena, aware the sceptics will be back out in force following the shock exit for the Netherlands at the hands of the Czech Republic. He had promised to “swim in the canals of Amsterdam”, if his side went all the way to the Wembley final and lifted the trophy for only the second time in their history.
The Netherlands imploded after De Ligt was sent off for a cynical handball 10 minutes into the second half. It came within a minute which effectively turned the game on its head.
Donyell Malen hesitated with several opportunities – none more so than when sprinting through the Czech defence to go one-on-one with Tomas Vaclik, before having the ball snatched away from his feet as he tried to round the ‘keeper. Within 60 seconds, De Ligt was dismissed.
Despite showing glimpses of the same swashbuckling football which had served them so well during a gentle group stage, with their overlapping runs and passing ability, De Boer’s side ultimately failed to muster a single shot on target, managing just one attempt overall in the second period.
Quincy Promes was introduced as the head coach sought a solution, but the Czechs assumed control and might have won by more than the two goals in the end.
“The first Czech goal was coming,” Gary Neville said in the ITV studio. “They had the Dutch on the ropes. De Boer’s men wilted like you wouldn’t believe… they looked really poor after the sending off. They didn’t tactically adapt. They capitulated.”
A tournament which promised so much has been brought to another abrupt end. This was an ill-timed, sobering lesson. Having now lost their last three Euro final tournament knockout-phase matches, De Boer will hope to have the opportunity to continue the rebuild ahead of Qatar.
Czechs: Can we play you every tournament?
At elite level, there is no doubt the margins of victory are very fine, but there are always certain teams you love coming up against.
The Czech Republic have scored two or more goals in five of their last seven international matches against the Netherlands, including both of their meetings in this run which came at the European Championships (the other a 3-2 win at Euro 2004).
As they celebrated a famous 2-0 victory in Budapest on Sunday, their head coach Jaroslav Silhavy afforded himself a broad smile as wide as the River Vltava.
Preparations had been far from ideal for the Czechs, stripped of their captain Vladimir Darida through injury. To make matters worse, their flight to Budapest was cancelled on Saturday morning when an inflatable emergency slide was accidentally deployed on their private plane.
But Silhavy ensured his players fell on the right side of a game which was evenly poised as the hour-mark approached and turned in their favour after De Ligt’s moment of madness. The ruthless way in which they “punched and punched” the Dutch, as Neville noted, made this a fully-deserved victory.
“They were the favourites in this game, it is an unreal feeling to beat such a team 2-0,” said Tomas Holes, scorer of the first goal. “They were better with the ball, we struggled, but thanks to our team performance, we did not give them much space.”
The format of this competition provides second opportunities, and Czech Republic have turned around their Euro 2020 fortunes to book a quarter-final clash with Denmark having only reached the knockout phase after finishing third in their group.
For all the talk of permutations, tournaments never pan out quite how you imagine. There is no denying this side of the draw is becoming increasingly appetising for England, but beware these dark horses.
Having overcome their own case of adversity, Patrik Schick and co will believe they can replicate their runners-up place at Euro 96 and dream of going one better.
Brave Austria add doubt to Italy’s title hopes
After impressing through the group phase, the stage was set at Wembley for Italy to put on a show for their fans, who massively outnumbered their Austrian counterparts inside the stadium. Italy had played their first three matches in Rome but this was like a home from home.
With the sun shining and Italian songs in the stands, there was plenty for their supporters to like about their play in the first half, too, as Roberto Mancini’s side demonstrated the gap in quality between the teams.
If Ciro Immobile’s shot had gone in rather than crashed against the woodwork it would have given the Azzurri a fully deserved lead at the break, while the surging runs of Leonardo Spinazzola and his combination play with Lorenzo Insigne had the fans out of their seats.
But Italy’s drop-off in the second half was a shock. They were suddenly sloppy and sluggish all over the pitch and an inspired Austria capitalised to give them a real scare, with VAR denying Marko Arnautovic a headed opener.
Substitutes Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina eventually saved the day – and underlined the strength in depth of this Italian squad – but after Sasa Kalajdzic scored late on to set up a nervy finale, following a flurry of Austria openings, many would have walked away from Wembley reassessing the chances of Italy going all the way at these Euros.
The defence suddenly didn’t seem as watertight. The flow in attack not as fluid. With Portugal or Belgium in Munich up next in the quarter-finals and then France or Spain their likely opponents after that, Italy are going to have to do it the hard way in this tournament – and they will have to be much sharper in those matches than they were at Wembley.
Of course, those sides will present different challenges to Italy, while Mancini can point to the spirit his side showed to battle through in the end and maintain their remarkable unbeaten streak of 31 games. But brave Austria have taken some of the shine off Italy’s fast start to Euro 2020 and it will be fascinating to see how they respond.
New stars emerge in Eriksen’s absence
And so Denmark march on.
It is only a fortnight since Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest in their opening group game against Finland, but those traumatic events at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium, from which Eriksen is now recovering, appear to have galvanised Kasper Hjulmand’s men.
The Danes became the first side in European Championship history to reach the knockout stages having lost their first two group games thanks to their thrilling and emotional 4-1 win over Russia, and they followed that up with an even better display against Wales.
They are shorn of their biggest star in Eriksen, whose plight now serves as their inspiration, but new ones are emerging in his absence and there is a growing feeling that Denmark, champions in 1992, may be capable of repeating that extraordinary feat.
Kasper Dolberg was the outstanding performer against Wales, seizing his opportunity in Yussuf Poulsen’s absence with two goals, but wing-back Joakim Maehle was just as impressive, scoring for the second consecutive game, and then there is Mikkel Damsgaard.
The 20-year-old, an attacking midfielder who plays for Sampdoria in Italy, became the youngest Danish player to score at a European Championship when he struck the opener against Russia and he produced another eye-catching performance in Amsterdam.
Damsgaard lined up on the left-hand side of Denmark’s attack but drifted all over the final third, with Wales unable to contain him.
He was the architect of the opening goal, wriggling away from Aaron Ramsey and feeding scorer Dolberg, but that was just one of many excellent individual moments.
Damsgaard already looks like one of the tournament’s breakout players and he and Denmark’s other rising stars will now continue their emotional bid for glory against either the Netherlands or the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.
Have Wales seen the last of Gareth Bale?
For Denmark, it feels like 1992 all over again, but this was far from a Super Saturday for Wales. Alun Wyn Jones was ruled out of the Lions tour of South Africa just as the footwork of Kasper Dolberg was leading them on a merry dance in Amsterdam.
To continue the comparisons with that summer when Denmark were surprise winners of this competition, Dolberg became the second Danish player to score two goals in a knockout game at a major tournament after Henrik Larsen against the Netherlands 29 years ago.
Now, they could well meet in the last four, but Wales never really got going. Other than the opening 10 minutes, they rarely threatened.
Having travelled 5,350 miles from Baku to Rome onto the Netherlands, Wales looked weary and out of sorts, unable to respond to Kasper Hjulmand’s decision to move Andreas Christensen into midfield to limit the impact of Aaron Ramsey.
It was an achievement in itself that Robert Page’s side got through the group stages, having made Turkey look so poor in their second game in Baku, but his players were drowned out by 16,000 Danes galvanising their team at the Johan Cruyff Arena.
Page will hope this is a vital learning curve for the young players in his squad, who have the added experience of facing Italy and being outclassed by a well-drilled Denmark side. After all, this is a squad with the third-youngest average age in the tournament.
A fourth red card in their last seven matches rubbed salt into Welsh wounds, and Page will look to address issues of leadership and ill-discipline to ensure their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign stays on track through the autumn.
By then, he will know if Gareth Bale will be part of his plans moving forward, with speculation over his future within the game.
The 31-year-old has now gone 15 games without scoring for his country, and while injuries have stalled his career, you still sense Wales’ presence in Qatar hinges on the decision of their talisman.