Expected the unexpected at captivating Euros
“Expect the unexpected” was effectively the tag line to the 2020/21 Premier League season and this summer’s Euros is throwing up unpredictable twists and turns in similar fashion.
Monday’s last-16 ties summed it up. First there was the epic between Croatia and Spain, with Luka Modric’s men picking themselves up off the floor to mount a last-gasp comeback before eventually succumbing in extra-time.
Where Croatia went close, Switzerland conquered, beating France in one of the most exciting tournament games of recent times.
We briefly saw the Euros favourites at their best – but the Swiss refused to lie down and in the end it was superstar Kylian Mbappe, of all people, who slipped up from the penalty spot. A huge upset.
Czech Republic had been celebrating their own unlikely triumph over a previously impressive Netherlands side 24 hours earlier, while Austria, in their first Euros knockout game, took Italy to extra-time and became the surprise breakers of the Azzurri’s streak of clean sheets.
Even the group stage format, which was anticipated to be a bland affair, provided real drama in several final-game matches.
Perhaps it is the structure of the tournament, with teams travelling across the continent, or the result of a hard, compacted season taking its toll on players. Perhaps there is more strength in depth now in these competitions, or maybe the rub of the green has simply gone the underdog’s way.
Whatever the factors behind the drama, it has made for a captivating tournament, with every team still standing believing they can capture the ultimate prize.
“Expected the unexpected.” Perhaps that is the positive phrase nervous, pessimistic England fans can repeat to themselves before Tuesday’s last-16 game at Wembley kicks off…
Deschamps’ tactics prove costly for France
It was a night that tournament favourites France were meant to spring into life and show everyone just why many pundits thought they were the team to beat at Euro 2020.
However, we only saw the real France for 30 minutes against Switzerland, and in the end it wasn’t enough as Didier Deschamps’ side failed to reach the quarter-final stage of a major tournament for the first time since the 2010 World Cup.
Kylian Mbappe may have missed the decisive spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out, but Deschamps has to shoulder a lot of the blame for France’s bad night in Bucharest.
“I thought Switzerland would be the perfect opponents to springboard the French assault on the tournament. But they have shocked us all. I am stunned by what l have just seen in the last 120 minutes,” Sky Sports’ Gary Neville said on ITV. “It was a mess for France from the first minute. They were complacent and the system in the first half was all wrong – the players didn’t have a clue what they were doing.”
Roy Keane was equally damning. “The French turned up with the wrong attitude,” he said. “I am glad they have got punished for that. You can have all the quality in the world, but if you don’t turn up with the right attitude it’s hard to turn it back on.”
France looked all at sea in the opening 45 minutes. Playing three at the back – a system they didn’t look all that comfortable playing against Sweden and Croatia in the UEFA Nations League last September – they just couldn’t get into the game.
We did what we needed to in order to go 3-1 up and then we showed weakness, something unusual for us. Losing on penalties is always cruel for a team.
The dire performance forced Deschamps into ripping up his tactics, reverting to a back four and we saw a glimpse of the France we all expected as Hugo Lloris’ penalty save, Karim Benzema’s double and Paul Pogba’s stunner put them on course for the quarter-finals.
But France, who were so resolute on their way to winning the World Cup back in 2018, showed frailties which Switzerland capitalised on.
In the end, Mbappe missed at the decisive moment, but Deschamps will be the one with regrets as his dreams of a World Cup and European Championship double as both a player and a manager fell flat.
Super Xhaka drives Swiss, but should Arsenal have a re-think?
Where are the leaders at Arsenal? It’s a question that has continually been asked for years at the Emirates Stadium, but maybe it has been staring them straight in the face all this time in Granit Xhaka.
The Switzerland captain was a colossus for his side as they dumped out tournament favourites France to reach the quarter-finals of a major tournament for the first time in 67 years.
He was exceptional, all his choices were good. He was the one who rallied the troops before the penalties.
He went toe-to-toe with Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante and won. He was brilliant in defence, just as good going forward, picking out an exquisite pass for Mario Gavranovic’s dramatic late equaliser, and he displayed all the leadership qualities you’d want from your captain.
The only blot on his copybook was a yellow card that means he will be suspended for Switzerland’s quarter-final showdown with Spain on Friday, and in this form, what a miss he will be for Vladimir Petkovic’s side.
Could his absence also leave a huge hole at Arsenal next season? Earlier this month, Sky Sports reported that Roma were in advanced negotiations with Arsenal for the transfer of the midfielder. The Serie A club were thought to be close to Arsenal’s valuation – believed to be in the region of £21.5m (€25m) – but were yet to agree a fee.
On his showing against France, new Roma boss Jose Mourinho will be urging his club to pay what Arsenal want to get the deal done, but should the Gunners have a re-think?
Xhaka is a marmite figure among the Arsenal fans. We all know about the spat with the supporters that led to him being stripped of the captaincy back in 2019, but with leaders in short supply at Arsenal, Mikel Arteta could do worse than convincing Xhaka he still has a future in north London.
After all, what he displayed against France is what Arsenal have been crying out for, for all these years.
Morata enjoys cathartic night
Euro 2020 has been far from easy for Alvaro Morata. The striker, booed by his own fans during Spain’s warm-up game against Portugal, missed a string of chances in their group games against Sweden and Poland then had a tame penalty saved in the 5-0 win over Slovakia.
He described facing a torrent of online abuse in the wake of that game, also revealing his wife and children were targeted by angry Spain supporters in Seville and saying he has suffered “sleepless nights” in recent days.
But Spain’s last-16 meeting with Croatia proved cathartic.
The former Chelsea striker, strongly backed before the game by Luis Enrique, who described the abuse his family were subjected to as a “serious crime”, this time made a match-winning contribution as Spain won a remarkable tie 5-3 after extra-time.
It seemed it may not work out that way for him when he screwed a free header into Croatia defender Domagoj Vida in the first half, but his goal in extra-time, brilliantly taken from Dani Olmo’s cross, changed the course of the tie when Spain were rocking.
Just three minutes after that, he released Olmo on Spain’s right flank, allowing the RB Leipzig midfielder to cross for Mikel Oyarzabal, who finally put the game out of Croatia’s reach.
The celebrations that greeted Morata’s goal showed just how well liked and how highly valued he is by his Spain team-mates and the coaching staff. His finishing can be erratic, but there are reasons why he has started every game at this tournament.
Firstly, he does score goals. His two at this tournament means he is now up to five in European Championships, making him Spain’s joint-top scorer in the competition along with Fernando Torres.
Just as important, though, is the rest of the work he gets through on the pitch. Morata gives everything off the ball and that work ethic was evident throughout at the Parken Stadium.
The 28-year-old chased down defenders relentlessly and led Spain’s press willingly, with Aymeric Laporte the only player on the pitch to win possession on more occasions.
His critics are sure to be out in force again if things do not go his way in front of goal in Friday’s quarter-final, of course. But what’s certain is that Morata will be there. His performance at the Parken Stadium was a reminder of why.
Is this the end for Modric?
Will Luka Modric’s 142nd Croatia cap prove to be his last at a major tournament?
The midfielder signed a one-year contract extension at Real Madrid last month following another age-defyingly brilliant campaign with the Spanish giants, but at 35 and turning 36 in September, this may have been his last chance to win silverware with his country.
Modric came tantalisingly close three years ago, of course, helping Croatia to upset the odds and reach the World Cup final in Russia, and even if this tournament does prove to be the end, there is no shame in how he has bowed out.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Modric was the outstanding performer in the 3-1 win over Scotland which secured Croatia’s place in the knockout stages and he shone again in Monday’s riotous last-16 tie at the Parken Stadium.
There were periods in the game where he and his Croatia team-mates could not get the ball off their Spanish counterparts but he drove them forward at 3-1 down when others had lost hope.
There were brilliant passes, such as the one which sent Nikola Vlasic through on goal shortly after Pedri’s bizarre own goal in the first half, and game-changing moments, such as the run and cut-back to set up Mislav Orsic for Croatia’s second goal.
He left the field defeated, his future uncertain, but Modric’s Croatia legacy is already an extraordinary one.