Saturday, July 24, 2021

LFC showcases away kit for 2021/22 season

Liverpool Away Kit

Liverpool FC has today unveiled its brand-new Nike away and training pieces for the 2021/22 season, which is available to pre-order from today. Crafted in stone, the jersey epitomises the rich history of Liverpool

A city born through graft and hard work, that is celebrated through its unique style and love of high-end fashion. A city with an unmistakable skyline, comprised of three iconic buildings called the three graces. It’s symbolic of the local prestige, cultural importance and togetherness that comes with being a part of Liverpool FC. 

In a nod back to the cult classic kit of the 96-97 season with its off-white stone and teal colourway, this away jersey remains consistent with the home and wider collection with the striping detail in the collar and sock. On the nape of the neck, the 96-emblem encased by the eternal flames sits proudly in memory of the 96 children, women and men who lost their lives at Hillsborough. 

Liverpool FC brand-new Nike away and training pieces
Liverpool FC brand-new Nike away and training pieces

As with previous seasons, the club is offering a 10% discount off the price of the away shirt to all LFC official members. New for this season, the Reds are extending this offer out to UK key workers via Blue Light and Network, and also to students in the UK via Student Beans. 

Liverpool FC brand-new Nike away and training pieces
Liverpool FC Nike away and training pieces


More information on eligibility and how to redeem the discount can be found here. Fans who purchase any away shirt before 18 July 2021 will also receive a £10 Liverpool FC apparel voucher to spend in store or online between 1 August to 30 September 2021. First team player, Curtis Jones, said: “I think the fans will love this one. It’s a perfect reflection of the city and you can see the inspiration throughout the design with a throwback to the 90s.” 

Just like this season’s home kit, the Red’s away shirts that players will wear on the pitch as well as the replica jerseys for the fans have been constructed with 100% recycled polyester fabric, which is made from recycled plastic bottles. 

Plastic bottles are collected, cleaned and melted down to produce a high-quality yarn for manufacturing and is part of Nike’s wider Move to Zero initiative, with football apparel leading the way in sustainability. The new away and training kit will be available for pre-order online from the official Liverpool FC online store and will go on general sale for purchase in-store and online from Thursday 15 July. 

For more information please visit: www.liverpoolfc.com/store

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Euro 2020 Final: They think it's all over

Euro 2020 Final: They think it's all over

"They think it's all over". But the inquest is likely to go on for some considerable time and unlike The Russia Report this one might see daylight, I note that the Government used their Intelligence and Security Committee for that report I would suspect that UEFA have yet to set theirs up.

Wembley Way
Wembley Way

What started out as a 'zany idea' in 2012, proved to be completely stupid by the time we got round to holding it in 2021. Current UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said "I would not support it anymore", and that was just to do with the logistics of holding matches in different countries, nothing to do with COVID and how different Governments attempted to control - or spread it.

Italy celebrate
Italy celebrate

But for me my 7th Euros are over. I managed to attend eight games, all in the U.K. I had accepted from the beginning of the tournament that I was not going to be able to travel anywhere outside of the U.K. even if my team were playing.

Of course my Euros could have been over before they began as I had to take a COVID test. Imagine if the result came back positive. How would you feel? What would you do?

Thankfully the result was negative and for future games I was able to rely on the fact that I had my two jabs more than 14 days ago, so I knew I was not going to voluntarily take a test again.

Italy celebrate
Forza Italia!

The next dilemma was sorting out tickets, in February this year it was announced that all tickets would be mobile tickets, I downloaded the app and found that it was straightforward to transfer the tickets I had to my friends that I was going with. This seemed quite revolutionary after years of coveting a ticket for the game. But in light of the current situation seemed a good way of doing things.

My first game, Match 5, June 13th, meant travelling for the first time since March 2020 (15 months). I began by walking into town and as I made my way to the bus station realised I was no longer familiar with the city I lived in.

The Broad Marsh centre being the best example of this. Before the pandemic work had started on knocking it down, but now new buildings had taken the place of the old bus station. It hadn't seemed like a gradual process. The new buildings just appeared I hadn't been to this part of town during the pandemic.

Wembley
Wembley

I was pleased that there were only a handful of people on the bus, but not so happy that because of this we would be stopping at Leicester, Northampton and Milton Keynes.

A total of 13 people were on the bus after these stops. The last time I went on the bus to Wembley for the England v Scotland game in 2016, they took two buses from Nottingham and we parked right next to the stadium.

This time we were dropped off at the back of Costco, and although I could see The Arch I did not know my way to the ground as numerous flats had sprung up and the place was no longer recognisable. I still remember my first visits there where you would look down from the stadium concourse and see one massive car park.

Euro 2020
The end of Euro 2020

I had arranged a meeting with a friend at Costa, in the Designer Outlet Shopping Centre which was now very much part of the Wembley scene and just two minutes from the ground. To get here we had to cut across a sparse Wembley Way and up Wembley Park Boulevard which now had a number of places to eat as well as an Amazon Fresh.

Getting into the stadium was easy. First they checked your Covid status with a cursory glance at whatever you chose to show them and then you had to show your ticket which was then activated, to allow entry to the stadium. Once through these initial checks you were free to wander round the whole concourse before entering at your designated turnstile, by scanning your activated ticket.

Inside the stadium the spectators were spread out as the crowd turned out to be less than 20,000. Of course you were meant to sit in your own seat, but when you are in the top tier and Row 33, would you sit there or move down to Row 1 (and take a few photos for you)?

Italy win Euro 2020
Italy win Euro 2020

The next day it was off to Hampden, the Euro 2020 app said that travel from other parts of the UK was not currently permitted without an essential reason to do so.

What could be more essential than watching your team play in the Euros? I noted that these restrictions would be subject to review before the tournament and that I should check back shortly. As I read this during the tournament I presume they had just not updated their website.

Italy win Euro 2020
Italy win Euro 2020

The crowd at Hampden was just as sparse with seats marked with a green tick, then three with a red cross indicating which seats could be occupied. I had managed to get three seats together…but these took up 9 seats!

After the group stages I hoped to get tickets to more games and I was constantly monitoring the UEFA website in the hope that I would be on there at the right time to secure a ticket for games at Wembley. As luck would have it as we were driving to Scotland for the last group game we happened to stop off at the services.

Of course I tried the website and to my surprise tickets for Italy v Austria were available. The news was that there would be 40,000 at the knockout games at Wembley so I knew I was in with a chance. I managed to purchase two tickets.

This time we tried driving down having secured a parking spot just ten minutes from the stadium. It was Wagamama at the Shopping Centre before the game. Once again I was still trying to get tickets for future games but no luck yet.

We were surprised at how calm things were outside Wembley, but once inside we realised that the crowd was the same as the Group Games, around 20,000. This left me with just one ticket left for the competition, the first semi final and to be honest the game I was looking forward to the most.

Italy light up Wembley
Italy light up Wembley

I did think of going to Hampden for the Round of 16 game, which turned out to be Sweden v Ukraine but the lack of travelling fans meant I knew it would be devoid of atmosphere.

Also, I wondered what the crowd would be, as I noted UEFA actually reduced the price of tickets. Category One normally cost €125, but were reduced to €50. I didn't see this mentioned anywhere, it was only due to my persistent checking of the ticket website that I knew.

Much to my surprise, the attendance was given as 9,221. This was only 600 or so less than the Scotland games and on TV the stadium looked sparsely populated. The irony to this is that UEFA actually cancelled people's tickets to this match when they reduced the stadium capacities, now that Scotland were out people were no longer interested.

Looking at my options to get hold of a ticket, I could see numerous resale sites were selling tickets for games at vastly inflated prices, but they did seem to have plenty of tickets.

I also watched Twitter with interest. It struck me that there was a surprising amount of young women suddenly unable to attend matches and asking how they could sell them. There then seemed a spate of people coming down with COVID that could not attend, also then there was the phrase that "my mate is selling". Would you trust any of these people?

The advantage of the mobile ticket is that between trusted persons, there was no relying on the delay of posting, and the ticket could be delivered in seconds. But what comes first the money or the ticket - and can you trust the other person?

Italy light up Wembley
The closing ceremony

The next game that I could attend was the England v Germany Quarter Final, but I still had to get a ticket. To be honest, I wasn't that interested, I was still preoccupied with getting tickets for the Semi and the Final and I can still remember the last England v Germany game I went to in Charleroi.

I spent every spare minute of my Sunday on the UEFA website, refreshing in the hope tickets would become available, and they did. I secured the tickets I was looking for, this time I managed to get Category 3 tickets, and three for each game. These were the tickets that UEFA took off me in the Random Ballot in May. But now for the same money I had originally spent I had there tickets instead of one, for the same price, for each game.

Having secured tickets for the last week of the tournament I was less interested in the forthcoming England v Germany game, I did keep an eye on ticket availability but did not have any luck. I noticed an increase in the people around me asking for tickets, and knew that some were even heading to Wembley, whilst still checking for tickets as it was not uncommon for tickets to released just a few hours before kick off.

Drove down for the first semi and parked at our spot in someone's drive ten minutes from the ground. This time it was Pizza Express, showing our support for the Italians with pre-match pizza. We  had Category three tickets which meant we were behind the goal. I noted now that it looked like all the seats in this area were full. The gaps were in the hospitality tier. The one that you see empty at half time and for the first fifteen minutes of the second half of games. Enjoyed the game and was delighted that the Italians got through.

The next day I returned…..by National Express. The bus was late in arriving at Nottingham, due to the driver waiting ten minutes for three people that didn't show up at Derby.

I trust they will do the same for me if ever I am late! The journey took an age and we eventually pulled up at around 6.15 pm. I tried to make it to Costa, but the scenes at the bottom of Wembley Park Boulevard were chaotic with supporters blocking the way, singing and throwing beer like it was 2019.

I decided to go straight into the ground. Much as I hate to say it, the atmosphere was good and the stadium was bouncing, literally for the first time I could feel Wembley rocking.

Once England got their equaliser there was only going to be one winner, unless it got to penalties. When England were awarded a penalty in extra time, I pointed out to all around me that there was a second ball on the pitch and that therefore the penalty should not be given, as play must be stopped if there is another ball on the pitch. No one listened to me. The journey home was a long one and I eventually got home at 4.15 am in time for a few hours sleep before work.

For the final, it was a drive down and parking up at the usual spot. This time it was Wagamama. Things were just slightly busier than last Tuesday for the first semi. An enjoyable meal was had before we decided to take in the atmosphere, walking back down Wembley Park Boulevard wasn't easy due to the static crowds.

The atmosphere was not quite the same as Wednesday, it seemed tenser. My companions considered a walk down Wembley Way, but as we looked at the situation we decided that it would be better just to go in the ground. We were due to go in by Entrance 1, which is directly in front of Wembley Way. But it did not look like anyone was moving. I ushered my friends back the way we had come and went to a smaller entrance (No 2) where things were much quieter, but police stood on the steps. We quickly negotiated the, by now, familiar checks. My colleagues breathed a huge sigh of relief at making it into the stadium. For the first time I actually entered the stadium within my allotted time slot, we entered at 17:50.

Inside the stadium, once again the empty seats were to be seen in the second tier. But on the terraces…yes everyone was stood up. There appeared to be overcrowding. It was evident that there were more people than seats in our end. As the National Anthems were sung a random stranger tried to put his arm round me, it wouldn't matter whether there was COVID around or not, he would have got the same response, but to be as irresponsible as that, well we can only wait for the Wembley variant to be announced. Now, of course, the games at Wembley were all a test event and everything was controlled and monitored.

As you all know England scored early and threatened to run away with things. But I didn't give up. Italy stayed in the game and once they equalised looked like the stronger team. The penalty shoot-out had dramatic twists and turns and Italy triumphed.

During the time England were on top in the game I tried to look at the positives. Would it be good for the country? Would it provide a boost to the economy? Would people start to forget about the divisive Brexit? Well, these, I thought were all good points, but I might not be finding out for another 55 years or so.

On the 18th July one week after the Final, I received an email from Euro 2020, asking me to share my experience by taking their survey. I clicked on the survey ready to give my findings but was immediately met with a page saying "We thank you for your time spent taking this survey. Your response has been recorded."

Wembley Way
Wembley Way

Ross Clegg footballtravelswithross.wordpress.com

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Hangover & Coming Around

RECRIMINATIONS IN ENGLAND AS ITALY SAVOUR THEIR VICTORY

Euro 2020 ended in a rainstorm last night and just as well. The elements doused the anger of English yobs exiting Wembley furious at yet another snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.

Euro 2020

It poured down most of today in southern England, properly drenching any residual ire. 

England had failed to exploit home advantage again as they had at Euro '96, their best shot at their first European Championship slipping from their grasp from twelve yards.

The post-mortems are in and the consensus is that Gareth Southgate erred in putting two of his most inexperienced players - Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, on the crucial fourth and fifth penalty kicks. He explained he had picked the best penalty-takers from training. They both missed, as did Marcus Rashford.

None of England's missed kicks were poor. Gianluigi Donnarumma was an excellent goalkeeper who saved two well hit penalties, while Rashford sent him the wrong way before agonisingly hitting a post.

The Manchester United star penned a 48-line mea culpa on Twitter today, as people fell over each other to stand behind the three England players who missed their kicks and received racist abuse on social media afterwards (one result you could definitely predict).

The culture war subtext to England's campaign exploded today as Rashford's mural in Manchester was defaced, a Z-list comic tweeted about skin colour and missing penalties and a Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke opined that Rashford should have kept his mouth shut about free school meals and practised spot kicks instead.

England defender Tyrone Mings laid into the Home Secretary on Twitter, lambasting Priti Patel for refusing to condemn fans booing the taking of the knee earlier in the tournament while then u-turning at the end by criticising said racists:

The Prime Minister did condemn the racism at today's press conference, but Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner commented, tartly, "If you blow the dog whistle then you are to blame when the dogs start barking."

Politicians trying to milk football's popularity is always unpleasant, from Benito Mussolini at the 1934 World Cup, through Jorge Videla in 1978 right up to Boris Johnson pulling on an England shirt and bedecking the Prime Minister's residence in cheap bunting in 2020, while claiming on national radio that the Englishman who scored a hat-trick at the 1966 World Cup final was Bobby Moore.

You wish they would give the sport a wide berth, but that is wishful thinking. Johnson eyed the tournament as symbiotic with Brexit, another chance for good old England to stick one to Johnny Foreigner, and the inevitable Three Lions victory as a masks-off knees-up as a taster for the big relaxation of Covid restrictions in a week's time. Whoops.

It is curious to observe how the multinational Premier League and England national team are now the flag bearers for a multicultural and inclusive nation, while its loudest backers, from the yobs storming the gates at Wembley yesterday to boorish politicians, believe in a different country.

Booing black players when they kneel or miss a penalty but cheering them to the rafters when they score for England encapsulates this national schizophrenia, as it does in France, the Netherlands and other post-colonial lands. Or as a friend put it to me succinctly today, given how many black men have excelled at our sport from Pele to Eusebio, Ruud Gullit and Kylian Mbappe, "Why are racists football fans?"

Southgate reiterated his disgust with the neanderthal element of England's following today, as did the heir to the throne and president of the F.A. Prince William, but fielded most questions on his team falling short.

He had also gambled with a defensive formation and had been less ambitious with his substitutions than Roberto Mancini as the game progressed last night. After a dream start and a controlled first half, England conceded and failed to get back into the contest. 

They held out securely but could not win in 120 minutes, despite the panoply of attacking options on the England bench. 

After their equaliser, Italy continued to monopolise possession and bossed the game in what was effectively an away match, but Southgate insisted today he could not have fielded "five or six" attacking players because then England would have left gaps and lost in normal time.

He also cited Italy's use of Federico Chiesa as a false nine which forced his defence to stay put rather than come out as they might have wanted to. In other words, it was safety first but it failed.

All that said, the game did end 1-1 and England's defence did not look like being breached a second time. The difference was the spot kicks which could have gone either way. Lest we forget, Italy missed two as well.

The Azzurri got little sleep as they touched down at Fiumicino airport early this morning and met the President and adoring fans. The sunny skies and smiles of Rome were a world away from the rainclouds and rancour of London.

Euro 2020


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

EURO 2020 Final: Azzurri Joy at the Last

 Italy 1:1 England, London

Italy won 3-2 on penalties.

EURO 2020 Final: Azzurri Joy at the Last

Mancini's magic beat Southgate's solidarity in the end.

Italy won their second European Championship on penalties after a tight 120 minutes at Wembley. Italy missed two spot kicks but England missed three and that was what separated the sides in the end.

It was mostly a tale of two defences with a beautiful early England goal equalised by a scrappy Italian one, but Italy played the better football overall and were not unworthy winners. Roberto Mancini's team had 62% of possession and six shots on target to England's one.

England failed to make home advantage count and the rain duly poured down on Wembley Way after the final whistle, reminding the locals the years of hurt are 55 and counting. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling failed to breach the Azzurri ranks and apart from a wonderful opening, the home team failed to truly fire on the night.

The English fans had never stopped dreaming as their favourite song goes and had a fantastic start scoring from their first attack, but took a risk conceding possession to Italy for the rest of the match. Gareth Southgate also gambled badly choosing two young and inexperienced internationals in Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho to take vital penalties - both missed.

An unchanged Italy had met a safety-first England. Southgate had picked seven defensive players, clearly worried about the Azzurri attack.

He needn't have worried as wing backs Kieran Trippier and Luke Shaw combined to score in less than two minutes.

Shaw won the ball deep and as Kane moved upfield, Shaw continued his run unchecked by the ball-watching Italian defence. Kane released Trippier, whose curled cross was fired first time by Shaw, beating
Gianluigi Donnarumma at his near post; A delightful goal and a dream start, but Southgate stood almost unmoved on the touchline, ever the cool-headed general.

Trippier was finding space on the right, Kane collecting the ball deep and distributing, while Kalvin Phillips was scurrying around to stop the Italian combinations. So far so good for England.

The Three Lions were in cruise control for the first half hour but Italy began to combine worryingly in their half, although their final pass let them down. Their one moment of danger came in the 35th minute when Federico Chiesa shrugged off Declan Rice and motored forward, unleashing a rasping shot which whistled a foot wide.

England had kept Italy at bay for 45 minutes and Jordan Pickford had not had a save to make bar a comfortable gather from Marco Verratti in the final minute. 

Italy had bossed the ball but their plan to zig-zag one-touch through England's defence had not worked in the first half.

Italy took until 67 minutes to draw level but the warning signs had been coming. In the 57th Pickford blocked a Lorenzo Insigne shot from a tight angle and by the hour mark England were camped around their box as Italy buzzed around it. Chiesa then jinked onto his right foot and eked out a shot in the 62nd which Pickford dived to palm away.

When the goal came five minutes later it was after a penalty box scramble from a corner, which Leonardo Bonucci stabbed home. Italy's ball possession had increased to 71%.

England had gambled with their strong defence but had been breached and as for periods against Germany and Denmark, had conceded the midfield. Saka immediately replaced Trippier to go back to a 4-3-3. If Italy had a weakness it was dealing with pace on the flanks.

The rest of the 90 was more Italy passing and England holding firm. A comical respite was Giorgio Chiellini yanking back Saka's collar on the touchline when the Arsenal man beat him to the ball. England had a boost when Italy's danger man Chiesa hobbled off on 86 minutes.

By the end of the first period of extra time penalties seemed certain but in the second period England found a second wind. Jack Grealish came on but almost taken out the game by Jorginho's studs-up tackle, which drew a generous yellow from Bjorn Kuipers.

Southgate gambled in the dying seconds by bringing on Marcus Rashford and Sancho but both ended up missing their kicks. Rashford had sent Donnarumma the wrong way with his eyes but struck a post with the goal at his mercy.

Sancho's and Saka's kicks were better but the huge Donnarumma leapt to save them.

Penalties felt an inadequate way to settle a final, as ever, but neither side had forged enough chances to win it in a game when defences had definitely ruled, cancelling out each other's skilful attacks. 

The host's dream died in the final as it had at Euro 2004 and Euro 2016 but the home team had enjoyed a great run to the final and the England DNA project continues to bear fruit.  

EURO 2020 Final: Azzurri Joy at the Last

Even if Southgate was guilty of too much faith in youth tonight, the success he has brought to his country's national team remains admirable - a World Cup semi final and a European Championship final in consecutive tournaments is sterling work.

On a sour note, scenes of vandalism and violence in London today by 'fans' once more sullied the team's success. Wembley's security allowed ticketless fans to barge into the stadium on a night they have another reason to forget.

But tanti auguri to Italy. Mancini's transformation is complete. His team began and ended the tournament winning, playing with a new found happiness after missing the World Cup and overturning years of safety first football.

34 matches unbeaten is an extraordinary statistic. So is being crowned champions of Europe.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, July 11, 2021

EURO 2020: The 51st State

ITALY v ENGLAND - The European Championship reaches its climax tonight in London

ITALY v ENGLAND
The 51st and last match of the 16th UEFA European Championship takes place at Wembley stadium this evening at 20:00 GMT.

This has been a unique Euros for three reasons - first because the pandemic was a major player and secondly because it expanded to 24 teams and was held in 11 countries. Whoever wins will write the first sentence of the recorded version, but the Christian Eriksen incident will be as much a part of the official history as Diego Maradona's Hand of God or Luis Suarez's shoulder bite.

Denmark's emotional rollercoaster stopped just short of the final, perhaps because of England's home advantage. Wembley's capacity has surged to 60,000 maskless and socially undistanced supporters, including unquarantined UEFA and other VIPs.

This has been Euro 2021 in reality, but believing we are in 2020 for a month is par for the course for the topsy-turvy world of Covid. Reality has been blurred for a while now, England reaching a final and Italy playing attacking football is not unusual.

Michel Platini's parting gift to football might have convinced if it had not been for Covid emptying much of the arenas, quarantining infected players like Billy Gilmour and stripping Brussels and Dublin of their matches.

The 24-team competition reverts to a sole host, Germany, in 2024, with ten venues, which feels much better.

The locals in Budapest and Copenhagen enjoyed the novelty of hosting finals matches but the scheduling was heavily weighted towards England - the Three Lions played six of their seven matches at home, but Italy only three, although with their third match out of four at Wembley tonight, perhaps Italy will already be feeling somewhat a casa a Londra.

Although Wembley will be decidedly pro-England, there are plenty of expat Italians in England whose cries of Forza Azzurri! should carry to the dressing room. If the blues win, those pockets of the old country will will be all sound and light tonight, but the contrary result will spark a drunken revel to match July 30th 1966, the last time England won a tournament.

Comparisons with '66 are inevitable, but the Euros are not the World Cup and this disjointed tournament has not felt like a home one until perhaps now. The BBC, in an existential crisis, is using its exclusivity to push football to the top of its news broadcasts, above issues like Covid-19 or the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The newspapers have joined in the flag-waving and government ministers, none of whom have shown any interest in football before, are also hastily jumping on the bandwagon. 

No.10 Downing Street is festooned with cheap St George's Cross bunting and the buffoonish Prime Minister and his abrasive Home Secretary have crassly pulled on England shirts on top of their business attire for the cameras.

Boris Johnson's previous engagement with the people's game was a rugby tackle on Germany's Maurizio Gaudino in a charity match, so any sudden displays of football fandom do not wash with those with a memory.

In trying to piggyback on the team's success, the government is inevitably playing a risky game because this  team represent a different England to the isolationist and nativist one at the heart of their politics.

Manager Gareth Southgate has criticised Brexit, which took Johnson to power, Marcus Rashford forced the Tories to u-turn on plans to axe free school meals and Raheem Sterling, England's star of the tournament, has been persistently vocal on racial equality issues, highlighting how the UK press treats black players differently to white ones. In contrast, Conservative MP Lee Anderson has been proudly boycotting Euro 2020 in protest at England players taking the knee against racism before kickoff.

The two Englands might not be on a collision course until the PM invites the team to lunch post-Euros, but the contrast in what constitutes national identity is jarring. Since Russia 2018, Southgate has moonlighted as the alternate leader of the nation, a meritocratic, unifying and serious contrast to the born into wealth, divisive and flippant Johnson.

ITALY v ENGLAND

Gary Neville, the former England right-back, went as far as comparing the two on national television after the semi-final. He said Southgate was "everything a leader should be - respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine." In contrast, Neville added, "the standard of leaders in this country the past couple of years has been poor."

The team's taking the knee has been met with some booing from their own fans, probably from the same ones who boo others' national anthems, a vile tradition that has never been eradicated from England matches.

But if one can separate oneself from all the ugliness that attends the national team, it is a night of great expectations that can hopefully unify the nation as one, albeit briefly.

55 years of hurt is a long time for football's founding nation. In the same time spell, Italy have been to six finals by comparison, winning two World Cups (1982 & 2006) and one Euros (1968). Italy's record against England is the stronger too, knocking the Three Lions out of Euro '80, Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup.

Italy we should not forget is a divided nation too, with cultural chasms between regions. Yet Roberto Mancini has managed to unify 'lo stivale' (the boot) with a team plucked from all the regions and clubs big and small, which plays with positivity and joy.

The tournament began with the Azzurri riding a warm wave, easing to a 3-0 win over Turkey and showing the world how Mancini has brought about a revolution. Despite the loss of flying winger Leonardo Spinazzola, the Italians have quality in abundance throughout, although their bench has fewer offensive options than England's.

Italy naturally want to attack, a phrase one cannot imagine saying in previous tournaments, but against Spain found their plan A nullified by a possession-based opponent. England do not keep the ball quite as much as Luis Enrique's team, but like Italy, have a solid defence and a fast attack.

This meeting of giants may imply a tense and tight affair, a nervy affair as finals often are, but this has not been the zeitgeist of Euro 2020. Italy's 4-3-3 is unlikely to change with a mobile midfield of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti crossing swords with the defensive duo of Declan Rice and Calvin Phillips.

To that end Southgate may sacrifice one of his fast wing men to put an extra body in defence to stop Federico Chiesa getting a sight on goal. Expect Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to stick to Harry Kane like glue.

England's bench looks a bit richer in options but Italy's titanic goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma could have the edge on Jordan Pickford should it go to penalties. 

Who knows? It's a very evenly matched game and anything could happen. I just hope for a good contest, not a foul-fest or a walkover. 

Should home advantage give England the edge, both sides will surely be contenders for Qatar 2022. Both Mancini and Southgate have worked wonders and the best two sides in the competition have reached the final.

Let's Go / Andiamo.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, July 8, 2021

EURO 2020: England edge the Danes

England 2:1 Denmark, London

So England will play their first European Championship final at the 15th attempt. 

Home advantage told in the end. The heroic Danish campaign which began with Christian Eriksen passing out on the pitch in Copenhagen and the world holding its breath is over.

EURO 2020: England edge the Danes

It was a close match decided by a questionable refereeing call, so England fans should not get too giddy. Italy in the final will prove an even sterner test.

The Danes were the better team for about an hour and took a deserved lead through Mikkel Damsgaard on the half hour. His Ronaldo-esque dipper cleared the English wall and was hit so hard it beat Jordan Pickford despite not being placed in the corner of the goal.

England certainly have fighting spirit and clawed their way back to win, making their own luck.  Raheem Sterling may have gone to ground with less than forceful contact but his incursion which won the decisive penalty was one of many he made into the area.

England v Denmark
England v Denmark: Photo by Ross Clegg

The Manchester City has grown this tournament into one of England's key men, marked out by his  willingness to run at defences with the ball glued to his feet and unlike in Russia, an effective use of his pace.

The game started brightly but as with Germany at Wembley, the visitors had settled into the match better around 20 minutes. Denmark were passing it calmly, while their keen pressing was stopping the England midfield from combining. The Danes closed down fast and in numbers whenever an England player dithered.

So England found themselves in the unfamiliar position of playing second fiddle in the Euros. A warning came in the 25th minute when Harry Kane was robbed of the ball in midfield and a Danish counter saw Damsgaard curl wide of the post. 

With little margin for error at the back, Mason Mount struck a raiding Kaspar Dolberg just short of the half hour and the Danes won a couple of free kicks deep in English territory. 

England v Denmark: Photo by Ross Clegg
Wembley, England v Denmark: Photo by Ross Clegg

For the second, Damsgaard eyed his prey like a hunter before finding the net. First blood to the Danes.

England had conceded their first goal of the tournament. It was no surprise as Denmark had been superior for about a quarter of an hour, with better passing and movement. England had been launching balls and looking a little ragged.

The Danes' turnovers and transitions in midfield were a worry for the Three Lions, but England fought back. 

In the 38th minute Kane crossed and Kasper Schemeichel saved point blank from Sterling. A minute later Sterling lost his marker Simon Kjaer, who sliding in to stop a Bukayo Saka cross bundled it over his own line.

The second half was not as exciting as both teams gradually wilted. The best chance came in the 55th minute from a Mount delivery as the imperious Harry Maguire rose to head home what looked like a certain goal before Schmeichel's fingertips intervened.

England v Denmark: Photo by Ross Clegg
England v Denmark: Photo by Ross Clegg

England had a good period for the next ten minutes but could only forge a shot from Mount which Schmeichel caught with ease.

England swapped Saka for Jack Grealish, who had only enjoyed fleeting appearances so far at the Euros, but the fans' favourite lasted only 27 minutes before being swapped for an extra defender as England bunkered down in extra time.

Southgate made only one change in the 90 to Hjulmand's five, either a canny tactic to have fresh legs in extra time or another unwillingness to take risks, as he was criticised for in the 2018 World Cup semi final.

EURO 2020: England edge the Danes

In truth neither side played as well with the subs on. So to extra time and in its fourth minute  Schmeichel, Denmark's man of the match, saved one handed as Kane shot from a tight angle.

England pressed. Grealish fired but Schmeichel stood his ground and punched clear. Then Sterling fired high. Denmark were not threatening anymore.

With two minutes until the end of the first period, Sterling tumbled as Joakim Maehle challenged him as he danced into the box again and the referee blew for a penalty. Replays were highly debatable but England had got a break, a deserved one for their pressure.

Kane fired low to his right but the nation gasped as Schmeichel dived and fumbled it while apparently trying to catch it. It was far from a great kick but the ball spun back into Kane's stride and he finished the second time. 

The clock ticked down to 120 and England, now camped in their own half with a five-man defence, resisted any Danish attacks. Their defence was their strongest point again. 

It was another hard-fought semi final with little to choose between the sides but the home team had the extra fuel in the tank in the end and had got the decisive goal.

The Danes leave with much credit and international admiration after an extraordinary emotional rollercoaster. It is hard to believe they lost three games at this tournament, but divine providence seemed to be on their side after Eriksen's resurrection. Already a FIFA top-ten ranked side, they will go on with confidence to Qatar 2022. 

In Schmeichel they have a great goalkeeper, in Jannik Vestergaard a tower of defensive might and in Martin Braithwaite, Damsgaard and Maehle three sharp attackers.

England now have their biggest test of all. The Azzurri have probably been the best all-round team in the European championship. Even with home advantage, England will need to up their game on Sunday to claim their first continental trophy.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

EURO 2020: Azzurri in the Final

Italy 1:1 Spain, London. Italy win 4-2 on penalties.

A wonderful semi final as semi finals go, with two titans clashing below the Wembley arch.

Italy reach Euro 2020 final

Wembley looked like little Italy but welcomed plenty of resident Spaniards too, a reminder of the capital's large expat communities and the wise choice of London for the European Championship climax.

Semi finals are often niggly affairs, with all the life sucked out of the tournament, but this was the pleasing opposite as we were entertained by an absorbing and high quality joust between two top-drawer sides.

Only penalties could separate them, which was fair after both sides had fought hard. The game was also played in a good spirit with few cautions and no bad feelings. 

Even into injury time, Luis Enrique was joking and smiling with Federico Chiesa and before the spot kicks, Giorgio Chiellini with Jordi Alba.

Italy won on penalties after Alvaro Morata turned villain from hero and hit his kick too casually, but it was hard to say Spain would not have deserved to advance too.

Luis Enrique's side made 16 scoring attempts compared to Italy's seven, enjoyed 65% of possession and made 2.7 times as many passes with an accuracy of 89% against Italy's 76%.

Italy have played joyously all tournament and their novel attacking approach under Roberto Mancini has been one of the Euros' great narratives. Reaching the final then seems a fine apex to their campaign, while Spain must admit their green squad needs more experience before challenging for trophies.

A silky surface after an afternoon of downpours was perfect for two skillful sides - La Roja schooled in possession football, Italy in the counter-attack.

There was a great tempo to start the game as Italy flew forward and Spain counter-attacked but soon the  roles were reversed to type.

Still early in the game, Pedri pierced the Azzurri defence but Mikel Oyarzabal, one-on-one, frustratingly could not control the ball. The Real Socidedad forward had been preferred to Alvaro Morata and Gerardo Moreno, but miskicked two shots later in the half and completely missed a free header in the second, before being substituted.

On 24 minutes the first shot of the game arrived as Dani Olmo fired one on target but Gianluigi Donnarumma dived low to this right to palm it away.

Italy had not had a shot in the first half until the last minute when Lorenzo Insigne released Emerson on the left and the Chelsea defender's shot from a tight angle clipped the bar and flew high.

This was the first time in the tournament Italy had been on the back foot, unable or unwilling to break the Spanish passing fest.

Mancini's side were also badly missing the injured wing-wonder Leonardo Spinazzola but still looked primed to strike on the counter, racing to rob Spain of any misplaced or under-hit examples of their many passes. 

The intensity picked up where it had left off after the break, Spain still dominating possession and threatening to split the defence, Italy rapier-like on the break. 

In the 52nd minute Sergio Busquets finished off a move by sidefooting a yard over the bar and at the other end moments later Federico Chiesa fired a grasscutter at Unai Simon; either team could score.

On the hour mark, the deadlock was broken as an Italian counterattack found the net. Chiesa snapped up Laporte's saving tackle from Ciro Immobile on the edge of the box and curled it in at the far corner, another exquisite snapshot from one of the stars of the Euros.

Substitute Domenico Berardi had fired a couple of half chances at Simon before Spain levelled.

Alvaro Morata picked the ball up from deep, charged down the middle and made a 1-2 with Olmo before wrongfooting the hitherto unbreachable Donnarumma.

Come extra time and both sides slowed with the inevitable cramps and injuries. Spain still passed and Italy still threatened on the counter, just a bit more raggedly with more cha. Domenico Berardi found the net in the 110th but was offside.

After Manuel Locatelli and Dani Olmo missed the first pair of penalties, Morata hit his without much conviction and Jorginho performed his leap and shoot spot kick which left Simon rooted to the centre as the Chelsea man stroked the ball into the corner.

Italy have probably been the best team in the tournament and could crown a great Euros and make it an amazing 34 games unbeaten under Mancini.

The last time England hosted the Euros, in 1996, the home nation fought a fiery semi against the eventual winners while the other semi was a turgid end of the line show between France and the Czech Republic.

Tonight's was wonderfully different. 

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, July 3, 2021

EURO 2020: North Sea Day

Czech Rep 1:2 Denmark, Baku

Czech Rep 1:2 Denmark

The Danish dream goes on as they advanced to the last four for the first time since their unexpected win in Euro '92.

A steamy night in Baku, its last of Euro 2020, saw Danish power play edge out the Czechs' physical game which had done for the Netherlands.

They scored at the right times. Thomas Delaney headed their opener in the fifth minute and Kasper Dolberg volleyed in their second from a delightful outside of the foot cross from Joakim Maehle three minutes before the break.

The Czechs were always playing catch-up, allowing the Danes to stay compact and organised and threaten on the counter. While they sat back in the second half the tactic worked in the end and Danish defence was only breached once.

Two nil down, Jaroslav Silhavy brought on an extra striker in Michael Krmencik but it was marksman Patrik Schik who pulled one back four minutes into the second half, his fifth of the tournament, with a clever sidefoot. The author of that long-range strike against Scotland is out of the Euros now, but leaves joint top of the scoring charts with Cristiano Ronaldo, his transfer value inflated.

They had the better of the second half, upping the tempo but failing to get another goal. As the clock ticked away, legs got tired in the heat of Azerbaijan.

The Czechs pressed in the closing minutes but did not have the quality to forge great chances once they reached the box. They outpassed and outshot the Scandinavians but it is goals which win games. Denmark were stubborn and got over a gruelling line, having gambled on safety first after the break. 

Scoring early gave them an edge they never relinquished.

The Czech players were out of fuel by the end, collapsed on the turf at the final whistle. Had they got a second they might have gone on to win it, but fine margins decide football fates.

At least they left all proud of having given it a good lash. Their win over Holland was a great result and although they failed to return to the Euro final at Wembley like they did in 1996, they can now dream of recapturing the recent golden days of Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky. 

Having entered the tournament with a world ranking of 40 and odds of 150/1, reaching the last eight was an overachievement.

The Danes are still in dreamland but they arguably have been all tournament, even when losing two matches. That early nightmare has given way to a fantasy made flesh. Now the team sans Erikson are only 90 minutes from the final.

Ukraine 0:4 England, Rome

Ukraine 0:4 England

Another cavernous Olympic stadium sparsely populated, but unlike the earlier contest, this was a mismatch.

England won so comfortably in their first overseas trip of the Euros I wondered if Wembley were actually a hindrance rather than a help to the Three Lions.

It was a bizarre opening as Ukraine sat back in their own half from the kick-off and did not press. 

If that was their plan it was a disaster. England seemed embarrassed to have so much possession and duly scored almost nonchalantly after three minutes. Raheem Sterling ran at the defence, threaded a superb ball between the yellow shirts and Harry Kane toe-poked home.

The Sterling-Kane combo worked a treat again tonight and might even go on to be one of England's historic striking partnerships like Shearer and Sheringham or Lineker and Beardsley.

Ukraine woke up and attacked for the first time, making a match of it.

Their first shot arrived in the 17th minute as Roman Yaremchuk seized on an under-hit pass by Kyle Walker, toyed with John Stones and hit a near post effort Jordan Pickford could only push away.

England seemed to have the game under control by the half hour, able to alter the tempo and feed Sterling and Jadon Sancho, their speed on the wings. Declan Rice fired a cannon-shot in the 33rd which Georgiy Bushchan pushed away and Sancho drew a save soon afterwards as England advanced.

Sancho and Sterling switched wings to vary the attack but Ukraine finished the half better, profiting from their switch to a 4-3-3 after Serhiy Kryvtsov went off injured. Some quick passing combinations in England's last third gave Gareth Southgate food for thought.

What a response. Less than two minutes after the restart it was 2-0 to England via a Man Utd link-up. Luke Shaw floated in a free kick and Harry McGuire soared to power a header into the far corner. Beautiful simplicity.

Five minutes later it was 3-0. Shaw again was the provider from the end line, Kane the executor in the air from the six yard box.

Ukraine visibly wilted and England stroked the ball around with ease. Kane almost scored a spectacular hat-trick with a volley in the 62nd but Bishchan got his fingertips to it. A minute later and Jordan Henderson nodded in a fourth unmarked from a corner.

Ukraine were a distant second, a Yevhen Makarenko drive in the 75th a rare chance, parried away.

England kept a fifth consecutive clean sheet at the Euros and Southgate's already heavenly star rose even higher. 

Perhaps the levelling up of European football we had suspected was just a mirage. The gap between these two teams was enormous.

It was an utterly professional performance which saw England grab the game early and not let go but perhaps the new territory of Rome and a small crowd let them play with more freedom and less anxiety than hitherto.

In any case, north-west London beckons again for the semi final against Denmark on Wednesday.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

FOOTBALL ALL IN 2021 - A Footballing Summer in the City in Mid-July

FOOTBALL ALL IN 2021

The Professional Footballers Association of Hong Kong (PFAHK) and the Hong Kong Football Association jointly announced today the launch of a tournament called "FOOTBALL.ALL IN CHALLENGE 2021", across multiple sports venues in Hong Kong on July 17-18.

Despite the pandemic in Hong Kong is showing signs of easing in recent months, it is still affecting much of our daily lives in general. Football, amongst other industries, is also affected heavily by the pandemic.

It has been a while since any football matches at amateur level or youth level are being organized and as such, we decided to organize this unprecedented match for all local citizens, hoping that everyone can relax and enjoy the beautiful games, unite football communities in the fight against the pandemic. At the same time, helping the football players through their participation of the event.

The event is fully supported by Home Affairs Bureau and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which aims to continue promoting football as a sport and demonstrate its benefits to the wider public. The International Social Service Hong Kong Branch is the beneficiary organization of the football challenge and will oversee the distribution of the funds raised.

FOOTBALL ALL IN 2021

Registration for the event is now open and all are welcomed. All fund raised from the event after all expenses will goes toward helping football players via the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch.

"We are very grateful to all people who have been actively cooperating in this large-scale event and dedicating their time and energy to promote the development of local football industry," said Mr. Paul J Kam, Joint Convener of Professional Footballers Association of Hong Kong. "Having not able to play football in the park for many months, this will be a tournament to enjoy, have fun and at the same time, help us to raise money to help our footballers through difficult times.

FOOTBALL ALL IN 2021

Mr. Chan Chi Hong, Joint Convener of Professional Footballers Association of Hong Kong and Director of Hong Kong Football Association, commented: "The pandemic has affected many people in different industries. We hope the public can support our local football industry by participating in this event and, most importantly, support our football players. We would like to thank the government, the Hong Kong Football Association, and different companies and the public for their support. Please sign up for this competition, All In for Football!"

"The Hong Kong Football Association fully supports this important event. It is not easy to hold a national football match at such a scale under the current circumstances.

Special thanks to Mr. Chan Chi Hong, Mr. Paul J Kam and their teams for organizing this event in such a short period of time! I hope everyone can support!" said Mr. Pui Kwan Kay, Chairman of Hong Kong Football Association.

"We are pleased to become the beneficiary of the event and have set up a "Football Players Anti-epidemic Fund" for this event. We hope the fund raised will provide a one-time cash assistance to local football players affected by the epidemic. Please sign up to support the event and donate to the "Football Players Anti-epidemic Fund". Your support and the donations are much appreciated by all football players." said Mr. Stephen Yau, Chief Executive of International Social Service, Hong Kong Branch.

Friday, July 2, 2021

EURO 2020 - Club Med Make the Semis

Spain 1:1 Switzerland, St Petersburg

Spain win 3-1 on penalties

Club Med Make the Semis

Spain made their first semi-final since Euro 2012 after beating a dogged Switzerland on penalties. It was a happy return to Russia for La Roja, who lost in Moscow to the World Cup hosts on spot kicks in 2018.

Luis Enrique's side were once more the pass masters, enjoying 72% of the ball in St Petersburg. But once more their lack of a cutting edge was exposed as their forwards missed a hatful of chances, before they fairly won the shootout.

Goalkeeper Unai Simon saved two Swiss kicks and watched a third sail into the stands so won the UEFA Star of the Match award, but the real hero was working overtime between the other set of sticks.

Yann Sommer's gloves were peppered with Spanish shots for a final half hour of goalkeeping practice, including top saves from Gerard Moreno and Mikel Oyarzabal. He leaves the Euros as the best custodian on show.

Spain took the lead via Jordi Alba's drive in the eighth minute, deflected by Denis Zakaria past his own goalkeeper, but the Swiss, who had dumped out the favourites France in the round of 16, were not about to lie down.

They came close to drawing level through headers from Manuel Okanji and Zakaria and a shot from Steven Zuber, before their persistence paid dividends. 

In the 68th minute a defensive cock-up allowed Freuler to feed Xherdan Shaqiri who sidefooted into the corner of the net past Simon. Freuler turned villain however nine minutes later when he flew in studs-up on Gerard Moreno and saw red.

As with the Netherlands, the loss of a player affected their mentality so for the rest of the matched they sat back and soaked up the Spanish attacks, hoping to beat them on penalties having eliminated the French from twelve yards.

Alas for the Swiss, their spot kicks this time were a shambles, leaving the door to the semis open for the Spanish. Another heroic 'minnow' bites the dust but exits the tournament with admiration for their fighting spirit. Switzerland tore up their tag of a second round team and along with Denmark, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, showed there has been a levelling up of standards in European football.

It is still hard to know what to make of Spain, inexperienced, sometimes insipid but still winning matches. Their possession game moves the ball around the pitch until they can get it to the byline and draw it back into the box - a classic but effective tactic.

They have not won over the fans the Azzurri have at Euro 2020 and might be edging past opponents rather than blowing them away, but La Roja are top dogs for ball possession and goals scored at Euro 2020, so Enrique must be doing something right.

Belgium 1:2 Italy, Munich

Another grand performance from Roberto Mancini's Italian renaissance and another missed chance for Belgium's golden generation - perhaps their last given their ageing stars.

Italy played another front foot game and scored two quality goals so deserved their victory. They are a well-organised team with a strong defence, dangerous attack and now an ocean of confidence.

Belgium missed Eden Hazard but his replacement, the Rennes teenager Jeremy Doku, gave a fantastic performance of energy and high-speed dribbling, if not finishing.

This heavyweight bout began with aplomb with both teams penetrating the opposition areas in the opening minutes, but soon Italy settled into their passing game better than Belgium did into theirs.

The Azzurri drew first blood in the 13th minute, or so it seemed as Leonardo Bonucci tapped home a free kick, but VAR chalked it off as for an offside touch from Giorgio Chiellini.

Despite the pace of Leonardo Spinazzola, the fastest player at Euro 2020, on the left, Italy preferred to funnel their attacks through Federico Chiesa on the right.

For Belgium, Kevin De Bruyne looked sharp. In the 23rd minute he made a dangerous charge and shot which Gianluigi Donnarumma could only tip away one-handed. Then came another De Bruyne charge he offloaded to Romelu Lukaku, who also drew a one-handed save.

By 25 minutes it was hectic end-to-end stuff with caution thrown to the wind but it was Italy who hit the net again on the half hour. 

Marco Verratti stole the ball from Jan Vertoghen before threading it through to Nicolo Barella who wriggled free from the attentions of three defenders to thump the ball in at the far post.

It was a strike reminiscent of Chiesa's winner against Austria, had something of Gerd Muller to it and was wholly merited for such a positive opening.

Italy's second, a minute before the break, was just as sweet. Lorenzo Insigne picked up the ball close to halfway and skipped past Youri Tielemans before the Belgian defence backed off, allowing him the space to pull the trigger from just outside the box, his missile curling and dipping beyond the reach of Thibaut Courtois.

Belgium had a mountain to climb but were handed a lifeline in first half injury time.

Giovanni Di Lorenzo knocked the flying Doku over in the area and an intensely focused Lukaku hit the penalty almost straight to make it 2-1.

Italy v Belgium

The exhilaration of the first 45 cooled down but just after the hour the jeopardy was back.

Doku scarpered down the left again and released De Bruyne who whipped it across for Lukaku to tap in, but the Inter man was a little off balance and Spinazzola blocked his goalbound shot.

68 minutes and the first change. Dries Mertens came on and joined in a Belgian attack which almost found the head of Lukaku in front of an unguarded net.

All the hectic running took its toll. Nacer Chadli pulled his hamstring four minutes after coming on and Spinazzola pulled up after another sprint, stretchered off in tears with the realisation his Euros were over.

With six minutes left, Doku danced wide of three defenders on another frenetic dribble but launched his shot over the bar. Italy now reverted to type, massed behind the ball in hope of a counter attack, staying down after tackles and bringing on substitutes to eat up the seconds.

Belgium could not penetrate and that was that. The Italian bandwagon returns to Wembley for a Mediterranean derby with Spain on Tuesday, while Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry fly home for some hard thinking.

The world's No.1 ranked football nation has stumbled out before the final of a major tournament again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

EURO 2020: Quarter Finals - Be Gamble Aware

EURO 2020: Quarter Finals

EURO 2020: Quarter Finals

So we are down to the last eight and from my prediction I only got half the teams right -

Belgium v Italy

France v Croatia

England v Sweden 

Netherlands v Denmark

My 'expert' tips garnered from my FIFA, UEFA and Premier League accreditations were stabs in the dark - confirming I am right to stay away from anything resembling a betting slip, although I am game for losing £1 in the office World Cup sweepstake once every four years.

I am glad I was half wrong, because how boring would football be if it were 100% predictable (are you listening Florentino Perez)?

To that end, I cannot see the point of envisaging who will be in the semi-finals and am tiring of the media asking players or fans streaming out of Wembley daft questions like, "So will England go all the way?" No one has a crystal ball.

I smiled when Sven-Goran Eriksson was once asked at an England press conference, "Sven, will we win tomorrow?" and the glacial Swede responded with the cold logic of an I.Q. test, "I don't know if we will win tomorrow but I know we can win," which left the tabloid hack frustrated without his longed-for headline.

When people ask me to predict football I always cast my mind back to the 2002 World Cup and reply, "Who could have predicted two of those semi-finalists would be Turkey and South Korea?" I might also add that World Cup last fours in my lifetime have included Poland and Sweden.

Therefore, it would not be a shock to see one of the Czech Republic, Denmark, Switzerland or Ukraine in the Euro 2020 final. They have all shown real steel to get to the last eight, a martial virtue whose absence arguably did for France and certainly for the Netherlands.

All the ties look tough to call. The Englishman in me feels Ukraine will be summarily dispatched in Rome but after washing off my St George's Cross face paint, the rational observer thinks it will be a close scrap. The head should rule the heart, some of the time.

Andriy Yarmolenko and Oleksandr Zinchenko really impressed me against Sweden. Since the pair play for English clubs and coach Andriy Shevchenko has a London home and played for Chelsea, they will all surely be motivated.

England beat Ukraine 1-0 at Euro 2012 in Donetsk but the hosts gave them a right fright that afternoon and in the absence of goal line technology, had a shot wrongly disallowed too. Their last meetings were in 2014 and ended in two draws so there is no reason to believe England will walk it in Rome.

Whenever Spain play there is a clash of styles on show because Luis Enrique's men outpass the opposition massively. Their average possession stat of 67.5% is far ahead of the next best, Italy, on 56.3%, bucking the recent trends of more vertical than horizontal football.

If anyone wants to diss the Spanish game as 'pass-enaccio' they might want to note Enrique's men have found the net more than any other nation at Euro 2020 - 11 times in four games. The team is still fairly inexperienced and Sergio Busquets the only survivor from the golden age of tiki-taka.

In their way are a Swiss side buoyed by their surprise elimination of the favourites, France, on penalties.

Also revved up after upsetting the odds are the Czechs, the lowest-ranked side left in the competition, who deservedly beat the Netherlands and did it in normal time too. Patrik Schik is only one goal behind the eliminated Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the golden boot. Against them are the most motivated nation in Euro 2020, Denmark, who seem to have tapped into higher powers.

The standout tie of course is Belgium v Italy. One of the best two nations left in the competition will go out tomorrow night, a reminder of the vagaries of knockout football.

Unlike in leagues, when it comes to cups the best team often does not lift the trophy. Just remember the Mighty Magyars of '54 and the Clockwork Orange of '74, both universally eulogised, but fallers at the last.

EURO 2020 Quarter-Finals 

Kick-off times GMT; FIFA World Rankings in brackets

Friday 2nd July

Switzerland (13) v Spain (6) 1700, St Petersburg

Belgium (1) v Italy (7) 2000, Munich

Saturday 3rd July

Czech Republic (40) v Denmark (10) 1700, Baku

Ukraine (24) v England (4) 2000, Rome

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Euro 2020: England Advance and Ukraine Surprise

England 2:0 Germany, London

A game with historic baggage - 1966, 1970, 1996, 2010...England felt the pain more than Germany going into this, a consequence of confusing football with war, but by ten to seven pm local time their historic wounds had been soothed.

England Advance

2-0 feels like a comprehensive knockout and it was a fairly assured win, another successful outing for the tournament's best defence, still unbreached, while Germany's backline parted twice. However, the visitors did miss three chances, crucially one from Thomas Muller which would have levelled the scores.

Today England wore all white and Germany all black, looking like mobile chess pieces. The Wembley turf looked as immaculate as Wimbledon Centre Court on an opening day. 40,000 was less than half of Wembley's capacity but it felt as full as ever.

Gareth Southgate, the champion of youth, had played safe picking five experienced defenders and leaving some attacking aces benched. His plan worked and his reputation has grown again.

Germany began better and stroked the ball around for the first ten minutes. The Three Lions badge hung heavily on their young shoulders at the start, a handicap all England managers identify.

The German wing backs Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich were pushed up so high England were pinned back. Kai Havertz orchestrated calmly; England's only bright spark was Bukaro Saka's forward runs. Captain Harry Kane was anonymous again.

In the 16th minute came the first chance. Raheem Sterling curled a shot from outside of the box and Manuel Neuer parried. By the half hour mark England had got into the game, now evenly contested.

Germany's first moment of danger came on 32 minutes. Havertz slipped his Chelsea teammate Timo Werner through but Jordan Pickford narrowed the angles and block the shot. 

Seconds before the whistle, Kane rounded Neuer but Matts Hummels stuck out a leg to dispossess. 0-0 at the break.

Three minutes after the restart Havertz pinged an effort from 20 yards, stinging Pickford's gloves, but the first hour was largely shadow boxing, both sides gently probing for a slip or an opening. This was not the goal fest of yesterday or an England v Germany classic. It was anyone's match.

The stalemate had to crack. In the 68th minute both managers made changes. Jack Grealish came on for Saka, Serge Gnabry for Werner. Grealish made the difference.

Finally, a good move arrived in the 76th minute. Raheem Sterling began and finished an England attack, darting in and out before tapping in Luke Shaw's driven cross unmarked past Neuer. It was one of the best team goals England had scored. Grealish's cushioned pass to Shaw was pivotal.

Five minutes later the hero almost turned villain. Sterling under-hit a back pass, Havertz stole it and sent Thomas Muller one-on-one with Pickford. All the world waited for the net to bulge but the Bayern legend guided it wide of the post. An incredible escape for England and their goalscorer.

Six minutes later roles were reversed as Gnabry lost the ball on halfway and England countered with Shaw. Grealish teased a perfect cross into the danger zone and Kane, well clear of Anthony Rudiger, stooped to nod home. 

England's skipper and 2018 World Cup golden boot winner had finally found the Euro 2020 net. Germany's marking was once again all at sea. 

A sad end to storied international careers for Joachim Low and Muller, but a morale booster for England, their first knockout win over the Germans since the summer of '66. 

The path to the final looks tempting but now they must swap home comforts for a quarter-final in Rome.

Sweden 1:2 Ukraine, Glasgow

A much more meaty tussle up in Scotland, where two sides scrapped it out in an open and often messy contest.

On paper, Sweden should have won - Group E winners versus the lowest-performing qualifier for the Round of 16. Ukraine's 2-1 victory over lowly North Macedonia was just enough to sneak into the knockout stages.

Ukraine v Sweden

How wrong can the betting be. The unfancied Ukrainians won 2-1, thanks to two stunning strikes and a never say die attitude as the clock ticked towards penalties.

The East Europeans had the better first half, reducing Sweden's attacking threat with their fluid 3-5-2 formation and they deservedly took the lead.

Their goal in the 27th minute was a work of footballing art, forged by a fine crossfield ball from Mykola Shaparenko, sharpened by an exquisite outside of the foot pass from Andriy Yarmolenko and polished off by a rousing half-volley from Oleksandr Zinchenko, the flying wing back of Manchester City.

Sweden fought back. Within two minutes Seb Larsson almost caught out the Ukranian goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan with a long-range free kick which swerved unexpectedly around the wall.

Two minutes before the break they drew level through Emile Forsberg, who else, with his fourth strike in three games, one behind Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Forsberg is a clear matchwinner, who grabs games by the scruff of the neck and profits from playing on his 'wrong' side. His 25 yard shot felt unstoppable, deflecting off Illia Zabarnyi and bouncing over Bushchan.

After the break the Swedes gradually took control and forced the game into the opponents' half, although Ukraine's pace still threatened on the break.

Both sides struck the woodwork. Serhij Sydorchuk hit the outside of the Swedish post in the 55th minute and Forsberg hit the Ukrainian one a minute later, teed up by Alexander Isak who at last had run at the Ukrainian defence. 

Ten minutes later Sweden's Dejan Kulusevski cut in from the left and curled a shot to the far corner but Bushcan pushed clear. Then Forsberg danced in from the same flank and whipped it onto the crossbar, the Ukrainian goalkeeper rooted to the spot, watching its trajectory as if it were a missile.

With the Ukraine defence sitting deep and launching long passes, Sweden continued to press but there was no grandstand finish as legs got tired and the game stumbled into extra-time. 

Eight minutes into the additional period Sweden lost Marcus Danielson for leaving his studs on Artem Besedin, who hobbled off, ice strapped to his leg. The replays made one wince but the tackle was mistimed rather than premeditated.

Players fell to ground injured left right and centre. This had been an attritional match.

Ukraine still looked fast on the attack and eager to score but Sweden held out, unable to attack in numbers after the sending off so relying on their traditional 4-4-2 compactness and rigid defending.

11 substitutes were on the field with 15 minutes to go. The game had become very messy and seemed set for the spot-kicks.

With the extra time clock at almost 32 minutes, a last-gasp winner for Ukraine. 

Artem Dovbyk headed home a rasping cross from the left wing from Zinchenko. It was classic centre forward play, attacking the space between the centre backs, just staying onside and then powering a header into the corner.

A deserved win for a positive last 15 minutes from Ukraine. In extra-time Andriy Shevchenko's men had enjoyed 77% of the ball.

'Sheva-gol' as he was known at Milan, celebrated Dovbyk's winner like he had scored it himself.

Ukraine are in the last eight for the first time and meet England in Rome on Saturday.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Own Goals at Euro 2020

Own Goals

By now you will possibly be aware that there have been as many own goals in this tournament as in the previous fifteen (1960 - 2016) and that is not just in a footballing sense.

It was always a big ask for my team to qualify for the next round, but at least I could now enjoy the tournament without worrying that I wouldn't be able to go and see their next match.

In the last few days of the group stages there were plenty of rumours and posturing by politicians over the fact that games should be moved from the U.K. as the Government were refusing to relax restrictions.

My prediction that they would allow 60,000 at Wembley proved correct. But the reality was that they were never going to move it with the cost of the tickets being prohibitive. They would have had to cancel all the tickets for Wembley and resell them, do you know how much tickets cost?

Euro 2020 Ticket Prices

It is deliberately in small print so you can't read it. If you have to ask then let's just say you can't afford it.

On my journey up to the Scotland v Croatia game I managed to pick up a ticket to Italy v Austria at Wembley on the following Saturday. I knew there was a good chance of a ticket as they had just announced that on their app that Wembley would have an attendance of at least 50% of capacity. That meant an increase in capacity from 22,500 to 45,000. That meant they had 20,000 tickets to sell in five days.

So I was slightly surprised at the lack of people around Wembley before the game and the crowd of 18,910.

You would think with the reduced capacities that the attendances would be close to the maximum allowed. But for the two games I went to at Hampden the crowds were both less than 10,000 when the capacity was given as 12,500. For the three games I have been to at Wembley there were less than 20,000 at each when the capacity has stayed as 22,500 (or 45,000 for Italy v Austria).

With this tournament going ahead in these unprecedented times, UEFA had the vision to include a clause that allowed for a postponement of a game for up to 48 hours in the event that a team could not field a team due to Covid.

Interesting then that whilst Christian Eriksen was in hospital, with his condition unsure, that his team were given three options. Forfeit the game, play the next day at noon or carry on.

Manuel Neuer was threatened with disciplinary action after he wore a rainbow coloured armband in support of the LGBT+ community. UEFA publicly stated that they were looking into this before deciding, the armband has been assessed as a team symbol for diversity and thus for a 'good cause.' 

At the Italy v Austria game I was not aware of the offside before the disallowed Austrian goal. The only person that appeared to see it in the stadium was the VAR referee. As a paying spectator, it still does not seem right to me that something that you don't see in real-time is scrutinised in slow motion and that a decision is then made.

Despite my best efforts, I wasn't able to get a ticket for England v Germany, that doesn't mean I haven't been busy!

People that had tickets cancelled were told that they would be given priority to repurchase tickets if capacities were increased. As I had all the tickets I needed in the group stages I could not see how this was working. I had however heard that people had been sent emails to alert them that tickets were available, but that tickets had already been sold by the time people found out.

Own Goals


Tickets for games would just suddenly appear on the Euro 2020 app, and if you were not looking at the site you would miss the opportunity to purchase.

Another problem with buying tickets through the official channel was the white screen of death. Just before you get through to the page that would show you what tickets are available, the screen would freeze and nothing would show. After experimenting I found that switching from Wi-fi to mobile data just before pressing the button to enter the portal cleared this problem. It did mean I ended up using more data than I ever have but when you look at the difference in the ticket prices you will realise it was a tactic worth pursuing, as being slow to react to a sudden ticket sale could mean missing out or as the tournament progressed a big increase in the price of tickets available.

On the Sunday of the Round of 16, I realised something was happening on the site, suddenly tickets for the first semi-final were available and I managed to secure tickets for the first semi-final that I had lost tickets for in the ballot in May. Then I spotted that Final tickets were available…. The holy grail.

I patiently input my request only for my application to be declined.

Euro 2020 Tickets

Slightly frustrated but used to it by past experiences I waited for a text from my bank.

It takes more than ten minutes to go through the whole process again, so I was feeling more confident on my next attempt, but no, it was declined again.

By now the site was getting busier which meant that it was taking longer to access, which in turn meant more tickets would be being sold (if anyone could purchase them). I was able to apply for Cat 3 tickets at €295, if those sold out the next category was €595, and if those sold out €945. So time was of the essence.

Four hours, five declined transactions and three different cards used and I managed to purchase. Thankfully at Cat 3.

So whilst I won't be at England v Germany I will be back at Wembley for the last three games.

Ross Clegg footballtravelswithross.wordpress.com