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

Euro 2020: A Tale of Two Goal Fests

Croatia 3:5 Spain Copenhagen

A crazy scoreline after an avalanche of goals, near misses and excitement, just what you want from a knockout match.

Croatia 3:5 Spain Copenhagen

Croatia began handicapped with Ivan Perisic's Covid-induced ban. Their best player after Luka Modric could well have changed the result had he been on the pitch. Perhaps to compensate, the gods gifted them after 20 minutes, a comical own goal scored by Pedri 45 metres out.

The Barcelona youngster and the rest of the full-looking stadium in Denmark felt their jaws drop as Unai Simon miscontrolled the ball and let it roll into the goal. The back pass itself was overhit and rather bizarre coming from close to halfway.

Spain had begun better with Koke and Alvaro Morata getting shots on target before their comedy moment. But they maintained their assault and Pablo Sarabia netted a deserved equaliser in the 38th minute. In the 57th they were ahead as Cesar Azpilicueta rose to meet Ferran Torres' cross, his first goal for La Roja.

Torres himself made it 3-1 twenty minutes later when he stole the ball from a sleeping Josko Gvardiol to slot past Dominik Livakovic. Croatia looked out, buried under a sea of Spanish passing and sharp finishing. 

But like the Austrians and Czechs, another Central European nation refused to throw in the towel against storied opponents. They fought back and Simon's one-handed save in the 67th from Gvardiol was key to keeping the Spanish a nose ahead.

In the 85th a lifeline. Modric invaded the six-yard box and drew it back for Mislav Orsic to shoot: A pinball scramble and a goal for Croatia. Hope springs eternal.

Two minutes into injury time, the Croats grabbed a third with a powerful header from Mario Pasalic, flying into space between the Spanish centre backs for an irrepressible equaliser. The momentum was now with the World Cup finalists.

Orsic fired over and then Simon saved Spain again with a reflex save from Andrej Kramaric to stop Croatia taking the lead. The Spanish goalkeeper had more than atoned for his earlier slip. Time for extra time.

Spain won the extra half hour. In the 100th minute Alvaro Morata, who had been all effort but played below par hitherto, controlled the ball with his chest and brought it down coolly before firing into the roof of the net. A top-drawer finish.

Three minutes later Mikel Oyarzabal slotted in a fifth for La Roja. Croatia had run out of gas by the second extra period, two goals too much to catch up a second time. There was still time for Dani Olmo to hit the post, but 6-3 would have been cruel on the brave Croats.

This was a real tussle which could have gone either way. Spain's possession game (67% of the ball) triumphed in the end, but the Croats' physical effort, garlanded by the creativity of Modric, gave them a real run for their money.

To use a cliche, football was the winner in Copenhagen.

France 3:3 Switzerland Bucharest

Switzerland win 5-4 on penalties

After another ride on the rollercoaster, it is safe to say this was the best day of the Euros. 14 goals in two games and a changing of the guard as both 2018 World Cup finalists were knocked out.

France 3:3 Switzerland

France's 1998 World Cup win was followed up by winning Euro 2000, Spain did the same in 2010 and 2012 but Didier Deschamps has failed to build a dynasty on the back of his Russian triumph. His side were the best coming into Euro 2020, but fluffed their second-round lines.

The tournament favourites shared six goals with a determined Switzerland. For all France's prestige and  flowing football, the Swiss had come to fight, not lie down. The game swung back and forth, conducted by two quarterbacks, Paul Pogba for France and Granit Xhaka for Switzerland.

A sloppy first 45 from the French saw them enter the dressing rooms a goal down to Haris Seferovic's powerful header and the Swiss were good money for their lead. 

Les Bleus were failing, encore une fois, to fire on all cylinders and the Swiss took advantage of the lack of French connection. France's three man defence looked particularly ropey and like the Dutch yesterday, the side's collective effort wobbled when they went a goal down.

Unfamiliar psychological territory for the world champions at the break. An unsettled Didier Deschamps brought on the attack-minded Kingsley Coman for the ineffective Clement Lenglet and switched to a back four, but the first action after the break was advantage Switzerland.

In the 53rd minute Benjamin Pavard sent Steven Zuber flying to halt his surging run down the left as he bore down on goal. Although the chalk of the box's line kicked up Wimbledon style, the referee signalled a penalty. The French campaign looked headed for the exit.

Big moments decide big matches. Ricardo Rodriguez hit his spot kick at less than full blast and Hugo Lloris dived low to his left and got a glove on it. Les Bleus had escaped.

France roared back, Mbappe flashed a shot wide and then in the 57th set up Karim Benzema who tapped the ball past Jan Sommer to level. One minute 42 seconds later it was 2-1 to France as Benzema nodded Griezmann's pass into an empty net. Rodriguez, defending lost the leap and looked crestfallen. 

The game had swung back to France in the blink of an eye. Benzema, for so long the exile, was now the hero.

With 15 minutes left, a sabre flourish from Dartagnan -  Pogba, who curled and dipped a great shot into the top corner to make it 3-1 to the French. A world class strike. Dancing at times, majestic while threading defence-splitting passes, Pogba had class in waiting.

Game over it appeared. France were in full flow and looking like scoring in every attack. A second half renaissance for the favourites.

Attention aux Suisses! Nine minutes to go and Seferovic headed his second, losing Raphael Varane with ease to power the ball past Lloris. Switzerland refused to give up.

With five minutes left, Mario Gavranovic netted but was flagged offside. With the clock showing 90 minutes,  Xhaka unleashed Mario Gavranovic who kept the ball glued to his feet, sent Presnel Kimpembe to the wrong address and rifled wide of Lloris into the net. 3-3.

94th another diagonal lance from Xhaka and Admir Mehmedi almost had a one-on-one with Lloris. At the other end Coman hit the bar for France. What a 90.

Extra-time was less eventful. Kylian Mbappe was still on low power - shackled, tackled and shooting wide.

And so to the twelve yards test. Four French and five Swiss kicks hit the net and then Mbappe, having hobbled through extra time after missing a chance, whipped his kick too close to the middle and Sommer palmed it away.

The world champions were out, defeated by the thinnest of margins by a team that bit more determined on the night. Mbappe the world's most valuable player, was not to be the king of the Euros.

Another Goliath felled by David. The Swiss roll on.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Euro 2020: Czech-mate for Holland Red Devils Beat the Holders

Czech Republic 2:0 Netherlands Budapest

A full Puskas stadium again with seas of orange and the red, white and blue of the Czech Republic.

Three wins out of three and eight goals had made the Dutch clear favourites, but in the end they were soundly beaten in the first upset of the knockout stages. A shock and the Netherlands' worst tournament defeat since being dumped out of Euro 2008 by Russia.

The afternoon hinged on a crazy 52nd minute when Donyell Malen fluffed a one-on-one with the Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik and Matthijs de Ligt was sent off for denying a goalscoring opportunity to Patrick Schik.

The Netherlands threatened to steamroll the Czechs at the start with their possession play but as the half went on the white shirts made more incursions from the right and had a couple of chances. This was not going to be a cakewalk for Holland.

The closest moment to a goal came in the 38th minute when Lukas Masopust, he of the historic footballing name, teed up Antonin Barak but De Ligt threw himself in front of the shot.

The Dutch geometric football had failed to forge a shot on goal in the first 45 and for all their sharp passing and positional play they entered the dressing rooms frustrated for the first time in the tournament. 

De Ligt will get the blame for the red card and the subsequent Dutch collapse. The Juventus centre-back had misjudged the flight of a long ball and stumbled, ineptly pushing the ball away with his arm to stop Schik going in on goal.

The noise from the stands was now all Czech-made and the on-field roles had been reversed. The front foot Dutch were now camped in their own half and their opponents who had looked so good on the break before had to take the initiative.

On 64 minutes Pavel Kaderabek should have scored but Denzel Dumfries made a last-ditch block, but the direction of the match was clear

Their pressure paid off in their best period. With the bodies piled into the box a Czech corner sailed over to the far post, Tomas Kalas rose to head it back to the near post and Tomas Holes nodded in. The Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg was in no man's land at the wrong side of the goal.

Spaces opened up and the white shirts grew in confidence. Soucek and Masopust had efforts on target. The Dutch failed to string passes together and seemed to have no clue how to react.

Schik made it 2-0 finishing off a midfield surge from Holes in the 80th. The Oranje fans looked distraught, the Czech bench ecstatic. Holes had ridden less than committed tackles en route to goal.

There was no Virgil Van Dijk to lead, while Frank De Boer's man-management was in tatters. The Dutch could not cope physically with their opponents or psychologically with De Ligt's expulsion. They had no plan B. De Boer made four changes but the team just played worse, losing more possession. Vaclik's gloves were barely dirtied all day.

Three stylish victories and the biggest goal haul from the first round proved no preparation for what to do when you lose a man and concede a goal.

While the Dutch gave us a lesson in how to mentally lose a match, the Czechs taught us the opposite. They managed the phases better, withstood the early storm, exploited the sending off with an offensive switch and attacked their opponents' weaknesses.

The Budapest match was a battlefield but only Jaroslav Silhavy had read The Art of War.

The Dutch go back to the drawing board, their renaissance stopped in flight. The Czechs advance to the last eight against Denmark.

Belgium 1:0 Portugal Seville

A warm evening in the cavernous Olympic Stadium in Seville. The pick of the round of 16 and a D-Day for the holders and Belgium's golden generation.

In the end the holders, an unlikely winner at Euro 2016 lest we forget relinquished their crown but went down fighting until the end. The match was an even encounter, not a classic, decided by one moment of sublime footwork.

The only effort on target in the first half hour was a Ronaldo free kick, a vicious dipper which Thibaut Courtois dived to parry. Portugal had enjoyed more of the ball but their slow build up allowed Belgium to perfectly regroup.

Belgium seemed slightly muted, not in danger but biding their time to strike. They lit the flame in the 42nd minute when for once they attacked in numbers and Thorgan Hazard found himself in space outside the box before letting rip with a swerving spectacular. Rui Patricio was wrongfooted and missed the ball by centimetres.

Belgium v Portugal

Portugal got a lift when Kevin De Bruyne hobbled off three minutes after the restart but there was no obvious dividend so Fernando Santos rang the changes - Joao Felix for Joao Moutinho and Bruno Fernandes for Bernardo Silva.

By the hour mark the game had opened up into a hot European football night. The pace was slow, slow, quick, quick, slow but the quality was missing. This had not been the goal fest or technical tussle we had hoped for. Portugal were firing long range and off target. Belgium were holding their lead, hoping to release Lukaku on the rampage.

Around the 75 minute mark it felt like it might degenerate into a card fest as every tackle was met by boos and players running to protest.

Fernandes fired crosses in. Diogo Jota fired over from inside the box. In the 82nd minute Ruben Dias powered a header goalward but straight at Courtois.

Raphael Guerrero came closer a minute later but struck the post with a low shot, Courtois beaten. Portugal had their shots but lacked accuracy.

With Belgium sitting back, Portugal funnelled men into attack in the closing minutes. Felix's finish to a flowing move in the 95th flew wide of the post and was their final effort.

Belgium were a little sloppy and never dominated but did enough to ease over the line and resist a noble fightback from the holders. Veterans Pepe and Ronaldo probably played their last game in the European Championship finals.

A win is a win is a win, by any means necessary. Italy await in Munich.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Reds get creative with new publishing partner

Reds get creative with new publishing partner

Reds get creative with new publishing partner

Liverpool FC has welcomed a new global partner, Kodansha, to the club as its official Publication Partner. The multi-year deal with one of the world's largest publishers will see the club and Kodansha work together to inspire young fans to harness their creativity and follow their dreams of achieving careers in the creative industry.

Reaching readers across 40 countries, Kodansha publishes a wide range of products, including TV and anime, magazines, picture books and novels and official merchandise. It is also a publisher of the popular comic and graphic novel series, Manga, which originated in Japan and was developed in the late 19th century.

Manga has become extremely well loved by audiences of all ages all over the world, with titles such as 'Attack on Titan', 'Akira', and 'Sailor Moon' some of the best-known examples. Focusing on community outreach and the belief that 'stories can inspire and change people's lives', Japan-based Kodansha is teaming up with the club's official charity, LFC Foundation, to launch 'Creative Works'.

Commencing in September 2021, an employability programme will be delivered to four cohorts of students from two universities and two secondary schools and aims to inspire young people from challenging backgrounds to achieve careers in the creative industry.​

Throughout the programme, participants will receive support and mentoring with creative skill building, CV and interview techniques, public speaking and confidence building and workplace expectations to prepare them to achieve their career goals. Working with seven creative organisations in Liverpool across various sectors, including theatre, media and gaming, participants could also be in with a chance of earning a work experience placement. Kodansha have also committed to making various donations to support the wider Liverpool community over the course of the partnership.

Initially, it will also be making generous donations with creative and art materials, to support children's literacy and inspire creativity from a young age. Billy Hogan, CEO, Liverpool FC, said: "As a football club, there are so many incredible stories throughout our history, stories that are retold and kept alive through the power of creativity and storytelling. They spark excitement, memories and imagination in our fans around the world.

Through our partnership with Kodansha, one of the world's largest publishers, we look forward to creating programs which will help inspire future generations through creativity and storytelling. "Over the past 18 months, our LFC Foundation has been building its 'Works' initiative, to provide a range of employability schemes for those aged 16 and over to help get their foot on the career ladder. We are delighted to work with Kodansha to launch 'Creative Works', a program that will provide opportunities for young people to pursue their dreams in creative careers and realise their potential."

Yoshinobu Noma, President of Kodansha, said: "Having lived in the UK for quite some time now, I have a very special feeling about this partnership with LFC. "Every single match that the team plays in front of their fans all over the world, incredible stories are created and shared, sparking joy and excitement. We want to harness that extraordinary power to inspire impossible stories and build a strong, successful partnership. Let us create stories that bring passion and ignite inspiration around the world, together."

The partnership with Liverpool FC will help to increase brand awareness of Kodansha and its products globally to reach new audiences, while also helping it to achieve its community goal of 'inspiring impossible stories'. The partnership will offer Kodansha social media and marketing support as well as access to LFC players and legends throughout the season.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Euro 2020: Danish Dynamite & Italian Stallions

Denmark 4:0 Wales, Amsterdam

A great day to be Danish, a sad one to be Welsh.

A devastating display catapulted the team who had lost their first two games at the Euros into the last eight, while Wales head home humbled.

This is the second match in a row Denmark have scored four and whoever plays them next will be aware they are facing a team high on confidence and possessed of a second wind, a divine one. I was surprised before the tournament to note they were ranked in FIFA's top ten but I am not now.

The collective prayer and invocation of life engendered by Christian Eriksen's near-death experience seems to have imbued the team with a grit and self-belief they did not have before and they are riding the crest of a wave now. A giant shirt with his name and number on it was unfurled on the field at the start, a reminder Wales were up against more than 11 men.

They came to Amsterdam having already flown to play in Baku and Rome and the air miles might have cost them some energy in the second half. Denmark by contrast had played three games at home before making the short trip to Holland.

The Johann Cruyff Arena had sizeable sections of Roligans but barely a Welshman - victims of the UK's negligence in letting the Indian variant of Covid run amok, which forced the continent to close its doors to British travellers.

The crowd must have made a difference, as Gareth Bale suggested afterwards, questioning the referee's mental equilibrium when failing to blow up for a Simon Kjaer foul on Keiffer Moore in the build-up to the Danes' crucial second goal.

But Wales deserved to lose and the second goal was as much a result of Neco Williams' suicidal clearance to Kaspar Dolberg. The Nice marksman was back on the turf where he played for Ajax for five formative years and had already curled a beautiful opener past Danny Ward.

Connor Roberts had hobbled off in the 14th minute and been replaced by Williams, whose error handed Dolberg a gilt-edged chance to make it 2-0. Lady luck was not on Wales' side today.

But Denmark's shape and organisation were superior and despite an early ten minute period when Wales were on top and Bale rifled a couple of shots wide, it was clear there was only doing to be one winner.

As the second half dragged on, the dragons looked beaten. Frustration showed and they ended up with four yellows and a red card, for substitute Harry Wilson. Captain Bale himself was cautioned for sarcastic applause of the referee.

Wales' lack of depth showed. Chris Mepham and Joe Morell were two who struggled. Daniel James, so vibrant on the wing against Turkey, was anonymous and substituted.

Andreas Cornelius was an excellent substitution for Denmark with twenty minutes left, a battering ram centre forward who threatened to cause havoc with the jaded Welsh backline.

Danish Dynamite

Denmark twisted the knife in the closing minutes and there were goals for the impressive Joakim Maehle and finally Martin Braithwaite, after an embarrassingly long wait for VAR.

Rumours abounded afterwards that Bale had played his last match in a Welsh jersey and would announce his retirement in the next few days. If that is true it was a sad, sad exit. Four years ago Wales had reached the semi-final, memorably dumping out Belgium 3-1 in the quarter final.

This time they fell a stage earlier, but should still be proud of making the knockout stages two Euros in a row. Today the Danish tsunami was far too much for them.

Denmark motor on to Baku on the 3rd of July to face either the Netherlands or the Czech Republic.

Italy 2:1 Austria, London

Italy maintained their 30+ unbeaten run with two extra-time strikes to beat an unexpectedly determined and spirited Austria in London.

Italy celebrate

Spectator-limited Wembley was a far cry from the noisy Amsterdam Arena of earlier this afternoon. It was a dry and cloudy evening in London and the 18,910 in attendance made little noise until late on. At times it felt like watching a pre-season friendly but the tie sparked into life in the supplementary period.

In the first half as expected, Italy dominated the approach play, Lorenzo Insigne had a shot saved and Ciro Immobile almost netted a wonder goal with a looping shot onto the woodwork, but Austria still lurked on the break.

A Marko Arnautovic goal was chalked off for offside after the break and when they pulled off their bad boy/talisman in extra-time, you felt it was not going to be Austria's night.

The second half belonged to the Austrians however, who muffled the Italian attack with a concrete defence and attacked optimistically too. When the whistle went for full time the honours were certainly even. The Austrian huddle before the restart looked the more motivated

But cometh the subs, cometh the goals. The deadlock was broken in extra-time and all three goalscorers were substitutes.

Roberto Mancini had brought on Federico Chiesa and Andrea Belotti with six minutes remaining to replace strikers Domenico Berardi and Immobile.

Chiesa's head, right-foot, left-foot combo in the 95th to give Italy the lead was Bergkamp-esque in its execution, a rapier strike which came at a crucial moment.

Matteo Pessina's goal was also down to quick and skilful feet in the box as Italy's class finally paid off. But Austria refused to lie down and came back impressively, bringing on a total of six pairs of fresh legs after the 90 to pin the Azzurri back.

Italy v Austria
Italy v Austria: Photo by Ross Clegg

Seconds after Pessina's strike, Austrian sub Louis Schaub let rip from outside the box and only a diving Gianluigi Donnarumma saved Italy.

Eight minutes later, Sasa Kalaladjzic's deft near post header fooled the previously impregnable Italian defence and was the least Austria deserved. Route one was now order of the day but time ran out before they could equalise.

In the end, Italy's strength in depth proved the difference. Chiesa's sharpness from the bench turned the game. But (Tyrolean) hats off to Austria for running the Azzurri mighty close and giving such a good account of themselves.

For so many years a continental also-ran, they now have something to build on having advanced to the knock out stages for the first time and given one of the favourites an almighty fright. Both leave London with pride.

Italy v Austria
Italy v Austria: Photo by Ross Clegg

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Euro 2020: Elimination Day #1

Euro 2020: Elimination Day #1

And now to the knock-outs

Wales v Denmark,  26th June, Amsterdam 1800

Italy v Austria26th June, London, 2100

Netherlands v Czech Republic, 27th June, Budapest, 1800

Belgium v Portugal, 27th June, Seville, 2100

Croatia v Spain28th June, Copenhagen, 1800

France v Switzerland, 28th June, Bucharest, 2100

England v Germany, 29th June, London, 1800

Sweden v Ukraine, 29th June, Glasgow 2100

(All times are Central European)

The round of 16 is what the Euros were until Euro 2016 and many believe is the ideal size.

UEFA's expansion to 24 teams five years ago in France allowed Eire, Hungary, Northern Ireland and Slovakia to make it to the second phase, where they were eliminated. This time, we have the likes of Austria, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Ukraine facing the same fate.

The teams who have now left the competition:

Finland, Hungary, North Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia and Turkey, hardly merited a place in the last 16, so the argument for expansion looks weak.

Hungary and North Macedonia certainly entertained with their fighting spirit and front-foot football, but their defences were not up to scratch. With 13 European teams qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar next year, a 16 team Euros seems about right.

While it makes the Euros a bigger commercial cultural event, in footballing terms it is hard to argue the increase to 24 finalists has worked. A return to 16 teams would be a good idea but of course it won't happen. Plans for Euro 2024 in Germany are already well advanced and there are two confirmed bidders for Euro 2028.

Of the sides remaining, Ukraine are perhaps the weakest, not much better than the eliminated Finns or Slovaks, while three of the eight ties look lop-sided - Italy should beat Austria, Holland should beat the Czech Republic and France Switzerland without breaking too much of a sweat.

Wales v Denmark, Croatia v Spain and England v Germany seem more equally matched and hard to call.

The Danes arrive in Holland on the crest of an emotional wave after their hammering of Russia, but Wales are a tough nut to crack too. Croatia remembered their lines too with a 3-1 win over Scotland in Glasgow and their toughness and greater experience should tell over Spain.

England have home advantage over Germany which counts for something and this Germany side is not one of their best ones, but the Mannschaft's defeat of Portugal and double comeback against Hungary means you cannot write off their chances at Wembley.

The Three Lions blow hot and cold too, excellent for one half against the Czechs, anonymous for the other, solid against Croatia, unable to dominate the team which finished bottom at home.

England are the only nation left in the Euros who can play at home, although if they beat Germany they will fly to Rome for their quarter-final.

Belgium v Portugal could be the pick of the matches, when the crown could be passed in a colourful, hard-fought goal-fest full of big-name performances.

And then there is Sweden, who won their group but did not get the plaudits for their watertight defence keeping the Spanish pass class away from their goal.

The Swedes were rewarded with the best second round draw against Ukraine. I don't bet and abhor predictions, but it is too tempting to not picture the quarter-final lineup.

Here's my tuppence ha'penny worth (two cents) on what the last eight will look like:

Belgium v Italy

France v Croatia

England v Sweden

Netherlands v Denmark

The other thing which stands out from the draw is how much heavier the top half of it is, packed with France, Italy, Belgium, Croatia and Spain.

England, Germany and the Netherlands, in the bottom half, have smoother passages to the final at Wembley on the 11th of July.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Euro 2020 Day 13: Swing States

Spain 5:0 Slovakia

After Croatia caught fire last night, it was time for another giant to wake up. La Roja wore white but it was Slovakia who fired blanks in Seville.

Spain 5:0 Slovakia

5-0 is the biggest win anyone has had in the Euros but was as much down to Spain's reawakening as to another mismatch. The Slovaks only lost 1-0 to group winners Spain and had beaten Poland. 

But Spain's movement and metronomic passing outfoxed them today and they handed Luis Enrique's side a dream start when goalkeeper Martin Dubravka put into his own net. Dubravka had earlier saved a penalty from Alvaro Morata and saved another shot from him but the Spaniards reacted better to those setbacks. 

Aymeric Laporte added a second in first half injury time and Spain cruised to score three more after the break, tap-ins after criss-cross passing moves. They had such a good day losing their markers but with Slovakia so hapless, it is hard to know how much to read into it. The Spanish will have their work cut out against Croatia in the next round.

The Slovaks go home, beaten to the last third-place qualifying spot by four goals.

Sweden 3:2 Poland

A tale of two strikers and a pair of braces: Emil Forsberg netted twice for Sweden, Robert Lewandowski (who else?) twice for Poland but the Swedes added a third through Viktor Claessen at the death.

Sweden 3:2 Poland

Desperate for a win, Poland got off to a dreadful start by letting Forsberg score after 82 seconds via some comedy defending. Incredibly then, Lewandowski headed twice against the crossbar, as if it was not going to be his night.

Almost on the hour mark Dejan Kulusevski surged down the right flank and into the box before centering for Forsberg to sidefoot home. The Poles were not yet axed however and two minutes later their star striker hauled them back with a top-drawer finish from the edge of the area.

His second with six minutes to go was still not enough, and the Polish backline switched off again in the 93rd minute to let Claessen score, but by then they were out and the Swedes were through.

Sweden win the group with two wins and a draw, their prize a very winnable second round match against Ukraine in Glasgow on Tuesday.

France 2:2 Portugal

A bona fide big game in Budapest with the Puskas stadium packed to the rafters again.

A lively start but the noise really erupted in the 12th minute when news filtered through of Hungary scoring in Munich. Simultaneous games always allow this shadow supporting to occur but at this Euros lots of cities are hosting teams other than their own countries. A stadium full of Hungarian fans singing about a match in a far-off country while Cristiano Ronaldo and the world champions played before them felt a tad surreal.

France 2:2 Portugal

In the 16th minute Kylian Mbappé sprang the offside trap to latch onto a Paul Pogba pass and sidefooted Thierry Henry style, but Rui Patricio had his angles covered and punched away. For the next 15 minutes the game lost its bite but if anyone thought it lacked punch, Hugo Lloris put his fist in Danilo's face as he tried to clear a free kick on 28 minutes.

The French connection was deemed dangerous play and a yellow card and penalty ensued. Ronaldo had sent a shot well wide minutes earlier but was back to his best with a cooly dispatched spot kick, which sent him to the top of the Euro 2020 goalscoring charts with four in three games.

France did not react, allowing Portugal to boss the rest of the half. Les Bleus had already qualified of course. But then a gift from the ref as Mbappe ran into Nelson Semedo and awarded France a penalty. It seemed a ridiculous decision but Karim Benzema made no mistake to make it 1-1.

There was plenty of entente cordiale between the goalscorers and former Real Madrid teammates smiling arm in arm as they headed to the changing rooms, until Ronaldo remembered the cameras and covered his mouth La Liga style.

France had looked under-committed and overly dependent on Mbappé's pace on the left, Portugal more fluent, the Spanish referee headstrong.

Two minutes after the break Benzema found the net again from an exquisite Pogba pass, a world class through ball and finish, as if the favourites had merely been sleeping.

Just short of the hour another penalty, this time for Jules Koundé's flailing arms from a Ronaldo cross. Ronaldo rifled it in, 2-2. France had enjoyed the better second half but only went up the gears

With all four group D teams in contention, the flow of goals in Budapest and Munich made the permutations switch every time. As news probably filtered through of Germany's second goal, the two sides eased off in the final minutes, the last of the ebbing and flowing. 

Portugal were lucky to survive a penalty appeal for a Bruno Fernandes arrival on Kingsley Coman deep into injury time.

The Lusitanians had occupied all four spots in the group during the evening.

It was truly a swingers' night.

Germany 2:2 Hungary

Munich was swathed in mist and rain and Germany donned funereal black suitably - was this going to be a sad farewell for Jogi Low?

Germany 2:2 Hungary

The Germany coach looked tired, contemplating the end of a wonderful road. His usual smart casual attire looked like it had been slept in.

A deluge poured down on Bavaria. "Bit wet" tweeted the DFB with a wonderful grasp of English irony. There was a splash of colour when a protestor invaded the pitch to waive a rainbow flag in front of the Hungarians during their anthem. 

It took Hungary 11 minutes to dampen the locals' spirits even further. Adam Szalai met a fantastic cross from Rolland Sallai with a stooping header past Manuel Neuer.

After such a morale boosting win over Portugal, Germany were back to their disjointed norm. Apart from a Mats Hummels header thumped against the crossbar, their first half was a poor one. 

They struggled to adapt to the hellish, swirling rain inside the arena during the first half, perhaps a long overdue payback for the weather which scuppered the Mighty Magyars in the 1954 World Cup final.

The Germans played long but to little effect. Robin Gosens, a hero against the Portuguese, was anonymous; Kai Havertz, quiet hitherto, flashed a shot into the arms of on 51 minutes but equalised in the 66th, bundling the ball in after Hungarian goalkeeper Peter Gulasci missed the cross completely.

Havertz was substituted but only seconds after the restart it was Neuer's turn to make a hash of things, allowing Andras Schafer to steal in and head past him. 2-1 to Hungary in the most unexpected way.

Euro 2020

Leon Goretzka restored German hopes in the 84th firing through a crowded box to make it 2-2, yet another twist and turn on a night of utter unpredictability.

Hungary looked distraught at the end, so near and yet so far. They had taken points off France and Germany, no mean feat, but were eliminated. The Magyars had 

The Germans had played messily but had enough grit to fight back twice to salvage a point. Low lives to die another day. Now it is England at Wembley, where they last clashed at Euro '96 and Germany snuck through on penalties after a certain Gareth Southgate saw his kick saved.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Euro 2020: Round of 16 Confirmed

Euro 2020: Round of 16

442 Cover
Then there was one - 442 magazine Euro 2020 special cover

Wales v Denmark,  26th June, Amsterdam 1800

Italy v Austria26th June, London, 2100

Netherlands v Czech Republic, 27th June, Budapest, 1800

Belgium v Portugal, 27th June, Seville, 2100

Croatia v Spain, 28th June, Copenhagen, 1800

France v Switzerland, 28th June, Bucharest, 2100

England v Germany, 29th June, London, 1800

Sweden v Ukraine, 29th June, Glasgow 2100

Euro 2020

Euro 2020 Day 12: Maestro Modric Sinks the Scots

Scotland 1:3 Croatia

Scotland scored at last, but the Hampden roar was muted when Croatia finally found their form and sent their hosts out of the Euros.

The home fans could have no complaints as they were knocked out by a world class strike from Luka Modric, the best player at the last World Cup finals.

Luka Modric

In the 62nd minute with the score at 1-1, the Real Madrid general made the decisive move. Following some ominous Croatian passing around the Scottish box, the ball fell to him unmarked twenty yards from goal. His strike with the outside of the boot curled unerringly into the net, leaving David Marshall with no chance. 

Their first rapier thrust came when Nikola Vlasic opened the scoring with a 17th minute shot, but the CSKA Moscow man had been left unmarked in the box. Scotland reacted well, drawing level when the ball fell to Callum McGregor in the same space Modric would occupy later, and the Celtic midfielder rifled home.

Scotland joy
Scotland joy

The Scottish nation lit up and it was a good time to score, three minutes before half time.

Their what-if moment arrived just short of the hour mark when Stuart Armstrong's diagonal lance split the Croatian defence and John McGinn, under pressure from Josko Gvardiol, failed to make a solid connection with only the keeper to beat.

The World Cup finalists had stuttered into Euro 2020, losing by a goal to England and then drawing with the Czech Republic but they had too much in the locker to go home in the first round. 

In the 78th minute, any waning Scottish dreams were snuffed out by another one of Croatia's giants. Modric whipped in a corner and Ivan Perisic soared to flick the ball in at the far post. Game over. Croatia will play the second from group E in Copenhagen on Monday.

Scotland v Croatia
Scotland v Croatia

Scotland's return to a finals was a half-baked one rather than a grand homecoming. Losing to Croatia was no disgrace but they also lost 0-2 to the Czechs in a game they really needed to win. 

At least they enjoyed the better of the tussle with the auld enemy at Wembley, but a point from three games was never enough. Scotland arguably had little luck at Euro 2020, not least in Billy Gilmour's unexpected succumbing to Covid-19, but the best teams make their own.

Steve Clarke has still done a good job, forging a well-drilled and well-organised unit who defended stoutly and attacked with eagerness. Scotland were a positive team who had not come to defend or sneak wins and their fans should be proud of that attitude.

Their second tier goalkeeper was out of the top drawer in the Euros; Andy Robertson and Stephen O'Donnell were excellent and young Gilmour was the star against England at Wembley.

The Tartan Army had a fun day out in London, but were denied the overseas match trips they relish. There is always Qatar 2022 to aim for, but good luck getting the beers in there.

Croatia fans at Hampden with the red crosses!
Croatia fans at Hampden with the red crosses!

England 1:0 Czech Republic

The Three Lions extended their Wembley summer residency with a narrow but comfortable win over the Czech Republic. A refreshingly attacking approach in the first half and a Raheem Sterling header did the business for England.

Like at Russia 2018, England knew a victory would mean they would not have to move overseas, but on the flipside a big rival would fly to London.

Grealish and Sterling

The advantage of staying at the team base of St George's Park was at the front of English minds as they took the game to the Czechs with a really positive first 45.

Covid exile for Mason Mount meant Jack Grealish finally got his start at a finals, as did Bukayo Saka in a very fluid looking three behind Harry Kane, whom wags said was self-isolating on the field anyway.

Gareth Southgate has been pretty free of criticism as England manager, which is surely unprecedented, but knew well that another 0-0 would turn the flak guns towards him. If he was afraid of fire, his reaction was excellent.

Raheem Sterling lobbed the goalkeeper but hit the post as early as the second minute. Ten minutes later Sterling found the net with a header, his second goal of Euro 2020. Saka's surging run and Grealish's tease and cross were validations of Southgate's selections.

Saka was particularly impressive, charging upfield at every opportunity but with the ball under his close control. Harry Kane then drew a save, his first on-target of the tournament. It felt surreal to see England so positive.

The Czechs responded. Tomas Holes drew a diving one from Pickford just short of the half hour and Tomas Soucek had two shots towards the end of the half.

It was a great half for England, although they showed some hesitancy in passing out from the back and their passing could have been sharper.  

As for the second half, there was little to nothing of note, an exceedingly flat and uneventful 45 minutes where England defaulted to a solid yet unimaginative display, a performance strangely mirrored by their opponents, who seemed to have settled for four points and a probable advancement. 

The Czechs had led group D on goal difference going into this and created some danger before the break, but after a poor second half, now await news of a second round fixture.

England have a big date in London on Tuesday night.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Testing Times at Euro 2020

Testing Times

The only certain thing in these times is that things are uncertain.

I am writing this whilst travelling from home in Nottingham to Glasgow, for the biggest game in Scottish history - a chance to progress from the group stage at an international tournament for the first time. 

The fixture is Scotland v Croatia in Group D. The last time we were in a qualifying group with them (for Brazil 2014) we did the double over them, and we are unbeaten in our last five games against them.

So imagine my surprise when I follow the instructions to display my Covid status and find this message.

Testing Times at Euro 2020
Testing Times at Euro 2020

That meant I now had to take a test and risk a positive result. (Something we are looking for today!) Thankfully my test was negative, and I was OK to attend.

The reason for the need to prove Covid Status was that the Government had declared the initial games at Wembley as part of their Events Research Programme. That allowed them to accommodate 22,500 spectators instead of the 10,000 allowed under their legislation.

As it was a test event I expected there to be some follow-up. For example, even just an email to ask if you were suffering any ill effects after attending, but nothing was received.

My next game was the next day at Hampden. This time there was no requirement to provide proof of Covid status, but the challenge this time was in getting there.

There were no police at the border and I continued my journey for my essential reason.

I returned to Wembley for the "Auld Enemy' game. This time my vaccination status was in order.

I have thought of researching all the entry requirements of travelling from one host country to another, but with the stringent quarantine requirements in the U.K. meaning that no matter what country I visit I would have to self isolate for 10 days upon my return. It really made it a pointless exercise.

Now though we are at the end of the Group stage and about to start the knockout rounds. This should be the time when I should am looking at hotels and flights for Budapest or Seville, but what's the point if you have to lose 10 days. Maybe if we get through we could play the last 16 game at Hampden.

Despite being frustrated at not being able to travel elsewhere I have been trying to get tickets for other games at Wembley.

Euro 2020
Stadium capacity under Covid constrictions

The Round of 16 game on Saturday looks attractive to me, however, tickets for this have not gone on sale, despite the fact that the game has been moved from Dublin to London. The game is five days away and tickets have not been made available.

The reality that I mentioned in my previous article is now starting to hit home. Wales are due to play in Amsterdam and their supporters have already been told they should not travel. Italy are due to travel to Wembley, whilst if England progress they could go to Rome.

Talks have been ongoing over the capacity for stadiums for the knockout rounds.

So far I have attended three games at this tournament. Just days before the tournament started it was announced that to attend events at Wembley you would need to provide proof of either a negative lateral flow test or that you had both Covid vaccinations at least 14 days before the game. Guess when I had my second jab. Yes exactly 14 days before England v Croatia.

Ross Clegg footballtravelswithross.wordpress.com

Euro 2020 Day 11: D-Day for Denmark

Netherlands 3:0 North Macedonia Amsterdam

A meaningless match as both sides knew their fates already but a Dutch win in cruise control confirmed they are one of the top guns at the Euros having rejuvenated after missing out on Russia 2018.

Memphis Depay's opener came from a textbook counter attack, executed so smoothly it could only have come from a nation famous for its soccer schooling. Had that been England you feel they would have made a hash of it.

Georginio Wijnaldum's brace in the second half looked comfortable, facilitated like the first goal by some really bad marking by North Macedonia, their downfall at the Euros. 

The debutant Lynxes showed their attacking fervour once more, hitting the Dutch woodwork, dirtying Maarten Stekelenburg's gloves and scoring a goal narrowly ruled out for offside in an exciting opening.

Add some defensive steel and experience and they could be a force to be reckoned with. Without that backbone, all their offensive flair alas goes to waste. Still, we salute them for their entertainment and self-belief and hope to see them at Euro 2024.

Goran Pandev, 37, retired from his national team at the end of the match with 38 goals and 122 appearances, both national records. The Genoa marksman is also the first North Macedonian to score in a finals, having notched one against Austria in their opener.

The Netherlands leave Amsterdam to take on a third placed side in Budapest on Sunday. They look a racing cert for the last eight at least.

Austria 1:0 Ukraine Bucharest

Well done Austria for making the second round of the Euros for the first time. The joy on the face of manager Franco Foda was unmitigated at the final whistle. One of Europe's also-rans had made it through. 

Donning their home colours of crimson and white for the first time this tournament, Christoph Baumgartner met David Alaba's cross to score the game's only goal, but Austria deserved more and were worthy winners for dominating the game.

Andriy Yarmolenko might have scored a similar goal from Mykola Shaparenko's cross but missed by inches but Marko Arnautovic sidefooted an easier chance wide for Austria. 

Ukraine failed to put Austria under pressure and allowed them to leapfrog into second place. If Ukraine do not qualify as a third place side it was a disappointing exit, especially after their win over North Macedonia and unexpected two goals against the Netherlands. 

Euro 2020

It was a historic result because football history has not been kind to the land to the south-east of Germany. In the 1930s Austria was probably the best in the world and in Mathias Sindelar had one of the great European footballers, but poor weather and poorer officiating meant they were knocked out of the 1934 World Cup at the semi-final stage and lost the '36 Olympic final.

Der Wunderteam nevertheless influenced Total Football and Barcelona decades later with its position-changing The Whirl system. Until now the only match Austrian fans can sing songs about was their 3-2 win over West Germany at the 1978 World Cup - the miracle of Cordoba.

Four years later the two collaborated in Gijon to let the Germans win and  eliminate Algeria, a scandalous day which went unpunished and led to final group games kicking off simultaneously ever since.

So here we are with Austria finally in the knockout stages of the Euros. The prize for their hard work - a daunting clash with Italy at Wembley on Saturday.

Belgium 2:0 Finland St Petersburg

Eight changes for the world's No.1 ranked team who were already in the next stage, but another comfortable win to justify their status as one of the favourites.

Finland looked set to win a point after an hour of resolute defending and organisation, but they can have no complaints at being outplayed by Roberto Martinez's men.

Euro 2020

It took until the 66th minute but Belgian class told at last. Kevin de Bruyne picked out Romelu Lukaku with a threadneedle pass and the Inter man fired home, only to see it ruled out for a most marginal offside.

Replays seemed to suggest the VAR officials had got in wrong. Whilst the technology has made a beneficial impact in general at the Euros, the same gripes we have about it in the Premier League apply here. Even if Lukaku was offside, it seems puritanical to chalk his goal off for the slimmest of margins. 

When nobody on the field or in the dugouts protests a decision, it is probably because it was correct.

With just under a quarter of an hour to go Belgium properly scored. Thomas Vermaelen's leap and header down was textbook, the ricochet off Lukas Hradecky into the net a bonus. It was harsh on the Finnish goalkeeper who had made fine saves to keep out Jeremy Doku and Eden Hazard earlier.

Six minutes later a Lukaku swivel and shot into the corner let the Red Devils join Italy and the Netherlands in the 100 club with three wins out of three. Finland must await others' results to know their fate.

Belgium play a third-placed side in Seville on Sunday, no-one will relish playing them

Denmark 4:1 Russia Copenhagen

There was no doubting the match of the night. This was a truly great match of football, a rollercoaster of emotions, cathartic bliss and wonderful goals.

Russia had a better first 45 but ended up on the wrong end of a rout, buried under a tidal wave of Danish emotion building since Christian Eriksen's collapse. For a farewell to Copenhagen in Euro 2020, Denmark had a match to remember.

With only Belgium qualified, there was all to play for. All neutrals probably wished for a Danish victory after the terrible misfortune of Christian Eriksen and again they had the help of a full Parken stadium.

The Danes did not start with intensity, preferring to try and out-think Russia. The problem was they lacked quality of invention in the final third with the exception of Martin Braithwaite's right wing incursions. 

At the back too the Danes looked suspect, allowing Aleksandr Golovin to scythe through on the break and fire at Kaspar Schmeichel. Danish manager Kasper Hjulmund was bent double like Basil Fawlty with his head in his hands before long.

The game seemed to be in the Russian court, the red shirts waiting to pick off the Scandinavians on the counter as they dawdled over set pieces to waste time. Despite less than a third of possession, the best chances came from Russia in the first half.

Euro 2020

Then in the 38th minute Mikkel Damsgaard bucked the trend with a classy shot from outside the D which dipped Ronaldo-esque over a statuesque Matvei Safonov in the Russian goal.

A gift from the gods just short of the hour mark as Daler Kuzyaev made a suicidal back pass from the wing which was gleefully seized upon by the lurking Yussuf Poulsen who finished first time.

Russia looked in a mess after the goal and should have been 0-3 down in the 64th minute, but newly arrived Kasper Dolberg took a touch and lost it instead of shooting.

The 68th minute was a crazy one. Danish fans in ecstasy as Romelu Lukaku found the net in St Petersburg but a minute later the goal had been ruled out and Russia had a penalty thanks to Aleksandr Sobolev going to ground. When Artem Dzyuba's kick, straight and high, hit the net, the Parken bubble popped.

Belgium's goal in the 76th brought joy back to Copenhagen, which became bliss three minutes later as Anders Christensen's piledriver shot through a crowded box to almost burst the net. 

From his nearby hospital bed, Eriksen must have felt his heart skip a beat or two. Another three minutes and Joakim Maehle had finished off a break with a well-placed strike as the retreating Russian defenders turned their backs.

With an ebullient home crowd cheering every pass and their team eager to score more, each additional attack almost seemed cruel on the Russians, who looked decidedly beaten. Europe's largest nation remains an underachiever at Europe's biggest sport. 

Euro champions in 1964, thrice runners-up and once semi-finalists in 2008, Russia has a strong footballing heritage but cannot seem to convert that into tournament success. 

The stadium sang a mournful song about unity earlier as the match hung in the balance. The collective incantation seemed to summon up something powerful to help the home team.

It was a second half that was red, that was white, that was Danish dynamite.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, June 21, 2021

Euro 2020 Day 10: The Italian Song Goes On Fireworks in Baku

Italy 1:0 Wales, Rome

Gli Azzurri are genuine contenders having beaten and outplayed a fired-up Wales.

Roberto Mancini had made eight changes but you would not have known it as his team's approach play and variety of passing in the last third was still top drawer. 

Matteo Pessina's deft touch from Marco Verratti's free kick was the only goal but Italy breached the Welsh defence many times. Federico Chiesa was a particular menace from the right wing.

Wales came in hope but left humbled. Their team's speedsters Gareth Bale and Daniel James were well shackled. James was subbed in the last quarter of the match and Bale missed a great chance to equalise, volleying over unmarked with 15 minutes to go.

Italy 1:0 Wales, Rome

A red card for Ethan Ampadu took everyone by surprise but replays of the 20 year old's studs on Federico Bernadeschi's ankle confirmed the referee had no choice, although a near-identical tackle by James on Verratti before the break went unpunished.

Cymru left happy however, with second place guaranteed by a better goal difference than Switzerland. They move on to Amsterdam on Saturday, while Italy fly to London to play the second in group C.

Gli Azzurri bade addio to the Stadio Olimpico, where they took nine points out of nine and scored seven goals without reply. The collective joy on the squad's face showed the wonderful time all Italy has enjoyed at Euro 2020 in Rome.

Italy and Wales share the same flag colours and face each other annually at rugby, but at football they have long been poles apart.

I was there in 2002 when Wales recorded a rare competitive victory over the Azzurri, 2-1 at the Millennium Stadium, before Italy trounced them 4-0 in the return at San Siro. 

Before the Cardiff encounter, John Charles, two years before his death, saluted the stadium. The Gentle Giant, a Leeds and Juventus legend, had been top scorer in both Serie A and the English first division in the 1950s.

Ian Rush, another ex-Juve Welshman, was in the stands at the Olimpico tonight.

Turkey 1:3 Switzerland, Baku

A match of spectacular long range shots, saves and goals. 41 shots were taken as both sides threw caution to the wind.

Turkey started like the Orient Express but were derailed by Haris Serferovic's sixth minute opportune strike. Twenty minutes later Xherdan Shaqiri matched his teammate with an equally spectacular effort. 2-0 to the Swiss. 

Shaqiri struck again in the 68th minute, six minutes after Turkey's only tournament goal, from Irfan Kahveci.

The Swiss wizard is at times reminiscent of the best pocket battleships like Gheorghe Hagi, at other times marked out the game and unable to make inroads. Clearly blessed with attacking spice, he should have been one of the best players in the world, but will never be except in fits and starts.

Swiss on a roll

He has made only 45 appearances for Liverpool since 2018, nine years ago was at Bayern and had a spell at Inter too, so perhaps his shot at immortality is over, but at least tonight, age 29, the Alpine Messi was at the peak of his powers, deadly and breathtaking.

Goalkeeper Jan Sommer was also a hero for Switzerland, deflecting a number of Turkish rockets and denying Mert Muldur in particular from finishing off an amazing long run with a wonder goal.

The Swiss must wait to know their fate but after a salvo worthy of Roy of the Rovers, only a cruel god of football would deny them a place in the last 16.

But the Turks are out after three defeats and must turn their attentions to Qatar 2022, where they currently lead group G ahead of the Netherlands.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Peace and Sport inaugurates international program Peacemakers Project

Peace and Sport inaugurates the international program Peacemakers Project with the support of prestigious partners

Building on its expertise in the field of peace through sport and the success of the digitization of its methodology through the mobile application Peace and Sport by MyCoach, Peace and Sport is rolling out the "Peacemakers Project" internationally. For the first year, the project will be conducted in partnership with 10 organizations with strong local roots in 10 countries.

Peace and Sport

Each of them was selected for the work they do on a daily basis to improve the living conditions of communities thanks to peace-through-sport programs. Through a bottom-up approach, the Peacemakers Project will address various social issues. 

For its implementation, it will rely on the application developed by Peace and Sport in partnership with MyCoach and on the expertise of the selected organizations: Terres-en-Mêlées, COP-Colombia, Fundación ADA, TIBU-Maroc, the National Olympic Committee of Burundi, All Black Hong-Kong, Naandi Foundation, APJS, AKWOS and RFI Clubs. 

In order to best meet their needs, Peace and Sport will accompany them in the coming months, from the training of peace educators to the impact assessment related to the realities on the ground. To conduct their field programs and measure their impact, these organizations will use the Peace and Sport x MyCoach mobile application; an innovative digital solution that trains peace educators and which content has already been tested in the Great Lakes region of Africa and in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. 

This tool provides peace-through-sport training sessions, annual evolutive content, planning, monitoring and evaluation tools. At the end of two years of continuous training, 200 peace educators supervising nearly 2,000 children will have been trained using the methodology developed by the Organization. 

In addition, Peace and Sport, in partnership with leading universities, will monitor and evaluate the impact of each program. Joël Bouzou, President and Founder of Peace and Sport, said: "The "Peacemakers Project" aims to support organizations that work for peace using sport as a main tool in their approach.

Peace and Sport is proud to make its know-how available to selected organizations through the Peace and Sport by MyCoach application and an M&E program created in collaboration with leading universities. We are also pleased to note the appeal of this program to prestigious partners such as Danone, who will support the sustainability of this ambitious international program.” 

The Peacemakers Project benefits from the support of socially committed partners, notably the Danone group, through the Danone Nations Cup. Florence Bossard, Danone Brand Marketing Director, added: "We are all facing these unprecedented times, and now, more than ever, is the time to join forces. For 20 years, the Danone Nations Cup has been much more than an international soccer competition, encouraging participants and partners to take action to make a positive impact in their communities. 

Playing sports in these troubled times is crucial for the physical and mental health of children around the world. The DNC is pleased to support the Peacemakers Project and to be able to help set up the infrastructure that will allow children to continue learning about life through sport via coaches who are experts in the rules of the game but who are also sensitive to and aware of the values surrounding this sport, such as respect, inclusiveness, and solidarity in victories as well as in defeats.” 

About the Peace and Sport x MyCoach mobile application Peace and Sport by My Coach is an application through which peace-through-sport educators teach a method using the structuring values of sport to build peace. The Peace and Sport by My Coach app allows educators to easily access the methodology no matter where they are or what program they are working on. Educators benefit from a reliable, modern and easy-to-use method that fits into their work cycle and is constantly updated with new content. 

For the first time, the educational content in the Media Center tab is presented as instructional videos and digital documents. In his latest report on the contribution of sport to the 2030 Agenda, the UN Secretary General identified the Peace and Sport Methodology and its mobile application Peace and Sport x MyCoach as examples of innovative initiatives. 

About the Danone Nations Cup (www.danonenationscup.com) The Danone Nations Cup is the world's largest soccer tournament for children, boys and girls, aged 10 to 12. Organized by Danone since 2000, the competition brings together millions of players every year. More than just an international competition, the Danone Nations Cup is a life experience that contributes to making players citizens of the world and promoting societal change through football: this ambition is reflected in the signature "Play Football, Change the Game". 

The competition allows children from all over the world to discover new places and new cultures while promoting values such as respect, humanism, fair play and openness. The Danone Nations Cup also promotes access to clean water in schools, health, inclusion and respect of the environment in the hope of inspiring tomorrow's generation to go further as Global Citizens for positive societal change.