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

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