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

No comments: