Tuesday 9 July 2024

Mens European Championships 2024: Pre-Quarter-Finals review

Right, that's the small talk down, now let's get on down to business. I have a bit of time to cover these Championships, so let's pretend nothing of any significance has happened these last two weeks in Germany.

Maybe there is no act of deception to play out, actually: Scotland out in the first round again when there was a feeling they might not do that this time. Albania out when, between the 24th second and the 13th minute, we might have had Greece on our hands. England not living up to their latest Golden Generation tag, through to the last 16 (just!) but performances encapsulated by Harry Kane of Leicester City or Leyton Orient. Clive Tyldesley sarcy with a double dash of irritating, Ally McCoist telling his commentator that they have a “fair and valid point”, Romelu Lukaku fluffing it up like an amateur, taking other people’s goals and making them offside; the visible reluctance in Kevin De Bruyne’s eyes to pass to him. Alan Shearer not listening to history, amazed by Italy’s limp 2-0 defeat to the accomplished Swizz in the first knockout round, “to go from there [2021} to now”, as if the Azzuri have never before disappointed in the defence of a title, or indeed even failed to qualify for the tournament immediately after. 

There have been a few surprises for me, though, a 16 year old in the Spanish team for one. And not just a novelty entrant from the bench barely more involved than Theo Walcott in Sven Goran Eriksson's 2006 England squad, but a fully-fledged first team player, braces in the teeth, national equivalent of GCSE's results in, toying with defences like Glenn Helder on his Premier league debut (Steve Chettle is still rocking in a corner.) People say there are no surprises anymore when it comes to international football (Kevin Keegan said it at least, during the World Cup of '98) but to those of us who don't have sport subscription channels, it's like it's 1990. Even the birth of Football Italia in '92 (?) demystified things a bit, but without even the Champions League and other monstrosities sold to the highest bidder, it's the World Cups (apart from those in Qatar; in fact any while Infantino is still in charge of FIFA) and Euros doing the introductions for me. 

Lamine Yamal's inswinging arch of a ball for Nico Williams to head in against Georgia in the last 16 was a thrill to see, as was Williams' feint past the defender and finish for the third. These are two great-to-watch wingers helping make Spain exciting like many said they weren't in 2012 particularly, with their elite-level hypnotism over both opponents and some viewers. Barcelona’s Yamal takes the free kicks too, in fact the only thing he can’t seem to do is score. He’ll be the youngest player ever to score in European Championship history, but his efforts against Croatia, and particularly Georgia, who they hounded in the last twenty minutes and could have scored 8 against, suggests that is a record he might not take. 

Real Sociedad's Williams is accomplished in the goal scoring art, but most delightfully of all he is a dribbler! A renaissance artist. While Yamal bamboozles with tricks on on the right, Williams slides past them on the left. Two young, talented Spaniards of colour, which seems very important. With Rodri and Pedri and Fabian Ruiz behind them, it might not matter that Alvaro Morata is the best they've got up front, playing the Serginho/Lukaku role. That's probably a bit unfair on Morata, but you wouldn't trust him to score a game-winning chance against Germany tomorrow. Or would you? He scored the winner for Atletico Madrid against Real last season.

ITV pundit Gaizka Mendieta has concerns over the defence (naturally, given Marc Cucurella is part of it), which Germany could exploit. Nonetheless, it’s a hotly anticipated last eight tie that is clearly too soon in the making. A year ago, a home tournament was looking like a humbling prospect for Hansi Flick’s team, but now under Julian Nagelsman (in buttoned-up to the top match day shirt) they are on track to become the first host winners since France in ‘84. The team’s progress may be scripted through Kai Havertz, mocked at club level when beginning the season at Arsenal, played at left back for country, but now one of the most dangerous players in Europe, his talent and edge and cunning now applied. Antonio Rudiger is their stand-out defender. The former Chelsea, now Real Madrid man (he's won the Champions League with both) stands out for other reasons to a disturbing growth of new Germany thinking, and as usual he is expected, and does, take the vile abuse and calls for expulsion from the national side on the grounds he is a muslim (like Ozil is) with grace.   

An opening night 5-1 thrashing of Scotland looked impressive, but how much of this was down to the opponents, people said, a question I found difficult to answer watching the late-night highlights through stinging eyes. Bayern’s Jamal Musiala (like Havertz and Rudiger, ex Chelsea) hit his stride against Hungary, before the customary balloon-bursting third game draw for the already qualified. The fizz was evident enough, although it could have gone flat against the Danish in the last 16, Crystal Palace’s Andersen having a header chalked off for a VAR boot-size-dependent special, and then conceding a penalty for the crime of having an arm. Havertz tucked away the pen and Musiala got a second to finish them off in a reverse score line of the ‘92 Final. The Danish manager showed his mobile phone to a tv interviewer afterwards to depict the VAR controversies, as if he didn’t know the game had been on telly.

Like Germany v Argentina in the 2010 World Cup, Germany-Spain is too soon for me. I remember, even as a 9 year old watching only my second international tournament, France ‘84 (albeit - as coverage was limited in England after we failed to qualify - only the Final and one semi-final live; I like to think that I was seeing France-Portugal unfold as it happened, Dad inviting me in from the stairs to be in on one of the most exciting games in history) being amazed that it was the Spanish who’d got through against West Germany in effectively a group stage decider. My understanding of the losers as a world force must have been hard-wired even then (and with successive appearances in the next two World Cup Finals and a semi final and Final showing in the next two Euros, I hadn’t seen anything yet.) 

Spain’s 1-0 win in the 2008 Final wasn’t so much of a surprise by the time that match came around. David Villa’s hat trick in a 4-0 win against Sweden in the first game of the tournament in Switzerland and Austria would have been written off as yet another false dawn to anyone who’d been aware of history since 1964 (or, equally, ‘84), while Germany would have been fancied again two years after their return to prominence with a World Cup semi final on home soil. Their hosting of that tournament, rather like now, might have seemed ill-timed, but the rebuild after a dip in fortunes (just the one European championship win and World Cup Final appearance in the last ten years) concluded with a semi-final against Italy, only going a goal behind in the last few minutes of extra time and then conceding another on the break. Still, though, there was an unconvincing nature on their way to the Final in ‘08, particularly at the back with Metzelder and Mertesacker while the talisman Michael Ballack mirrored their unpredictably. Spain meanwhile, under Luis Aragones, began to make people wonder if the decades of underachievement were about to come to an end, notably when they overcame Italy in a quarter final penalty shoot out. They’d lost 3-1 to France in an equivalent game at the World Cup in Germany, but had seemingly cleared a significant barrier by defeating the World Champions. A semi-final against a dynamic Russian team led by Andrew Arshavin appeared to represent a challenging path back to their first Final in 24 years, but an inspired Cesc Fabregas was part of a sound 3-0 win. The Final was won by Fernando Torres’ goal, shrugging off Philip Lahn to score past Jens Lehman. And so began the first of Spain’s three-in-a-row domination. 

In the middle one, Carles Puyol’s header from a corner separated the teams in the 2010 World Cup semi-final in South Africa, while in Poland and Ukraine two years later at the Euros, only Italy prevented a repeat of the Euro 2008 Final, beating Germany 2-1, enabling them to lose 4-0 to Spain in the Final. Just as Spain's straglehold over the rest of the world came to a shuddering halt in Brazil 2014, Germany reasserted their trophy-winning prowess, beating Arentina 1-0 in Rio. A sustained camapign of inclusion, widening the pool for potential future stars and exploiting the advantages of immigration (such as with, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedeira) restored them to their rightful position as Europe and world's best.

Yet, Germany didn't quite take-off in the way that Spain did in their absence at the top of the game. France and Portugal winning the next two tournaments, and rather, both have faced a struggle to get back. Spain's mision to relace Xavi and Iniesta and Busquets and Silva was always going to be marked impossible, while Germany's triumph in Brazil seemed to overwhelm them mentally, the reverse progress/anonymity of their provider and scorer that night, Andre Schurrle and Marion Gotze, emblemic of their deterioration. Group stage exits in Russia '18 and in Qatar '22 followed,  and though there wasa semi-final defeat to France in 2016, they went out to England at Wembley in 2021 underwhelmingly. 

Both now find themselves on an upward curve again as they prepare to meet in Stuttgart, running into form at the right time (Spain lost to Scotland in the qualifiers) under new coaches Nagelsman and Luis De Le Fuente. The latter was caught up in the Luis Rubiales drama after the women's victory in the World Cup in Australia last summer, expressing regret at applauding the disgraced Football Federation president (albeit after Rubiales was suspended), but may now be on track to lead his country to the heights reached by the women's team. 

Did I mention France and Portugal earlier? They meet in the other quarter final tomorrow, a perhaps more historic meeting than Spain-Germany even. '84's semi-final will never be beaten, and though France also won the last four clash in 2000 with the last kick of the game, the rematch was a diluted tribute, Zidane's bent arm in the air celebration following the Silver Goal penalty a homage to Platini's last-gasp winner 16 years before. Portugal gained revenge and some in 2016, berating the hosts in their own country, despite Ronaldo - who didn't play in '84 or 2000 (but its worth checking) going off injured in the first half.  Ronaldo's tears later turned to joy, unlike after the 2004 Final defat to Greece in his own country, while the breakdown in these Euros in Germany came during the break for Extra time after his second half penalty was saved by Solvenia's Jan Oblek, the still outstanding Atletico Madrid goalkeeper.  His desperation to score another goal at this level was painfully clear by the manic expressions before every free kick (which have become a Roberto Carlos tribute act) and the solemn reactions to every missed attempt. 890 club and country goals behind him, including 130 to top the all-time international scoring charts and he still needs one more. He tries to score direct from every set-piece, even from his own six-yard box, apart from corners because he wants to head those in, except he can't because the spring or the timing is off. Goals are addictive - scoring them made me go giddy until I was 36 when I deservedly busted my knee trying to be a tough man all of a sudden. But why is he still out there, missing every ball? An esteemed journalist suggested that the reason he unexpectedly laid on a goal for Bruno Fernandes in the group stage was to become the record assist breaker in the competition. The counter argument is that being the record holder proves that he is aware of orhers. But he’s not assisting the team by being a fixture in it. How much do they need him, really? Does coach Roberto Martinez have any say over this? Will an injury such as in the ‘16 Final - when he was still great - come to their rescue?

On that note, how much do we really need France? A controversial question of course, but not so when talking about international football. They’re like the musical equivalent of that Mary J Blige song Family Affair, which you think’s going to get good any second but just perpetually flatlines. Yes, their record is impressive, 3 finals in 8 years, but they are very much in Didier Deschamps image. When Kylian Mbappe broke his nose in their opening game, no blood was evident, for the whole team is as cold as water (carrying.) I have admired Mbappe's off-pitch work, which with fellow striker Marcus Thuram has been to speak out against the pervading far-right Le Penist party that is genuinely threatening Emmanuel Macron's position.  I'm happy to put Mbappe's outgoing PSG connections to one side to allow his messaging. The majority in the French team is one of players of colour, and the white forward, Antoine Griezmann- World Cup winner and top scorer at Euro 16 - has a father whose family migrated from Germany, while his mother is of Portuguese descent. So perhaps we do need the France team, hopefully to show (or be allowed to show) their full potential. With Mbappe up front and William Saliba at the back, the foundation isn't bad at all.

England v Switzerland is a repeat of their first game in '96, when the home side's tournament began as it would end, an Alan Shearer goal in a one-all draw (before the extra time and penalties etc...) and the 3-0 Wayne Rooney-inspired group game in 2004. The first of those outcomes appears more likely, with the Swizz looking more assured and more of a collective, which is quite staggering given the quality of England's players. I thought a Bellingham-inspired England would give them a convincing case for a tournament triumph here, more so than the Golden Gen bunch, which when you look at them, particularly in that 2004 Euros, seemed to have all the ingredients. It was just held back by the Englishness. And maybe that's still the case now.

Netherlands-Turkey is perhaps the tie of the two unlikeliest winners, but there's top Premier league quality in that Dutch back four (a ready Jurrien Timber might have made if four) behind Brighton's Bert Verbruggen (who I thought was Belgian) and of course they did alright the last time they played a Euros in (West) Germany. The scorer of their semi final pen against the hosts that night is now in the dugout, it’s just a surprise to see that Ronald Koeman has swapped his face for Jon Voight’s, like in Mission Impossible. 

Turkey? Can’t say I have been paying much attention, though they did score two cracking goals in their first game, especially from another young star in the making, Arda Guler, 19 of Real Madrid. Maybe the European champions will learn from the Martin Odegaard situation and stay with him. They will argue that they know what they’re doing, with Bellingham and Kroos (possibly about to play his final ever professional match) and Modric, I suppose. 

Hope you enjoy the quarter finals when they come. 

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