Euro 2020 has reached the final four after a quarterfinal stage that saw England thrash Ukraine 4-0, Denmark beat Czech Republic 2-1, Italy edge out Belgium 2-1 and Spain see off Switzerland on penalties after a 1-1 draw in normal time. Our writers have their say in response to some big questions.
Which of the final four teams has played the best, relative to their capabilities?
Gab Marcotti: Italy have probably played the best overall, but they were top seeds and reaching the semifinal was always the objective. If the question is who has overachieved I’d suggest it’s Denmark. I thought they were solid outsiders but after the trauma of the first two games — both the defeats and Christian Eriksen‘s collapse — it was hard to see them working their way back. But they did and they played very well along the way. What’s more, they’ve transformed themselves and that’s a credit to coach Kasper Hjulmand. Relative to the start of Euro 2020, he’s changed systems and four starters. Winger Mikkel Damsgaard has emerged as one of the most exciting players of the tournament. And there’s a great vibe to the team.
Mark Ogden: I’m going with Italy, too. To get this fair with a team of creaking, ageing defenders in Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, a midfield without a world-class player and journeymen forwards in Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti is testament to the remarkable job done by coach Roberto Mancini. Italy are a team that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Spain have been underwhelming and Denmark, let’s not forget, lost their first two games. England now look like the favourites because they were so ruthless in their 4-0 quarterfinal win against Ukraine.
James Olley: It surely has to be Denmark, as a semifinal appearance is a remarkable transformation. They are clearly a tight-knit group, bound even closer together by Eriksen’s scare, but it isn’t emotion that has taken them this far. Denmark’s defence is extremely well organised with Andreas Christensen, Simon Kjaer, Jannik Vestergaard and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel providing the solid foundations. But full-back Joakim Maehle has been one of the finds of the tournament, while Kasper Dolberg is emerging as a forward likely to go onto bigger things than his current club: Nice.
Julien Laurens: Italy have been playing this way for the last two years, so that was expected. In fact. Italy, England and Spain are all playing the way we expected. Denmark, on the other hand, have exceeded our expectations in both results and style. The positioning and movement of their centre-backs, the team’s use of half spaces, the form of Maehle and Damsgaard, how they press and counter-press. Hjulmand is doing a fantastic job, even more without Eriksen.
Rob Dawson: Denmark are a good side, already ranked 10th in the world, but reaching the semifinals would have been an incredible achievement even before the traumatic circumstances surrounding Eriksen. They’ve gone about their football in the right way. It can be tempting for smaller nations to focus on being organised, compact and grinding out results, but Denmark have played some thrilling attacking football. They’ve never scored more goals at a major tournament and managed 10 in their last three games. England are yet to concede in their five games but Denmark will fancy their chances of getting at least one at Wembley on Wednesday. I agree with James: Dolberg’s career hasn’t had the trajectory predicted when he was an exciting teenager at Ajax but he is using the Euros to show all of that promise wasn’t misplaced.
Steve McManaman and Nedum Onuoha reflect on what impressed them from England in its 4-0 rout of Ukraine in the Euro 2020 quarterfinals.
Which one player’s performance stands out most?
Olley: Raheem Sterling has faced a constant battle to prove himself throughout his England career. A poor end to the season at Manchester City left him vulnerable to the clamour for Phil Foden and Jack Grealish to start at these finals, but he has justified Gareth Southgate’s faith at every turn and provided the catalyst for England’s comfortable victory over Ukraine. His willingness to drive forward with the ball was the spark once more, turning provider for Harry Kane‘s opener with an incisive pass that showcases how clever he can be in the final third when in form. In a team that is exceeding expectations, Sterling is now one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Marcotti: I’m giving it to Leonardo Spinazzola. The left-back wasn’t just Italy’s outstanding player, he was arguably the player of the tournament. He was decisive in every game he played and it’s heartbreaking that we won’t see him again because of injury.
Ogden: Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer has been one of the stars of the tournament and he signed off with arguably the best individual performance of any player at Euro 2020 during the quarterfinal defeat against Spain. I was in St Petersburg for that 120 minute epic, which ended with Spain going through on penalties, and Sommer was cheered and applauded by the fans inside the stadium whenever he appeared on the big screen late on. The game wouldn’t have gone beyond 90 minutes but for Sommer’s heroics. He produced a catalogue of world-class saves to deny the Spaniards — most from the disbelieving Gerard Moreno — and even pulled off a save in the penalty shootout before seeing his Swiss teammates fail to deliver from the spot and reward him with a place in the semis.
Laurens: Sterling was not even England’s best player against Ukraine and as sad as Spinazzola’s injury is, his performance against Belgium was decent but not as good as he did earlier in the tournament. I am sure Sommer will be delighted to know you picked him Mark, but there could only be one winner here and it’s Pedri. The Spain midfielder is only 18 years old and was the best player on the pitch against Switzerland. His intelligence, skill, maturity, composure on the ball is just fantastic. He is nowhere near the finished article either, which is scary.
Dawson: Harry Kane deserves enormous credit for the way he has handled himself during Euro 2020. His place in the England team was being questioned a couple of weeks ago but now he looks back to the player Tottenham fans see every week. He was the difference against Ukraine and if he had missed that early chance, the game could have been completely different. As it was, he scored, Ukraine were put on the back foot straight away, the game opened up and England took advantage. Kane headed a second and could have even had a hat trick but his brilliant volley was tipped over by Georgiy Bushchan. Great strikers only need one chance and he took his in a massive game. It’s the mark of a top player.
Having seen it in practice, what is your view on the multi-venue format?
Marcotti: I think it’s great. Obviously we’re in a COVID-19 reality which has limited travel, but imagine what it would have been like with COVID and all in one place. We would basically have had very few fans from outside the host nation anyway. Sure, Baku is far away and St Petersburg is a pain to get to… but so what? In normal circumstances all these games would have been sold out. And, more importantly, other countries would have had the chance to be a part of it. After all, in what parallel universe is Scotland going to host a Euros? Or Hungary? Or Romania? Or Azerbaijan? Or Ireland (if Dublin hadn’t pulled out)? I think as a one-off it was fine. Which is what it’s intended to be.
Olley: Gab is right in that it has ended up being better suited to a pandemic world for supporters. Having more host nations has offset the difficulties of travelling from country to country and so more fans have been able to see their team play. But it has given some teams a competitive advantage. It cannot be a coincidence that all four semifinalists played all three group matches at home. Some nations have had to travel around, changing their base repeatedly, while others – and England are the obvious example — have had home comforts for all but about 36 hours. Assuming the world learns to live with COVID-19, I hope it is a one-off because the essence of the fan experience at tournaments is a melting pot of people from all different nationalities arriving in one country putting it’s best foot forward for four weeks. There’s nothing like like that clash of cultures and it gets diluted by UEFA’s current format.
Ogden: Sorry guys, but I don’t think it has worked at all. The tournament has lacked an atmosphere — a sense of a host embracing it and turning it into a carnival. Had Euro 2020 been in one country, fans could have pitched up, observed any COVID-19 quarantine measures and then been free to roam around for the latter stages and ensure that huge quarterfinal games would be played in full stadiums. I found Budapest and St Petersburg to be cities that embraced the tournament and made it accessible, but it felt like an inconvenience in Glasgow, while London has been difficult, almost impossible, for overseas fans to attend games. And the travelling for teams has been hugely disproportionate — Switzerland clocked up more than 7,000 miles, while England have basically spent four weeks at home apart from what turned out to be a nice R&R weekend in Rome.
Laurens: I am with Mark on this one. I think it has been a circus with all the different regulations. There has been too much of an advantage for the teams playing at home who didn’t have to travel and had their fans almost exclusively in the stadium. It is no surprise that all four semifinalists have played all their group games at home. And don’t give me the “Azerbaijan or Scotland would have never hosted a Euros otherwise” line please! They didn’t host the Euros… They had one or two games, sometimes three. We all know that it didn’t feel like a proper Euros at all there.
Dawson: The theory of bringing the Euros to countries that wouldn’t usually get to host games was fair enough, but as soon as UEFA knew it would be played in the middle of a pandemic it should have been scrapped. Hopping from country to country while navigating different COVID-19 protocols has been a nightmare for fans, and what’s the point of a tournament if supporters can’t enjoy it? In fairness, UEFA’s options were severely limited and they’ve done well to get the tournament on at all. It just feels like fans have been an after-thought when really they should be put first.
Tim Howard and Alessandro Del Piero react to Belgium’s loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 quaterfinals.
Has Belgium’s “Golden Generation” missed the chance to win a major tournament?
Dawson: It’s a wonderfully gifted squad but yes, the chance for this generation to win something has been and gone. They’re not getting any better or any younger. It’s hard enough as it is to win a European Championship or World Cup, nevermind when the core of the team is coming towards the end of their careers. International football tends to work in cycles; different countries land on a group of good players at different times and all you can do is hope you cash in when it comes around. Spain did it perfectly with three trophies between 2008 and 2012, but unfortunately Belgium have come up just short. They can only hope that this group has inspired another generation and their time comes around again.
Ogden: Yes. It’s gone beyond talent now with Belgium. Let’s talk about whether they have the mindset to succeed in a major tournament or the streetwise mentality that Italy displayed in beating them in the quarterfinal. When teams are told they are the next big thing — England from 2001-07 / Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham from 2014-19 — they very rarely deliver. Maybe the pressure of expectancy becomes overpowering. Belgium have the players, but maybe they have too many stars? I don’t see any of them presenting himself as the leader, the one to drive them over the line, and too many of them are waiting for one of the others to take the lead. Belgium have missed their chance, so it’s time to burden another team with that unwanted “Golden Generation” tag.
Marcotti: Not saying I’m responsible for it, but I did write a piece in 2010 about Belgium‘s Golden Generation that got a bit of attention. My main concern, to be honest, is at the back. Elsewhere, they’re fine to have another go at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne might be fit, Romelu Lukaku is scoring, Youri Tielemans is impressive and Jeremy Doku has more to come. Most of these guys will be back (Axel Witsel might not, but you’ve got Leander Dendoncker to step in.) The issue is at the back. I don’t think you’re squeezing another major tournament out of Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen. That’s the main issue, for me.
Olley: Vermaelen is 35, Vertonghen is 34, Toby Alderweireld is 32. It is obviously a quick turnaround to Qatar so there’s every reason to think two or all three will carry on for one last dance, but they aren’t getting any better and are already the weak links in an obviously talented group. A change of manager is required. Roberto Martinez did a fine job keeping a nation as small as Belgium at the top of the FIFA rankings but they have never truly peaked in tournaments and that has to be on the man in charge.
Laurens: Can we please stop now with this “Golden Generation” nonsense? You only become great when you win something and they haven’t won anything; not even close as they haven’t even reached a final. It is a very talented squad that has been together for a while, but they have been missing something. Unlike James, I hope Martinez stays in charge. Belgium will try again in Qatar and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if Vermaelen and Vertonghen retire. Jason Denayer can take over in defence, Pascal Struijk is eligible play for Belgium and the ProLeague has starlets like Marco Kana or Killian Sardella who will become good too. The future of the national team is still bright.