The Euro, round 3: Goals, drama, human rights and the mysteries of VAR

The final round of group games in the 2021 (née 2020) European Championships brought a glut of goals and a raft of exciting games, with the lineup for the last 16 uncertain right up until the final whistle of the last game in Group F. Although there are numerous reasons to hate on the 24-team format, it certainly keeps the group games interesting right up until the last, and minimizes the number of dead rubber matchups at the end of the first phase.

Unforgettable games included Denmark's second-half mauling of Russia, Sweden's narrow victory over the battling Poles by the odd goal in five, and Germany barely scraping through after a fantastic performance from combative Hungary, which was unlucky to be edged out of the competition after being drawn in its toughest group. The round of 16 now throws up some mouth-watering prospects, with England taking on Germany at Wembley, and Belgium playing Portugal in Sevilla. Full list below.

Before we round up the group games, there have been plenty of side-issues to focus on too:

Keeping the virus out of sport: Scotland had to dispense with young talent Billy Gilmour for its final game against Croatia after he tested positive for COVID, while his Chelsea teammates on the England squad, Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, had to isolate too and miss their country's game against the Czechs after hanging out with Gilmour following the teams' 0-0 tie at Wembley last week. Spain welcomed back Sergio Busquets at last, and he immediately made a difference as the side finally found form against Slovakia, while concerns continued to be aired about the medium-term consequences of Euro 21 becoming a trans-continental virus super-spreader. But hey, by the time the relevant infection stats are out, the tournament will be almost over. UEFA remained in talks with the British authorities about keeping the semifinals and final in London in the light of the UK's worryingly high increase in COVID numbers. UEFA's concerns are that its 2,500 traveling hangers-on will have to obey UK quarantine rules. Watch this space for a get-out clause that will grant them the special privileges they're accustomed to.

Getting over the rainbow: UEFA loves its slogan Respect, but not enough to actually show it. It's just a motto for show, you fool, no one expects institutions or corporations to follow through on expressed moral values when profits are at stake. So Munich's idea to mark Pride Month on the day of the Germany vs. Hungary Group F game by lighting up the Allianz Arena in the colors of the rainbow was turned down by UEFA on the grounds that it was "political." Perhaps they were worried about offending autocratic homophobe Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary whose government has just passed a raft of anti-LGBTI legislation described by Amnesty International as a “dark day for LGBTI rights and for Hungary.” Orbán has also poured huge amounts of cash into soccer, including the costly renovation of Euro 21's Puskas Arena venue in Budapest, but he presumably did this in a non-political way.

So near, so VAR: The Video Assistant Referee can intervene when one of its computer lines adjudges that a player's big toe was offside (see below: Finland vs Belgium and North Macedonia vs Netherlands). These millimeter-thin shavings, which contravene not just the spirit of the game but the spirit of the offside rule, are deemed to be "a clear and obvious error" even though they cannot be seen by the naked eye. Yet when German refereeing expert Lutz Wagner was tuned in live on TV during the Russia-Denmark game to comment on a penalty awarded to the Russians by French referee Clement Turpin, he said the contact made by Danish defender Jannik Vestergaad and Alexander Sobolev was absolutely minimal and in no way enough to justify awarding the spot-kick. Which the entire Danish back line and everyone watching at home had already concluded, too. That, however, could not be reviewed by VAR. Not clear and obvious enough, apparently. The same lack of principle seemed to apply when Bruno Fernandes fouled Kingsley Coman in the 93rd. minute of Portugal's game with France. This incident was reviewed, but somehow a professionally trained referee saw no reason to overrule Antonio Mateu Lahoz's judgment that there had been no foul.

Goals tally: 94 in 36 games (2.61 goals per game)

Leading scorers: 5 goals: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). 
3 goals: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Georginio Wijnaldum (Netherlands), Emil Forsberg (Sweden), Robert Lewandowski (Poland).

Round of 16:
June 26: Wales-Denmark noon ET (Rome) ESPN.
June 26: Italy-Austria 3pm ET (London) ABC.
June 27: Netherlands-Czech Republic noon ET (Budapest) ESPN.
June 27: Belgium-Portugal 3pm ET (Sevilla) ABC.
June 28: Croatia-Spain noon ET (Copenhagen) ESPN.
June 28: France-Switzerland 3pm ET (Bucharest) ESPN.
June 29: England-Germany noon ET (London) ESPN.
June 29: Sweden-Ukraine 3pm ET (Glasgow) ESPN.

Group A:
Turkey 0 Italy 3
Wales 1 Switzerland 1 Turkey 0 Wales 2
Italy 3 Switzerland 0
Switzerland 3 Turkey 1
Italy 1 Wales 0

Final standings: Italy 9pts, Wales 4 (GD +1), Switzerland 4 (GD -1), Turkey 0.

Switzerland's win over Turkey was bursting with delightfully struck shots, although Irfan Can's effort -- his country's only goal -- will have proved little consolation for the fans of his eliminated team, one of the big disappointments of the tournament (especially to those of us who'd tipped them as a dark horse ...). Swiss keeper Jann Sommer made some flying saves to keep the Turks at bay early on, while Haris Seferovic and Xerdan Shaqiri (twice) finished like kings at the other end. Italy's second string played out a workmanlike victory over a weary Wales, whose Ethan Ampadu took Euro 21's first straight red card with a straight-legged tackle on Federico Bernardeschi. Note to coming opponents: Welsh defending at set pieces looks highly suspect. Both Italian and neutral fans will look forward to Domenico Bernardi, Lorenzo Insigne and Manuel Locatelli returning for the very winnable tie against Austria in London. Wales faces Denmark in Amsterdam, with both the on- and off-field momentum favoring the latter.

Best performance: Xerdan Shaqiri (Switzerland).

Choice quote: Marco Verratti (Italy): "When we say that the national team's for everyone, then we mean exactly that. Everyone here belongs." The Italians were criticized for subbing in goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu for Gianluigi Donnarumma in the 89th minute. 25 of the 26 players on the Italian roster have now clocked playing time, with the exception only of third keeper Alex Meret.

Group B:
Denmark 0 Finland 1
Russia 0 Belgium 3
Finland 0 Russia 1
Denmark 1 Belgium 2
Russia 1 Denmark 4
Finland 0 Belgium 2

Final standings: Belgium 9pts, Denmark 3 (GD +1) Finland 3 (GD -2), Russia 3 (GD -5).

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen! And my sympathies to anyone who chose Finland-Belgium over the Russia-Denmark game in the Danish capital, where a rousing, colorful crowd pushed the surging Danes to a second-half crushing of the dour, defensive Russians. Over here in Germany, TV commentator Tom Bartels received some criticisms for a 'biased' commentary in favor of the Danes, but he was just going with the flow. There are no Danes in my household, but the whole darned sofa jumped up in unison when Andreas Christensen's irresistible comet of a shot soared goalwards to make the score 3-1 shortly after Russia's barely credible penalty had halved the deficit. Who would begrudge the Danes this joy-laden night after the traumas of the previous week, and a shortish trip to Amsterdam to face Wales in the next round? In Bucharest, Belgium took a while to break down Finland, but despite the usual gruesome endeavors of VAR to deny a Romelu Lukaku goal by a toenail, the co-favorites took the group by a country mile. Tough reward, though, in the form of Portugal and the tournament's leading scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Best performance: Andreas Christensen (Denmark).

Choice quote: Kasper Hjulmand, Danish coach: "These footballers have played themselves into Danish hearts. They've stepped up as idols to boys and girls watching at home. And I'm just incredibly happy about that."

Group C:
Austria 3 North Macedonia 1
Netherlands 3 Ukraine 2
Ukraine 2 North Macedonia 1
Netherlands 2 Austria 0
North Macedonia 0 Netherlands 3
Ukraine 0 Austria 1

Final standings: Netherlands 9pts, Austria 6, Ukraine 3, North Macedonia 0

Dutch coach Frank de Boer opted not to rotate, but to retain the rhythm, and in the end Netherlands overran the pointless Macedonians, who nonetheless hit the woodwork and were -- like the Belgians -- extremely unfortunate to have a fine goal by Ivan Trickovski ruled out by the still unproven and intrusive technology of the VAR, the concept that's doing its best to kill joy and goals in soccer. Austria didn't exactly flow and glow against an uninspired Ukraine side, but did just enough to edge the game with Christoph Baumgartner's stud-struck goal direct from a corner kick. An improved performance from the Austrians, especially in the first half, but not one that will have the Italians nervous about their prospects in London. In spite of two defeats, Ukraine progressed as one of the best third-placed teams -- just about deserved for the courage of their comeback against the Netherlands.

Best performance: Memphis Depay (Netherlands). The man in form didn't score, but he put in the creative work by twice setting Eric Wijnaldum up for simple finishes.

Choice quote: Goran Pandev (North Macedonia): "My contract with Genoa has run out, I don't know what I'll do now. But it's most likely that I'll no longer play professionally." Pandev, 37, was in tears as he was given a tunnel of honor by both teams when subbed out in the 68th. minute of his final game -- his 122nd for his country.

Group D:
England 1 Croatia 0
Scotland 0 Czech Republic 2
Croatia 1 Czech Republic 1
England 0 Scotland 0
Croatia 3 Scotland 1
Czech Republic 0 England 1

Final standings: England 7 pts, Croatia 4 (4 goals), Czech Republic 4 (3), Scotland 1.

After more than two decades absent from a major tournament, Scotland showed that not a lot has changed. They are still lacking the technical ability to master simple elements of the game such as first touch and finishing. Lots of running and effort are still not enough against a class player like Luka Modric. Croatia finally stepped up its game and deserved the win, while a much changed England lineup did enough in the first half at Wembley to better the Czechs. Two goals in three games sees England top this forgettable group. They also maintain home advantage for their round of 16 match against Germany. Watch out for pugnacious tabloid headlines in England referencing previous world wars, something the country seems incapable of moving on from 76 years after the end of hostilities.

Best performance: Luka Modric (Croatia). Written off as past his best, he controlled the game and struck a gold-tinted go-ahead goal.

Choice quote: Steve Clarke (Scotland coach): "We’ll make sure it’s not 23 years before we go to the next tournament." But how many years before Scotland makes it out of the group stage?

Group E:
Poland 1 Slovakia 2
Spain 0 Sweden 0
Sweden 1 Slovakia 0
Spain 1 Poland 1
Slovakia 0 Spain 5
Sweden 3 Poland 2

Final standings: Sweden 7 pts, Spain 5, Slovakia 3, Poland 1

A goal avalanche rushed the final day of Group E, with Spain finally remembering how to hit the target (albeit with the help of two own goals, and after missing their fifth successive penalty) and briefly threatening to win the group. Slovakia exited the tournament, exhausted and outclassed. Sweden took a two-goal lead through a brace from Emil Forsberg, but Robert Lewandowski replied in kind (his first yet another stunning strike to add to this championship's burgeoning collection of wonder-goals), and a much more offensive looking Poland looked like they might turn the game and the group around - one more goal and they'd have jumped to second. It was the Swedes who grabbed the winner, though, in the 94th. minute, to take the group and move on to a winnable tie against the Ukraine in Glasgow.

Best performance: Robert Lewandowski (Poland) Three goals overall for the 2020 World Player of the Year, but not enough to prevent Poland's exit.

Choice quote: Lewandowski again: "You can't deny we've got ambition and the will to fight, but something was missing -- quality."

Group F:
Hungary 0 Portugal 3
France 1 Germany 0
Hungary 1 France 1
Germany 4 Portugal 2
Portugal 2 France 2
Germany 2 Hungary 2

Final standings: France 5pts, Germany 4, Portugal 4 (Germany ahead on direct record), Hungary 2

Hungary looked like pulling off the coup of the tournament as it lead Germany 2-1 until the 84th minute, but a combination of German substitutes -- Jamal Musiala, Timo Werner and Leon Goretzka -- forced the equalizer with the help of a slight deflection and the Germans moved up from bottom place to second. Over in Budapest, another 2-2 consisted almost entirely of penalties -- two for Portugal and one for France. A fourth penalty for France in stoppage time was turned down by the VAR for reasons that will likely remain confined to the booth where they're either making up their own rules or they're just not paying attention. All in all, a thrilling night of soccer to round off the group phase in what is turning into a captivating few weeks of soccer.

Best performance: Karim Benzema (France)

Choice quote: Manuel Neuer (German goalkeeper and captain): "We're just relieved. We were behind for a long time, then immediately behind again -- it was a battle of nerves. It's hard when you're trailing to a team like that. That was a defensive chain with multiple legs."

4 comments about "The Euro, round 3: Goals, drama, human rights and the mysteries of VAR".
  1. George Miller, June 24, 2021 at 11:40 a.m.

    Once the pride flag is included then the Blue live matter and similiar must be included. They are all political to many. Best to just play!

  2. schultz rockne, June 24, 2021 at 2:11 p.m.

    'cept cops haven't been systematically marginalized and discriminated against in our society and do not require the protection that 5-0 have enjoyed and used to secure the power they in fact possess. Which, of course, is compounded by the fact that they are constantly armed (and dangerous, to some). So no, they would not need to be included in any pro-justice movement--whether through sport or just normal, everyday life. So, better to 'play and fight.' Boy howdy!

  3. Mike Lynch, June 24, 2021 at 10:55 p.m.

    Enjoying the analysis of the groups, even some of the off the field descriptions of what's going on as this spills over into some of the match performances, decisions, etc. i do believe it's unprofessional, though, to input your personal point of view. Soccer pundit, go for it. Political sideshows, stick to the facts of what happened. We are all pretty smart to come to conclusions.

    Keep up the excellent soccer analysis. Looking forward to the knockout phase!

  4. Ian Plenderleith replied, June 25, 2021 at 6:40 a.m.

    I appreciate your feedback, Mike. For me, what happens off the field is just as fascinating as what happens on it. Sport is not just games, it's a social and political phenomenon, we see that every single day - I've always written and commented on that, and I always will. I'd consider it 'unprofessional' to ignore the hypocrisy, corruption self-interest of Fifa and Uefa, say, or the way that autocratic politicians exploit sport and host big events to profile themslves or to push a pernicious nationalistic agenda. When it comes to political interference in the World Cup or the Olympics, politics is way more than just a 'sideshow'. When countries like Qatar and the UAE effectively own huge clubs like PSG and Manchester City, then you have politics right at the very pinnacle of the game. These are not issues that anyone writing about soccer should ignore. 

    Having said that, I too am very much looking forward to the knockout phase.  

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