Four days of knockout action at Euro 21 (née Euro 20) brought us eight games that were mainly mesmerizing, thriving on the tension even when goalmouth action was sparse. Portugal and Pepe reverted to type, accruing few new friends. The Danes continued to recover magnificently from the trauma of their opening game. The previously dynamic Netherlands and sporadically wonderful France both went out to unfancied but hard-working opponents, with the Czech Republic and Switzerland proving that, at this tournament, everyone's in with a chance. Italy and Belgium squeaked through to set up a quarterfinal that every neutral hopes will thrill, not suffocate. Spain and Croatia delivered one of the greatest games the tournament's ever seen, with France-Switzerland hot on its heels. England overcame its 55-year German block, while the Ukraine slipped into the last eight as the tournament's least-tipped team. Cup soccer at its best.
Own goals and missed penalties: Two truly curious stats from this engaging tournament. First, the total number of own goals rose to nine during the round of 16 thanks to Spanish keeper Unai Simon taking his eye off a 44-yard long back pass from teammate Pedri. That equalled the number of own goals from the entire previous history of the championship. Is this down to more attacks from the flanks, with fired-in crosses aimed at a crowd of players hoping for any kind of touch? Too many tired defenders? Pub-based soccer scientists will be examining this phenomenon for years. Meanwhile, out of 15 penalties awarded in open play, seven have been either saved or missed, a failure quota of almost 50 percent. By contrast, the conversion rate in the tournament's only penalty shootout so far, between Switzerland and France, was 90 percent. Another unanswerable sporting mystery for our eager analysts at the bar.
Virus update: Players continue to be picked off squads by positive corona tests. Croatia lost Ivan Perisic, and his replacement Ante Rebic had another poor game. Almost 100 Finnish fans returning from St. Petersburg tested positive, the city being a relative hotspot. The response? Let more fans into stadiums! England upped Wembley's capacity to 45,000 to allow more home supporters to cheer them on against Germany. As in all other stadiums, signs of masks and social distancing were virtually non-existent. The European Parliament has been asking questions about the wisdom of staging barely controled mass events (especially in England, where the COVID-19 Delta Variant is floating wild), and UEFA’s response has been to shift the responsibility on to local authorities and claim it's nothing to do with them. Is Europe's soccer governing body complaining about stadiums almost full with wig-wearing, face-painted, celebrating fans? No, because these images are far more important to them than public health. And from the start, they've pressured host cities to allow in as many fans (and functionaries) as possible.
Goals tally: 123 in 44 games (2.8 goals per game)
5 goals: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).
4 goals: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Karim Benzema (France), Emil Forsberg (Sweden)
3 goals: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Raheem Sterling (England), Haris Seferovic (Switzerland), Georginio Wijnaldum (Netherlands), Robert Lewandowski (Poland).
July 2, noon ET, Switzerland v Spain (St. Petersburg) ESPN
July 2, 3pm ET, Belgium v Italy (Munich) ESPN
July 3, noon ET, Czech Republic v Denmark (Baku) ESPN
July 3, 3pm ET, England v Ukraine (Rome) ABC
Round of 16 - four days, eight games:
Wales 0 Denmark 4
The Welsh complained about a foul against their striker Kieffer Moore in the run-up to Denmark's second goal, and about an admittedly harsh straight red card shown to their substitute Harry Wilson, but the game was over by then. Although the Welsh were lively early on, with Gareth Bale looking sharp and motivated, both he and the team faded and began to look like a tired English third division outfit. The Danes, meanwhile, could afford to replace the injured Yousuf Poulsen (two tournament goals so far) with Kasper Dolberg (no, I'd never heard of him either), who stepped up to score a pair of his own, including a delightful curler from the edge of the penalty area. The Danes became the first team to score four goals in two consecutive games at the championship, and look like they are on an emotional and sporting roll. It's unlikely, though, that they'll be so free-scoring against the well-organized Czechs (two goals conceded in four games).
MVP: Kasper Dolberg (Denmark)
Choice quote: "I think the referee allowed himself to be influenced by the Danish fans here [in Amsterdam]." Graceful loser Gareth Bale, who walked off camera during a BBC interview when asked about the future of his international career.
Italy 2 Austria 1
Austria produced their best performance of the tournament on the day they went out, and were a metatarsal away from taking the lead through Marko Arnautovic's header 20 minutes from time - until the VAR's joy-assassinating computer intervened and cancelled the goal for offside long after the celebrations were over and done with. A "clear and obvious error" on the AR's part not to have seen that? In extra-time, Italian subs Federico ('Fede' for short, meaning 'faith') Chiesa and late call-up Matteo Pessina (second goal in two games) seemed to have put the game out of Austria's reach until a sub of their own, Sasa Kaladjzic, stretched parallel to the Wembley turf to score with his head and make the last five minutes even more enthralling than the rest of the game. The best kind of knockout soccer to set up Italy v Belgium in the quarterfinals. A slew of records for Italy: the Chiesas (Enrico in 1996, Fede in 2021) became the first father-son duo to score in a European Championship; the team broke its own record for longest period a national team has gone without conceding a goal (1168 minutes); 12 consecutive victories (new Italian national team record); and 31 games without defeat (last loss was in September 2018, breaking the mark of 30 games set in the 1930s, when they were twice world champions).
MVP: Although this was a great game, there were no individually outstanding performances. Let's say Federico Chiesa for the three sublime touches he took to score the go-ahead goal. One for the coaches to play back to kids: first touch - control. Second touch - setting himself up for the shot. Third touch - finish. One of the goals of the tournament, and there have been some absolute beauties.
Choice quote: "Regardless of who starts or comes into the game, everyone gives their all for this group, and for our whole country. I still haven't processed my goal against Wales and now I've scored the second really important one. I won't forget that in my entire career, which actually hasn't even really started yet." Matteo Pessina (Italy), until recently a fringe player at Atalanta Bergamo, and called into the Italian squad four days before the championship due to Stefano Sensi's injury.
Netherlands 0 Czech Republic 2
This was a great game for anyone who's ever tired of hearing soccer experts drone on about the tactical genius of the Dutch. Why? Because after they went down by a man (red card for Matthijs de Ligt's deliberate hand ball) and then down by a goal (the unlikely Czech midfielder Tomas Holes becomes the next unknown hero of these championships), their only remaining approach was to throw away the dossiers (or the laptop) and hoof long balls through the air to the big lad up front, in this case the subbed-in colossus Wout Weghorst. It's a huge shame we've lost the at times enthralling Dutch, but they found it very hard to break down the high-pressing, active Czechs. The one time that Donyell Malen found himself through on goal, Czech keeper Tomas Vaclik nabbed the ball off his toes. Seconds later and de Ligt handled to prevent Patrik Schick running through on goal — a yellow card that was converted to red once referee Sergei Karasev had taken a proper look on the monitor. By such tiny margins of error do big games turn.
MVP: Tomas Holes (Czech Republic), Scored one, then set up Patrik Schick for the second. Not spectacular, but industrious, and typical of the Czech collective ethic.
Choice quote: "A very weak performance from the entire team." Former Dutch international Rafael van der Vaart on Dutch TV. Ex-pro pundits in the Netherlands are not known for being under-critical.
Belgium 1 Portugal 0
"What's your forecast?" a friend texted me before the game. Either a stone-cold classic or a theatrical dogfight, I replied. With Portugal, you never know, although you do know that once they look like they're going out of a tournament, then things can turn nasty. An intense but mediocre game, elevated only by Thorgen Hazard's searing, swerving strike just before halftime that deceived Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio. Tournament top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo was never really in the match, and had no penalties to convert. Joao Palhinha should have been red-carded by German referee Felix Brych for his tackle that put Kevin de Bruyne out of action. Brych let too many fouls go, encouraging players like the non-angelic Pepe to exploit the liberal atmosphere. What could have been a soccer spectacular was instead an ugly, foul-plagued battle that was too much for one referee. That Belgium won with de Bruyne absent both before and after his injury, and with Romelu Lukaku having an off night, speaks for their depth and their aging but solid defense. It'll take a better pundit than me to call their matchup with Italy, though much will depend on de Bruyne's fitness and, if he plays, whether or not he shines or disappears again.
MVP: Thorgen 'Eden's brother' Hazard (Belgium) for the game's rare moment of magic.
Choice quote: "We can beat every team. No team can say that it's better than Portugal." Portuguese coach Fernando Santos. Sure, if that's what you want to believe. As well as the Belgian defeat, Portugal lost 4-2 to Germany in the group stage.
MAGICAL MANIC MONDAY:
Croatia 3 Spain 5
The game that had everything? At first, it seemed like we were in for a long evening. It started out with Croatia stretching six along the back, and thoughts turned to two hours of goalless stalemate followed by spot kicks. After Spain resumed its early tournament tendency to create and miss chances, Pedri's bizarre own goal from nowhere that put Croatia in front actually seemed to spur the Croats to push forward, as though Spain accidentally putting into its own net made them think, "Hey, we're allowed to score too!" After the break, the new, more direct Spanish approach seemed to have turned the game around until, just as the German TV commentator had assured us that at 3-1 and with six minutes to go "Spain are in total control here,” Luka Modric ran at the Spanish defense and Mislav Orsicv’s shot briefly crossed the line after a scramble. Mario Pasalic's injury-time equalizer was written into the script, but Spain overcame Croatia's physicality and corrected themselves in overtime as they continued to show their finishing class, sub Dani Olmo twice the provider. So Denmark created a new record by scoring four goals in successive games? Spain went one better, with two times five. An open, captivating and eternally memorable game of soccer.
MVP: Mislav Orsic (Croatia). Subbed in, he jolted the Croatian attack into life with a goal and a textbook cross for the late, late equalizer.
Choice quote: "[Spanish goalkeeper] Unai Simon was a model today for all young players who want to become professional footballers. The message is: don't worry about your mistakes. Concentrate on your goal. Of course he made a terrible mistake. But after that he pulled off some fantastic saves." Spanish coach Luis Enrique.
France 3 Switzerland 3 (7-8 after penalty kicks)
Could these two countries even begin to follow up a game like Croatia-Spain? They did exactly that, right down to the same scoring sequence over 90 minutes in another absorbing, end to end firecracker. Tournament favorite France started out like they'd already won, and seemed unbothered by a header from Haris Seferovic that gave disciplined Switzerland the early lead. Only when the Swiss missed a penalty after the break, and the chance to go 2-0 up, did France show up and come to life with three gorgeous goals. At 3-1 the Swiss looked finished, France was cruising, but who wasn't thinking of the earlier game? Seferovic headed in again with 10 to go, before sloppy play in midfield from Pogba — scorer of the dream goal that had made it 3-1 — led to another fine finish, this time from sub Mario Gavranovic in the very last minute. French sub Kingsley Coman hit the bar with the game's final kick, overtime brought more chances, more saves, more thrills and tension, but in the end barely anyone had the energy to run. France looked fractious and bothered going in to the penalty shootout, the Swiss were under no pressure (apart from the mere burden of creating history and knocking out the reigning world champions). Kylian Mbappé's miss decided the tie and the Swiss went deservedly nuts. I couldn't help but thinking of the Swiss fan whose incredulous face was shown just before the regulation-time penalty that would have made it 2-0, wearing an expression that said, 'I can't believe we might actually do this.' That hope must have slumped into resignation, only to be revived again in unexpected and glorious fashion on possibly the most magnificent night of international soccer in the game's history.
MVP: Haris Seferovic (Switzerland)
Choice quote: "I'm going to call Robert de Niro and see if he fancies playing me in the movie." Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who saved Mbappé's penalty after the first nine kicks had been converted, credits the 77-year-old actor with acrobatic skills he may no longer possess. Though there are always stunt men.
TENSE BUT TURGID TUESDAY:
England 2 Germany 0
You won't convince many English that this game was dull, but if you weren't living the tension then the tactical faceoff was a drag as both defenses passed it around their backlines waiting for a gap to appear in front of them. As though both teams had channelled the Spaniards of a decade ago, but without any of that side's skill, imagination or poise. The occasional chances were thwarted by excellent goalkeeping, and Germany only had itself to blame for the ultimate defeat — they were tentative and lacking in both fantasy and flair. On both sides, most of the exciting players were on the bench, with only Raheem Sterling prepared to run at defenders. Then coach Gareth Southgate had an idea — I'll sub in a creative midfielder! Lo and behold, Jack Grealish was the key to opening up the always suspect German defense. Who knew? Joachim Löw's last game in charge confirmed what German supporters have known for years — his time has passed.
MVP: Jordan Pickford (England) and Jack Grealish (England) for the two saves and two assists respectively that gave England a deserved victory.
Choice quote: "Sobering. Feeble. Already in the first half you could see we were lacking answers, that we played unnecessarily deep. We did too little, we made it too easy [for England]. We didn't exploit England's weaknesses. I don't understand why the coach waited so long to make changes." Former German team captain Michael Ballack pinpoints his country's timidity as the reason for its defeat.
Sweden 1 Ukraine 2
The forgotten game at the butt-end of the round of 16, with a lively 90 minutes followed by overtime that was memorable more for its finish than its substance. In the first half, Emil Forsberg's deflected shot equalized Oleksandr Zinchenko's strike, then the Swedish forward twice struck the woodwork after the break. Serhiy Sedorchuk hit the Swedish frame at the other end. In overtime that seemed to dragged on for days thanks to a series of injuries, Marcus Danielson was red-carded for an unsightly (if unintentional) straight-legged challenge that knobbled Artem Besyedin. The 10-man Swedes settled for penalties after that, but while we all struggled to stay awake, Zinchenko placed a perfect cross on the head of late substitute Artem Dovbyk, playing his first minutes of the competition. A winner in injury time, in overtime — this game saved its best for last, and another newly unveiled hero was mobbed by his teammates. Who would have bet on Ukraine still being in the competition after France, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands had all been knocked out?
Oleksandr Zinchenko (Ukraine), with a juicy strike for the go-ahead goal, and a perfect cross for the late winner.
"With this performance and commitment, our team has deserved the love of the whole country." Ukrainian coach Andrei Shevchenko, possibly alluding to the country's Crimean Peninsula, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 days after the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and depicted in map form on the team's jerseys.