Euro 21, quarterfinals: Weeding out the underdogs

The Euro 21 quarterfinals saw the end of the road for co-favorites Belgium and three unfancied sides who’d been hitting above expectations -- Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the Ukraine. There were plenty of goals, with only the Ukraine failing to score, and the semifinal lineup looks irresistible, with England the sole nation out of the four remaining to never have won the title (or to have even reached the final). Spain vs. Italy looks as unmissable as solid but increasingly free-scoring England entertaining the in-form Danes. With each passing knockout round, the worry about teams sitting back and holding out for a tie has been cast aside by positive, attacking play and a flow of wonderfully worked goals.

Covid watch: All the final three games will be played at Wembley Stadium in London, despite the UK’s highest daily COVID-19 infection figures since January. Last week almost 2,000 new cases in Scotland were linked by public health officials to fans having attended Euro 21 events, in particular Scotland’s group game in London against England. With England playing at home and looking to land their first honor since the 1966 World Cup, it will be tempting for the government and UEFA to let in even more fans than before – the current plan is to allow in more than 60,000 spectators, meaning the stadium will be 75% full. Tempting and crassly irresponsible, but who cares about clearing up tomorrow’s mess when everyone’s having a wild party?

Top scorers out: Czech Patrik Schick’s consolation goal against Denmark put him up with Cristiano Ronaldo on five goals, but like everyone else with four or more goals to their name, he’s out of the competition. England’s Harry Kane leveled with teammate Raheem Sterling by scoring twice against the Ukraine, and together with Denmark’s Kasper Dolberg they are the last players still in the tournament with three goals to their name.

Goals tally: 135 in 48 games (2.81 goals per game)

July 6, Spain vs. Italy 3pm ET (London) ESPN
July 7, England vs. Denmark, 3pm ET (London) ESPN

Leading scorers:
5 goals: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Patrik Schick (Czech Republic).
4 goals: Karim Benzema (France), Emil Forsberg (Sweden), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium).
3 goals: Harry Kane (England), Raheem Sterling (England), Kasper Dolberg (Denmark), Haris Seferovic (Switzerland), Georginio Wijnaldum (Netherlands), Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)


Switzerland 1 Spain 1 (2-4 on penalty kicks)
The victors from the two stunning games on Monday's Greatest Day were, unsurprisingly, unable to replicate the see-saw thrills from their wins over France and Croatia. The game promised to come to life in the second half when Xherdan Shaqiri equalized his teammate Denis Zakaria's early own goal (own goal number 10 for the championship), but English ref Michael Oliver put a stop to that when he harshly red-carded Remo Freuler for a bad but not heinous challenge on Gerard Moreno. Not a wrong decision, as such, but a vital, game-changing sanction that put the Swiss on the defensive for the rest of the game. Without the pressure of worrying about defense, Spain started to finally play and peppered the Swiss goal during overtime, but Yann Sommer held everything that came his way. He carried his form into the penalty shootout, but whereas his teammates had been ruthless in despatching their spot-kicks against France, tonight they were hesitant in both run-up and execution. Still, few outside of the landlocked mountain nation will be sad about the prospect of a Spain-Italy semifinal. Which Spain will show up, though? The care-free attacking team we saw against Croatia, or the tentative, cautious XI that had such trouble overcoming the Swiss?

MVP: Yann Sommer (Switzerland) Not only kept his side in the game with a string of saves during overtime, but he’d have won them the game in the shootout if his colleagues had shot more decisively.

Choice quote: "My players were the heroes of the night. We deserved to go through. I've got mixed feelings. We can all be so proud and leave the competition with heads held high. At the same time, we were so close to the semifinal, and that's not something that happens a lot." Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic on Switzerland's best finish in a competition since the 1954 World Cup.

Belgium 1 Italy 2
Whereas Spain-Switzerland never really got going, this game delivered on its promise from the start with high-tempo attacking soccer and absolute quality play from both teams, even if the Italians reverted to type with scads of drama, time-wasting and simulated injuries toward the end. At least that feel like the authentic Italy, and so long as they keep on playing this way, we can forgive them a little bit of traditional gamesmanship. Lorenzo Insigne's second goal of the tournament to put Italy 2-0 up was the strike of the night, although Belgium came back into it with a Romelu Lukaku penalty just before halftime. The German TV refereeing expert, Manuel Gräfe, described the penalty award as "an absolute joke," but I don't know what version of the Laws of the Game he's reading from -- Italian defender Giovanni di Lorenzo clearly used his left elbow to shove over Jeremy Doku. It was the exciting Doku who almost topped Insigne after the break with a run past three players and a shot that soared just over the bar. Belgium created good chances while also looking one-dimensional, relying on too many balls to the outnumbered Lukaku, while Kevin de Bruyne was clearly carrying an injury. This Italian team has everything -- defensive stability, collective spirit, offensive flair, technical acuity. Hard to see them losing a game unless it's in a shootout.

MVP: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy)

Choice quote: "It looks like a serious injury. It really hit me to see in tears like that. It's not what he deserves. He's been one of our best players at this tournament." Italian coach Roberto Mancini on the ruptured achilles tendon injury to left-back Leonardo Spinazzola.

Czech Republic 1 Denmark 2
Another open and enjoyable game, though the Czechs may wonder ‘what if’ after Denmark scored early from a corner that should never have been given. Millimeters matter in offside decisions, but a game-changer like that is not within the VAR’s remit. Still, that’s no excuse for the Czechs leaving Thomas Delaney all alone to deliver the lead through a textbook header. Denmark’s left back Joakim Maehle delivered the cross of the tournament with the outside of his right boot for Kasper Dolberg to finish with a volley – yet another goal for the highlights archive, and at 2-0 the Czechs looked done. They came out fighting in the second half and pulled one back through Patrik Schick, but after a purple patch they faded, and the Danes looked more likely to extend their lead.

MVP: Kasper Dolberg (Denmark) A stand-in against Wales for the injured Yussuf Poulsen, Dolberg has added youth, verve and variety to the Danish attack, not to mention three goals.

Choice quote: “We had one goal at the start of this tournament, and that was to make it to Wembley. But I’d be lying now if I said we’re just happy to have reached the semifinal.” Danish captain Simon Kjaer.

Ukraine 0 England 4
Could England handle a game away from Wembley? The Italian air was clearly infectious as they scored as many goals on one night in Rome as they had in the previous four games in London. This was a much better performance to watch, and suddenly we are faced with the genuine possibility that England might make it to the final of a tournament for the first time in 55 years. The defese has been even tighter than Italy’s, the midfield has started showing signs of creativity, the heavily criticized Raheem Sterling has been excellent in almost every game, and leftback Luke Shaw is fulfilling the promise he showed several years ago but was either too unfit or out of form to deliver on. Ukraine were very poor, and exit with two wins and three defeats – one argument for a better tournament structure that doesn’t allow third-placed teams to progress from the group stage. England’s semifinal opponent, Denmark, represent the counter-argument.

MVP: Harry Kane (England). The English love to denigrate their best players, and there had been loud calls to drop the captain after the team’s lackluster group games. And there he was, one step quicker than the entire Ukraine defense to put England ahead after four minutes and set them on the road back to Wembley.

Choice quote: “We’ve had some great nights over the last four years, but we’ve also had some painful nights. We’ve learned from all of those experiences and that’s definitely helped us prepare for another tournament." England coach Gareth Southgate.

4 comments about "Euro 21, quarterfinals: Weeding out the underdogs".
  1. R2 Dad, July 4, 2021 at 7:56 p.m.

    Great write-up, Ian, so much to unpack.


    RE: covid, I think it’s was mostly a case of brainless Scots getting carried away with the spectacle. From what I’ve seen on the screens, England fans have been far more reserved (inside the stadium, at least) at Wembley so far, though that might not hold through two more matches as home. If football really is coming home, I don’t see how England won’t see a spike in numbers after it’s all over.


    RE: Michael Oliver red card. That looked red from every angle. A two-footed challenge is always going to look worse and I think despite a reckless-not-excessive speed his boot was high up the ankle, leaving no doubt. That happened in the 76th minute, so it’s not like it was a controversial red early on and weighed more heavily on the match. The score line remained unchanged.  Ultimately, I think the red card was well deserved.

  2. R2 Dad replied, July 4, 2021 at 7:57 p.m.

    RE: Lukaku Pen. De Lorenzo didn’t have to push—Doku was already heading out of bounds at that point but he is generally not going to be allowed to get away with that foul. The fact that Grafe didn’t approve doesn’t mean much to me—he has always been a more lenient official. Despite him usually ranking #1 or #2 recently in the Bundesliga, I would have preferred the opinions of Deniz Aytekin at this highest level. I think Grafe did some Europa and CL & WC qualifiers but was never a top FIFA official. 


    RE: Italy odds. I would tend to agree except that Spinazzola was injured in this match and he has really been the spark. I don’t know if they will continue to outperform expectations as they have. By swarming the officials as they do, they certainly aren’t showering themselves in sportsmanship and fair play glitter. Belgium has been missing Eden Hazard, though his brother has done his best to make up for him during this tournament.


    The Czech Republic made Denmark look like world-beaters, even with Poulsen injured. I don’t fancy Denmark v England, but the Danes have exceeded expectations as well and have been punching above their weight all tournament long. Delaney has lost a step but left unmarked outside the six he could do no wrong. 

  3. R2 Dad replied, July 4, 2021 at 7:58 p.m.

    RE: England. Luke Shaw may have contributed in the attacking 3rd, but he is a liability in the defending half. I counted about a dozen backpasses from him during this match, so clearly he is a liability unless he has space and time. Lucky for England they weren’t pressed by Ukraine but this will change from here on out. Good point about 3rd place teams, Ian.


    The English media, so critical of the Three Lions for so long, was pathetic in their slobbery worship and softball questions. Granted, after the match isn’t a good time for anything but easy questions to an exhausted player, but I found the contrast stark.


    If there is one factor that favors England, it’s the strength of their bench. No other team has the likes of Foden, Sancho, Trippier, Bellingham, Rashford and Grealish to draw from. This tournament allows 5 subs per match and Southgate isn’t confident enough to rotate more freely than he has. Nine of the starting 11 from the previous match started against Ukraine, but once England were out of reach his subs didn’t drop the quality of play. With Kane and Sterling in fine form despite a long, long season, and their deep bench, I think England should make it to the final as favorites. I’m just not looking forward to listening to all the sore winners if they come out on top July 11th.

  4. Ian Plenderleith, July 5, 2021 at 3:28 a.m.

    All good points, thank you for your contributions, R2 (though I think Luke Shaw's defending has improved with his fitness). I should also mention that I've just seen a clip on twitter from Czechs v Denmark proving - from a new camera angle - that in fact the corner for Denmark was the *correct* decision. The ball brushed the Czech defender's hand before crossing the end line. Which proves once again that what we're certain we saw on film is often no substitute for the experienced, naked eye of the referee down at field level. 

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