By Kartikay Dutta, UG23
There really is nothing quite like knockout football. You are guaranteed to be on the edge of your seat through the duration of any match — and if the last few days are anything to go by, there are never any guarantees. The round of 16 at the Euros laid witness to thrills and spills, classic moments of sporting madness; and was full of attractive football, headlined by some giant-killings. In short, a spectacle of tournament football. Without further ado, let’s explore each of the 4 double-header days one by one and relive the yardstick events that will in just under two weeks see one team lift the coveted European Championships trophy.
Saturday 26th June
Denmark in many ways have provided the pathos of the Euros this time, similar but also vaguely different to how Wales did so in 2016. Very quickly after the Christian Eriksen incident in their opening group game against Finland, they became everyone’s second team at the Euros, and for many, the emotionally-charged underdog they wanted to see. Much to their joy, then, the Danes followed up their big win against Russia with a demolition job on the Welsh, whose star players never showed up to the party. Goals flowed as Kasper Hjulmand’s team put 4 past Wales in Amsterdam, including a brace from surprise hero Kasper Dolberg, who made his first appearance of the tournament.
Italy would have hoped to display a similarly dominant performance against Austria to maintain the momentum they have carried since Roberto Mancini’s appointment. However, the Austrians proved themselves to be strong battlers, harrying and chasing after the Italians with a hunger and drive integral to quelling the ability that the Azzurri possess. They were mere centimeters away from taking the lead in Wembley Stadium via a Marko Arnautovic header (which was ruled out for offside), but it was not to be, as Italy’s substitutes put them to the sword in extra-time to book their place in the quarterfinals.
Sunday 27th June
Sunday night was, all things considered, probably the quietest and least surprising day of the round, but it began to build to a slow crescendo with Belgium and Portugal meeting on Monday in Seville, the headline act as two of Europe’s best locked horns. However, the capacity-crowded Puskas Stadium in Hungary would set the stage with a clash between the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. And here began the rise of the upstarts.
The Oranje started well and probably should have scored, but their profligacy in front of goal — and more importantly, a red card to Matthijs de Ligt — was punished by a Czech team happy to soak pressure and respond with stings of their own. The Czech won 2-0, quite a comfortable result in the end, as Dutch coach Frank de Boer would be sacked two days later. The Czech’s star forward, Patrik Schick, continued his hot goalscoring streak as he bagged his fourth goal of the tournament.
Belgium and Portugal then took on each other in a much-awaited conquest, but Belgian manager Roberto Martinez once again provided evidence of his understanding of knockout ties and how to neutralize tough, creative opponents (English football fans won’t soon forget his FA Cup success with Wigan Athletic). Thorgan Hazard’s whistling strike from outside the box would be enough to settle the game, and while both teams knocked on each other’s doors, neither came particularly close to blowing it down. Although Martinez’s men held on, they will be sweating on the fitness of key men Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. Belgium now meet Italy in Munich’s Allianz Arena — a clash which promises to be a tactical clinic.
Monday 28th June
Monday, 28th June, 2021, is a date most football fans are not likely to forget any time soon. What a day for football this was, not only on paper, but especially when the dust settled and one could see what it had left behind.
Kicking it off was Spain vs Croatia in Copenhagen’s Parken, which had already been the stage for the tournament’s most dramatic evening. The Spaniards, favourites in this contest, dominated the ball early, as they have been doing under Luis Enrique, but the Croats took the lead in the most unlikely fashion. A pass back to his goalkeeper by Barcelona’s Pedri led to a disastrous own goal as Unai Simon failed to control it, only able to watch it roll into the net. Spain, however, recovered quickly and equalized via Pablo Sarabia, before goals from Cesar Azpilacueta and Ferran Torres put them up 3-1. On most days, being up 3-1 in the 85th minute against a ragged opposition would be enough to send them through, but the strange ways of the football gods (for the divine is perhaps the only way to explain what came next) meant that Croatia succeeded on stretching their every sinew far enough to pull one back via a goalmouth scramble, before magnificently equalizing in injury time with 90 minutes gone, sending their fans into a state of pandemonium. What a way to start off. However, it was Spain that took advantage of Croatia’s exhaustion in extra time to score twice, winning 5-3. With eight goals, this became the second-highest ever scoring match in EURO history.
This, however, was just the appetizer. With hardly any time to catch one’s breath, attention was directed towards the National Arena in Bucharest, where favourites and World Cup winners France took on their alpine neighbours Switzerland. Switzerland started well, and took the lead via a Haris Seferovic header in the 15th minute. Two goals in two minutes from Karim Benzema put the French up, before Paul Pogba, arguably the player of the tournament, scored a beautiful long-range curler to make it 3-1.
What transpired over the next 15 minutes of the game will take long to fade from memory. Switzerland, who until that point had been nullified by the French change of formation, suddenly found a second wind. Seferovic headed in another goal to give the Swiss a glimmer of hope, and Mario Gavranovic carried forward that momentum with a monumental, unthinkable equalizer in the final minute of time. It is important to remember that this is not just any comeback. It is a comeback against the world champions, a team stacked with talent from bottom to top. It was a titanic task, and one which the Swiss took to with a hunger and a panache which more than earned them a second shot through extra time. And when extra time could not separate the two, penalties.
Each of the first 9 takers scored, with Admir Mehmedi putting Switzerland up 5-4 in the shootout. It then came down to Kylian Mbappe — a French hero from their World Cup triumph — to take it to sudden death. He, however, came a cropper against Yann Sommer, who kept the penalty out with a big save, resulting in scenes of magnificent jubilation.
A day with two teams going up 3-1 and failing to win in regular time. A day which saw a giant-slaying. A day which saw it all. Just one word: WOW.
Tuesday, 29th June
And it wasn’t over yet. England would meet Germany in Wembley, to settle scores against the ‘old enemy’, while Sweden took on Ukraine at Hampden Park in Glasgow.
England and Germany played a nervy and cagey first hour, before the game sprung to life through the introduction of crowd-favourite Jack Grealish. Raheem Sterling put the English up 1-0 in the 75th minute, with Wembley erupting around him, and after Thomas Muller missed a gilt-edged chance, (presented to him by the English goalscorer!) Harry Kane wrapped up a victory with a header in the 86th minute. England now go into the quarterfinals not having conceded a single goal, and with the draw kind around them, they will be liking their chances, even if they will be asked to leave their Wembley home for the first time to go play in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
In Scotland, Ukraine and Sweden traded early blows to make it 1-1 through goals from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Emil Forsberg respectively, and head into extra time themselves, with Forsberg unfortunately hitting the woodwork twice in the second half. Things got uglier as extra time began with a red card to Swedish centre back Marcus Danielsson, and as the game descended into something of a wrestling match, Zinchenko produced another moment of magic in the 120th minute, whipping in an excellent cross for Artem Dovbyk to convert and sending a ragged Ukraine outfit through, to play England.
… and the dust settles.
What a week of football for the neutral. A quick recap of what all this means: the defending EURO champions are eliminated. The defending World Cup champions are eliminated, as are the other finalists. The Dutch are out, the Italians are through, the Danes continue their journey to do it for their teammate and friend Eriksen. The English continue their quest to bring football home, and the Spaniards try to return to the glory days of the decade gone by. The European Championship quarterfinals await, and here at The Edict, we absolutely cannot wait for what comes next!