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Euro 2024: and then there were two…

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50 games and 114 goals later, the eyes of the world will today be on Berlin for the final between Spain and England.

This will be the second meeting between the two countries in a major tournament final within the last year – after Spain beat England in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Sydney last August. As for the men’s teams, this will be their fifth encounter at a major tournament with England winning both times when they have met at a Euro tournament, and one draw and a Spain victory at a World Cup. The last time they faced each other ended with a 3-2 England victory in Seville in the 2018 Nations League. However, Spain have been triumphant in eight of the previous ten occasions, excluding games decided on penalties.

A look back

Spanish football’s record in finals is remarkable. Since 2001, its national team and clubs have won all 22 of their last major tournament finals against non-Spanish opposition. Three of those victories were during Spain’s dominance on the international stage between 2008 and 2012, with back-to-back Euros and a World Cup. Over a decade later, the days of its tiki-taka, possession-heavy system are now a distant memory. Utilising its pacy width and dictated by the core of their team, Rodri, their system now involves a more direct style of play – and they have seen this come to fruition in the last four weeks.

Back-to-back Euro finalists, the Three Lions will be seeking to end nearly six decades of waiting for another trophy in England’s first final on foreign soil this Sunday. In the eight years since taking over, Gareth Southgate has revolutionised the internal atmosphere of the squad, away from the cliques and lack of cohesion during arguably England’s golden generation. He has created a bond and sense of unity, removing that friction of club rivalry, and this has seen some of England’s best tournament runs. With this increased success has come increased pressure as followers of the national team have become accustomed to deep runs and supporting the favourites at the last few major tournaments.

The road to Berlin

Despite their difficult route to the final, Luis de la Fuente’s side return to where it all started for them with a 3-0 win against Croatia in Berlin. La Roja’s German adventure has seen them score thirteen goals all from open play, three group-stage clean sheets against Croatia, Italy and Albania, and then only conceding once in each of their knockout ties against Georgia, Germany and France – going on a run like never seen before at a European Championship. Six impressive and dominant wins for this year’s most complete side have earned them a chance to secure their fourth Euro, which would make Spain the most successful country in the history of the competition.

Whilst England did have a more favourable pathway, it has not been as straightforward as that of Spain’s. A frustrating yet effective group-stage run against Serbia, Denmark and Slovenia. This was then followed by a rollercoaster of a knockout campaign, coming from behind in dramatic fashion against Slovakia, Switzerland and then the Netherlands. Fortunately for the Three Lions, they do hold an impressive record at the venue of the final in Germany’s capital, with four victories and two draws at the historic Olympiastadion.  

Their star

A day after his 17th birthday, Lamine Yamal would become the youngest player to appear in a major tournament (Euro or World Cup) if he plays on Sunday. A goal would earn him another record as the youngest player to score in a major tournament final. These achievements would be added to the long list of milestones Yamal has reached since his debut for Barcelona at the age of 15, having come through their academy, La Masia. At Barcelona, he became the youngest player to start a La Liga game since 1939 and the youngest player to start a Champions League game, the youngest scorer in Spain’s top league, the youngest player to feature in an El Clásico, and the youngest player to play 50 times for Barcelona and also reach 10 Champions League games – a list of records which could continue forever. His campaign in Germany has seen him become the youngest player and scorer at a Euro tournament, and lead with the most assists (3) at Euro 2024.

Coming on from an incredible, 36-goal-contributions, debut season at Real Madrid, the arch-rivals of Yamal’s Barcelona, Jude Bellingham has maintained his excellent form after winning the super cup, league and then the Champions League in London. His acrobatic, last-minute finish in the round of 16 spearheaded the shift in the internal mood of the squad and within its fanbase after England’s forgettable start in Germany. Born in Birmingham, it should have been obvious to the world that he was going to be something special when Birmingham City retired his number 22 shirt after winning EFL Young Player of the Season with four goals from 44 appearances in all competitions at 16 years old. This earned him a world record transfer fee for a player aged 17, when he picked Borussia Dortmund out of several major clubs – he went on to get 49 goal contributions in 132 appearances for the German club.

The trophy which will be awarded to Sunday’s winners (image by Melange)

With 3 goals each, six players have the chance of winning the Golden Boot. Will Dani Olmo or Harry Kane distance themselves from the rest and win the Golden Boot, or will Fabián Ruiz or Bellingham join the club with both on two goals?

Could Dani Olmo also finish the tournament with the most assists too, only one behind his teammate, Yamal?

Who will be crowned the player and young player of Euro 2024?

And finally, will we see the Henri Delaunay Cup return to Spain for a record-breaking fourth time, or will football finally come home and right its wrongs from the last Euro final at Wembley?

Euro 2024: the final four

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Following a dramatic quarter-final round where half of the games were decided on penalties and another in the last minute of extra time, the brave efforts of Switzerland and Türkiye came to an end.

This was the last dance for Germany’s Toni Kroos and most probably the final games on the international stage for his former Real Madrid teammates, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe, as well as for his fellow countrymen, Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer. Now, four of football’s heavyweight nations will battle for the chance to play in Sunday’s final at the Olympiastadion in Berlin.

Munich will host the current and pre-tournament favourites, Spain and France respectively, on Tuesday 9 July. With Spain as the competition’s joint-most successful country (winning the tournament on three occasions in 1964, 2008 and 2012) alongside Euro 2024 hosts Germany whom they beat to reach this stage, they will face its northern neighbours and two-time Euro winners (1984 and 2000), France.

The 1988 champions, the Netherlands, will play against the runners-up of the previous European Championship, England, in Dortmund on Wednesday 10 July.

SpainFrance

The Allianz Arena (known as the Munich Football Arena during UEFA EURO 2024) in the colours of the Spain and France (Image by Sönke Biehl)

With 11 goals out of 35 attempts on target from a total of 102 attempts, as well as 230 balls recovered, this year’s most impressive side, composed of experienced and fresh talent, is on a five-game win streak in Germany.

On the other hand, France are still searching for their first goal from open play (a feat which some countries were able to do within minutes of starting their campaigns in Germany, or even 23 seconds in Albania’s case against Italy) with two own goals and a penalty converted in their second draw in the group stage against an already-eliminated Poland. This earned them a 4th semi-final appearance out of these last 5 international tournaments. Nevertheless, having advanced to all the finals from those 3 previous semi-finals, Didier Deschamps should know exactly what will be required from Les Bleus on Tuesday, especially having also captained his national team to its second Euro in 2000, two years after also winning the 1998 FIFA World Cup on home soil. Sunday could see him become the first person to have won the World Cup and Euro as a player and then a manager, having won the World Cup six years ago.

Having featured every Spanish player except their third-choice goalkeeper, Álex Remiro, Luis de la Fuente will be forced to continue his squad rotation due to the suspensions of Dani Carvajal and Robin Le Normand as well as Pedri’s injury. The 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro winner, 38-year-old Jesús Navas, who is older than the father of his teammate Lamine Yamal, is expected to come in alongside Dani Carvajal at the back; Dani Olmo is likely to continue as Pedri’s replacement, impressing everyone after coming on for Pedri in Stuttgart and scoring a goal.

Joselu’s claim that De la Fuente has built a family environment is evident on the pitch. A Nations League victory in 2023 as well as the highest win percentage since the beginning of 2023 in European football with 15 wins from 19 games proves the bond is working on and off the pitch. This has turned La Roja into a side to fear following a quiet, unsuccessful few years for the Iberian nation after a formidable era between 2008 to 2012 as European and World champions.

Relying less on its possession-heavy ideology, the calm stability of Rodri in the midfield allows the elegant Fabián Ruiz and the exciting duo of 16-year-old high school student and Barcelona sensation, Lamine Yamal, and 21-year-old Athletic Bilbao star, Nico Williams, to combine with their captain, an underappreciated and frustrated Alvaro Morata. This was entertaining in an effective but also impressive way – unlike their rivals who still have not managed to produce a positive performance, yet find themselves 90 minutes away from the final.

Despite receiving criticism about France’s boring style of play and the underwhelming output of its offensive wealth of talent, in particular Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé, midfielder, Adrien Rabiot mentioned that the players remain confident in their capabilities even if not feeling at their best. Their manager also insisted that Mbappé is “in the right headspace”, although there is wide belief that the mask he has had to wear since breaking his nose in France’s Euro 2024 opener against Austria has hindered his peripheral vision, and thereby playing conditions. Deschamps also suggested that if people are bored of France, they can “watch something else” – criticism which the Spanish manager and Rodri disagreed with.

Netherlands England

The iconic home of Borussia Dortmund, where the Netherlands and England will compete on Wednesday (Image by Arne Müseler)

Reaching its first Euro semi-final in two decades, the Netherlands have grown into the tournament after a poor group stage effort, where they reached the last 16 as the best third-placed team from all six groups. They came from behind after conceding after 16 minutes, thanks to a Wout Weghorst 83rd-minute winner to earn a 2-1 win, which was followed by a scoreless draw against France.

Then, a thriller in Berlin could have put their qualification into the last 16 at risk. The Dutch forward, Donyell Malen, opened the scoring for Austria with the quickest own goal in Euro history after 5 minutes and 48 seconds. The two teams cancelled each other out throughout the game with Cody Gakpo scoring in the 47th minute, Romano Schmid putting Austria ahead twelve minutes later, and then Memphis Depay equalising in the 75th minute before Marcel Sabitzer won Group D for Austria. A dominant performance against Romania in the last 16 earned them a chance for retribution in Berlin, where they once again came back from behind, this time against Türkiye through a 76th-minute own goal by Mert Müldür.

Dutch fans in Munich during their last 16 win against Romania (Image by Kevin Ciobanu)

A third semi-final for England from the last four tournaments has come after mass criticism for its turbulent and mostly forgettable campaign, featuring a lacklustre style of play albeit effective performances with two dramatic finishes in their last two knockout games. Limping its way to the top of Group C after a 0-0 draw against Slovenia, with 74% possession although minimal chances to score, following a 1-1 draw with Denmark, and a 2-1 win in their opener against Serbia. England’s first shot on target in their last 16 match against Slovakia arrived in the 95th minute; fortunately for them, it was enough to force the game into extra time via Jude Bellingham’s overhead kick. Harry Kane then put England ahead after only 50 seconds in extra time for the fastest goal in extra time in the history of the Euros. England also holds the quickest-ever extra-time goal at the World Cup, scoring in the first minute against Belgium in 1954.

Southgate’s centenary game (England v Switzerland) as manager saw an improved performance. Breel Embolo’s 75th-minute goal woke up the Three Lions with a sensational equaliser from Bukayo Saka five minutes later, followed by five perfect penalties after Switzerland’s Manuel Akanji penalty was saved by Jordan Pickford.

Ronald Koeman has enabled in-form Cody Gakpo to thrive in Germany, with his teammates searching for him on most of their attacks in a variety of ways. His Liverpool teammate, Virgil van Dijk has played a pivotal role in how Gakpo has been receiving the ball in the final third, either via his long direct passes or by finding Xavi Simons between the lines to then connect with Gakpo on his left. However, the most effective method has been the crucial relationship between Gakpo and Denzel Dumfries. This is facilitated by the Oranje’s fluid system of switching from 4-2-3-1 without the ball to a 3-2-4-1 in possession: Dumfries advances with Steven Bergwijn moving centrally and the defence shifts across to the right in place. Always searching for the back post, crosses between Gakpo and Dumfries have improved as the Dutch have developed into the tournament.

This could prove challenging for England’s Southgate, who is under pressure to lead the team to victory. Adopting a back three to match up the Swiss system showed positive signs. Kieran Trippier and Bukayo Saka operating as wing-backs provided cover on the width, allowing the players of the season in La Liga and the Premier League, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden respectively, to play more centrally. However, the team still lacks creativity. While England captain, Harry Kane, is England’s record goal scorer, having come on from a 36-goal season in Germany to make him the top scorer in Europe’s top five leagues, he has failed to impress and gone missing from the penalty area with only 23 touches in 464 minutes. Kane commented that this was to “create space for players around me or drag defenders out of their positions and leave space for others”. After impressing last Saturday in a back three, Southgate faces the difficult decision of either reverting to Marc Guéhi or continuing with his replacement, Ezri Konsa. Having not played since February, Luke Shaw returned off the bench and provided more balance as England’s only recognised left back in the squad – he has declared himself “fit and ready” to feature from the start on Wednesday.

The England squad and coaching staff applaud their supporters after winning its group (Image by Kevin Ciobanu)

So will Lamine Yamal receive a birthday present, turning 17 years old on the day before the final, or will it be a second chance at Euro glory for Deschamps eight years after defeat on home soil? And will the Oranje return to Berlin, or will the Three Lions have their chance to right their wrongs three years on from that tragic finale in London?

The most boring Euros thus far?

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Why are fans so unhappy with their teams in this year’s Euros?

Coming into Euro 24, many fans of the historically ‘big’ teams were excited and happy for the chance to win more silverware. Now that the dust has settled on the group stages, it’s clear that the confidence has gone and fear has crept in for many of the favourites. Many more betting slips are now showing the names of Spain, Germany and… Austria.

France. World Cup finalists and the favourites to win have gone through with one own goal and one penalty – hardly the inspiring performance we were all expecting: they finished second in their group and gave a poor turnout from Poland a reprise when they scored their only point of the competition despite the return of their star player Mbappe.

England, similarly, have only scored two goals and were dependent on the result of Serbia v Denmark to secure the top spot in the group. Their group was particularly low-scoring and dominated by two of the tallest and most physically strong teams in the competition: Slovenia and Serbia.

Portugal started their campaign scrapping a win past a poor Czechia team and ended the group stages with a loss to Georgia, who are competing in their first-ever European championships. Despite securing the top spot in what was considered to be one of the easiest groups, there are still many questions to be answered.

The fans should not be frustrated with the teams but the format of the competition. Even Spain and Germany, who both opened their accounts with big wins, walked over the line. Spain followed their 3-0 win up with two 1-0 scores and Germany managed another win and a draw. All of these results show that even the teams considered to be performing well are taking their foot off the pedal. All the teams mentioned did open their Euros with a win. Those 3 points in this new format were enough to see every team other than Hungary advance to the knockout stages. Naturally, this format encourages the teams with the better squads to win their first game and then not take any chances in the other two.

This produces low-scoring games and boring football.

It’s no wonder fans are less than inspired.

One draw in two games will guarantee you advance. There’s no benefit to be gained by risking injury or showing off for your fans.

Since the FBI arrests of several top FIFA and UEFA officials nine years ago, the organisations have been committed to increasing transparency and trust amongst the fans. However, not knowing who you will play when you go through is less transparent. Most armchair fans may not even understand why Slovenia finished third in their group with three points and advanced to the knockout stages while Hungary – in an identical position – did not.

This format is damaging both the integrity and enjoyment of the tournament.

Traditionally, the group stages were seen as the most exciting part of a tournament. The teams would become more cautious during the knockout stages.  In 2024 the group stages are being described as a second qualifying round. As such, we eagerly await the proper start of the Euros.

However, there lingers a feeling of being robbed of teams who do throw caution to the wind and play good football before the knockout stages when they have nothing to lose and who gain a desirable fixture resulting from topping their group.

Support your team.

Supporters should be doing just that, supporting their team. Their anger should be aimed at the tournament format rather than the teams.

Don’t blame the player, blame the game: Ukraine is out with 4. Other teams are in with 3…

Germany Put Scotland to the Sword in Euro 2024 Opener

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The perfect excuse to sack off your internships, job applications and summer dissertations has finally arrived: the Euros are back! The pre-tournament atmosphere already seemed to sizzle…a major part of which was due to the arrival of the Tartan Army in full force. A mind-boggling number of Scots have descended on Munich, with estimates placing it at as many as 200,000 (3.7% of the nation’s population).

With Scottish fans knowing they were about to face a revived German side under the management of Julian Nagelsmann – a nation which holds the most European Championship trophies (three) and a side playing in front of their home crowd – Scottish expectations wouldn’t have been wholly unrealistic in the build-up. However, there was hope that if Scotland were to steal a point against the strongest side in their group, they would be put on excellent first footing to reach an unprecedented knockout appearance in the competition.

 Unfortunately, this jubilant pre-match Scottish atmosphere was swiftly curbed within ten minutes inside the Allianz Arena thanks to a smart finish by the emerging German Leverkusen star, Florian Wirtz. It was clear from a simple inspection of the comparative team sheets that this would be an uphill struggle for the Scottish side which doesn’t have the luxury of Champions League-winning midfielders like İlkay Gündoğan or Toni Kroos.

Yet, even in the opening twenty minutes, it was evident that Scotland were unable to match Germany’s intensity, let alone their technical prowess. Germany were able to control the game from start to finish, achieving 72.8% possession, thanks to their efficiency both on and off the ball, pressing Scotland high when they were out of possession, which Steve Clarke’s men struggled to bypass due to a lack of quality on the ball. Jamal Musiala added to the scoreline in the 19th minute, assisted by Kai Havertz with a powerful strike from inside the box.

Both of the opening two goals were preceded by defence-splitting passes: the first by Kroos and the second by Gündoğan. This was illustrative of Scotland’s flawed gameplan which allowed such midfield maestros too much time on the ball to dictate the pace of the game.

Scotland’s misery was compounded by a reckless penalty conceding challenge by Watford defender, Ryan Porteous, who dangerously slid into Gündoğan on the edge of the six-yard box, making nasty contact with the German’s ankle. After a brief review with VAR, the referee returned to the pitch brandishing a red card for Porteous and the confirmation of the penalty decision. The defender’s dismissal following a rash challenge was not a first-time experience for Porteous, who has accumulated several red cards throughout his career for similar challenges. The penalty was then cooly converted by Kai Havertz, continuing his strong club form into the tournament’s opener. The goal left Steve Clarke’s men heading down the tunnel facing a three-goal and one-man deficit.

While many teams in Germany’s position may have taken their foot off the gas to slow the game down, being content with a three-nil victory in their opening match, this was not the case for Nagelsmann, who brought on an array of attacking talent in the form of Leroy Sane, Thomas Muller and Niclas Füllkrug. The latter, a traditional number 9 who plays for Dortmund, made his mark on the match in the 68th minute with a thunderous strike into the top corner from outside of the box.

However, the Tartan Army was given something to cheer about in the 87th minute, thanks to a botched headed clearance from a corner by Antonio Rüdiger, which saw the ball spiral backwards into his own net. Despite all efforts, the German side would respond in the 93rd minute with Emre Can scoring the final goal of the match to seal a crushing defeat for the Scottish side.

Overall, the match showed that this German side under Nagelsmann is a resurgent one and seems to have dispelled its recent trend of poor tournament form. This opening match performance in Munich laid down a strong marker for the other tournament favourites such as England, Spain, France and Portugal to follow.

While it’s not a shocking result in the form of a loss, the match has heavily dented pre-match aspirations for Scotland for the tournament ahead. They face Switzerland in their next match in Cologne on Wednesday, a game in which they must conjure up some form of result if they hope to progress out of the group stages.