For France and the other favorites of Euro 2020, draws and a new start
A few minutes from the end of the match in Budapest, French midfielder Adrien Rabiot squarely looked at Sergio Oliveira, his Portuguese opponent, and advised him to back down. Like everyone else in the stadium, Rabiot had heard the news. The group stage of Euro 2020 was well and truly over. France and Portugal have qualified for the round of 16. There was no need to run, chase or press. Now was the time to look at the clock.
It hadn’t been a simple night for either team. The game had swayed – Portugal led, then France, then Portugal fought back – and their fate too, depending to some extent on the outcome of the other group match between Germany and Hungary in Munich. At one point or another, each of the four teams thought they would pass.
It wasn’t until Leon Goretzka had secured a point for Germany against Hungary that everything was settled. Hungary would be the guy for the fall; the three favorites were all able to safely advance to a round of 16 which offers a series of intriguing and two particularly enticing encounters: Portugal’s meeting with Belgium in Seville on Sunday and England welcoming Germany to London on Tuesday.
The race for positions is now over. The real business starts here.
Don’t be fooled: France is the favorite
Reigning world champions France may not have sailed in their squad with the ease of some of their challengers – Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy all posted perfect records – but it did. doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
The caliber of their opponent, first and foremost, was significantly higher: France lost points to Portugal, the reigning European champion, and a side from Hungary – good enough to be on the verge of to beat Germany – roared over it by a staunchly partisan crowd. .
Equally significant, especially in their last game, France has managed to give the impression that they have more to offer as and when needed. Whenever Rabiot, Paul Pogba, and the others needed to pick up the pace, they did so seamlessly. It should undoubtedly be noted, too, that Kylian Mbappé has not yet marked a ceasefire that will not hold forever.
Neither, so far, has an obvious competitor emerged in France’s air of superiority. Germany, Portugal, Belgium, England and Spain – the group of teams that would expect to benefit from a slight hesitation from France – have yet to hit their stride. The teams that impressed, Italy and the Netherlands, seem a little too young or a little too fragile to stay the course. It is still the tournament of France to lose.
Timing is everything
Roberto Mancini has his wish. On the eve of Euro 2020, Mancini, the Italy coach, said he wanted his team to win an audience marked by a decade of disappointment by “having fun”. Its players having duly delivered.
Italy have won all three group matches. He played exciting and inventive football, supported by a loud and partisan crowd in Rome. This is – despite relatively stiff competition From the Netherlands – the most convincing team in the tournament, the one it is most rewarding to watch. He has not yet conceded a goal, because deep down, it’s still Italy.
This early promise is no guarantee of later success, of course. Every European Championship has a team that wins hearts and minds early on – the Czech Republic in 2004, the Netherlands in 2008 and Italy in 2016 – only to drop as the level of difficulty increases.
Mancini’s side should have enough to beat Austria in the knockout first round, but Belgium, their most likely quarter-final opponents, would provide a tougher test. These two teams are an intriguing contrast: more than any team, Italy has profited from the postponement of this tournament. The one-year delay due to the pandemic gave Mancini’s young side invaluable experience. He might have turned out to be too timid if the competition had taken place, as planned, in 2020.
The reverse is true for Belgium. Roberto Martínez’s side have also won all of their matches, but they have done so without the verve and panache that have marked Italy’s progress. Belgium slumbered before Russia. He played in spurts to see fiery Denmark, then woke up late to sideline Finland. Belgium are the highest ranked team in the world, but they also have the oldest team in the tournament. He looks like a team whose moment has just passed. Italy, you can feel it, is yet to come.
Some routes are easier than others
No one is under any illusions that the current format of the European Championship is perfect. It is cumbersome and unwieldy, and it is sometimes inconclusive satisfactorily. Switzerland won on Sunday night, but didn’t know the meaning of their victory until Monday. Ukraine lost on Monday, but had to wait until Wednesday to find out.
But that doesn’t mean tension doesn’t have its benefits. Only one of the last matches – the Netherlands’ victory over North Macedonia – lacked it; the Dutch had already won their group, and their guest in Amsterdam had already been eliminated. The remaining 11 matches all had something at stake, whether it was settling who won the group or identifying which teams would advance to the round of 16.
This balance between advantages and disadvantages is maintained in the round of 16. On Saturday, Wales will face Denmark in Amsterdam. Both finished second in their group. But Austria too, and she has to play against Italy.
The need to close two round of 16 matches between the second-ranked teams, to make the whole format work, has the effect of unbalancing the draw. That was toned down a bit this time around by the fact that Spain were unable to dominate their group, thanks to Sweden’s late winner against Poland, and will face Croatia in Copenhagen. But the consequence is clear: some teams have a much more difficult journey to the final than others.
On one side of the draw, for example, Belgium must first face Portugal, then endure a possible quarter-final with France, before meeting Spain – perhaps – in the semi-final. On the other hand, England and Germany both have reason to curse a difficult first-round knockout clash, but the price of victory is rich: a quarter-final against Sweden or Croatia, then most likely the Netherlands in the semi-finals.
Uneven draft is not necessarily a bad thing. This means that there is a road to the final stages for nations that in other formats would expect to be sent much sooner. It is to be greeted. A little randomness, after all, doesn’t hurt anyone.
But it also rather exposes the logic that it doesn’t matter when you go up against the great powers: to win the tournament, after all, you have to play them at some point. The problem is, sometimes you have to face more than others.
Switzerland strikes again above its weight
And so, there they are again, like clockwork. Much like Brazil in 2014, France in 2016 and Russia in 2018, Switzerland reached the bottom 16 of a major tournament. Quietly – how would the Swiss do otherwise? – the country is experiencing a golden age.
It is not, in truth, particularly exciting. It’s easy to make fun of the Swiss, as well as that other top runner-up qualified for the round of 16, Sweden, as little more than cannon fodder for traditional powers in the round of 16. Neither team plays in a particularly adventurous style – although the Swiss victory over Turkey was no little stylish – and neither particularly captivates the imagination.
But it must not hurt the success of two – admittedly extremely wealthy – countries with a combined population of less than 20 million to stand so high, so consistently among the Western European superpowers, the countries that have indeed transformed to develop young footballers towards an industrial process.
And that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the failure of two of Europe’s most populous nations – Turkey and Russia – to do the same, is a rather extraordinary failure. Turkey haven’t even made a World Cup since their third place in 2002. They reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and haven’t played a knockout game since.
Russia were also semi-finalists in 2008, and they had an emotional run to the quarter-finals of their Home World Cup three years ago. But these endless races represent a paltry effort for two countries with such a vast pool of talent.
The causes of these respective failures are not uniform – Russia does not export players, Turkey does not develop enough – but there is a common thread: Russia and Turkey are isolationist, resistant football cultures. to the cutting edge thinking and best practices that emanate from the leagues in their west. More than anything, both need to import ideas. They could do worse than start their learning journey by watching the Swiss and the Swedes.