Italy vs Spain
Two of the great footballing nations not only of Europe but the world of football clash in what should be one of the most enthralling games of the tournament. Incredibly, this is the fourth consecutive European Championships in which these sides will have faced off, one of which was the final 11 years ago when the Spaniards utterly annihilated their counterparts 4-0 (and could have been more) despite starting the game without a recognised striker. It is fair to say that we would be stunned if there is a repeat of that result this time round since there is much less of a disparity between the two sides and if anything, the Italians probably edge it as favourites.
It is now 32 games unbeaten with 13 consecutive wins and counting for Roberto Mancini’s men who look quite unstoppable at the moment. Coming into this tie there is the disappointing news that Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the outstanding performers so far, will be out for six months however this is compensated by the return of their commander and rock in defence, Giorgio Chiellini.
Despite looking arguably, the most impressive team in the tournament match from the very first match, many sceptics pointed to the standard of opposition and the fact that all three group games were at home. Therefore, they went into their quarter-final against Belgium under a lot of pressure to prove themselves against one of the “big dogs” for the first time and they did not disappoint. Italy simply continued playing the way they had for their previous games – fast, attacking football - seemingly unfazed by the fact that they were playing the world’s number 1 ranked team. As we noted in our previous blog, the Italians seem to believe in Mancini’s system with each player knowing their role and willing to do anything to carry out their duties as they’re led by born winners in Chiellini and Bonucci. We witnessed this towards the end of the match with Belgium with what one person may refer to as time-wasting but another might call game management…
Whilst the Italians come into this tie brimming with confidence knowing that they are the form team, Spain will be much less so and have now played two rounds of 120 minutes which will surely take its toll.
In their final group and round of last 16 ties they scored five goals each time and yet it’s still considered to be an area of weakness by most pundits. After looking a little more closely, it becomes easier to understand why this is as in the two games mentioned they played a hapless Slovakia team and Croatia who bizarrely went gung-ho from the first whistle, leaving ample space to be exploited time and again. A lack of a clinical goal-scorer up front has appeared to be their achilles’ heal as we saw in the quarter-final with the Swiss in which they passed up countless opportunities to put the ball away.
Few knew what to make of the Spaniards prior to this tournament commencing - mixed form, a lack of identity and surprise squad selections all contributing to them being tough to predict. Now that we have plenty of matches to judge them on it has to be said that it’s still not much clearer just how good they are. At times boring and unimaginative whilst at others unplayable. They have a squad full of – predominantly young - talent who are most still finding their feet and most likely suffering from the big shoes left to be filled by the legendary team of a decade ago. In time they may live up to said expectations, but these semi-finals are likely to come too soon as they take on an Azzuri side on top of their game.
England vs Denmark
Whilst Three Lions fans can be forgiven for getting carried away, there’s not a chance that Gareth Southgate and his players will be and they’ll realise that they face a very real threat in this match. Granted they may not be a headline name and pre-tournament would have been heavily considered underdogs in this fixture but Denmark have played some of the best football in this tournament.
Set pieces at both ends are one of England’s strengths and even saw them grab two goals against Ukraine however they’re unlikely to find it so easy against the Danes who are formidable in this area with their height. Not only are they defensively solid but they transition up the pitch excellently and have had no issue finding the net, scoring the most goals by any Denmark side at a major tournament ever (11 goals).
Denmark’s tournament began in the most horrifying manner imaginable with the incident where Christian Eriksen suffered his health scare but since then it’s turned into a dream run to the semi-final. Such a traumatic event is bound to have united the group in striving to succeed for their captain and they’ve also gained the support of every neutral watching. Football and sport can always produce a fairy-tale story so if its not meant to be for England, can Denmark go all the way?
Twenty-five years is a long time. Even longer for Gareth Southgate one would imagine. Although there is not the slightest grudge held against the England manager for missing that fateful penalty in the infamous shootout of ’96, the horror is likely to never have fully left him and that he’ll be relishing the chance for some form of personal redemption here. If he can be the man to get England to a major final – even better, win it - then you can bet that that penalty will seldom be mentioned ever again.
You’d be hard pushed to find a single fault in this England team at the moment after their 4-0 thrashing of Ukraine put to bed any criticism that Southgate sets up too defensive. Yes, it may be true that he does not field all the incredible attacking talent at his disposal at once but as an England fan you have to ask yourself: would you rather win in this way or take the risk of trying to shoehorn players into a system that doesn’t fit them?
Saturday night’s tie in Rome saw the complete performance from England from back to front. They aren’t reliant on any one player as they showed they have different ways of getting goals, they kept possession excellently to the point you had sympathy for Ukraine and once again it was defensively sound. Astoundingly, it’s still no goals conceded yet in this tournament and they’ll break a record if they keep a clean sheet here as no team has ever managed six. John Stones and Harry Maguire have been impenetrable in defence, but it starts higher up with the whole team working effectively as a unit. If they can remain resilient at the back and hope that Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling can continue their form then England have a very, very strong chance of making the final.