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Soccer Gratification Only A Year Delayed, Not Denied

July 10, 2021

BLOGGER’S NOTE: We are firing up the ole Blog again, and while this post is about one of my sporting passions, soccer, or “football” to some, we will be expanding this blog to other cultural topics of my interest besides sports, to include food, travel, cinema, and more. So please check back every so often for new and hopefully readable content. Thanks! – Bobby True

Only one game remains at the 2020 UEFA European Championships – Italy faces England in the Final tomorrow (Sunday, July 11, 2021, 12:00pm PST), in front of a “75% capacity crowd” at 90,000-seat Wembley – and I’ve watched every minute and all 140 goals of every match.

This isn’t to brag, or a source of pride for that matter.  Despite how swimmingly my lifestyle fit with pandemic realities, and the volumes of sporting television that thankfully followed, this happenstance was truly a function of relative unfamiliarity with the teams going into this tournament, their rosters, and the formations and tactics they would employ. Although I had watched plenty of European and North American club soccer, international soccer had fallen thorough the pandemic cracks in both reality and my sporting attention span, so I needed to actually see these teams in unfriendly action before I formed an opinion on them.

Also, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is a mere 16 months away, so chances are at least half of the squads here will a.) Ultimately qualify for the World Cup (Currently, 8/10 Group leaders in the UEFA World Cup Qualification standings made the Knockout Stage), and b.) Be comprised of largely the same rosters, which does not always happen with the usual 2-year cycle in between.

Let’s call this a “Simultaneous Preview and Review” of the 2020 (Err.. 2021) Euros. With 3-6 games seen from each team, I finally have a sense of how good and/or bad these teams are, and how those who later qualify for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup should be projected. What follows is a ranking of the Euros participants in reverse order (Tournament Finish in parentheses), not wholly determined by where each team finished, along with observations and analysis.  

THE DREGS

24.) Turkey (4th Place, Group A) – They really should not be here, they have several topflight talents playing across the English Premier League (EPL), Serie A, and Ligue 1, as well as the top clubs in Turkey that often make the Champions League, but they were definitively the worst side of this tournament. Most goals allowed and worst goal differential in the Group Stage, and were often completely disorganized, then later discouraged. They even lead UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group G currently, so we may still get to see them in Qatar despite the soccer malfeasance they displayed; Here’s hoping for better to come from The Turks.

23.) North Macedonia (4th, Group C) – You just gotta love evergreen Goran Pandev, the 38-year-young striker who has spent his 20 year professional career largely in Italy’s Serie A, and who not only Captained the side for the Country Formerly Known as Macedonia at their Euros debut, he scored the very goal that qualified them, and factored into both goals North Macedonia scored here, netting one and drawing the penalty that led to the other. Under-talented for the most part beyond Pandev, North Macedonia were organized, tactically sound, and cohesive, which may serve them well in the UEFA World Cup Qualifiers to come (currently 2nd place in Group J), as their biggest win of the year was not in the Euros, but in a 2-1 victory over Germany in Germany (!), in a World Cup Qualifier at the end of March.

22.) Scotland (4th, Group D) – I really wanted to list them at #24, as I believe they are the least talented team in the tournament.  Their two best players – Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney – are left fullbacks by trade, so they have to play Tierney in the midfield and have them overlap on runs down the flanks, which did not really work. Their third-best player is arguably Scott McTominay, another defensive-minded midfielder who struggles to get a regular spot with his club Manchester United.  Although I cannot fault their effort, I won’t be holding my breath on the Scots’ qualification for Qatar, in the same group as Denmark, Austria and Israel, it’s just not an inspiring roster nor a winning formula.

21.) Russia (4th, Group B) – A mere shadow of the host side that made the Quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup, even as they played two of their three Euros matches in St. Petersburg. Only reason they are not rated lower is because they beat Finland, and yet they still finished behind the Fins on goal differential. Unsure if a last hurrah from an aging roster will be enough to get to Qatar, much less what they could do in a major tournament away from friendlier confines.

TOUGH OUTS

20.) Slovakia (3rd, Group E) – A perception problem I have is I always refer to them as “the other half of a united Czechoslovakia”, or in more recent times, “the team with that dude with the Mohawk” (Marek Hamšík, who had an illustrious 15-year career in Italy for Brescia and Napoli and currently plays for Trabzonspor in Turkey). A red card against Poland aided their sole win, only to lack answers against Sweden and come completely undone in the heat of Sevilla, a 5-0 loss to Spain where they conceded the worst own goal I’ve ever seen … at least until five days later. Nevertheless, there is quality beyond Hamšík, such as Inter Milan’s Milan Škriniar and FCC Cologne’s Ondrej Duda, that leads me to believe they continue to factor in Europe during the next few cycles.

19.) Finland (3rd, Group B) – The other European Championships debutantes, early on they showed some “Iceland 2016” potential and deserve more credit for their 1-0 victory over Denmark in spite of those particular circumstances.  Losing out to Ukraine on a berth in the knockouts on goal differential (Ukraine -1 to the Fins’ -2) was a sobering end for a squad that was difficult for two of the better sides at this tournament (Denmark, Belgium) to break down, and showed heart and grit if not overwhelming physical talent. Plus, they had three MLS players on their roster, which I applaud.

18.) Poland (4th, Group E) – Unluckiest team in the tournament – four (4) shots hit the goal frame in three (3) games – or just The Best Striker In the World and the 10 Dwarves?  You decide, but Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski almost single footedly got Poland into the knockouts with three (3) outstanding goals against Spain and Sweden.

PLUCKY INTERLOPERS

17.) Wales (2nd, Group A, Round of 16) – At first glance, the Welsh have a few real pros, and a bunch of dudes who could be confused for Sunday pub-leaguers. Dig further, Wales has two World-Class footballers (Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey), and several first-tier talents (among them Joe Rodon, Neco Williams, Ben Davies, and Daniel James) who could ply their trade lucratively anywhere. Silver lining for The Dragons is that while they could not replicate their 2016 Euros Semifinals run, 15/26 roster members were 25 or younger, all of whom play in England’s Top two tiers, so the future could be bright.

16.) Ukraine (3rd, Group C, Quarterfinals) – I am liking what Manager and legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko has brewing in the breadbasket of Eastern Europe. He has an attack centered on three outstanding talents in Olek Zinchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Roman Yaremchuk, backed by a resolute defense willing to absorb pressure to launch forward when the opportunity presents, as fully demonstrated in the waning moments of their Round of 16 win over Sweden. While the margin among these “plucky interlopers” is razor thin, squads like Wales and Ukraine are not as deep as those listed below.

15.) Austria (2nd, Group C, Round of 16) – Although I was impressed with Austria’s discipline, cohesion, and positive play, pushing Italy to extra time in the Round of 16 before bowing out, all I really want to add is I really enjoy watching jack-of-all-trades David Alaba play soccer, and hope the twilight of his career at Real Madrid is successful.

14.) Hungary (4th, Group F) – By far the best team not to make the knockouts, and what really made the “Group of Death” live up to that hype. Held Portugal at bay for 82 minutes (until Portugal stopped messing around, sent on Renato Sanches, and scored 3 goals), then went toe-to-toe with the reigning World Champions in front of a thunderous home crowd, and should have beaten Germany. This, despite having the least amount of possession in the Group Stage (34.7%, as much a function as playing three ball-dominant teams as anything). I have little doubt they would have qualified for the Knockouts from any other group, and the fact they were not an easy out definitely factored into the other 3 Group F teams’ performances in the Round of 16.

13.) Czech Republic (2nd, Group D, Quarterfinals) – Casual observers might think of the Czechs as gritty upstarts, but they enjoy a long history of success in major tournaments, mostly as “Czechoslovakia” when they were 1934 and 1962 World Cup Finalists and the 1976 European Champions, and as the current Czech Republic when they were the 1996 Euro Finalists the last time the Euros Final was held at Wembley in 1996. Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schick has been a revelation, at least for me, tying Cristiano Ronaldo for goals scored in the tournament with five (5), one of which was the goal of the tournament so far. Even though a boneheaded red card abetted their win over the Netherlands, the cagey Czechs were relatively even with the Dutch up to that point, and overall exceeded pre-Euro expectations.

12.) Sweden (1st, Group E, Round of 16) – After their last-gasp exit to Ukraine, a match they should have won in normal time, and upon further reflection, how “good” was Sweden actually? Sure, Clockwork Yellow won a group that included Spain, but was too much stock put into their 0-0 draw with La Furia Roja where they ceded 85% of the possession? Did their 3-2 win over Poland flatter to deceive, considering they ranked 24th (i.e., last) in Passing Accuracy and 23rd in Possession % during this tournament? Were they too dependent on RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg, whose powerful right foot scored four of their five goals? Maybe so on all counts, but I did watch a Sweden side that was well-organized, methodical, and resolute, and that beat the teams they were supposed to beat … at least in Group play.

DARKHORSE CONTENDERS

11.) Switzerland (3rd, Group A, Quarterfinals) – Gutty, organized, tough, patient, will make you earn it, ever poised for a clinical counterattack, and a bit of magic in the boots of their talisman Xhedran Shaqiri.  Ultimately, their margin for error was too thin, as they lived (France) and died (Spain) by the sword of Kicks from The Mark. They will always have that barnstorming comeback against the World Champions to look back upon with fondness.

10.) Croatia (2nd, Group D, Round of 16) – Squint, and you can still see the visage of the 2018 World Cup Finalists; I don’t need to tell you about the class of Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić. The issue for this side, is that Father Time is undefeated.  Curious to see if they qualify for Qatar (currently leading UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group H), and if so, who shows up, as 12 from the current roster will be 30 or older by then.

9.) Germany (2nd, Group F, Round of 16) – I cannot remember a time when I thought Germany was 9th-Best in Europe at anything, but here we are, at a crossroads for Die Mannschaft after their second consecutive disappointing major tournament result. As long-time manager Joachim Löw rides into the sunset, it’s abundantly clear they are in need of fresh ideas. The attacking talent is undeniable, and Manuel Neuer is still one of the best netminders in the world at 35, but that back line needs a revamp, and tactically new manager Hansi Flick must put burgeoning talents like Kai Havertz, Joshua Kimmich, Timo Werner, Jamal Musiala, and Serge Gnabry in better positions to exploit their abilities.

8.) Denmark (2nd, Group B, Semifinals) – These Great Danes are the obvious feel-good story of these Euros. Although it is hard to ignore what happened to their talisman Christian Eriksen 10 minutes into their first match against Finland – I won’t mince words, everyone watching that match saw a man die on the pitch before being brought back to life – put that aside for a moment.  Denmark had one of the best offenses of the tournament, Top 4 across the board in goals, shots on goal, assists, chances created, total attacks, touches in the Attacking 3rd, and corners taken, both per game as well as totals. And while they were clearly galvanized by the continuing recovery of their best player, this is a team full of quality players who populate top European clubs such as Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Tottenham, Leicester City, Chelsea, and Barcelona, among others. They outplayed Belgium for most of their match, and dominated Russia, Wales, and (except for a 4-minute blitz to begin the 2nd half) the Czechs thereafter, before pushing England to the brink in a true road game. Truly, no one should be surprised Denmark made the semis; They certainly had a decent opportunity to do so playing with Eriksen, so it’s little wonder FIFA’s #10 ranked side did so playing for Eriksen.

7.) Portugal (3rd, Group F, Round of 16) – I rate them this high on talent alone, and many observers opined before the Euros started that this was the most-talented roster the Seleção had assembled in support of their superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. An interesting assertion considering they are the Defending European Champions for another day. Their performance was truly less than the sum of their talented parts, despite (or due to, you choose) Ronaldo being the leader in the clubhouse for the Euro 2020 Golden Boot, possibly emblematic of a generational clash between Ronaldo’s mid-30s contemporaries and 16 players on the roster younger than 28. Much of that young supporting cast – Renato Sanches, Ruben Dias, Raphaël Guerreiro, Bernardo Silva, Ruben Fernandes, Diogo Jota, João Félix, all of whom should help Portugal contend for the next two World Cups – was not deployed in a coherent manner, and strangely became the only 3rd Place team who qualified for the Knockouts that did not win their Round of 16 match, falling meekly to Belgium. At least they are still the reigning 2019 UEFA Nations League Champions, whatever that is.

THE CREAM

6.) Spain (2nd, Group E, Semifinals) – End of the day, an exit in the Semifinals feels about right. According to UEFA statistics Spain has the top offense in this tournament, largely on the strength of two 5-goal games. Talented and deep, they will possess the ball like they own it against any team in the world, yet lack a cutting edge on that finishing touch, especially when oft-maligned Alvaro Morata – Whose slander must stop, even with his spot kick misses – is not in the game. I’ll go a step further: Spain goes as Morata goes. I for one hope he can fix whatever is going on between the ears, because when he is “on”, Spain is as good as anyone. Fun fact: Spain’s National Anthem “Marcha Real” has no official lyrics. The 17 Autonomous Regions of Spain could never agree on any version of lyrics, so once Generalissimo Francisco Franco died (and he’s still dead), his version and all others were abandoned. Amazing they unite for anything really.

5.) England (1st, Group D, Finals) – Far be it from me to suggest that “Football’s Coming Home”, but England has their best chance at a major trophy in 55 years, playing 6/7 total matches in this tournament at their national stadium and soccer cathedral, Wembley. Shout out to Raheem Sterling, who was pilloried in this very space for his wasteful performances at the 2018 World Cup but has come correct for The Three Lions with gusto and opportune incision. Nice to see Harry Kane come to the fore in the knockout stage as well. For me, Luke Shaw has been their most important player, overlapping for runs down the flanks and providing accurate crossing and set piece delivery to the tune of three (3) assists so far. I also think England are best when Jack Grealish is on the pitch, even if they are a touch more methodical. If they are courageous as they should be buoyed by a raucous home crowd, they will have a puncher’s chance to lift that trophy.

4.) Netherlands (1st, Group C, Round of 16) – As much young talent as they have – I think they could become one of the favorites for Qatar 2022 if they can find one more striker, and Virgil Van Dijk can fully recover and return to his pre-ACL injury form – Clockwork Oranje really should have done better than getting bounced by the Czechs in the Round of 16. I fancied them making the Final from that draw, but an ill-timed red card was too big a thread to not unravel that Oranje sweater; If Matthijs De Ligt wanted to dribble with his hands, he should have played basketball instead.

3.) Belgium (1st, Group B, Quarterfinals) – Ranked #1 in the mysterious FIFA World Rankings, the sun began setting on the Red Devils’ “Golden Generation” in Munich, with no gold to show for their longevity and servitude. Didn’t help that they were handicapped in attack between Kevin DeBruyne’s broken face (who then played through their Quarterfinal loss to Italy with torn ligaments in his ankle) and Eden Hazard’s ongoing hamstring issues.  Most of this side will likely get one last chance at glory in Qatar, and the Best Non-Lewandowski Striker In The World, Romelu Lukaku, was in prime form, but the back line is already old, and Belgium must hope the rest of their core doesn’t age in dog years before then.

2.) Italy (1st, Group A, Finals) – Converse to Portugal, Italy is the “Whole Is Greater Than The Sum of The Parts” team of the 2022 Euros. Only a fading Giorgio Chiellini and the rising Gianluigi Donnarumma would ever be considered superstars outside of Italy, but from what I can tell there is no drop off at the bottom of the roster. The World’s Best Counterpunchers fought their way to the Final0, displaying a vertical threat that prior versions of the Forza Azzuri and their catenaccio tactics lacked. A name to remember: Federico Chiesa. He has “it”, whatever “it” is in soccer mysticism, exemplified by his goal against Spain, a perfectly placed part strike/volley into the opposite corner of the net. Win on Sunday as I expect, and they have to be one of the three (3) favorites to win the Cup in Qatar, along with Brazil (see below), and the one team I’ve yet to mention. By the way, “Il Canto degli Italiani” is my favorite National Anthem from a musical perspective, so jaunty, I feel Italian when I hear it, and I have zero Italian ancestry.

1.) France (1st, Group F, Round of 16) – Yes, like you I watched the reigning World Champions bow out unceremoniously against the Swiss in the Round of 16. Choose your automotive metaphor, they played this entire tournament stuck in a low gear, full of swagger and panache yet lacking fortitude, save for 17 exquisite minutes in the 2nd half against the Swiss when they showed their class and fury. I also saw Kylian Mbappe have a subpar tournament throughout and up to his final penalty miss against the Swiss, but I cannot blame France’s overall performance on just that. Nor will I blame it on rumored potential chemistry problems caused by the return of Karim Benzema after an almost six-year absence, who showed flashes of brilliance scoring four goals in their last two matches. Where Les Bleus go from here, is anyone’s guess, and we’ve seen their disappearing act before (South Africa 2010 anyone?), but what is undeniable is that they are have one of the two deepest talent pools in World Football (along with a stacked Brazil), seemingly able to field a completely different 26-man squad than the one sent to this tournament and still likely contend for the trophy. I’m still going to ride with that assuming they make it to Qatar.

P.S. – The Copa America has been ongoing concurrently, and while I have not watched every single one of those games – because, you know, I like sleep – I have seen every one of the 10 teams play at least once and watched every game in the knockouts so far. The seemingly premeditated Final, another Brazil vs. Argentina Superclásico, is later today (Saturday, July 10, 2021, 5:00pm PST, FS1) in the famed Maracanã in Rio, and I just get the nagging sense that Lionel Messi is about to become 0/10 in major tournaments, playing the role of Charlie Brown to Neymar’s Lucy-with-the-football and all that comes with Brazil being the progenitors of the Jogo Bonito. Heck of a weekend to be a soccer fan.

From → Soccer, Sports

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