At its very best football can be so enthralling and intoxicating to watch that it is actually exhausting. The perfect mixture for a match involves moments of high quality, high drama and even the odd bit of misfortune to provide a dose of reality amongst the dream sequence. There also needs to be a degree of fallibility that heightens the sense of jeopardy and also gives us what we all crave. Goals. As Alan Hansen once dubbed it, “chaotic defending” often provides the base for exciting games.
Occasionally the heavens align and you get every single element and more in a single match. On Monday night we luxuriated in not just one of those rare confluences but in two that arrived in quick succession. We enjoyed back-to-back games that were so good that there was barely time to catch one’s breath. After almost six hours of relentless tension, extraordinary twists and turns with some wonderful skill laced throughout, alongside a raft of errors, even as a neutral I was physically spent.
The remarkable similarity between the two matches made the whole evening come as close to a perfect night of football as you can imagine. The underdogs – Croatia and Switzerland – scored the opening goals, only for the favoured teams – Spain and France – to respond powerfully. Both favourites raced into seemingly unassailable 3-1 leads but with hardly any time remaining, back came the less favoured to draw level in added time. On only three occasions in Euros history has a team come back from 3-1 down to be level by full time and two of them came within a couple of hours of each other.
There was some divergence from the script as Spain then overcame Croatia 5-3 in extra time, becoming the second highest scoring match in Euros history, while the France Switzerland match went to the gut-wrenching finale that is penalties. That all this started with one of the more bizarre own goals when Unai Simon took an air shot at Pedri’s curling, spinning 30-yard back pass should have flagged up that this was not going to be a quiet night. That jaw-dropping moment was the ninth own goal of this tournament, a remarkably high number, which matches the total for all fifteen previous Euros, dating back to 1960.
Trying to capture all the pulsating action would take an essay of such length that I would not be able to do it justice within the confines of this blog. So am going to pick a couple of vignettes which give some flavour of this relentless entertainment. Granit Xhaka is not universally loved by Arsenal fans, many of whom would be happy to see the Swiss captain join Roma after the Euros end. Against France Xhaka showed what they would be missing as he probed with a precision that would put a surgeon to shame, exemplified by his pass to Mario Gavranovic for the equaliser. He led the passing charts in every category of the game and covered so much ground that it was a surprise when he wasn’t in the thick of the action in Bucharest.
Xhaka rightly took Uefa’s Man of the Match award but he almost inevitably collected a yellow card as well which makes him the only player to be suspended for the quarter-finals and he will be missed. Opposing him in central midfield was another player much-maligned by his English club’s supporters. Paul Pogba can be infuriating and exhilarating in equal measure and he showed both sides in the Swiss game. His passing stats were not as impressive as Xhaka’s but this did not stop him providing some sublime balls to team-mates. Then there was his goal; picking the ball up 25 yards from goal he effortlessly curled the ball into the top corner and rightly milked the applause afterwards. He may come across as a strutting peacock but he showed his true colours with that goal. However, his feathers were ruffled for Switzerland’s third goal when he was shrugged off the ball in the centre circle and Xhaka’s pinpoint pass exposed the French.
The penalty shoot-out that followed was the customary roulette of tension, each successful spot kick ratcheting things up a notch. Nine green ticks in a row until Kylian Mbappe became the fall guy as Yann Sommer saved to his right. The forlorn look on the 22 year-old’s face, as he was almost pleading with the referee to determine that the keeper had moved off his line and transgressed, was heartbreaking. After a momentary hesitation the Swiss players hared off to try and catch their match-winning keeper, while Mbappe trudged away disconsolate in the knowledge that there was to be no second chance.
The Last 16 reached the perfect climax for England fans with their 2-0 win over Germany. We all knew this was our best chance to beat our previous nemesis who had been less than their imperious best. After the first fifteen minutes it looked highly unlikely as Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were being overrun. Prior to the match Gareth Southgate had received plenty of opprobrium for his prosaic approach but the three at the back proved suitably robust to repel the German’s attacks which grew less frequent. Jordan Pickford became another player who rebuffed any prior criticism with a composed performance, the highlight of which was his instinctive save from Kai Havertz’s crisply struck half volley early in the second half.
Yet another player who had been deemed lucky to be starting, according to his critics, proved his worth as Raheem Sterling scored his third of the tournament to set up the English victory. The boy from Brent has come good just at the right time. He has now scored fifteen times in his last twenty internationals, having previously netted only twice in 45 games. If Sterling’s reputation had been somewhat underplayed Jack Grealish arrived with so much expectation on his shoulders that it would have weighed heavily on a lesser talent.
After being introduced in the 69th minute Grealish provided the spark going forward with his quick thinking being responsible for both goals as he released Luke Shaw to cross for the opener before providing an off-colour Harry Kane with a chance to get back in the swing of scoring goals. The impact that Grealish had as a substitute might tempt Southgate to keep him on the bench but surely he deserves to be in the next starting line-up. That game is against a Ukraine team who sprung the last surprise of this round when they scored the second latest winner in Euros history to knock out Sweden.
As England beat Germany, Group F that featured three strong candidates for the title, lost its last representative and became the only one group to not have a team in the quarter-finals. The so-called Group of Death lived down to its name. After the rumbustious, thrilling nature of the Last 16 even if the quarter-finals provide only half the thrills and spills they will be worth watching very closely indeed. Do not adjust your sets.