It’s been a long old round, hasn’t it? Nevertheless the quarter finals of this tournament, so far choc full of goals, have not disappointed. In these 4 matches between the final 8, the ball hit the back of the net no less than 21 times, 3 of which were own goals and that’s not even including a good old fashioned penalty shoot out!
Don Collins has actually disappeared off the face of the Earth since his stress-induced rampa… Flu, although we at the BBC have heard rumours that he was sighted in Italy setting up Home Alone-esque booby traps in the Norwegian team hotel. In his absence, I’m the equally Scottish but sufficiently emotionally detached John Hutchison. Let’s have a gander.
Netherlands v Portugal
In a real clash of the titans at the Stadio Olympico, the Netherlands faced up against Portugal. Both teams had had terrific tournaments so far and the Netherlands were one of only 2 sides in the Quarter Finals to have retained an untarnished record after 5 consecutive wins. Something had to give. The first 27 minutes were tightly contested between the 2 confident nations, but a 5 minute double salvo from Portuguese striker Zé Gomes soon silenced the Dutch support. The 2 goals were remarkably similar; Both set up by Gelson Martins’ crosses and volleyed by Zé Gomes, although he needed a second attempt for his second goal after his initial shot came back off the post. 5 minutes before half time a Portuguese free kick broke down and the Netherlands countered through Paul Van de Leuv. He slipped in Memphis Depay, who drilled low past Costa to give his nation a glimpse of hope. Sadly within 5 minutes this hope dissipated. In the 42nd minute, Riechedly Bazoer slid in appallingly recklessly on João Carvalho, earning a second yellow card and his marching orders. Then a minute before the break, Bruma’s cross was batted into the net by Dutch keeper Jeroen Zoet.
The defeat on it’s own may not have been that disappointing against such a fantastic Portugal side, but the fact that the Netherlands voluntarily hammered the final 2 nails into their own coffin ensures them a bitterly disappointing exit from Euro 24. Portugal meanwhile march ever onwards into the Semi Finals.
Germany v Belgium
Germany taking on Belgium at the Stadio San Nicola was seen by many as the tie of the round. Which of these sides could possibly have been on their way home?! Could it be the Germans with the silky link up play of Silvio Cvitanovic and the free-scoring Christopher Dieckmann? The side that had just demolished the Romanians? Or could it be Belgium, with their midfield maestro Youri Tielemans, their breakout star Mo Hamoudan and the ever-dangerous Divock Origi?
We had to wait until after half time to find out as despite Germany’s absolute first half domination they were unable to go into the break with a lead. This, combined with the nature of the opening goal will no doubt haunt them for some time. 5 minutes after coming on as a substitute, Belgium’s Cas Willems instigated a chance by crossing in from the right wing. Nany Dimata got a touch, then so did centre back Florian Ahlfänger, who shouldered the ball into his own net. The Germans persevered and shots rained down upon Thibaut Courtois’ net, but with 20 minutes to go the game was put to bed when Belgium’s makeshift holding man Björn Engels took hold of a loose ball and thwacked it past Torben Danner from the edge of the box.
There’s nothing that quite hammers home the stakes like a German exit from an international tournament. The time for mistakes is over for the remaining sides and the time to be clinical is now. Only one side entered the match with this mentality and that’s why Belgium are in the Semi-Finals.
Ukraine v France
The seemingly unstoppable Ukrainian underdogs took on the underperforming but somewhat revived reigning World Champions France at the Stadio Artemio Franchi and fans flocked to see the potential giant killing that awaited.
Throughout a balanced first half a Ukrainian win seemed very much on the cards. They twice took the lead, first through Maxim Tankov’s drilled shot and then through an excruciating own goal by Lionel Gauthier after a shot hit the post and bounced in off his back, but France came back both times thanks to a Kylian Mbappé header and a Corentin Tolisso tap in, tying the score up at 2-2 for half time. The second half begun with another Ukrainian finding the net, but this time it was Victor Kovalenko who deflected the ball past his own keeper as France took the lead for the first time. From there it was quite an uncomfortable watch for the neutrals as the French twisted the knife. Mbappé scored from the spot and Djibril Sidibé finished an excellent passing move to make it 5-2 before the hour. Lamine Fomba made it 6 with 20 minutes to go, scoring his first goal for the national team and he was then joined on the scoresheet by his Auxerre team mate Abdoulaye Sissako in the final minutes of the match. 7-2 it finished after a brutal display of clinical finishing in the second half left Ukraine powerless to resist.
Somewhere in the heart of Paris, perhaps as I like to imagine on top of the Eiffel Tower in a glass case marked In case of an underperforming national team, break glass, is a tap marked “Goals”. Someone has turned that tap as far as it’ll go and as a result, despite the defensive frailties that have clearly still not gone away, the French cannot stop scoring. For Ukraine though, the fairytale ends here.
Norway v England
So who would join Portugal, Belgium and France in the Semi Finals? Norway topped their group on goal difference and were the sole survivors of Group C after Germany’s defeat but their penalty shootout win over Scotland left many unimpressed, none more so than our own Don Collins (As an aside, if you do see Don anywhere near the Italian capital, do let local authorities know and do not approach him… Lest you catch his flu). England also topped their group and scuppered Italy in the second round with an efficient performance.
In front of 80,000 fans at the San Siro the match started slowly but quickly heated up when Oddbjørn Thoresen glanced in Jonas Svensson’s cross from close range after half an hour. The tackles begun flying in recklessly and both sides gave the referee Mr Collum a lot of decisions to make, but it wasn’t until the hour mark that he took action, pointing to the spot when Norwegian skipper Birger Meling pushed Dele Alli in the box. Alli converted the penalty himself to put England back on track. The English completed their turnaround with little over 10 minutes remaining when Harry Winks’ blocked shot fell to Nathan Redmond, who struck past Ørjan Nyland, sending the English contingent into raptures but not exactly impressing the Norwegian or Italian sections of the crowd. “3 Lions” rung around the ground as the English continued to assure their rivals that football was coming home, but then in the 86th minute, Norway roared back onto level terms when Thoresen tapped in Ronny Rossbach’s cross at the near post. With England’s fans now decidedly uncertain about whether or not football was actually coming home, the singing died back down.
And so to extra time, where the tired legs began to show and the cracks started to emerge. It was Norway’s turn to take the lead 5 minutes in when a hoofed ball from Sander Berge bypassed Juddy Lokando and fell to Rossbach. He forced an excellent save from Jack Butland but then volleyed in the rebound to make it 3-2 to Norway. But still this absolute battle of a match refused to die. Just after half time in extra time, Alli poked the ball through for Oliver Webb, who jabbed a shot past Nyland to equalise and send the game to penalties.
Dele Alli took responsibility of the first kick but failed to repeat his normal time heroics as he shot straight at Ørjan Nyland, but Norway’s 4th was saved by Butland and so the sides went to sudden death for a final penalty each, with Nyland the hero for the second successive match as he kept out Eric Dier’s effort and allowed Berge to clinch it for Norway.
Credit must go to both sides of course for a fantastic end-to-end match and for their determination throughout, but for Eddie Howe’s England, football will not be coming home for at least 2 more years. It’s Norway that march on, no doubt exhausted by back-to-back 120 minute matches and no doubt bloodied and bruised by the battling nature of those ties, but you simply cannot deny that they deserve their place in the Semi Finals. They’ll be heavy underdogs in the final 4, but the Norwegians have endeared themselves to the Italians, to the neutrals and to the world.
But presumably not to the English.
And definitely not to Don Collins. Come home, Don.
So that’s our final 4! Where does the time go, eh? One minute you’re watching the smiles of anticipation evaporate from Northern Irish faces against Romania and the next we’re down to the Semis. Let’s have a quick look.
Belgium v France
Goals, goals, goals and goals is my prediction. Although Belgium found it tough against Germany and needed a slice of luck to get them off the mark, they’ve still got plenty left in the tank, while France have scored 13 in their last 2 matches, which… Well it’s absurd, isn’t it. As for which way it’ll go, your guess is as good as mine, but if I was a betting man I’d say France.
Norway v Portugal
Is it too obvious to predict a routine Portuguese win? Portugal really are excellent but Norway have proved their ability to come out on top by the skin of their teeth 3 times now. I think it depends how fit the squad will be after taking both of their knockout matches to penalties.
I’ll see you back here next week when only the finalists remain.