Well what a week it’s been! 2 matches, 13 goals, a round of international sackings and we have just 2 teams left in the tournament! I think I need a sit down and a cup of tea and I think you do too. In the continued absence of Don Collins, who was last seen outside the Norwegian team hotel before the round handing out bowls of very questionable looking lasagne behind an even more questionable fake beard… By which I mean in bed with flu… I’m John Hutchison. Let’s see how the Semi-Finals unfolded.
Norway v Portugal
The first Semi-Final tie seemed like it could only go one way: Brave Norway, the neutrals’ favourites for the Euros, who had fought tooth and nail to reach the final 4 by the narrowest of margins, topping their group on goal difference and twice victorious in penalty shootouts thereafter, against Portugal, who had largely breezed through most of the tournament at a canter. Naples’ Stadio San Paolo was packed to the rafters with fans from all around Europe and indeed the World, the majority of whom wanted to see the underdogs prevail against the odds once again.
You might ask how I’m so sure, but you needed only to see the aftermath of the opening goal. When Norwegian debutant Geir Einar Karlsen swung a cross behind enemy lines from deep on the right wing and Jørgen Strand Larsen rose to send a looping header over Diogo Costa just after the 6 minute mark, the Stadio San Paolo was rocking like I’ve never seen. The big question however was not how Norway would start, but how long they would last before tiring, having played a full hour more football in Euro 24 than their opponents. Sure enough, while they declined, Portugal grew stronger and more dominant as the game progressed. Just after the half hour Raphaël Guerreiro’s corner was awkwardly half-cleared by Jonas Svensson at the near post, allowing PSG playmaker Rúben Neves to nod the ball past Ørjan Nyland unmarked. On the hour, another Guerreiro corner was flicked on by substitute João Carvalho and bundled in from close range by Liverpool defender António Branco and then just 5 minutes later, the rout was completed when a third corner was cleared as far as Gelson Martins, who set up fellow sub Afonso Sousa for a deft finish into the top left corner.
Few will argue against the fact that Portugal deserve their place in the final, but Norway’s performance in Euro 2024 will stand out as a highlight in many a fan’s mind for years to come. They can hold their heads high as they make their way back North.
Belgium v France
Where the first Semi was a foregone conclusion for all but the most hopeful fans, the second was balanced delicately on a knife’s edge. Belgium met France at the Stadio Olympico in what was sure to be a match choc-full of goals. So it proved after just 35 seconds when Mo Hamoudan poked the Belgians ahead from a Divock Origi cross. Unfortunately that would be Origi’s only contribution to the match as shortly after Paul Pogba thumped in an equaliser, the striker hobbled off with a hip injury that will end his tournament early. Djibril Sidibé scored France’s second shortly afterwards but only minutes later, Kevin De Bruyne slotted Belgium back onto level terms. The first half continued to spill goals upon goals as Paul Pogba’s second gave France back their lead, but Yannick Carrasco took it away again just before the break. The sides went out for the second half knowing that whoever could break the cycle of one goal leads and actually open up some breathing room would have an excellent chance of progressing and so it proved. Nany Dimata, Divock Origi’s replacement in the first half, bundled in a Hamoudan cross following a poor Leo Gauthier pass and then Youri Tielemans rifled in a penalty just after the hour, given after the referee took umbrage with the way Raphaël Varane looked at Leander Dendoncker. France huffed and puffed to close the gap and Paul Pogba succeeded to an extent, claiming his hat trick with just under 15 minutes to go, but France had no more left in the tank and as the game trundled towards its conclusion that became ever more obvious.
For Franjo and France, a Semi-Final defeat is not good enough, nor is shipping 5 goals. For Daems and Belgium, this triumph highlights just how much progress they’ve made in 2 short years. They’ll deservedly meet Portugal in what will surely be a heart thumping Final.
I mentioned a round of sackings, but congratulations first of all to Croatia’s Marijan Vlak, who made the decision to retire from football management in a “You can’t fire me, I quit” sort of move. Also out of an International job are Czech Republic’s Karel Jarolim, who also retired, sacked England boss Eddie Howe, sacked France chief WT Franjo, Macedonia’s Igor Angelovski, who presumably made the decision that his side’s performance was the very peak of their potential and resigned, Germany’s Joachim Löw, who resigned after 18 years and 2 days in charge of his nation, Vincenzo Italiano, who resigned from his role as Italy head coach, Dariusz Banasik, who was rightly sacked by Poland, Marcelino, who stepped down from managing Spain and Urs Meier, who resigned as Switzerland boss. It’ll be interesting to see how these nations strategise for the future because they have 2 years to prepare for World Cup 2026 in the states and for many of them, much change is needed before then.
The Final – Belgium v Portugal – Preview
Won: 6 Drawn: 0 Lost: 0
Goals Scored: 19 (2nd)
Goals Conceded: 8 (=12th)
Top Scorer(s): Mohamed Hamoudan, Youri Tielemans: 5 (=4th)
Top Assister(s): Divock Origi: 4 (=2nd)
Unavailable: Divock Origi (Hip injury, 2-3 months)
Won: 5 Drawn: 0 Lost: 1
Goals Scored: 16 (3rd)
Goals Conceded: 5 (=3rd)
Top Scorer(s): Gelson Martins, João Mário: 3 (=8th)
Top Assister(s): Bruma, Gelson Martins, Renato Sanches: 3 (=5th)
Unavailable: Andre Silva (Broken Foot, 2-3 months)
I think the one thing we can say with certainty is that this will be a fascinating spectacle not only for Belgian and Portuguese fans, but for Tottenham and Real Madrid fans too. Out of our likely line ups, which have been picked from the players who’ve been used most often in the tournament, they are the two club sides with the biggest presence, with Portuguese Spurs players Dalot, Bruma and Zé Gomes lining up alongside Real Madrid men Guerreiro, Martins and Mario against Belgians Alderweireld and Tielemans of Spurs and Madrid respectively.
There will also be a clash of strategies at play, with Belgium preferring to press their opponents and counter quickly in a style reminiscent of the gegenpress, while Portugal tend to dominate possession and play patient football in their opponents’ half. The Portuguese have also really been making the most of Guerreiro’s set piece proficiency, with 5 of their 16 goals coming from corners and free kicks, while 18 of Belgium’s 19 goals have come from open play. The two sides are similar in a few ways though: Dendoncker sits in the hole for Belgium similarly to the way Neves stays deep for Portugal, Tielemans and Sanches play similar playmaker roles in the centre, while De Bruyne (When deployed centrally and not off the right) and Mário are the predominant attacking midfielders, regularly breaking into the box from deep positions. Both sides also utilise an overlapping left wingback along with an inside left forward, but Portugal also sometimes use a similar strategy on the right flank too.
The main difference for me is the fact that Belgium have the potential to score goals and to ship them, while Portugal have yet to be seriously challenged at the back with the exception of a very unlucky and narrow defeat at the hands of Ukraine. It should also be noted however that before their semi-final ties, the sides had only conceded 4 goals apiece. I’m going for a Portugal win, but in all honesty it could go either way.
I’ll see you after the dust settles to look back on a quite incredible tournament.