It’s a brilliant event. There are so many ups and downs but that’s what you want with young players – they need to be having these experiences.” These words were spoken by England coach Steve Cooper but they could equally well have been voiced by most of his coaching counterparts in Azerbaijan.
For the hosts, their roller-coaster ride of a Group A campaign started with a down. A final-tournament debut, a massive crowd and the weight of expectations were compounded by an excellent Portugal team operating a fluid 1-4-3-3 system with pace, panache and passing proficiency. Azerbaijan had set out to play 1-4-2-3-1 but, to cope with waves of Portuguese attacks, they were forced into 1-5-4-1 defending.
The final score of 0-5 might have been momentarily demoralising but, to their credit, the hosts bounced back. Released from first-night nerves, Tabriz Hasanov’s team fought hard for a late equaliser against Belgium and, wearing down Scotland with combination play, ended on a high note, Farid Nabiyev’s 79th-minute long-range strike earning a 1-0 win and third place in Group A with a creditable tally of four points – only one adrift of second-placed Belgium.
It was a bitter end for Scotland. Starting with a midfield diamond against a well-organised, talented Belgium side, Scot Gemmill’s team subsequently switched to 1-4-4-2 and 1-4-2-3-1 but, though they could not be faulted for endeavour, failed to score in four hours of football. Belgium, also struggling to find the net after good approach play, especially along the flanks, secured a quarter-final place by holding Portugal to a goalless draw, Hélio Sousa’s team topping the group by scoring seven times without conceding.
Group B also had its quota of ups and downs. For Germany the positive aspect of their 2-2 draw with Ukraine was that Meikel Schönweitz’s side fought back twice from a goal down – and they would fall behind again from a corner in the second minute of their second game against Bosnia and Herzegovina. A penalty and a red card (in unrelated incidents) tilted the game in their favour, along with a tactical change from a midfield diamond to 1-4-2-3-1 after the break which brought greater width to their play as they secured a 3-1 win. They then clinched top spot with a 4-0 victory over an Austria side who went into the game with two players suspended and others rested.
Andreas Heraf had earned the right to rotate with his team having taken six points from successive accomplished displays and 2-0 scorelines in their first two fixtures. Ukraine, with some talented individuals operating within a rigid 1-4-4-2 structure, failed to reap dividends from their direct attacking via long deliveries to striker Andriy Kulakov and were consigned to last place by two long-range strikes from Benjamin Hadžić, a strong, energetic and skilful leader of Bosnia’s attack. The 2-1 win allowed the debutants to travel home with heads held high.
A single victory failed to keep Italian heads aloft in Group D. Operating a 1-4-4-2 with proficiency and two clever strikers, Alessandro Dal Canto’s team opened with a 2-1 win over Serbia. But a header by Che Nunnely two minutes from time meant they succumbed 1-0 to the Dutch and, having done the difficult part by coming from two down to equalise against Spain, they conceded a brace of late goals and headed home. That win gave first place to Santi Denia’s Spain, who had begun with two strikes from distance beating the Dutch (who opened the campaign with four players suspended). A Dejan Joveljić penalty then earned Serbia a point against Spain but the hopes of Ilija Stolica’s squad evaporated when they conceded two late goals against the Netherlands whose 2-0 victory secured them second place behind the Spanish.
Group C, however, provided the greatest tally of ups and downs. Two defensive lapses condemned England to a 2-1 defeat by Sweden in their opening fixture – and it was this head-to-head result that ultimately handed first place to the Scandinavians. Denmark, with Oskar Snorre excelling between the posts, showcased their defensive virtues in drawing 0-0 with France and, when the Nordic derby was heading for the same scoreline, substitute Sebastian Buch’s strike three minutes into added time sent them to the top of the group.
At this stage, they sat a point ahead of England after Steve Cooper’s team’s 2-0 win against a France side reduced to ten by a red card for keeper Gaëtan Poussin in the first minute of the second half. Fluent attacking combinations then earned England a 3-1 win over Denmark, with the penetrative runs of full-back Dujon Sterling and wide attacker Reiss Nelson wreaking havoc on a Danish side defending deep in a 1-4-4-2 framework. Even so, Jan Michaelsen’s team would have qualified had France found an equaliser after falling 1-0 behind against Sweden. They didn’t. One of the major surprises of the tournament was that Bernard Diomède’s team – the defending champions – were eliminated without a goal to show for some attractive, athletic attacking play.
The first quarter-final was effectively over within 20 minutes, after José Gomes had converted an early penalty against Austria and then culminated a copybook counterattack down the right with a close-range header. Andreas Heraf’s team fought manfully for a reply but repeated attacks along the flanks allowed Gomes to complete the tournament’s only hat-trick early in the second half and Austrian attempts at damage limitation failed to prevent two more goals in a game where they also failed to generate a shot on target.
Belgium fared only marginally better when hitting the target just once during a more evenly contested encounter with an improving Germany side. Thierry Siquet’s team evolved efficiently from a 1-4-3-3 when attacking to defending deep with numbers behind the ball. Yet their combination moves petered out in the final third, allowing Germany to gradually gain the upper hand. Even so, it required a moment of individual inspiration to break the deadlock – Azerbaijan-born striker Renat Dadashov firing into the top corner from long range to secure a 1-0 win.
The following day’s quarter-finals were both decided by the same scoreline. During a first half when they struggled to cope in midfield and were ineffective in collective pressing, England fell behind to an outstanding solo run and finish by Spain midfielder Fran García. Santi Denia’s side produced a disciplined performance, especially in attack-to-defence transitions and in providing double-cover on the right side of the England attack, where full-back Sterling and winger Nelson were, again, the main threat. With keeper Iñaki Peña weighing in with three big saves, Spain weathered a second-half storm to preserve their slender lead.
The Netherlands knew that it would be far from easy to overcome a Sweden side proficient in operating three compact lines of defence with two midfielders screening the strong back four. The plan for Kees van Wonderen’s team was to attack relentlessly down the flanks using two tricky wrong-footed wingers. Sweden, however, cut out the resulting supply of crosses and relied on fast counters via their two strikers. The stalemate was broken by a set-play after 62 minutes – a corner from the left nodded across the Sweden goal and neatly flicked into the roof of the net by Tahith Chong. Sweden, switching to three at the back for the closing five minutes, searched fruitlessly for a reply.
With striker Dylan Vente suspended, Van Wonderen was obliged to adjust his line-up against Portugal, whereas Hélio Sousa fielded an unchanged team. The Dutch started brightly, probing along the flanks and disturbing Portugal’s attacking mechanisms. They were undone by a set-piece, José Gomes heading home a free-kick struck left-footed from the right by left-back Rúben Vinagre – one of many impeccable set-play deliveries. The Dutch, switching from 1-4-3-3 to 1-4-4-2 with a midfield diamond in the second half, were sunk by a diagonal pass into the box that allowed right-back Diogo Dalot to race in behind the defence and hammer a fierce cross-shot into the far corner. Game over – with Van Wonderen admitting after the final whistle that his team had succumbed to the better side.
Hours later, after steady rain had averted any need for pitch-watering, Germany took the field as favourites against a Spain side extenuated by their efforts against England and handicapped by a one-day deficit in recovery time in comparison with their opponents. Sure enough, Santi Denia’s disciples produced a lethargic start, with much of their usually fluent passing going astray. Barely ten minutes had passed when sluggish reactions to a free-kick allowed Kai Havertz to race in behind the defence and square the ball from the right for Dadashov, roundly cheered by supporters from his country of origin, to tap into the net. Spain continued in clear-as-you-can reactions to a series of threatening German crosses but, as the first half drew to a close, there were signs that their gears were starting to mesh.
After the break, Denia sent on the attack-minded Iván Martín to replace left-back Gorka Zabarte – and his move paid off. But not before Jordi Mboula, whose cross had forced a 56th-minute penalty, had struck the spot-kick against a post. On the psychological map of the game, it appeared to be a pivotal point. Not so. Meikel Schönweitz, scenting that Germany had victory within their grasp, withdrew Arne Maier, sent on Jano Baxmann and dropped the dangerous Havertz into a deeper role. But Germany slackened their grip and paid the price when Martín broke clear on the left to deliver a low cross that Abel Ruiz turned into the net.
Even though Mboula was wreaking havoc with runs down Spain’s right, the odds seemed to be on a resolution by penalty shoot-out – until two minutes from time, when another Mboula incursion forced Germany keeper Jan-Christoph Bartels to make an outstanding point-blank save, only for Brahim Díaz to hook in the rebound. There was sufficient added time for Bartels to be red-carded for an emergency tackle outside the box but Spain’s dramatic comeback was enough to secure a place in an all-Iberian final.