At a tournament that kicked-off some 13 hours after Portugal had lifted the Henri Delaunay Cup in Paris, many of the questions raised by UEFA EURO 2016 were fresh in minds. Had it been coincidence, for example, that the group winners in France had won their opening match? The hosts, convinced that it had greater significance than an item of footballing trivia, subjected Italy’s defensive qualities to destruction testing. They won the contest by 16 attempts and 12 corners to two and zero – but lost. Beaten by a late penalty after a rare visiting counterattack had ultimately been intercepted by a German hand. Focusing on direct supply to target striker Janni Serra and often resorting to shooting from long range, they were repeatedly denied by the outstanding goalkeeping of Alex Meret.
Fortunately for the hosts, the other Group A match ended with a single point for Austrians and Portuguese. Both teams pressed high for periods of the game; transitions were fast and efficient; and Portugal’s neat ball-to-feet passing was effectively stifled by Austria’s compact defensive block – which was sufficiently well-organised to quench Portugal’s counterattacking threat.
The same could not be said when Germany took on Emilio Peixe’s side on the second matchday. Right from the kick-off, the hosts seized the initiative, attacking with spirit and intensity, pinning their opponents into their defensive third and obliging them to play long. A neatly-worked early goal appeared to be a cue for Guido Streichsbier’s side to settle into its game. The reverse was the case. Two slick counters either side of half-time put Portugal ahead and, although two penalties allowed Phillipp Ochs to complete the tournament’s first hat-trick, they were insufficient to prevent a 3-4 defeat that ruled the hosts out of the semi-finals.
Austria’s second game yielded a second 1-1 draw. Trying to play their way through the thirds and seeking routes through the middle, they exploited solo runs and long-range shots (one of which put them ahead) as their major weapons. Within three minutes, however, Italy levelled thanks to a Manuel Locatelli free-kick and their defensive acumen prevented any further scoring.
This left Italy requiring a point to progress. And they achieved it thanks to another penalty and another firm defensive display aimed at spiking Portugal’s counterattacking guns. Peixe’s decision to send on Buta and Alexandre Silva was rewarded with more impressive attacking and higher pressure during the second half, with the former latching on to a partially-cleared corner to equalise four minutes from time.
Meanwhile, Austria and Germany were contesting a World Cup play-off place in a match where nerves led to passing imprecisions and a steady stream of turnovers. Germany set out to dominate, with quick construction from the back and the full-backs adding their weight to attacks led by three forwards. Austria tried to play safe with compact defending and, frequently, a fifth man dropping into the back line. Their work was undone, however, by lapses of concentration that allowed Germany to score twice from free-kicks swung in from the left and once from a cross delivered from exactly the same area. The 3-0 scoreline sent Austria home.
Croatia suffered that fate in Group B. Ferdo Milin’s young team fought manfully but, in the final reckoning, lack of experience took its toll against three highly accomplished opponents. The Dutch, operating their trademark 1-4-3-3 and exploiting their pace and skills in the wide areas, took a 2-0 lead and Croatia, after reducing arrears from long range and pushing forward for a leveller, were caught on the break – Steven Bergwijn running clear to seal the 3-1 win for Aron Winter’s team.
The Croatia defence was then tested by France’s technique and fluent combination play. Pressing high, they tried to force Ludovic Batelli’s side to play long and managed spells of impressive approach play but were unable to make inroads in the final third. After being caught by a counter and a free-kick, they were pushed even further on to the back foot and conceded a 2-0 defeat.
Their final game was against an England team which raced into a 2-0 lead within nine minutes of its opening fixture against France, with striker Dominic Solanke spearheading a potent attacking force based on the side that had lifted the U17 trophy two years earlier in Malta. France fought back via a free-kick and spurned chances to equalise. England then faced the Netherlands, whom they had beaten on penalties in the 2014 final. A fascinating tactical contest in Ulm also went to the wire, Aidy Boothroyd’s side snatching a 2-1 win with an added-time strike from substitute Izzy Brown.
Six points allowed Boothroyd to ring changes for the final game against Croatia – but the script remained unchanged. Racing into a 2-0 lead within 10 minutes, they dropped a gear and, after allowing Nikola Moro to reduce the deficit with a powerful long-range shot, soaked up late pressure to preserve the 2-1 lead that guaranteed top spot. The surprise emerged from the game played simultaneously in Aalen. The Dutch, although a penalty allowed them to come back to 1-2 shortly before the interval, struggled to cope with France’s power-play and their individual strengths in 1 v 1 situations. A hat-trick by central striker Jean-Kévin Augustin and two from winger Kylian Mbappé translated superiority into a 5-1 scoreline that sent the Dutch into a World Cup play-off against Germany.
It unfolded into a dramatic rollercoaster rather than a tactical chess-game. After defensive mayhem allowed Ochs to put Germany ahead before the break, Netherlands captain Abdelhak Nouri equalised with a superb free-kick nine minutes from time. Another four goals were then scored by substitutes, with Dutch player Michel Vlap went into the history books as the first to take the field as part of the experiment to allow a fourth change during extra-time. Dennis van der Heijden put the Dutch 2-1 up; Suat Serdar earned extra-time in 90+3; Marvin Mehlem made it 3-2; Sam Lemmers triggered a shoot-out by equalising again; and, after Nouri had squandered a ‘match-ball’ by hitting his spot kick against the bar, Germany won the shoot-out 5-4.
The semi-finals, played as a double-header in Mannheim, got under way with an intriguing contest between England and Italy. The former produced a distracted performance, their three attackers and support midfielder struggling to find antidotes to Italy’s defensive acumen and, when trying their luck from long range, failing to give Meret chances to dirty his gloves amid the persistent heavy rain. They also struggled to cope with Italy’s counterattacking. Vanoli’s side combined positional precision with hard running and, when possession was won, they elaborated neat combinations, playing the ball quickly to the two strikers, with midfielder Paolo Ghighlione pushing up on the right as a third attacker. Transitions in both directions were effective and fast; and rare chances were converted with equal efficacy: a penalty and a direct free-kick. Aidy Boothroyd shuffled his attacking pack but the only reward came when a corner was diverted into his own net by Alberto Picchi. Italy, without scoring a goal in open play, were in the final.
Their opponents seemed likely to be Portugal when a free-kick from the right was headed in by Pedro Pacheco with barely three minutes on the clock. Emilio Peixe’s team set up a deep, compact defensive block with the wingers retreating far enough to merge into the back line and occasionally produce scenarios with the entire team behind the ball. This, however, meant that, despite the bright start, defence-to-attack transitions were less fluent than those in the reverse direction and the diagonal passing that had given life-blood to wing-play was gradually staunched by the pressure from Batelli’s well-balanced midfield trio.
Despite the hesitant start, French nerves were calmed when, within seven minutes of falling behind, Mbappé produced an inspired run along the left bye-line and his low cut-back was turned in by Ludovic Blas. Realising that Portugal would focus on deep defending rather than upfield pressing, they pushed midfielders and full-backs forward – and it was ultimately in this fashion that the deadlock was broken. Issa Diop, winning the ball in midfield, passed vertically to Amine Harit, whose adroit first touch transferred it into the path of onrushing right-back Clément Michelin. His first-time low cross was met by Mbappé to round off a copybook counter. Portugal’s deflation was illustrated by the third goal. Despite a 7-3 numerical advantage in the box, Mbappé was allowed to nod in a long throw by Michelin. France had bounced back from losing the first match to clinch a place in the final.