Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Euro 24 Final: No Kane Do… Trophy’s Not Coming Home As Spain Prove Lion Tamers; Southgate Resigns

Harry Kane has still not won a trophy in his storied career. England has still not won a major international tournament since 1966 after losing a second consecutive European Championship final on Sunday. Victorious Spain, meanwhile, claimed a record fourth European Championship, taming the Lions of England 2-1.

Spain and Manchester City midfielder Rodri was the Best Player of the tournament while 17-year-old phenom Lamine Yamal won the Best Young Player award. Nico Williams, who scored the final’s opening goal, also had a breakout tournament for the Spaniards on the opposite wing from Lamal. Spain midfielder Dani Almo was one of six players to jointly lead the tournament with three goals scored. Chelsea defender Marc Cucurella was also an unexpected major contributor to Spain’s winning run and assisted the winner on Sunday.

England, meanwhile, had a few brilliant individual moments this tournament but they were just momentary interruptions to long stretches of non-threatening and often disorganized play. The final match played out much as had most of England’s matches this tournament but for the gutting ending. The Three Lions began sluggishly, offering nothing in attack but managing to bring the normally energetic Spanish down to their own sleep-inducing level of play as the two clubs “battled” to a goalless, joyless first half. In a massive piece of good fortune for the English, Rodri was removed at halftime due to injury. It didn’t matter. England went behind for a fourth consecutive knockout match when 21-year-old Spanish winger Nico Williams scored just two minutes into the second half, Yamal finding his fellow winger for a tournament leading fourth assist. Those hoping England Manager Gareth Southgate might quickly counter and go to one of his super subs, would again be frustrated by the stubborn manager. An ineffective Harry Kane was finally given the hook for semifinal hero Ollie Watkins at the 61-minute mark, shortly after a petulant Jude Bellingham was seen shouting at the England coaching staff for some kind of change. Almost ten minutes later “Cold” Palmer would enter the fray and the young Chelsea star would take little more than two minutes to score an equalizer for England.

Unfortunately, however, the Lions would roar no more. Instead, it was another Premier League player who would help put a dagger in English hopes. Palmer’s Chelsea teammate and Spanish left back Marc Cucarella opened up the England defense, threading a picture-perfect assist to the foot of a sliding Mikal Oyarzabal who scored the 86th minute winner for La Roja. Fate would tease England one more time as Arsenal’s Declan Rice and Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi missed consecutive rapid-fire headers in the closing moments.

England’s snakebit international tournament form thus continued with neither manager nor players escaping the brickbats of supporters for the latest failure. Southgate’s tactics were again questionable, his lineups unbalanced, and his substitutions always seemed later than would be advised. Several stars underperformed and did not earn the minutes given by the always loyal Southgate. Manchester City’s Phil Foden is perhaps the poster child for underperforming stars, accomplishing nothing the entire tournament despite Southgate giving him more minutes than he deserved. Kane, who seemed to lumber with little effect for most of the tournament, at least found the net three times. Foden was admittedly playing out of position most of the time as Southgate was intent on shoehorning him into a lineup which included Jude Bellingham in Foden’s favored central position. Switching the positioning of Foden and Bellingham for the final, however, had little impact. Bellingham, like Kane, played poorly for most of the tournament but provided two iconic moments with his flying header to win the first group match and then his iconic bicycle kick which saved the day versus Slovakia in the Round of 16.

Entering the tournament, there was much concern over who would line up alongside Declan Rice in England’s midfield. As things played out, Rice was as much the problem himself, the Arsenal man proving careless with the ball even while seldom daring to go forward. Rice’s “go to” move this tournament was an oft-repeated back pass to goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

There were a few England players who stepped up this tournament. Palmer and Watkins clearly capitalized on the minutes given them. Ivan Toney and Eberechi Eze also flashed in lesser cameos. Marc Guehi and John Stones were largely solid for England’s back line. Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo, though uninspiring in the final contest, showed promise of filling the gaping midfield hole lamented by Southgate before and during the tournament.

The England manager did not wait long to announce his resignation from the England post on Tuesday. His legacy is complicated. His style of play, sometimes undecipherable, would frustrate fans. He tended to stay with underperforming players seemingly out of a sense of loyalty. While Sunday’s loss to an impressive Spain side was less painful than the dashed golden opportunity versus Italy four years earlier, there remains a sense that a star-studded lineup once again fell short when victory was within its grasp. A squad which included the best of the Premier League also included the best player from both the Bundesliga (Kane) and La Liga (Bellingham). The draw this tournament was incredibly favorable and Sunday’s finals opponent lost its best player at halftime of a goalless game. The opportunity was great, but the performance was small as England again missed a chance to bring an international trophy back to the land of the game’s origin for the first time since 1966.

And yet Gareth Southgate’s accomplishments are second only to the manager of that World Cup champion, Alf Ramsey. Since that 1966 championship, England had won only seven  knockout matches in major tournament play. Southgate delivered nine such victories, taking England to the two European championship finals and semifinal and quarterfinal finishes in his two World Cups. Southgate also has been credited with restoring a positive culture around a program reeling upon his arrival in 2016 following the abrupt and messy departure of one match England Manager Sam Allardyce. It remains to be seen whether Southgate’s many critics among England supporters will rue what they wished for.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Euro 24 The Final Awaits: Lions Roar While France Grinds To A Stop; England Versus Spain In Final

England came from behind for a third consecutive knockout match, advancing to Sunday’s European Championship final with a 2-1 win over the Netherlands. Late game heroics have been the norm for The Three Lions who have struggled for long stretches of play during this tournament. Wednesday’s victory was just the second time in six matches that England has won before extra time or penalties.

Important late match substitutions have also been a storyline and the semifinal win was no exception. Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins delivered the winner in the 90th minute against the Netherlands after Chelsea’s Cole Palmer threaded a pass through the Dutch defense. Neither player made their appearance until 80 minutes had already gone by as Gareth Southgate again found late hour magic on his bench. Palmer has become a regular second half substitution. Watkins had been an afterthought since a cameo in the group stages. Brentford’s Ivan Toney had been the favored late entering striker in England’s last two matches. The Villa man, however, seemed unsurprised by both his appearance and his heroics, recounting to the media how he had told Palmer before the match how things would end with Palmer setting up his teammate for Watkins’ first goal of the tournament.

The glorious ending was far over the horizon when England started poorly against the Dutch. Just as they had done in their previous two knockout matches, England conceded first. Xavi Simons scored for the Dutch just seven minutes into the match after taking the ball from Arsenal’s Declan Rice and easily beating Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. The early wake-up call seemed to rouse the English side to some heretofore little seen attacking play. The equalizer came by way of a penalty kick from Harry Kane at the 18-minute mark after his shot follow-through was interrupted by the Netherlands’ Denzel Dumfries’ studs. Shortly thereafter, Dumfries would clear a shot off the line fired by England’s Phil Foden. A resurgent Foden would hit the bar with another shot attempt as England applied pressure through the balance of the first half. After the break, that attacking intent would seem a mirage as England played most of the second half in the manner of previous matches, generating little but snores, and a few catcalls, from English supporters. Palmer and Watkins would then enter and change all that.

The Three Lions now move on to their second consecutive European Championship Final, this time facing Spain in Berlin on Sunday. While England may have the best team on paper, Spain has played like the best team in the tournament to date. Tuesday’s 2-1 win over France marked Spain’s sixth victory in six tournament matches, outscoring opponents by a 13-3 goal margin. Just as England would do the next day, Spain fell behind early in its semifinal match. France’s Kylian Mbappe discarded his mask for the semifinal and flashed some of his brilliance with a cross to find former PSG teammate R. Kolo Muani for a French goal and early lead nine minutes into the match. Suspensions affecting two of its defensive starters saw Spain fielding 38-year-old former Manchester City player Jesus Navas lined up at right back facing the now maskless wonder. Early returns from the mismatch seemed promising for France, but Mbappe would revert to his quieter tournament form until only five minutes remained in the match when he skied a golden opportunity well high of the crossbar. Meanwhile, Spain came back from their early deficit in historic fashion. Lamine Yamal, at 16 years of age, became the youngest goal scorer in Euro history, knotting the match at the 21-minute mark with a rocketed strike from 25 yards out. France midfielder Adrien Rabiot had taunted the young Spanish prodigy in the press leading up to the match and it was fittingly Rabiot who failed to properly close down the Barcelona phenom before Yamal fired his equalizer into the top corner. Just four minutes later Spain would take the lead when Dani Almo scored his third goal of the tournament. Almo, an RB Leipzig midfielder expected to move in the transfer market this summer, became the unlikely Golden Boot leader with his goal, currently besting five other three-time scorers due to Almo’s greater assist total. After 25 minutes of exciting play, the Spaniards uncharacteristically pulled back on the reins and absorbed pressure in an effective match ending strategy almost spoiled by Mbappe’s late opportunity.

While much attention deservedly focused on Yamal’s historic blast and Olmo’s breakout tournament, Spain’s midfield dominated the French. Manchester City midfielder Rodri and midfield partner Fabian Ruiz have had outstanding tournaments and will present a challenge for England’s evolving midfield which now seems to be crystallizing around Arsenal’s Declan Rice and Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo. Having now consecutively knocked off two of the tournament favorites in Germany and France, Spain will enter the final as favorites against England. Their Spanish opponent will represent a major step up in class for much criticized England Manager Gareth Southgate and his Premier League centric side. The much-maligned Southgate, however, looked like a genius on Wednesday with his substitution of the game winning combination of Watkins and Palmer. With a depth of talent that Southgate often does not seem to know what to do with, there remains the thought that England still has not produced its best game despite progressing to the final.

Can the best team on paper realize its potential to win a first European Championship and its first international tournament victory since 1966’s World Cup, or will Spain win its fourth Euro title, breaking a tie with Germany for the most championships in the history of the competition? UEFA could not have hoped for a better matchup to end this tournament.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Euro 24 Final Four: France Faces Spain; England Faces The Netherlands

The Final Four is set for Euro 24. France faces Spain on Tuesday with England matching up with the Netherlands Wednesday.

France is in a Euro 24 semifinal despite not having scored a goal from the run of play all tournament. The French attack is broken with star Kylian Mbappe suffering though a painful broken nose and a mask which inhibits his vision. No one else has stepped up on France’s front line but an imposing defense, which includes Arsenal center back William Saliba, has posted four clean sheets in France’s five games to date.

The quarterfinals saw the French prevail over Portugal in penalty kicks after neither club could score through regular time and two extra periods. Joao Felix, a onetime prodigy who was in the Premier League for a brief loan spell with Chelsea two years ago, hit the post with his penalty kick to seal Portugal’s fate as all five French takers were perfect from the spot. Two other gentlemen, however, are perhaps more responsible for Portugal’s exit. Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score a goal in this tournament despite playing more minutes for Portugal than any other player but for goalkeeper Diogo Costa. Portugal Manager Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, stubbornly refused to remove the ineffective 39-year-old Portuguese national legend. Even Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes was removed late in the match with France, but Cristiano played every one of the 120 minutes leading to penalties even as talented options such as Liverpool’s Diogo Jota watched on from the bench.

France, meanwhile, moves on to face a Spain side which defeated host Germany 2-1 on a soaring header with just over a minute left to extra time by substitute Mikel Merino. Spain has won every one of its matches in this tournament and plays an exciting style in marked contrast to some of the other contenders. The Spaniards employ two young wingers, Nico Williams and 16-year-old Lamine Yamal, to provide pace and width. Former Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata has been an effective Number 9 but strangely made some controversial comments about being underappreciated on the eve of the semifinal. Hopefully, Spain’s togetherness and chemistry is not undermined for Tuesday’s match. Spain will already be without suspended defenders Dani Carvajal and Robin Le Normand as well as injured Barcelona midfielder Pedri for the semifinal. Tuesday’s outcome could hinge on the fitness of the struggling Mbappe who would normally feast on an undermanned defense. France, however, has somehow been able to survive and advance even as supporters wring their hands at the lack of offensive production.

Much the same can be said of England. The Three Lions defeated Switzerland in penalties after Bukayo Saka equalized the quarterfinal match versus Switzerland at 1-1 in the 80th minute, the Arsenal man’s rocket coming on England’s first shot on target. Saka, who memorably  missed a penalty in Euro 20, would also be one of five successful takers for England against the Swiss. Chelsea’s “Cold” Palmer effortlessly delivered on England’s first penalty try. Jordan Pickford then stopped the attempt of Switzerland and Manchester City defender Manuel Akanji. After Jude Bellingham and Saka converted, it was left to late substitutes Ivan Toney and Trent Alexander-Arnold to nail things down for England. Brentford’s Toney first successfully converted his patented no look kick after an abbreviated two step approach. Liverpool’s Alexander-Arnold, struggling for minutes after a failed experiment in England’s midfield, then buried the winning penalty for a bit of personal redemption.

England’s defensive effort versus the Swiss will poses a question for England Manager Gareth Southgate approaching Wednesday’s semifinal match versus the Netherlands. Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa admirably filled in for suspended Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi as Southgate changed his formation to three back line defenders against the Swiss. Does he change back with Guehi’s return against the Dutch? Luke Shaw also made a late cameo debut against the Swiss and could be ready for increased minutes on the left of England’s defense. England will recognize a familiar center back in their opponents’ back line when Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk captains the Dutch versus England on Wednesday. Van Dijk’s Liverpool and Dutch teammate, Cody Gakpo, is the Euro 24 joint leading scorer. Though not accredited to the winger, it was Gakpo’s shot which deflected off a Türkiye defender for the own goal which decided the Netherlands’ 2-1 win over Türkiye in the quarterfinals. An unlikely hero also helped the Netherlands overcome an early one goal deficit versus the Turks. Wout Weghorst, a 6’6” Burnley striker who had a brief 2023 loan at Manchester United, injected life into the Dutch attack with his second half substitution and formidable box presence. The Netherlands was the least likely of the four teams to make this final four but have lost only one of their last nine meetings against the English. Can England reverse that trend, possibly on better efforts from the somnolent Harry Kane and Phil Foden on Wednesday? Or does Southgate finally lose patience with his underperforming stars and go to his bench earlier?