**Another great post from the friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali
Friday gave us two extremely entertaining quarterfinal contests, with Spain winning possibly the ugliest shootout of all time and Italy leveraging an early lead to eliminate world number one Belgium 2-1. Saturday’s games didn’t have quite the same pizazz, although the Czech Republic was able to push Denmark before eventually failing to equalize in a 2-1 Danish win. England finally flexed their offensive power in a dominant 4-0 win over the Ukraine to round out the weekend.
My picks went 3-1 in the Quarterfinals, with the only loss being an Italy team that I was actually rooting for. Reverse jinx for the win! More seriously, I picked Belgium despite thinking that Kevin De Bruyne would be out for the game. He ended up playing, and playing pretty well, so I deserve that loss. The remaining games will all be played at Wembley Stadium in London in front of 60,000 plus spectators. England will essentially be playing in front of English fans only. There will assuredly be some home field advantage, but I’m interested to see if it can help to galvanize in the event England ever do fall behind. So far in 5 games they have not had to face that situation.
Italy v Spain, Tuesday 3 PM
Italy played a complete game against Belgium. They got contributions from all over the field. The return of Giorgio Chiellini [Juventus] the 36-year-old Italian captain really bolstered the back line. After Being essentially untested to this point in the tournament, Gianluigi Donnaruma made multiple excellent saves in the first half to keep out both De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Nicolo Barella [Inter] chipped in with an early goal to get the Azzurri on the board, and Lorenzo Insigne [Napoli] added a wonder strike which ended up being the game winner. Italy looked dominant and well poised to go all the way in this thing, that is until the 79th minute when Leonardo Spinazzola [Roma] pulled up lame. Spinazzola has been an absolute monster on the left side for Italy. He plays some combination of left back in a four-man defense and a left wing back making deep probing overlapping runs. Being clocked at the fastest top speed of anyone in the tournament is a big reason he is able to perform in this manner and has been a big reason Italy has been such a difficult matchup so far. Insigne is a right footed player that plays advanced on the left wing, ahead of Spinazzola. This allows Insigne to cut infield to his stronger foot while Spinazzola keeps the attacking width to stretch the opposing defense laterally. As previously mentioned, Italy is deep. They have a capable back up in Emerson [Chelsea] who performed solidly filling in for Spinazzola in match day 3, but when you lose arguably the best player of the tournament to this point, it is a blow.
Spain seemed to be actively trying to lose at various points against Switzerland. Their collapse seemed imminent only to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Spain started out on the front foot with their infamous ball domination. This led to an early Jordi Alba [Barcelona] chance resulting in a Denis Zakaria [Monchengladbach] own goal. Tough break for Zakaria as it seemed like Alba’s shot was on target. Bad day for him all around as he was unable to take a couple of chances in his first game back from injury. Anyway, Spain seemed to be happy with the 1-0 lead and played pretty conservatively after the early goal. Switzerland took some time to adjust to Spain’s constant possession, but they eventually started to take control of the game on the back of an aggressive high press. A couple of good chances eventually resulted in a defensive misplay from Spain that the Swiss pounced on. Xherdan Shaqiri [Liverpool] was able to calmy slot home to even the score in the 68th minute. Switzerland seemed to have all the momentum but just under 10 minutes later Remo Freuler [Atalanta] was shown a straight red for a harsh challenge, taking the wind out of the Swiss sails. If not for the red card, I don’t think Spain would have even made it to extra time. Credit does have to be given for the Spanish effort in extra time as they repeatedly bombarded the Swiss goal, only to be denied over and over by Swiss keeper Yann Sommer [Monchengladbach]. Substitute Dani Olmo [RB Leipzig] spent a lot of time on the ball in extra time – although he didn’t look particularly dangerous – and fellow sub, Mikel Oyarzabal [Real Sociedad], came close a few times before ultimately the game headed to penalty kicks. Spain won the toss and first kick. Continuing a stunning trend of FIVE CONSECUTIVE penalty misses, Spain missed their opening kick. Both sides traded goals before a save from Spanish keeper Unai Simon [Athletic Bilbao] evened the score. Spain again failed to take the lead, only to get bailed out when Ruben Vargas missed the target for Switzerland. Spain finally managed to take the advantage provided to them, scoring the next two kicks to move through.
Italy has been the most consistently high performing team in the tournament. They have won all five of their games by a combined score of 11-2. They allowed one goal in extra time and one via penalty kick. Spain has been a much more up-and-down side. They are the highest scoring side in the tournament on 12 goals, but they have played 60 minutes of extra time. They have been prone to defensive lapses at various times in the tournament and I think those momentary occasions where they lose their focus will be their downfall here. Italy seems like a team on the rise, and they are fully prepared to use this tournament as their coming out party. I look for a low scoring contest here with high possibility of an Italian clean sheet. The loss of Spinazzola will definitely hurt but look for this Italian side to adapt their shape and tactics accordingly.
England v Denmark, Wednesday 3 PM
In the only game where they had to leave their home country, England ensured that would not be to their detriment. They made their trip to Rome a business trip, calmly and clinically dispatching of the Ukraine. England jumped in front early when Raheem Sterling [Man City] finally decided to pass to Harry Kane [Spurs], who not surprisingly produced a technically sound finish. Kane would be heard from again later along with Harry Maguire [Man U] and Jordan Henderson [Liverpool] adding set piece goals for England. With Bukayo Saka [Arsenal] unavailable due to injury, Jadon Sancho [recent Man U signing] was awarded his first start of the tournament. Mason Mount [Chelsea] returned to the team as well as Gareth Southgate shifted back to defensive back 4. Sancho provided an interesting new dynamic to the English attack. To this point England had used Saka and Phil Foden [Man City] on the attacking right. Both are left footed players who are more prone to tucking infield onto their stronger left foot. As a right-footed player, Sancho was much more aggressive pressing down the right-hand touchline and keeping England’s attacking width. Sancho also has excellent feet and, on several occasions, attacked defensive one on ones, unbalancing the Ukraine defense. It will be interesting to see how the XI lines up against Denmark. Saka will be fit and he played very well in his two starts. But Sancho has provided a bit of a different look for the three Lions and the team doubled their goals tally in his only start.
Denmark came out very hot in their quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic. Thomas Delaney [Dortmund] came completely uncovered on an early corner kick for a 1-0 Denmark lead. The Czech side had several early set pieces of their own but were unable to convert any of them. Just a few minutes before half time the Danes tacked onto the lead when a cool Kasper Dolberg [Nice] finish came on the end of an exceptional cross from the outside of Joakim Maehle’s [Atalanta] right boot. The Czech got one back on Patrik Schick’s [Leverkusen] calmly slotted volley. That put Schick level with Christiano Ronaldo in the golden boot race. The Danes didn’t sit back, but Maehle and Mikkel Damsgaard both had good efforts rebuked as they were unable to extend the lead. The Czech’s continued to press for an equalizer and there was some excellent effort by Denmark to keep the lead. In particular, substitute striker Yussuf Poulsen [who seems to have lost his spot to a red hot Dolberg] tracked back 60 plus yards on one occasion to break up a Czech attack inside the 18-yard box. The Danish back three of Jannik Vestergaard [Southampton], Simon Kjaer [AC Milan] and Andreas Christensen [Chelsea] have been the backbone of this team. They have worked together beautifully, adapting as Christensen makes probing jaunts up field on occasion, and still staying sound and sturdy at the back. Denmark may not have been very highly regarded coming into this tournament, but they have lots of young talent, even without Cristian Eriksen, and they play excellently as a team.
Andreas Christensen has already sad that Denmark knows what their plan is to stop Harry Kane. I agree that they have experience on their side between Christensen and Vestergaard matching up with Kane on the field and midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg [Spurs] playing with Kane for years. But when Kane gets rolling, he is very difficult to stop. 3 goals in the past two games for Harry, who seems to be creeping up on the golden boot race. There is a path here to a Denmark win. Ukraine had a period late in the first half against England where they seemed to be causing problems down the English right side and if Denmark were able to get out in front, England could be put into an awkward position trying to chase. Ultimately, I think England goes through on the strength of their sound defensive foundation and the support of their home fans. I say they finally concede but look for Kane to get back on the score sheet and set up an Italy v England finale.