The Cardinali Corner: EURO Championship

**This is another great post from friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali**

2020(1) EUROs Final

Wow.  Another round of edge of your seat action.  Both games to extra time.  One to penalties, one ending after an extremely controversial penalty call.  When the dust settled, we are all set for England and Italy on Sunday afternoon.  Let’s hope for more intense, competitive soccer to cap this baby off.

I ended up getting both picks right last week, bumping me up to 9-5 in the knockout rounds and 5-1 over the past two rounds.  If you are still reading, I am guessing you don’t need me to introduce to you into all of the stars on these two teams again so I am going to try and get a little more into the weeds here about what we can expect to see on the field.  We will start by looking back at the semi-final games to see how we got here.

To this point in the tournament, Italy had not been questioned quite the way Spain questions teams.  Yes, Austria took them to extra time, but that seemed more due to Italian nerves and lack of finishing than what Austria did.  Italy has played all their games actively on the front foot, constantly pushing the ball forward and pressing the defense.  When they are on defense, they have relied on an impressive high press to force quick turnovers that they can turn into attacks.  Due to the experience of Chiellini and Bonucci along the back line, the Italians have more trust that they can press up field and still be covered.  Even against world number one Belgium in the quarterfinals, Italy was able to control the ball and play the game at their pace.  That just does not happen against Spain.  Instead, for the first time Italy was forced to play without the ball.  Not only that, but Spain dropped Morata (their starting striker) and started Olmo as a false 9 to really lean into the ball control mindset.  As a result, Italy really struggled to start the game.  They looked anxious without the ball and rushed when they had it.  Every possession seemed to be turned back over to Spain within two to three passes and then Spain would possess for five or six minutes.  However, all of Spain’s possession really did not amount to many chances, surely helped by the discipline of Italy’s backline.  After the half it was a different story as Italy appeared to realize that their chances on the ball were going to be limited and they needed to be more careful with them.  Immobile was able to find the channel on Spain’s right side several times early in the second half.  While Spain was still able to control possession, the Italian counter attacks suddenly seemed sharper.  None more evident that the run of play leading to the Italian goal in the 60’.  Following a Spanish cross from the Italian right side (which there are no Spanish players near because they have no striker on the field), Donnarumma pivots and rolls the ball out quickly to his left.  Within two passes Immobile is just about sprung in behind the Spanish backline.  The Spanish defenders cut the last pass out, but because of the speed with which the Italian attack was able to push them up field, the ball falls into tons of empty space.  Chiesa anticipates excellently, crossing from his position on the left and picks up the ball at the top of the box.  There are no Spanish players close enough to close his angle down, Chiesa gets the ball onto his daring right foot, and he absolutely buries it.  Interestingly enough, both sides made changes directly following the goal with Italy subbing off their star striker Immobile, and Spain bringing on theirs in Morata.  Italy clearly shifted to a more defensive philosophy but ultimately could not hold the clean sheet as Morata combined with Olmo on a beautiful 1-2 to beat the Italians for an equalizer.  Spain continued to dominate possession through extra time, ending up near 70% for the game.  Both sides had a few more chances, although Spain had more than Italy, but from the moment extra time started this game seemed destined for PKs.  As I mentioned after their last shootout, Spain has missed five consecutive in game penalty kicks.  Italy was able to win the toss for first kick, but a poor effort from Locatelli was saved.  With the chance to grab the game by its throat, Olmo missed way over the goal.  To me, that was the moment the game was over.  The next two kicks for each team were buried, and after Italy hit their 4th kick to take a 3-2 lead, the chance fell to embattled Spanish striker Morata.  He had been dropped from the XI for this game, only to come on in the 62’ and score the equalizer in the 80’.  Morata’s personal roller coaster ride continued as his kick was poor and saved easily by Donnarumma.  Jorginho then stepped up for Italy and spent the Spanish home with his trademark jump hop penalty.

Italy was forced to adapt to a style of game that they did not want to play.  All the talk before the game was about these two teams having the best midfields in the tournament and whether that would decide the game.  To be frank, the Spanish midfield dominated.  Pedri was probably the best player on the field, and Jorginho had possibly his worst ever game in terms of passing.  But the Italians still won.  And Spain needed to chase an equalizer to even force extra time.  The Italians were pushed by a game, albeit young, Spanish squad and they stood their ground.  After taking out the world number one in Belgium in the quarters and Spain in the semis, the Italians have no reason to believe that they cannot continue their winning ways against England.

The England – Denmark game brought us more extra time, more excellent Gareth Southgate managing, and more controversy.  Once again, England trotted out a different starting XI, with Saka returning to the side in place of Sancho after missing the last game with a slight knock.  Early on Denmark seemed to be controlling the pace of play with smooth and patient passing through the midfield.  England was sitting back and playing conservatively, as has been their wont early in games in this tournament.  Denmark was able to draw back-to-back fouls against Mount and Shaw to push the ball up the pitch just far enough so that their free kick could make England uncomfortable.   There has been a lot of debate over whether Pickford should have done better, but whether he should have or not, he was not able to stop Damsgaard’s strike and England had conceded for the first time in the tournament.  In the aftermath of the goal Harry Kane could be seen imploring his team to keep their heads, and he seemed personally determined to make sure that happened.  Kane was able to wriggle loose in behind on Denmark’s left side minutes after the goal, with an equalizer only denied by a wonderful Schmeichel save against Sterling.  Not two minutes later, Kane dropped deep into midfield before playing an absolutely beautiful through ball to Saka, once again in behind on Denmark’s left.  Saka’s cross to a sprinting Sterling didn’t quite get there, but an intercepting Kjaer’s clear attempt did nothing other than steer the ball into his own goal.  A huge staple of Denmark’s tournament to this point has been their ambitious wing back Maehle’s aggressive runs into attacking areas up Denmark’s left.  England made it a clear point to attack the space that his runs left in behind.  Saka repeatedly made runs in behind. Mount got in behind a few times.  Kane drifted out to the flank a few times.  England found a weakness and there was just not much Denmark could do about it.  After a very competitive first 65 or so minutes, Denmark went with a triple substitution, and it did not work out in their favor.  Removing Damsgaard was a big blow to their midfield dominance to that point and slowly but surely England started to take control of the game.  When Saka was subbed out for Grealish, Sterling moved to the right side to fill Saka’s spot and continue the assault on the Denmark left.  Denmark held admirably through regular time, but it was clear that Sterling was exacerbating their defensive hole with a couple of nice runs to the by line.  From the first minute of extra time Denmark looked to be playing for penalty kicks and the English lions could smell blood in the water.  England held basically all the possession at this point against a side that looked to be exhausted and it felt like only a matter of time before they would get the game winner.  Not surprisingly, that winner came by way of a penalty drawn when Sterling once again got in behind Denmark’s left.  Sterling angled his run into the box, took a minimal amount of contact, and went down.  In the few days since there has been PLENTY of debate on the merits of the penalty and whether England deserved the call.  On top of that, Kane’s penalty was actually saved by Schmeichel before he was able to hammer in the rebound.  England got the goal they needed and fairly easily saw the game out through the second period of extra time.

The way I look at it is that England was clearly the better team over the last hour plus of the game.  There was at least one other occasion where Sterling went down in the box and the call didn’t go England’s way.  And in the 15’ of gameplay after the go-ahead goal, Denmark was barely able to get a kick of the ball.  England deserved to win the game, its just a shame that it had to come under controversial terms because to some degree it overshadows their excellent performance.  They have still yet to allow an open play goal at the tournament.  After limping to two goals in three group stage games, England has scored eight in their last three games, including four from Harry Kane.  England is in top form and is playing in front of their home fans.

I expect the final to be an absolutely riveting game.  For the first time this tournament I anticipate Southgate will trot the same starting XI out.  He has been very much horses for courses so far in this tournament, but what England did against Denmark would be a sound strategy to attack Italy.  Italy’s 4-3-3 formation looks very much like a 3-2-5 when they are on the attack.  Left back Emerson (filling in for the injured Spinazzola) pushes high up the field in a manner very similar to Maehle of Denmark.  England repeatedly punished Maehle for his attacking runs by getting in behind and I would expect them to look for more of the same against Italy.  I think Southgate will stay with Saka starting on England’s attacking right.  Saka has been excellent in all of his appearances in the tournament to date and his defensive responsibility is surely a part of the manager’s trust in him.  Grealish has seemed to become the instant offense super sub for England so look for Saka to run himself into the ground for as long as he can, and if England needs a goal Grealish will come on.

Italy has gone with essentially the same XI in all of their games, other than injury substitutions.  Despite some pretty poor performances in the elimination rounds, expect Immobile to stay in the lineup up top.  He is the ultimate counterattack artist – full of pace and always on the defender’s shoulder.  He was called for offside twice with in the first 5 minutes against Spain, and his run in behind was a huge part of the run up to Italy’s goal.  I mention this because without Spinazzola last game, Italy’s offensive game shifted much more towards balls over the top and in behind to Immobile.  His pace can cause a lot of problems for Maguire if the service is right.

I have seen a wide range of predictions for how this game will go.  I fully expect England to continue their defensive style early in the match.  Personally, I thought their possession play against Denmark down the stretch was impressive, but I doubt they will be able to do that over 90’ against Italy.  The Italian midfielders really struggled against Spain, but England’s lineup doesn’t really present the same kinds of challenges.  These teams have combined to allow one goal from open play so do not be surprised if it is a low scoring affair.  This one is a total tossup.  Generally, I would lean to the in form stud striker (my guy Harry Kane in this case), but I have to go with my heart here – Italy is the pick.  Forza Azzurri!!

Some fun bets with decent odds:

  • Final to be decided in extra time (+400)
  • Final to be decided in penalties (+550)
  • Kane to score anytime (+165)
  • Insigne to score anytime (+350)
  • Sterling to score anytime (+300)
  • Chiesa to score anytime (+400)
  • Final score bet Italy 2-1 England (+1050)