For those who have gone the distance in international tournaments, the quarter-finals have always been a key moment. They are a competition’s real dividing line, that add a sense of truth to the sudden-death knockouts so far. The last-eight ties separate the formidable from the fortunate; the great from the good; those happy to be there from those driven to win the trophy. The general feeling is that luck and the odd good day can get you this far, but they are rarely enough to get you past it. It is where deeper substance is required.
It is where all of Spain 2000, England 2004, Croatia 2008, Czech Republic 2012 and Iceland 2016 fell, revealed either as pretenders or out of their depth. It is where Czech Republic 1996, Portugal 2004, Greece 2004, Spain 2008 and Wales 2016 displayed their mettle, shown to be sides that could go the distance and go down in history.
That dividing line feels all the more significant at Euro 2020 because there is a split in the field, at least in terms of profile. Four are countries who were pre-tournament favourites: Belgium, England, Italy, Spain. Four are genuine surprises, with three of them – Czech Republic, Switzerland, Ukraine – having finished third in their groups. Denmark meanwhile went through with just one win, although their first two games are obviously explained by the excess of emotion around the Christian Eriksen story, with that then having the opposite effect of propelling the team’s many qualities. They have swept through Euro 2020 on a wave.
That has made Denmark perhaps the most immersive of the tournament’s many engaging storylines, as we come to a point where they are fully fleshed out – and close to denouement.
It is the same with the trends of the tournament. They all feel fuller, albeit with some gaps.
It does not seem a coincidence that, after the club campaign we’ve just seen, all of Denmark, Switzerland and – especially – Ukraine have been capable of going far. They are all in the bottom half of the 24 Euro 2020 squads for minutes played across 2020-21. Ukraine have ultimately done what Turkey were supposed to. It is why some expectations that they might be fatigued after their last-16 game against Sweden should be tempered.
England and Spain go against this trend, as the teams to have played the first and fifth most minutes last season, but then youthful energy will greatly aid that.
These two favourites, who could well be on a collision course for the final, are among four of the seven youngest teams in the tournament along with Ukraine and Switzerland.
It’s hard not to think all this energy has fired the expansive and entertaining football we’ve seen, opening out the pitches and the games.
With just seven of its 51 matches left, Euro 2020 is currently the highest-scoring tournament in the history of the competition, with 2.8 goals per game.
It has continued the trend of triumphantly attacking play from the 2018 World Cup. Even the effervescence of that tournament struggled to match what we saw on manic Monday, 28 June 2021. That was perhaps the greatest day of tournament football ever witnessed.
Tuesday’s grand rematch between England and Germany was a natural comedown for everyone outside England, but then Gareth Southgate’s side represent an outlier there. They are maybe the last truly reactive and constrained team left in the tournament. You would have added Switzerland, but they just went with it in that epic against France. There was no containment there. They will now be emboldened. They have illustrated how attacking football is joyously winning the day.
Some caution, rather appropriately, should be applied there.
As open as Russia 2018 was, it was still a restrained French team that won on the day that mattered most. They won the final. The world champions have been a model for Southgate. The eliminations of France and Portugal do not necessarily mean that approach is finished. It may just mean those champions are in a worse place than England as a team. England certainly have a more favourable path.
A route of Ukraine, Denmark or Czech Republic is certainly less fearful than one potentially featuring Belgium, Italy and Spain.
At the same time, the surprises of the last round should change our thinking. The games have proven we shouldn’t be so dismissive of less famous names. Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand even touched on this by saying he was more concerned with playing the Czech Republic than the Dutch because of how the Czechs press. That is despite the fact most would have seen the Netherlands as the team to enliven that side of the draw.
Switzerland’s victory over France similarly points to how the quarter-finals should be seen in a different way.
The thinking has certainly changed for a lot of the sides. They all broke important psychological barriers.
England beat Germany.
Belgium came through a game thanks to their resilience and defence.
Spain came from behind and essentially won their game twice, as the beleaguered Alvaro Morata scored a crucial goal.
Switzerland came from two down to eliminate the world champions and enjoy maybe their greatest ever tournament moment.
The Czechs stepped it up a level with a hugely convincing win against the Dutch.
The Danes went up several levels, absolutely thrashing Wales.
Italy won the first game that didn’t come easy to them.
Ukraine claimed one of those belief-emboldening late winners.
All will feel fortified, and like there is so much more to their progress than mere fortune.
The quarter-finals will test that, while telling us the type of tournament this really is.
We will know who really belongs.
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