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Ranking the 10 best games of Euro 2020

We also choose our favourite pundit, best goal and biggest disappointment.

euro-2020-trophy-tour-london The Euro 2020 trophy. Source: PA

IN GENERAL, it has not been a particularly good year for football.

Cynicism has been rife, from the quickly aborted European Super League plans to the ridiculously taxing schedule that top-level players are expected to conform to in these unprecedented times.

Yet over the past couple of weeks, the Euros have felt like a breath of fresh air.

Unlike club football often tends to be, it has been anything but predictable. If you were to ask an array of experts before the tournament to name the two finalists, few would have come with England and Italy, nor would many have envisaged a Round-of-16 exit for reigning world champions France.

We’re hoping tonight’s final will live up to its billing and rank alongside some of the games on this list, but think of this article as a review and celebration of all we have seen over the past couple of weeks.

You’ll also notice we have only included two games from the group stages, which can be put down to the flawed tournament format.

The fact that 16 of the 24 teams advance mean it is almost inevitable that all the top teams will go through.

Consequently, there is invariably a lack of tension, with some of the group matches having an exhibition feel no matter how many spectacular moments they provide.

We’ve also included a few additional thoughts at the bottom of the piece, including our favourite pundit, best goal and biggest disappointment.

Anyway, read on and be sure to let us know some of your most cherished tournament memories and games in the comments section below.

10. Netherlands 3-2 Ukraine

spnetherlands-amsterdam-football-euro-2020-ned-vs-ukr Denzel Dumfries (3rd R) of the Netherlands celebrates. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

This would be much higher if it were a knockout game rather than both sides’ opening encounter. It was a match that Holland effectively had to win twice. Goals from new PSG signing Georginio Wijnaldum (who was among the tournament top scorers with a total of three) and Wolfsburg striker Wout Weghorst meant the Dutch appeared to be coasting around the hour mark. However, a brilliant strike from West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko proved the catalyst for an unlikely comeback as Gent attacker Roman Yaremchuk drew his side level shortly thereafter. With five minutes remaining, PSV’s Denzel Dumfries, who is now being linked with moves to Everton and Inter, sealed a dramatic winner. The Dutch would go on to top their group with a 100% record, before a surprise loss to the Czech Republic in the Round of 16, as a Matthijs de Ligt sending off proved costly.

9. Portugal 2-4 Germany

spgermany-munich-football-euro-2020-por-vs-ger Robin Gosens of Germany celebrates. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

You always suspected both sides would progress, but it didn’t prevent this group game from being a highly enjoyable affair. Germany were underwhelming for much of the tournament, but this fixture was the one exception as they tore Portugal to shreds at times. Fernando Santos’ men actually took the lead through a brilliantly worked Cristiano Ronaldo counter-attacking goal, before the Germans came alive and Atalanta wing-back Robin Gosens produced one of the outstanding individual displays of the past few weeks, contributing a goal and an assist while constantly proving a thorn in the side of the Portuguese defence. Joachim Loew’s men still almost fell at the first hurdle, as they needed a late goal from Bayern’s Leon Goretzka to get the draw they needed against Hungary in their final group stage encounter.

8. England 2-0 Germany

firo-29-06-2021-fuvuball-soccer-euro-2021-em-2020-euro-2020-european-championship-2020-round-of-16-quarter-finals-eng-england-ger-germany Thomas Müller appears dejected. Source: DPA/PA Images

A match that would have taken place at the Aviva Stadium had the pandemic not wreaked havoc on pre-tournament plans, England-Germany was not the classic many were hoping for and could not rival the two sides’ unforgettable Euro ’96 semi-final. However, the sense of occasion alone meant it was a must-watch for any serious football fan, as the Three Lions ended a 55-year wait for a knockout victory against their bitter rivals, with more than 40,000 largely ecstatic supporters watching on at Wembley. It was a far from vintage Germany team, but it was still a tense encounter throughout, with the normally reliable Thomas Müller’s uncharacteristic miss when through on goal the key moment of this contest, while the introduction of the influential Jack Grealish helped edge the game in the hosts’ favour.

7. Switzerland 1-1 Spain

russia-switzerland-spain-euro-2020-soccer Switzerland players react during the penalty shootout. Source: Maxim Shemetov

Again, there may have been more entertaining and aesthetically pleasing games at the tournament, but the prevailing tension and the real possibility of another major Swiss upset made this encounter hard to look away from. Despite losing, this match — like the France game — highlighted Vladimir Petković’s team’s incredible spirit and never-say-die attitude. They overcame several setbacks, including going behind in the eighth minute, a 77th-minute Remo Freule red card and getting by with just 28% possession. Yet still, they bowed out in cruel fashion, as Ruben Vargas was left in tears after sending his penalty over the bar and Mikel Oyarzabal’s spot-kick confirmed Spain’s entry into the semi-finals.

6. Italy 2-1 Austria

spbritain-london-football-euro-2020-round-of-16-ita-vs-aut Italy's Matteo Pessina (L) celebrates scoring. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Italy looked so impressive in their opening three wins that they had gone from being tournament ‘dark horses’ to many people’s favourites to prevail after the group stages. Nonetheless, their obvious momentum did not prevent an unfancied Austria team from almost causing an almighty shock. Competing in the knockout stages of the tournament for the first time in their history, a major upset looked on as Shanghai Port striker Marko Arnautović headed into the net in the second half, only for the goal to be disallowed following a VAR check. What this match highlighted was both the resilience and depth in Italy’s squad. It is a team lacking a genuine superstar, as epitomised by the fact that no player for the Azzurri has scored more than two goals at the tournament so far. However, their strength is in their collective ability, and it was two substitutes – Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina — that eventually saw Roberto Mancini’s men claim a hard-fought 2-1 win after extra-time.

5. England 2-1 Denmark

spbritain-london-football-uefa-euro-2020-semifinals-england-vs-denmark England's Harry Kane celebrates. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Another fixture that featured a heroic performance from the underdogs, the fact that Denmark had made it to the semi-finals alone felt like a minor miracle in itself, following the shocking Christian Eriksen incident and the shabby treatment they received from Uefa in the aftermath. A glorious free-kick from Eriksen’s replacement, 21-year-old Sampdoria winger Mikkel Damsgaard, who was one of the breakthrough stars of the tournament, put the Danes ahead before a Simon Kjaer own goal brought the hosts level. In the end, the fact that England had played all bar one of their games at home felt like a major advantage. The Three Lions grew increasingly dominant as the match wore on, while the Danes, who had been required to travel to Amsterdam and Baku for their other knockout matches, wilted. By extra-time, it felt like a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ England scored, such was their superiority. Yet their rivals, to their credit, showed amazing resilience in the face of adversity, and it was only thanks to a dubious penalty award that Gareth Southgate’s men got over the line to reach their first major tournament final since 1966.

4. Italy 1-1 Spain

euro-2020-package Italy's Jorginho (right) celebrates scoring the winning penalty. Source: PA

This felt like a game of chess at times, and an enthralling one at that, featuring arguably the two most technically gifted sides at the tournament. It may not have been filled with goals, but it was certainly one for the purists, with so many talented footballers on the pitch and the game balanced on a knife-edge. Rarely if ever did it seem clear which of the two teams would go through. In the end, Alvaro Morata proved the key figure. Ridiculed owing to some ineffectual displays during the tournament, to the point that it became disgraceful with his family receiving death threats, Morata was initially dropped by Spain before coming off the bench to score an equaliser with 10 minutes remaining. There was still more drama, as the Juventus star missed the pivotal penalty that led to Italy scoring to go through, meaning he went from villain to hero and back again over the course of a single game, thereby epitomising the incredible highs and lows that often characterise top-level football.

3. Belgium 1-2 Italy

spgermany-munich-football-euro-2020-quarterfinal-bel-vs-ita Players and coaches of Italy celebrate victory. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

A highly entertaining 90 minutes that featured the number-one ranked side in the world against the team that had become many people’s favourites by that point. It could easily have been the final, such was the quality on display, and Italy ultimately edged it. A wonder strike from Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne sealed the victory, as a Belgian outfit who once again promised so much failed to live up to expectations. Perhaps the depth of the Italians’ squad was the biggest difference between the two. By contrast, an ageing defence, a half-fit Kevin De Bruyne and an unavailable Eden Hazard all contributed to the downfall of Roberto Martinez’s men. With only two of their starting XI under the age of 28, you have to wonder was it the last chance for this golden generation of Belgian footballers to win a trophy. Yet in 19-year-old Rennes attacker Jérémy Doku, who won the penalty for their only goal in this game and also starred against Ireland U17s at Tallaght Stadium only two years ago, they certainly have one player who looks capable of being a regular presence in the side for many years to come.

2. Croatia 3-5 Spain

denmark-croatia-spain-euro-2020-soccer Spain's Alvaro Morata celebrates after scoring. Source: WOLFGANG RATTAY

28 June 2021 will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the best/most entertaining days of tournament football ever. Little did we know at the time that the eight-goal thriller between Croatia and Spain was merely an appetiser for what would follow. It started in near-comical fashion, as goalkeeper Unai Simon failed to control Pedri’s backpass, allowing the ball to creep into the net. Luis Enrique’s side then took control of proceedings and were 3-1 up by the 77th minute, yet an element of complacency then crept into the Spaniards’ game, and a Luka Modric-inspired Croatia scored two goals in the dying minutes to bring the game to extra-time. Morata, continually criticised by many supporters and pundits up to that point, made it 4-3 with a superb finish before Mikel Oyarzabal put the icing on the cake to complete an amazing afternoon of football.

1. France 3-3 Switzerland

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imago-20210628 Source: Imago/PA Images

You’d run out of superlatives trying to describe this game. There were more twists and turns than most matches at any level in recent memory. Paul Pogba was the best player on the pitch for long stretches and scored an unbelievable goal, yet ended up being remembered for the wrong reasons, as he conceded possession at a vital moment in the run-up to Swizterland’s dramatic last-gasp equaliser. For a country of relatively modest international ambitions like Switzerland, to show such character and score two goals in the final 10 minutes before knocking out the pre-tournament favourites, it would almost be akin to the sensation of winning the tournament for the top countries. And all that is without mentioning the French psychodrama, with Didier Deschamps’ questionable calls, as France collapsed under the weight of expectation and Kylian Mbappe, the player most fancied to take up Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s mantle as the world’s best player, missing the all-important spot-kick to send the Swiss nation into raptures.

***

Best goal: Patrik Schick v Scotland

There are plenty of contenders here, including Paul Pogba’s stunner against the Swiss and Andriy Yarmolenko’s curling beauty versus the Netherlands, but the standout is surely Patrik Schick’s audacious lob from just past the halfway line against Scotland.

Best player: Raheem Sterling

euro-2020-package England's Raheem Sterling celebrates. Source: PA

By far and away, England’s most important player, it’s incredible to think there were question marks over the Man City star’s starting spot ahead of the tournament owing to an underwhelming season at club level. He was the only player that scored for Gareth Southgate’s side in the group stages, in addition to getting the all-important first goal against Germany and winning the controversial penalty that led to the Three Lions’ winner against Denmark. There are not too many players in modern football willing to take on and beat defenders, but the 26-year-old is most certainly an exception in that regard and he has once again demonstrated his world-class credentials over the past few weeks. And the runner-up for this award has to be Jorginho, with the 29-year-old Brazil-born Chelsea midfielder the heartbeat of an Italian midfield that has impressed throughout.

Best young player: Pedri

britain-italy-spain-euro-2020-soccer Italy's Domenico Berardi, right, challenges Spain's Pedri. Source: Andy Rain

The Spain squad contained plenty of talent and experience, but it said a lot that apart from a 119th-minute substitution against Switzerland, an 18-year-old played every single minute of action for his country. Pedri has been a revelation at this tournament, but that won’t be a surprise to fans of La Liga, as he played 37 matches for Barcelona. Unlike Xavi and Andres Iniesta, though, the two players the teenager is often likened to, he did not come through the club’s famed La Masia youth academy. Instead, they signed him from Las Palmas, for whom he made his senior debut at the age of just 16 in the Segunda Division. The Catalan club bought him in September 2019, reportedly for a bargain price of €5 million, albeit that fee could rise (and perhaps has already) based on what he goes on to achieve.

Biggest disappointment: France

france-v-switzerland-uefa-euro-2020-round-of-16 Presnel Kimpembe of France after the Switzerland loss. Source: Marcio Machado

The42 and many other outlets tipped France as the pre-tournament favourites to prevail, but in the end, they didn’t even come close, bowing out against Switzerland in the Round of 16. Only two players from the side that started the 2018 World Cup final missed out — midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who has retired from international duty and defender Samuel Umtiti, who was absent through injury. And theoretically, several of their players, such as Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe, should be closer to their prime now than they were in Russia, while the recall of Karim Benzema after a five-and-a-half-year absence made them a better side on paper. So what went wrong? Didier Deschamps’ controversial decision to play three at the back appeared to help rather than hinder them against Switzerland. Yet even allowing for that ostensible tactical error, France were 3-1 up with 10 minutes remaining and played with a degree of complacency that ultimately rendered the team their own worst enemies. The underwhelming displays of star man Mbappe, who failed to score a single goal in the tournament and missed the decisive penalty that led to them crashing out, was also a factor, as likely was the off-field tension that reportedly occurred among certain squad members.

Best Irish TV pundit: Richie Sadlier

Lisa Fallon, for her consistent insight and exemplary research, and Damien Duff, who brought some laconic humour to proceedings (“I want this match to finish after 90 minutes because I’m rushing off to meet me da for a pint”) are worthy of honourable mentions, but Richie Sadlier just about edges it. His analysis always seems wise and measured, while the former Millwall player invariably excels at discussing topics that reach beyond sport, such as his impassioned condemnation of Uefa (see above) for their unpopular stance on LGBTQ+ rights. 

Best manager: Roberto Mancini

britain-italy-spain-euro-2020-soccer Italy's manager Roberto Mancini (left). Source: CARL RECINE

It’s tough to separate Mancini and Gareth Southgate, who have both enhanced their reputations considerably since the tournament started. Danish coach Kasper Hjulmand also deserves an honourable mention for helping to inspire his side’s run to the semi-finals, after a traumatic opening game that was completely overshadowed by Christian Eriksen’s collapse. What separates Mancini and Southgate is that the latter had so many good players to choose from that you feel whatever team he picked would have done relatively well. Whereas the former Man City and Zenit Saint Petersburg boss is overseeing an Italy side that didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup and you get the sense that he has really moulded the team, rejuvenating a previously demoralised outfit and turning them into a brilliant side over the course of a remarkable 33-match unbeaten run, which encompasses 28 wins and five draws. 

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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