MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Three games, three wins. Seven scored, none conceded. And all done with performances almost as stylish as their jackets. Right now, at this moment, it's good to be an Italy fan.
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Victory over Wales yesterday extended Italy's unbeaten run to 30 games, which is ridiculous behaviour that shouldn't be allowed. It also secured them a last-16 game at Wembley and installed them, at least to the Warm-Up's thinking, as the form favourites in the competition.
There is a thing that happens in some tournaments. A team will win their first two games and look good doing it; then they'll make a raft of changes for the third game and stall. Momentum, that mystical tournament force that must always be building, will vanish. And it won't come back, and all that early promise will be gone.
Here, Italy made eight changes, but looked precisely the same team. The same quivering intensity in midfield, the same inventive combinations, the same slick and relentless pressure. It helps having somebody as good as Marco Verratti in reserve, of course. But it was evidence that this side isn't just 11 good players in formation: it's 23. Wait, no, 26.
There are nits to pick. One goal wins are always close wins, even when they're this lopsided, and had Gareth Bale stuck away his late chance you might be reading a far less excitable piece. Dominant football teams win games by turning possession into chances, then chances into goals, and maybe, maybe, there's still a little doubt about that last crucial step. But then they do have loads of cute set piece routines, so that'll balance things out.
Roberto Mancini was even feeling comfortable enough to start faffing around with his goalkeepers. Bringing on Salvatore Sirigu for the last few minutes could be taken as some kind of insult: to Wales, perhaps, or to the serious business of football that must be always taken seriously. Unfortunately for the very serious among us, it mostly looked kind of sweet. And Mancini has his own reasons for wanting everybody to get a good sniff of game time.
Right now, it looks like only two things can stop Italy. One, France. Two, that other thing that always happens at tournaments, where the team that makes the best start reaches an early end. Momentum again: even when squad rotation doesn't burst it all, it still leaks away, like helium from a balloon. Start slowly, get better. That's the way to do it.
And if we look carefully, we can already see the cracks appearing. (Cracks? In a helium balloon? Sort your metaphors out.) A great football team is a little like a family. (A family of balloons?) And here we see Manuel Locatelli channeling the purest big brother energy. Mancini's about to turn around and tell them both off, and it's not faaaaair. Maybe they'll win the tournament. Maybe it will all end in tears at a service station.
Second Place Dragons
Kudos to Wales for mastering the difficult art of losing a football game, but not by quite enough for it to be a problem. Their obdurate refusal to get absolutely battered secured them second place in the group and a game in Amsterdam against one of Denmark, Finland or Russia. And Rob Page is feeling chirpy.
On paper, it seems like a great idea to have it all over Europe but logistically it is an absolute nightmare. And then you throw Covid into the mix as well. I’m really proud of the group and I’m looking forward to the last 16. It’s phenomenal, the character we have in the changing room. Don’t underestimate the character of a Welshman.
There was a lot to like about Wales' performance, even as they were buffeted and blown about by the waves of Italian attacking. This team is pretty good at the kind of almost-desperate defending that smaller teams sometimes have to rely on, even with 10 men, and they still haven't conceded a goal from open play in the tournament.
As quoted above, Page mentioned "character" after the game, and this is the kind of Job Done performance that gets called character-building. But we learned something about the coach as well. After Ethan Ampadu was sent off, Page turned to his bench, but not to any of the attackers. Instead, on came Kieffer Moore, who (a) is a striker, and (b) was carrying a booking.
"Intriguing," thought the Warm-Up. "Counter-intuitive and high risk." We, er, didn't use quite those words. More along the lines of "What? What?" But more fool us, for Page knew exactly what he was doing and, more importantly, he trusted his player to get it done. Instead of bunkering down, Wales needed an out-ball. And while a suspension for Moore would utterly banjax Wales' Plan A, Page backed his man to play sensibly, safely, and entirely without provocation.
I said to Kieffer: 'Go on, but do not lift your arm.' Watching him jump was hysterical. My heart overruled my head; we needed to get up the pitch.
At heart, it's a game, and we're all competing. A team making a surprise run deep into a tournament is a glorious thing, and if you call it before the event — if you pick out the dark horse — then you get to share in the glory. You called it, you own it. It's basically one-shot fantasy football, which means very little admin.
Turkey were a popular choice. Turkey had proper central defenders, a playmaker from AC Milan, a veteran striker coming off a surprise season. Turkey had form, too: that run from nowhere into third place in 2002. And now Turkey are going home have scored precisely one goal and gathered exactly no points.
Obviously there is always the chance of this sort of thing happening: if Turkey had been guaranteed to show up, there would have been nothing dark about their horsiness. And nobody gets any kudos for picking out an easily visible horse that everybody can see. Oh, you think Belgium might be good this year? You brave maverick you.
And while Turkey were pretty dreadful, it might be the case that we all underestimated the group. Italy being excellent was predictable, but Wales appear to be doing that thing again, where they channel all the magic intangibles of team spirit and togetherness and really intense post-match huddles. That just leaves Switzerland. And if there's one thing we know about Switzerland at tournaments, it's that Ricardo Rodriguez will always be playing left back. He was there in 1934 when they played their first World Cup, and he will be there in the far distant future, when the sun is small and red and cold and the Euros has expanded to 512 teams playing across five different planets.
But if there's two things we know about Switzerland at tournaments, it's that Xherdan Shaqiri will always, always, always have one great game and score one great goal. It is his nature. It is what he does. How could any mere dark horse hope to compete with football's squarest and most inevitable part-time genius?
IN OTHER NEWS
Once, twice, three times the crossbar. Once, twice, three times Brad Guzan.
On the occasion of his 66th birthday, we're guessing Michel Platini's feeling a little peculiar. On the one hand, his grand cross-continent tournament dream has finally come to fruition. And though it's obviously ridiculous and silly in lots of important ways, it's still an international football tournament and so we're all having a good time. Except Turkey.
On the other, he's not around to bask in any of the glory. He could have been ruling the world by now. Or at least in charge of FIFA. He should have been accepting applause in stadiums all across Europe. Instead… well, here are all the goals he scored at Euro 1984. All nine of them. What a player.
Enjoyed this piece from Marcus Christenson, over at the Guardian, about the unlikely career path of Robin Gosens, the flying wing back who has made Germany fun again.
When Robin Gosens was a young man he wanted to be a police officer, just like his grandfather. However, he was told by one regional office that his legs were too different in height to make it so he ended up pursuing plan B instead: a career as a professional footballer.
Group B stands for "Bunched up Behind Belgium". If Denmark beat Russia and Finland lose to Roberto Martinez's entertainers, then that will leave three teams on three points, each with a win over one of the others. Could come down to goal difference. Could come down to disciplinary points.
Then come Group C, which stands for "Crunch Match". Ukraine and Austria will play off for second place and the right to face Italy at Wembley, while the Netherlands, who are guaranteed first place, get to kick back and relax against already-eliminated North Macedonia.
With his powder blue jacket slung over his shoulder, Ben Snowball will be here with tomorrow's Warm-Up
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