Euro 2020(1): The Second Round – Brysia Wella

by | Jun 27, 2021

For about forty minutes in Amsterdam last night, Wales clung onto a place in the European Championships in the face of overwhelming evidence that there would be no place for them in the quarter-finals of the competition. Already two goals down, signs of the decay in their opportunity had been stacking up. The early goal, and the chaser at the start of the second half. The yellow card which would have kept their striker out of the next round if they did manage to get through and an injury to another player at the end of an exhausting season. They kept going, until there only a couple of minutes left to play, and their collapse in the final few minutes of the match, during which they conceded a further two goals and lost substitute Harry Wilson to a red card, added a veneeer of finality to their defeat.

The evening had started on a different note. Denmark may have had the majority of supporters inside the Amsterdam Arena, and they may well have been ‘doing it for Christian’, but for ten minutes Wales were effervescent, with Gareth Bale firing a couple of shots at Kasper Schmeichel in the manner of a golfer finding their aim. After ten minutes, though, came the first signs of the cracks in the Welsh armour when Kasper Dolberg cut in from the left and curled a low shot around Danny Ward and into the corner of the goal. Shortly afterwards, Damsgaaard and Dolberg combined on the left which resulted in a flick from Dolberg that Ward blocked with his legs. The tone and timbre of the match had changed completely and as Denmark settled into their rhythm, so Wales found themselves running out of ideas.

Three minutes into the second half came the passage of play upon which the rest of the match would hinge. Kieffer Moore was hauled to the ground well inside the Danish half of the pitch, and with Wales hesitating, waiting a whistle that never came, Denmark broke on the right. Martin Braithwaite crossed low, but Neco Williams’ attempted clearance just put the ball straight into the path of Dolberg, who smashed it low inside Ward’s near post. It was a foul on Moore, but the fact that the Moore incident happened so deep inside the Danish half that VAR was not going to step into save them. Denmark closed the game down with some degree of comfort as the Welsh huffed and puffed, and with two minutes to go Joakim Maehle drove in a third goal from close range, while not even stoppage-time offered a battered Wales team any respite. There was little justification for the cynical and frustrated Wilson tackle that earned him a red card, while even Braithwaite’s fourth goal, scored in the 93rd minute, probably wasn’t an unfair reflection on the way that the game had gone.

It was always unlikely that Wales would be able to repeat their escapades of five years ago. They had a lot of travelling to do, and this tournament came at the end of a season that, for a fair number of their players, will have involved 46 league games. In their three group games, they played well against Switzerland and were good value for their draw, and their win against Turkey gave them the advantage of going into their final group game knowing that they were almost certainly through to the next round, regardless of their result from a difficult trip to Rome to play Italy. And they gave Italy their most dificult game of the group stage. This summer, though, there was no space for a heroic Welsh narrative because that was taking place elsewhere. Denmark, who seemed to have turned the events in Copenhagen of a couple of weeks ago to the best advantage they could, are looking increasingly like a team capable of winning this entire tournament.

Much has been made of Italy’s form under Roberto Mancini and their winning start in this competition, but last night they came up against a wall of obduracy in the form of Austria, and were slightly fortunate to not be taken to a penalty shoot-out in London last night. On a taut and tense evening, Italy dominated for much of the first half without being able to really find a route through the Austrian defence, but with Austria having successfully absorbed everything that Italy could throw at them, Italy striggled in the second half and might even had crashed out of the competition had Marko Arnautovic’s header not been called back for an offside call.

The change that altered the course of this match came with the introduction of Federico Chiesa with six minutes left to play. Extra-time is seldomed welcomed by fans, these days. Those extra thirty minutes often feel like little more than an extended gateway to a penalty shootout, and there are many these days who would abolish them and just skip straight to the drama instead. Five minutes into extra-time, Chiesa seemed to control long diagonal ball with the side of his face before following with a shot across goalkeeper Bachmann and in to break the deadlock.

Under different circumstances, this would have been the goal to kill the game stone dead, but even after Matteo Pessina doubled Italy’s lead on the stroke of half-time, there remained the sense that Austria weren’t quite completely out of this match yet. And so it proved. With six minutes to play, Sasa Kalajdzic – Austria’s truly outstanding performer on the evening – pulled a goal back and it was a tense closing few minutes for Italy, who found themselves labouring against an Austrian team which seemed to grow in self-belief as the evening progressed. Had there been a further six minutes beyond the thirty, there’s a very strong possibility that Austria would have forced a penalty shoot-out. As it turned out, though, they just ran out of time, so it’s Italy who will progress to a quarter-final and Austria who may be left regretting the fact that they weren’t as adventrous for the the first half of this match as they were for its remainder.

Nothing we saw last night altered much of what we might have felt about Italy prior to the match. They have been an extremely impressive looking team so far, but the lack of top quality opposition in all of the matches that they have played since Roberto Mancini took charge of the team in 2018 remains their biggest obstacle to winning the tournament. True enough, they were superb in their openin matches against Turkey and Switzerland, but their opposition is now starting to incrementally improve game by game, and Italy are coming closer and closer to losing. Wales put up more of a fight against them and might have snatched a draw. Austria did likewise, forced extra-time, scored a goal, and might, with another five minutes, have forced a penalty shootout. Talk of Italy definitely winning the tournament – of which there has been qquite a lot, these last few days – may have been slightly overstated.