EVEN from a couple of days distance it feels somehow wrong to analyze Spain’s crazy 5-3 victory over Croatia.
It was a topsy-turvy game to revel and lose yourself in; to throw all available data into the air and amidst a snowfall of ripped-up paper laugh out loud at the sheer madness of tournament football. It was just mega fun. That should be the ultimate take, even in hindsight.
Putting it under a microscope is akin to studying the ingredients of jelly and ice cream.
And yet, when revisiting the remarkable ebbs and flows of this eight-goal thriller a couple of details do stand out; traits that may merely be quirky or might matter going forward.
Croatia’s bizarre opener, courtesy of an overhit back-pass and goalkeeping mishap was the first time Spain had been breached inside 25 minutes since Raheem Sterling converted in the same stadium three years before. That was 28 games ago.
So, do we now revise the trope that it always takes a good while to break down Luis Enrique’s side? After all, Pedri’s own-goal was an anomaly in every sense, and it still holds true that La Roja have only conceded three times in the first-half in their last 20 fixtures.
CROATIA COMEBACK pic.twitter.com/oAx5EeQYDt
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 28, 2021
Then there’s the Croat’s astonishing comeback to consider. Since 2019, Spain have snatched four last-gasp goals to either draw or win crucial contests. This was becoming their thing and now it’s happened to them and for a team that prided itself on either seeing out or salvaging games what psychological impact might this have ahead of their first major tournament quarter-final for nine years?
Stepping back from the epic encounter in Seville last Monday evening we find other revisions are necessary regarding a side that might now conceivably go on to win the competition. Because despite blasting five apiece past Slovakia and Croatia the charge persists that they are wasteful up front, with much of the criticism falling on Alvaro Morata.
Really though, Morata’s stats aren’t too bad: it’s just that his missed chances have been glaring and furthermore the Juventus forward has a track-record for scoring in streaks for his country. He currently has two in three.
If Morata is the forward who is drawing all the fire at Euro 2020 – and there is always one in every major competition and very often they have the last laugh – his team-mates have also been guilty of spurning the odd opportunity or three. Here though, it is not a revision that is needed but rather a tweak in perspective.
To date, Spain have put together the most attacks, carving out the third most attempts on goal. Only Poland and France have hit the woodwork more. Averaging 7.25 shots on target, only Denmark can better that and signifying their attacking intent, no other side can match their ratio of seven corners per game.
All of this, initially at least, led to an XG that was on the wrong side of poor along with a reputation for being profligate that has unfairly stuck.
An INCREDIBLE goal by Morata. pic.twitter.com/uO1SyK91Od
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) June 28, 2021
It’s unfair because La Roja are the tournament’s top scorers, boasting their best goals-per-game ratio after four games of a major tournament since 1986, and truthfully what does it matter if the misses outweigh the hits so long as they keep creating with such regularity?
Switzerland will certainly be mindful of their opponent’s ability to conjure up opportunities seemingly at will though they will be hugely buoyed by their tremendous defeat of tournament favourites France.
They go into this as 23/5 outsiders, a status they thrive off and suits their selling point of being a team with no stand-out stars. It’s worth remembering though that while they deserved every iota of praise for their fabulous penalty shoot-out triumph in Bucharest, the Swiss nestle between Germany and Holland in the world rankings. They’re a very decent outfit who have perfected the art of turning perceived weaknesses into strengths.
More so, while they lack big-name players, in Steven Zuber they possess an uncrowned assist king who could give Kevin De Bruyne a run for his money. Currently topping the assist chart at Euro 2020, the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder incredibly has been directly involved in a goal every 44 minutes across his last five appearances for his country.
Switzerland will also be encouraged by their hard-fought Nations League draw against Spain last November, despite only having 29% possession throughout. Spain incidentally have a worrying propensity to draw, with 10 in their last 20 so yet more extra-time drama should not be ruled out.
63 goals in 96 games for Belgium.
Romelu Lukaku is special ✨ pic.twitter.com/ZhzaJNyiC3
— B/R Football (@brfootball) June 21, 2021
Later that evening Belgium take on Italy in a last eight clash that has all the makings of a memorable classic. We said that about Belgium v Portugal however, so let’s not jinx anything.
Instead, let’s acknowledge how exceedingly difficult this potentially epic match-up is to call with the main assets of each side cancelling the other out.
A case in point is Belgium’s phenomenal scoring prowess. The Red Devils last failed to get on the score-sheet just shy of three years ago, in their World Cup semi-final defeat to France. That’s a mind-boggling 35 games ago.
Yet, in Munich on Friday evening, Lukaku and co come up against a team unbeaten in 31 fixtures who have conceded just once in their last 1168 minutes of international football. Furthermore, they will likely have to tackle this azure blue fortification without Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in their starting eleven, though one or both may feature from the bench.
It should be said that Italy have hardly had to dig deep into their catenaccio legacy in the tournament so far and Roberto Martinez’s side will undoubtedly be their toughest test for quite some time. But still, this is the sublime taking on the sublime and with Belgium depleted of their best creativity, the Italians might just shade it.
At the other end, the Azzurri deserve enormous credit for how they have shared around the goals in recent times though this hardly helps us nail a likely candidate in the goal scorer market. For context, 22 different players are responsible for Italy’s last 50 goals. By way of comparison, Romelu Lukaku has struck 27% of Belgium’s entire goal-haul in the last five years.
Even so, in Immobile, Insigne, Belotti and Berardi, Italy possess a range of differing problems to pose opponents and one usually prevails.