Previewing the Euro semifinals

The Euro 2020 semifinal matchups are set. Italy will play Spain tomorrow. On Wednesday, it will be England against Denmark. Both matches will be played at Wembley Stadium in London.

There has been some grousing about the fact that England will get to play all of its matches except one (the quarterfinal against Ukraine) at home. The grousing is ridiculous.

Every two years, there is a major international soccer tournament that can be played in Europe — either the World Cup or the Euros. England last hosted such a tournament in 1996. Since then, France has hosted both the Euros and the World Cup. Germany has hosted the World Cup is schedule to host the next Euros three years from now.

If anything, England, where soccer began, should have hosted the entirety of Euro 2020, logistics permitting.

How do this year’s semifinals stack up?

Italy vs. Spain comes the closest to being a clash of titans. Italy has been the best team in the tournament. Its mediocre display against Austria in the round of 16 now looks like a blip. Spain has been among the best of the rest.

The two teams have a common opponent, Switzerland. Italy blew the Swiss out, 3-0, in the group stage. It took penalty kicks after 120 minutes for Spain to get by Switzerland in the quarterfinals. No wonder Italy is favored over Spain.

The key to Italy’s success has been the quickness and incisiveness of its passing, particularly through midfield. Spain traditionally has been better at this than Italy and everyone else, and its passing has been good enough in this tournament to dominate possession of the ball.

But Spain’s passing and movement have lacked the fluidity of Italy’s. It sometimes seems more like possession for possession’s sake than a successful formula for breaking down the defense.

The good news is that if any team in the tournament has the ability to disrupt Italy’s passing game, it’s probably Spain. The Spanish midfield features Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Koke (Spanish champions Atlético Madrid) and Pedri (Barcelona).

Busquets, who played on Spain’s 2010 World Cup winner and its Euro 2012 winner, is one of the best defensive midfielders ever. He’s now fully recovered from the coronavirus and playing very well.

Koke, the captain of Atlético, is an excellent two-way midfielder. Pedri, only 18 years old, has probably been Spain’s best player at the Euros. Passing is his calling card, but he’s also one of the hardest workers on the pitch.

Italy’s midfield (Jorginho, Veratti, and Barella) is probably as good as Spain’s, and the Italians have the edge just about everywhere else except at left back due to the injury to Spinazzola (an important loss). But there’s a good chance Spain can hang with Italy. And in soccer, as in most sports, if you can hang around, you can win.

England vs. Denmark is a pretty even matchup. Both beat their common opponent, the Czech Republic, by one goal. And both teams seem energized by virtue of playing for something a bit extra. In England’s case, it’s vanquishing the memory of all those past failures. In Denmark’s case, it’s winning for their captain, Christian Eriksen, who nearly died of cardiac arrest in the team’s opener.

England has two advantages, though. The first is the home field.

The second is the front two, now that Harry Kane is banging in goals again. Kane and Sterling are clearly superior to any combination of Poulsen/Braithwaite/Dolberg.

Denmark plays three center backs. It will be the fourth England opponent to do so in this tournament.

Gareth Southgate has used different tactics in each of the three previous such matches. Against Scotland, he used two center backs and played Phil Foden on the right side of a front three. Against Germany, he matched up, using three center backs. Against Ukraine, he reverted to two center backs, but played Jaden Sancho on the right instead of Foden.

Sancho is a traditional winger. He played wide. Foden, by contrast, likes to cut inside.

England’s game against Scotland was its worst in the tourney by far, so we probably won’t see a repeat of Southgate’s tactics from that contest. It’s possible that Southgate will revert to three center backs. Like Germany, and unlike Ukraine, Denmark’s wingbacks pose a serious threat. Southgate might want to neutralize it by matching up.

Given the success England enjoyed against Ukraine, Southgate will be tempted to use the same formation and lineup. However, his tendency is to change things in response to his analysis of the opposition and perhaps to gain the element of surprise.

One possibility is to start Jack Grealish. He is the team’s somewhat secret weapon, and was held out of the Ukraine rout, perhaps to keep him rested.

The problem is that Grealish tends to play on the left. But the combination of Raheem Sterling and Luke Shaw down the left has been so potent that Southgate will be reluctant to break it up. Grealish might have to be content with his role as super-sub.

Alternatively, Southgate could play Grealish on the right. Or he could stick with Sancho. Or he could bring back Bukayo Saka, who played so well against Germany. However, Sako was less effective against the Czechs and was out of the picture for the Ukraine match due to injury.

I’ve said throughout the tournament that I trust Southgate to make the right calls. I still do. My guess is that he’ll get the tactics right and that England will prevail in this match.

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