Conservative play is often international football’s bugbear. National team players spend very little time together for attacking structures and synchronous moves to develop, and a safety-first approach always seems around the corner. Ahead of Euro 2020, there were fears that players will be less on the front foot because of the physical and mental toll the COVID-19 pandemic had exacted. By that yardstick, Euro 2020 has thus far proved to be an entertaining fare, with the enthralling play matching the energy of the returning fans. Compared to the previous edition’s group stage, there have been 25 goals more (94 to 69) and four fewer matches with one goal or less (10 to 14), with just two goalless draws (down from four). Overall, 15 of the 16 countries in the knockouts have a better group stage record than champion Portugal five years ago. Top sides such as the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Spain have not moved away from their lively, pressing style of football, despite the tournament coming at the fag end of a long and tiring season. World Champion France has not been swashbuckling, but seems efficient, while Portugal is always a threat with Cristiano Ronaldo around (five goals and one assist). Denmark’s has been the feel-good story, recovering from talisman Christian Eriksen’s on-field collapse owing to cardiac arrest in its opening match, to make it to the next round. Eriksen is now out of danger and Denmark has quickly become the neutral’s choice.
However, it remains to be seen how much of the positivity spills over into the round-of-16, which begins in Amsterdam on Saturday with the Denmark-Wales clash. If ever there was a time for cautious play, it is now, with the competition essentially a single-elimination, winner-take-all affair. France, having won the 2018 World Cup, knows a way around such situations, and with midfielder Paul Pogba in imperious form, it remains the favourite. Italy has been the stand-out team, with its young and energetic outfit coached by the astute Roberto Mancini expected to go far and bury the ghosts of 2018 when it did not qualify for the World Cup. Belgium’s golden generation, led by Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, seems well-placed to realise the dream of a first major trophy. But its shaky defence needs some shoring up, first against Ronaldo’s Portugal. The most-anticipated pre-quarterfinal clash will however be between England and Germany at Wembley. But both sides have been middling so far, with their halos significantly dimmed. Germany, in particular, was minutes away from elimination, before Leon Goretzka’s deflected goal against Hungary saved the day. But the weight of history can hang heavy on England, for it has won just three out of 11 competitive fixtures against Germany, the last coming 20 years ago.