A month’s worth of non-stop European football later, Italy were crowned champions of the 16th edition of the European Championship after defeating England on penalties.
The 15 knockout matches undoubtedly featured some of the best and most exciting football we have seen in quite a while, so let’s get right to reviewing some of the best action from the last two weeks.
It’s easy to say this after they went all the way to the final, but England looked to be the best side in the Euro 2020 knockout stage.
They had everything – from defence to attack, squad depth to an established XI, and tactical flexibility to togetherness.
Starting at the back, Jordan Pickford looked solid in goal, while Harry Maguire and John Stones’ partnership at centre-back coupled with Kyle Walker’s recovery pace in both a back-three and back-four would provide very mean opposition to any side.
Declan Rice primarily stayed in holding midfield with Mason Mount well ahead of him at times, but the man who really stole the show was Kalvin Phillips, who was operating in a more box-to-box role than what he did with Leeds United, and he was doing it rather well.
Raheem Sterling was magical in attack, with Harry Kane firing beside him too and Bukayo Saka or Jadon Sancho providing quality options on the right.
All these players can only get you halfway, as you need a tactically astute manager to use them properly.
The Three Lions had that and more in Gareth Southgate, who emphatically answered all questions about his flexibility by executing various systems from a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1.
He always knew when and how to use them correctly, which proved to be the difference on several occasions – not least the final.
Finally, as good as it is to have a quality-filled squad, avoiding internal conflicts is quite important to succeed on an international stage (just ask France).
England did that very well as all their players worked for one another, creating a positive environment wherever they went.
They ended up just falling short in the final on penalties, but contrasting their comfortable round of 16 and quarter-final victories and extra-time triumph in the semifinal to Italy’s struggles against Austria and Spain, there certainly is a case to be argued that they were the better side in the knockouts overall.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. That sentence should be enough to describe Raheem Sterling’s Euro 2020 campaign, where he delivered at the key moment for England time and again.
After a disappointing season with Manchester City which drew a fair bit of criticism, there were eyebrows raised at his name when the winger started the against Croatia, but after scoring both of the Three Lions’ two group stage goals, he was one of the first on the teamsheet for the knockouts.
Germany were England’s first obstacle, and once again, Sterling opened the scoring at 75 minutes with the match hanging firmly in the balance.
He had a bit of a shaky moment thereafter when he played an incisive through ball to send Thomas Müller through on goal with a chance to equalise, but the Bayern Munich man let him off the hook by missing.
The 26-year-old travelled to Rome next, and this time he played a through ball to one of his teammates – Harry Kane – within four minutes to put England in front.
The rest of that match proved to be a cruise with three more goals coming, but Sterling was needed again when his side went 1-0 down to Denmark in the semi-final.
He delivered big time on yet another occasion, forcing Simon Kjær to score an own goal quickly thereafter before winning the decisive penalty in extra time.
The Man City man was forced to play on the right for the majority of the final, and he had a good influence there as he dropped into midfield to help his side create overloads and open up space on the flank for Kieran Trippier.
The fact that all three of his goals came at Wembley – a location that holds a great deal of meaning to his life – makes it all the better because Sterling really was living the dream.
We witnessed some absolute beauties in the Euro 2020 knockout stage including a lovely strike from the edge of the box from Thorgan Hazard and the only direct free-kick goal of the tournament by Mikkel Damsgaard, but it was Paul Pogba’s strike that was by far the best of the bunch.
It was clear what he would do from the moment Karim Benzema’s blocked shot travelled in his direction. An outstretched right foot and a couple of touches helped the Manchester United man control the ball, and then he did the thing.
Pulling his right leg back and swinging it forward with a side-footed strike against the ball almost led you to think that he was trying a bit of golf, and he might well have been with how perfectly his strike dipped and swerved into the top corner.
All three goalkeepers in the Swiss squad could have been standing between the sticks, but there was no stopping that shot.
Just as the ball struck his foot, Pogba knew what was going to happen, so he folded his arms and observed his poetry in motion in style.
He pulled out a couple of other goal celebrations thereafter for good measure, and although some might not have liked it, such a goal arguably merited a few more as well.
Italy and Spain were certainly the two best sides in the Euros, so their semifinal clash was unquestionable the best in the competition in terms of pure technical and tactical quality.
In fact, you would do a great job to find a match on a similar level in those parameters in the history of international football.
However, what most fans want is entertainment, and for that, we must turn back to France. Besides their soap opera level of internal drama and tensions within the squad, they featured in quite a fun football match against Switzerland.
Haris Seferovic – a man who had consistently let his nation down on the big stage – scored his second-ever goal in a major international tournament to put his side in front.
They then had a penalty early on in the second half, but Ricardo Rodríguez’s shot was saved by Hugo Lloris, and that is where the match seemed to turn.
Karim Benzema, a man who was in the French squad for the first time since 2015, equalised before adding a second and letting Pogba do his thing to make it 3-1.
The Swiss were not done, though, as they used the advantage of neutral turf to stage an unlikely comeback. Seferovic clawed one back with less than 10 minutes to go before Mario Gavranović scored a last-minute equaliser (after having one ruled out for offside) to take us to extra time.
Then, it was Yann Sommer’s time to shine, as he ensured that the scoreline remained at 3-3 in the next half an hour before stopping Kylian Mbappé’s penalty to see Switzerland through to the quarter-finals.
We had many incredible moments in the knockouts including the Czech Republic’s victory over the Netherlands, Switzerland’s and Spain’s penalty shootouts, Ukraine’s dramatic late winner against Sweden and much more, but the best moment we’re going for was not as instantly dramatic.
Denmark scored a beauty through Damsgaard against England, who quickly responded before half-time. With the match locked at 1-1 even in extra time, a spark of individual brilliance was needed to separate the two sides without yet another penalty shootout.
Up stepped Sterling, who beat Joakim Mæhle on the right (for the fifth or so time in the match) before entering the box.
He then took his head up to assess his options, but before he could do anything, the Manchester City man was brought down by a nudge on his knee and a barge from another player.
Controversy in the kilotonnes followed, but all of that just goes to show that as beautiful as football is, it can be a really cruel sport.
Denmark were on a fairytale voyage in the Euros after losing their first two group games in the midst of everything that happened to Christian Eriksen, but they somehow bounced back to reach the knockouts, breezed past Wales and the Czech Republic and even went on to score the first goal of the tournament that England conceded.
A final date was almost written in the stars at that stage, but ultimately their dreams were shattered by the smallest and most subjective of margins.
The subsequent penalty was saved despite Kasper Schmeichel having to deal with a laser pointed towards his face, but the rebound went in.
Football can be an unfair and heartbreaking sport sometimes, but maybe that’s why we love it even more.
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