Euros talking points: Should Ronaldo start? Spotlight on Van Dijk

Calafiori absence may be too much for limited Italy to bear

Italy vs Switzerland, Saturday June 29, 5pm, Berlin

Italy have gone under the radar in Germany so far, largely because no one expects much more than that. Aside from Denmark in 1996 and Greece in 2008, there are few European champions in living memory with such limited fanfare to retain their crown.

For those trophy-starved nations it made sense, less-so a side with six major international honours. But Italy’s team in 2021 was ageing, and the baton passing has not been a smooth one. And but for Mattia Zaccagni’s last-minute equaliser against Croatia, they would not have reached the knock-out stages.

Even the managerial genius of Luciano Spalletti has not been enough to conjure more than an unconvincing win over Albania to date. And the loss through suspension of 22-year-old Riccardo Calafiori, Italy’s brightest talent in Germany, only makes things more difficult.

He was one of few to shine in the opening game, was unfortunate to concede an own goal which proved the winner against Spain, and made Zaccagni’s equaliser against Croatia with a driving run from defence.

Switzerland could not have picked a better player to sit this game out. Their tournament has been a mirror image of Italy’s, an under-fire coach criticised openly in the media by captain Granit Xhaka.

But whereas Spalletti has spoken of his hopes of creating a team greater than the sum of their parts, Murat Yakin has achieved it.

The Swiss were seconds away from winning the group and shocking Germany in their final group game, and they have shaken off concerns over scoring goals with four of their five so far coming from their forward-line, including a re-invigorated Xherdan Shaqiri.

Though they reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, Switzerland feel like the epitome of a last-16 team. But there is no reason they shouldn’t match their performance of three years ago to finally topple this teetering champion.
Ron Walker

Why Kroos’ performances show he shouldn’t retire

Should Toni Kroos really retire after these Euros?
Should Toni Kroos really retire after these Euros?

Germany vs Denmark, Saturday June 29, 8pm, Dortmund

LaLiga winner, Champions League winner, and now representing his country in a home tournament – Toni Kroos is going out on a high. But is the 34-year-old too good to be retiring from all professional football after this tournament?

Kroos is not just a key cog in a Germany team that has largely impressed so far, he has been one of the outstanding all-round midfielders in the tournament. The ultimate metronome.


It begs the question: why? For both Germany and Real Madrid, he could be the key difference for years to come.

Kroos has been tempted out of retirement before. He nearly quit the game 12 months ago but Real Madrid convinced him to stay another year. He then came out of international retirement in February.

“I’ve told him we are waiting for him to change his mind,” said Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti this month.

Go on Toni, give us more one farewell tour.
Sam Blitz

Slovakia tie a reminder of England’s long-standing problems

England vs Slovakia, Sunday June 30, 5pm, Gelsenkirchen

Struggling to break down the opposition. Laboured and short of ideas in possession. A star forward operating in the wrong areas. Makeshift midfield solutions. A pacey forward on the bench who could stretch the play not deployed. Wide players not delivering end product – would Marcus Rashford be a better option? And Harry Kane struggling to make an impact…

But enough about Sam Allardyce’s solitary game in charge of England.

Eight years on, England meet Slovakia again. Another 1-0 would do the job at Euro 2024 but it is striking that Gareth Southgate is wrestling with similar issues to the ones which were on show in that World Cup qualifier in September 2016.

Sam Allardyce watches on as England struggle in a World Cup qualifier against Slovakia in 2016
Sam Allardyce watches on as England struggle in a World Cup qualifier against Slovakia in 2016

England are a better side now, no question. But familiar problems are preventing them from realising their potential in Germany so far.

Will Southgate cut loose and harness the pace of Anthony Gordon, or, like Allardyce with Jamie Vardy, keep his speedster in reserve? Remarkably, Allardyce said after that win it wasn’t for him to tell a dropping-deep Wayne Rooney where to play. England supporters will hope Southgate uses a firmer hand to remodel his midfield and maximise the qualities of Jude Bellingham and co on Sunday.

An improved performance is needed from this current Three Lions group to prevent Slovakia being Southgate’s final fixture in charge of England as it was for Allardyce.
Peter Smith

Spain bringing the fun factor to Euro 2024

Spain vs Georgia, Sunday June 30, 8pm, Cologne

Thinking back to the great Spanish teams of Xavi and Andres Iniesta who won three straight major tournaments between 2008-2012 has made me think. Although delightful and revolutionary with their football, dare I say it, they could be quite boring to watch. Pass. Pass. Pass. Then we’ll pass some more.

This Spain team, who are the only team with a 100 per cent record in the tournament and to have yet concede a goal, are trying to follow in some pretty huge footsteps. But they are doing it very differently. It’s football that is pure fun.

Without the ball, they play a high risky defensive line and press the opposition with great intensity. With the ball, they play direct into their pacey and powerful wingers and get the ball into the box. It’s proving hard to stop, especially as they can switch it up at anytime to play possession football, too. Rodri, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri are simply sublime footballers with the ball. They rarely waste it.


Just look at what they did to Italy. The 1-0 scoreline hugely flattered the Italians.

The shot count was 20-4, the expected goals numbers 2.02-0.16 and the passes in the final third 176-66.

The underlying metrics back up the visuals. Spain are the real deal.
Lewis Jones

Can goal-shy neighbours France and Belgium finally kick into gear?

France vs Belgium, Monday July 1, 5pm, Dusseldorf

As the sides ranked second and third in the world going into the tournament, it was no surprise France and Belgium were among the pre-tournament favourites going into Euro 2024. To this point, however, neither has provided much justification as to why.

Let’s start with France. A Max Wober own goal saw them beat Austria 1-0, before draws with the Netherlands and Poland meant they finished second in Group D, runners-up to Ralf Rangnick’s impressive aforementioned Austria. And the stats that accompany the grossly unspectacular performance do not make for enjoyable reading.

Les Bleus’ tally of just two goals was their fewest in a major tournament group since the 2010 World Cup – and with the second coming by way of a Kylian Mbappe penalty, Didier Deschamps’ side racked up 47 non-penalty attempts without scoring, generating 5.88 xG along the way. Not only that, only Serbia (3.8 per cent) had a poorer shot conversion rate in the group stage than France’s – and indeed Belgium’s – 4.2 per cent.

Belgium have not fared much better, with Youri Tielemans and Kevin De Bruyne’s goals in the 2-0 win over Romania their only strikes so far. They, too, racked up 48 attempts across their three group games – 18 of which were on target – and generated 4.34 xG. A significant underperformance, by any standards, but admittedly not unexpected; they have now scored just three goals from 9.15 xG across the current tournament and the 2022 World Cup.

That said, VAR has been the most painful of thorns in their side. In their opening defeat to Slovakia, Romelu Lukaku had one goal chalked off for a marginal offside and another, controversially, ruled out after the ball struck Lois Openda’s hand in the build-up. Lukaku then struck to double the Red Devils’ lead against Romania, only to see his third ‘goal’ suffer the same fate as his first.

It hasn’t been pretty so far, but with a place in the quarter-finals up for grabs, there’s no time like the present for one – or both – of these near neighbours to finally kick into gear.
Dan Long

Is Ronaldo still good enough start?

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after the final whistle
Cristiano Ronaldo has yet to score at Euro 2024, but is still performing in other areas for Portugal

Portugal vs Slovenia, Monday July 1, 8pm, Frankfurt

Euro 2024 so far has not been vintage for strikers – Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe have just one goal each. Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo have none.

But any talk of Ronaldo potentially being dropped is likely to be unfounded. Despite being 39, the captain has still moved and played well in the group stages, linking up nicely with the wide players.

He has an assist too for Bruno Fernandes’ goal against Turkey, and has registered the most shots (12) of the tournament. He ranks in the top 10 too for touches in the opposition box (16), shots on target (5) and big chances created (2).

skysports cristiano ronaldo 6593392

Some of these conversations may have stemmed from his substitution in the 66th minute against Georgia – but hardly any of the Portugal team covered themselves in glory that day.

Ultimately, Ronaldo is still considered one of the best to ever play the game and looks far from finished on the international stage.

He lends Portugal a gravitas and aura that few other players can provide, and expect him to have more goal involvements before his tournament is out.
Charlotte Marsh

Van Dijk and Dutch must show their true colours

Virgil van Dijk didn't stop to speak to the media after the Netherlands were stunned by Austria - but later admitted his performances need to improve
Virgil van Dijk didn’t stop to speak to the media after the Netherlands were stunned by Austria – but has admitted his performances need to improve

Romania vs Netherlands, Tuesday July 2, 5pm, Munich

The Netherlands’ team are becoming a party-pooper for its thousands of exuberant orange-clad fans after dark horses Austria turned the Oranje to squash in arguably the game of the tournament so far.

That 3-2 loss demolished confidence but Romania offers a golden opportunity to set up a swift chance for revenge provided Ralf Rangnick’s side defeat Turkey.

For that to happen, Virgil van Dijk must rediscover his best form. Marco van Basten has doubled down this week on his criticism of the Liverpool captain.

“He’s got to lead and he’s the one we’re going to hold accountable in the end,” the 59-year-old said. “He has to organise things and he is responsible. He is the great leader of the team and you have to organise these kinds of things better.

Virgil van Dijk played Marcel Sabitzer onside for Austria’s winner and failed to make a single tackle or interception in the match
Virgil van Dijk played Marcel Sabitzer onside for Austria’s winner and failed to make a single tackle or interception in the match

Van Dijk: Dutch may have overestimated own qualities

“I can completely understand the criticism,” Van Dijk told a Friday press conference. “I’m not stupid, I also know that I can do better and that it should be better, and that’s what I’m working on.

“I didn’t play my best game against Austria. It does affect me, I also think that things overall can and should be better. The whole team didn’t run, but I look first at myself. I could have brought much more.

“Maybe we overestimate ourselves. A lot had to be said and we had to analyse a lot. Things went completely wrong against Austria. It was very bad. We have talked about many aspects, now we have to show it.

“It was not the tactics where things went wrong. It was mainly the will to win, to win that second ball. You don’t have to talk about that with the coaches, the players must do that among themselves. So, we have talked about that…and with harsh words.”

“Unfortunately, the criticism has not led to improvement, because it is actually the same points that are not going well. In that respect, it’s a bit disappointing. I’m sorry I have to say it again, but I can also keep my mouth shut.”

He is of course not alone in shouldering the blame for the loss in Berlin.

Ronald Koeman’s team are missing influential midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who failed to recover from an ankle injury in time for the tournament. Teun Koopmeiners was also forced to drop out while Joey Veerman was hooked after 35 minutes in the Austria loss.

A midfield imbalance is not only afflicting England out in Germany. Unlike Gareth Southgate, Koeman is not afraid to make changes – but so far, none have paid off.

Despite the problems, the Netherlands will be favoured to overcome Romania, giving Koeman and Van Dijk another shot at breaking the longstanding Dutch tradition of disappointing at major tournaments.
Ben Grounds

Dangerous Austria are a force to be reckoned with

Austria vs Turkey, Tuesday July 2, 8pm, Leipzig

Ralf Rangnick admitted there was scepticism among the players when he was hired as Austria’s manager in 2022, but those doubts have been quickly eradicated after the national team finished top of their group at a European Championship for the first time in their history.

Known as one of the godfathers of “gegenpressing”, the German has left a permanent mark on modern football and Austria’s current squad is excelling under his guidance.

Austria, Euro 2024
Ralf Rangnick’s Austria reached the last 16 as Group D winners

Their aggressive, front-foot approach saw them perform well in a narrow loss to France before more eye-catching displays followed in deserved wins over Poland and the Netherlands.

While Austria’s tireless running and fluid movement caused the Dutch constant problems last time out, their never-say-die attitude – instilled by Rangnick – was equally as impressive.

Many will view a country ranked 25th in the world as a surprise package at this tournament, but Austria have now lost just twice in 19 matches.

Rangnick’s side are a force to be reckoned with and won’t fear anyone in the knockout stage. They are on the same side of the draw as England. The Three Lions better watch out.
Dan Sansom

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