Toni Kroos has retired from international football after Germany's defeat to England at Euro 2020, declaring: "I want to concentrate fully on my goals with Real Madrid."
 

Gareth Southgate's refusal to bow to public pressure and pick an attacking England team has earned the respect of former manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Southgate has guided the Three Lions to the last eight at Euro 2020, reaching this stage with their first knockout tournament win over Germany since 1966.

But the manager's team selection has been the source of scrutiny.

Not since the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia has Southgate named an unchanged side, a run of 34 consecutive matches seeing at least one alteration.

Despite this tinkering, the England boss has consistently named starting line-ups that have underwhelmed supporters.

Jack Grealish has started just seven of those 34 matches – and only one at the Euros – while Jadon Sancho, limited to six minutes so far in this campaign, is also not among the 12 players to have clocked 1,000 or more international minutes in this period (915).

The subsequent defensive solidity has paid off, however, for a team now versed in both a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3.

England have kept six straight clean sheets, beginning a major tournament with four in a row for the first time since winning the World Cup in 1966.

Eriksson, England manager from 2000 to 2006, knows all about the difficulty of satisfying fans while selecting an effective XI.

He famously sought to find a way to fit Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same side and has been impressed by Southgate's resolve.

"Now you have to respect that because that's not easy," Eriksson told Stats Perform. "I know it's not easy.

 

"It's not easy in a club, but when you have a national team like England, everybody has an opinion. And if you don't win, you have 60 million managers or coaches telling you what you should have done.

"But the problem always in football is that, as a manager, you have to decide what to do, how to do it before the match, not after. So, I respect Southgate very much.

"You know how it is: now he is up in the sky, flying, and that's fair, that's good. But it was a little bit of a defensive team he put it out to start with – and if that had gone wrong, he would have been very, very much criticised.

"He won, he had [it] right and the decision he took was right. That's important."

Ukraine are next up and, given they are considered more straightforward opponents than Germany, calls will grow again to bring in Grealish, Sancho or Phil Foden.

"I don't think Southgate needs any advice from anyone – and he will not listen to it," Eriksson said.

But he added: "I think it's going to be very important for England that they can open up, and if you ask me, yeah, I would put in one more attacking guy, maybe, who can do things one against one.

"I think that will be important for the Ukraine game.

"But anyhow, whatever formation Southgate uses, England will win that game. I can't see any other result than that they go through."

Romelu Lukaku has found a home in Milan after firing Inter to their first Serie A title since 2009-10 and is a player reborn.

Now it's time to annoy the neighbours.

"Yes, I am staying," Lukaku told VTM at the start of this month, amid speculation over his future after the departure of head coach Antonio Conte.

"I feel good at Inter. "I've already had contact with [incoming head coach Simone Inzaghi]. Maybe I shouldn't say that yet … but it was a very positive conversation. There’s also the challenge of doing it again [winning the Scudetto]."

Those clubs reportedly keen on changing Lukaku's mind over just how settled he is at San Siro have been given fresh reasons to try over the past few weeks, with the 28-year-old in superb form to haul Belgium into a Euro 2020 quarter-final against Italy on Friday.

When the sides met at Euro 2016 and Italy prevailed 2-0 in a group-stage encounter, Lukaku was substituted after 73 minutes with the game on the line.

Consider the centre-forward's herculean efforts in single-handedly and tirelessly trying to drive Portugal back as Belgium hung on to a 1-0 win over the reigning champions in the last-16 and it is impossible not to imagine him sweat-soaked in the middle of the field when the final whistle goes this time.

 

The Conte factor

Conte was Italy head coach that day in Lyon and he took an unfancied Azzurri to a penalty shoot-out defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals

That subsequent Premier League was promptly won by Conte, freshly installed at Chelsea. He tried to bolster their title defence by signing Lukaku from Everton, but the player's decision to join Manchester United left the combustible tactician in a fury that never completely lifted before his exit as an FA Cup winner at the end of 2017-18.

Lukaku finished that campaign with what was then a career best 27 goals in all competitions for United, but the following season became a struggle as Jose Mourinho departed and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived.

It was time for pastures new in 2019-20 and there was a serendipity to Conte ending a 12-month sabbatical to take the reins at Inter, aiming to bring down the Juventus dynasty he launched almost a decade earlier.

He got his man this time and Lukaku has blossomed.

In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport before the St Petersburg quarter-final, Conte described the striker as a "force of nature" and he told L'Equipe: "Romelu, today, is one of the best strikers in the world.

"He always had immense physical and athletic qualities, but during the past two years together we have seen him grow even more in terms of presence on the pitch, teamwork, and composure in front of goal.”

Across all competitions in 2019-20, Lukaku scored 34 goals – the most prolific season of his career, which he backed up with 30 last time around. His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes figure in 2020-21 was 0.76, another career best that indicates he is getting into better scoring positions and benefitting from a higher quality of chances. A shot conversion rate of 24 per cent at Inter also sees Lukaku breaking new ground.

 

The all-round development Conte alludes to is also clear. The 70 and 63 chances created in each of his Inter seasons again outstrip anything he has previously posted by that metric, yielding a personal best 11 assists last term.

Lukaku has also relocated his destructive capacity when it comes to running at defences with the ball, something that dwindled significantly at United.

Only in 2014-15 with Everton (145) did he attempt more dribbles than his 125 at Inter last season, while he never posted three figures at Old Trafford, slumping to a career-low 58 in 2018-19.

Familiar foes

Given Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard remain injury doubts, Lukaku's capacity to create for team-mates and himself might be crucial against an Italy defence that were breached for the first time in 19 hours and 28 minutes in their extra-time win over Austria.

Italy number one Gianluigi Donnarumma might not be too keen on the sight of the opposition number nine, given Lukaku's five goals against Milan in all competitions. Genoa (six) are the only Serie A side he has scored against more often.

Where Donnarumma might find reassurance is in the Juventus axis of Leonardo Bonucci and the fit-again Giorgio Chiellini in front of him.

 

While the veteran central-defensive pair's relative lack of pace means too many instances of the rampant, dribbling Lukaku that has re-emerged at Inter might spell disaster for Italy, the hitman's sparse record versus Juve suggests they know a thing or two about stopping him.

In five matches against the Old Lady for Inter, Lukaku has scored once from nine shots with an xG value of 1.4, a conversion rate of 11.1 per cent.

Contrast that with his record in the Derby della Madonnina, where his five goals have come from 24 shots (xG 5.2, 20.8 per cent conversion).

Such a record meant Lukaku was happy to proclaiming himself "King of Milano" after the Scudetto was secured, in a mocking dig at Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If he can slay the country where he has enjoyed an incredible rebirth, he will take a giant step towards being crowned king of Europe.

Jack Grealish knows Gareth Southgate has a tough time picking his England XI, describing the Three Lions' attacking options – of which he is one – as "scary".

Aston Villa captain Grealish has been the subject of much attention at Euro 2020, but Southgate has so far only started the winger once – against the Czech Republic.

Grealish laid on an assist in that game and had another as a substitute against Germany, making him the only England player to create multiple goals so far in the tournament.

Unsurprisingly, the most-fouled player in the Premier League in 2020-21 (110) has also earned the most free-kicks in this Three Lions side (seven).

This is despite Grealish being limited to just 116 minutes of action, although that is still considerably more than Marcus Rashford (58) or Jadon Sancho (six).

Rashford (20) and Sancho (19) had more goal involvements in the league last season than Grealish (16) or any of Southgate's other wide options: Raheem Sterling (17), Phil Foden (14) and Bukayo Saka (eight).

But Southgate's difficult decisions have so far paid off, with Sterling starting all four matches and scoring three of England's four goals, and Grealish has no issue with his manager.

"He's been perfect with me," the reported Manchester City target told reporters. "I see some stuff sometimes about me and Gareth but we have a great relationship. He does with all the players. He's a brilliant man-manager.

"You have got six players that play either side of Harry [Kane] that, in reality, could play for most clubs in the world.

"Myself, Jadon, Marcus, Raheem, Phil Foden and Bukayo. It's scary how good us six are. That's not being big-headed or nothing. That is just the truth.

"He can't play all six of us but one thing he's done really well is make people think that they are still involved. He still speaks to everyone on a daily basis."

 

It is Grealish whose exclusion has drawn the most ire, his introduction against Germany in the last 16 prompting a huge roar from the half-capacity Wembley crowd.

The 25-year-old says he would be watching from a fan park if he was not a player, adding his alternative vocation would likely be as "a club promoter, Tenerife or Ibiza".

As it is, Grealish is in the England squad and revelling in the attention.

"I'm loving it. It makes me so happy and proud when I hear the crowd singing my name," he said. "It could be too much pressure for some people but I just want to repay that.

"I always try to play with a smile on my face because I'm doing what I love.

"It's nice when Villa fans are calling for you but you kind of expect it because you are one of them. When it's England fans, it's different. I get booed every single week by these fans.

"When I speak to my mum and dad, they think that it's so nice people are not going: 'Ah, if he was at Villa, we'd boo him every week.'

"They are giving me that support and doing it for the whole team."

Switzerland's remarkable run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 has captivated fans at the grounds and at home.

Still, there is only one member of Vladimir Petkovic's squad who consistently has his own song belted out in stands and living rooms.

Striker Breel Embolo epitomises the 'golden generation' of Swiss players to have emerged in the last decade: talented, spirited, and with a story to tell. He is captivating as a player and person, so much so that his name is sung with gusto at every international match to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. "Oh Embolo, oh Embolo..."

There's no denying his popularity, but where Embolo has so far fallen short is in matching early expectations. He made his Basel debut in March 2014 and scored minutes after coming on as a substitute in his first Swiss Super League match. Links with clubs including Manchester United began to emerge as he earned a spot as the youngest Swiss player at Euro 2016 – a squad packed with talent, despite being sourced from a country roughly half the size of French Guiana with a population of around a million fewer people than Hungary.

A big move to the Bundesliga with Schalke followed, but serious injuries held him back in Gelsenkirchen as he missed the best part of 21 months of action. Matters improved after a switch to Borussia Monchengladbach in 2019, although his progress has been disrupted by some off-field indiscretions including a six-figure fine and one-game ban after he was accused by police of fleeing over rooftops after a raid on an illegal party in January this year (Embolo denied he attended the party).

His ability, though, has never been in question, even as other Switzerland players have attained greater continental acclaim. As Urs Fischer, Basel head coach in 2015, said: "I've coached Josip Drmic and Admir Mehmedi, and with Ricardo Rodriguez you could already see in the Under-15s that he was going to have a huge career.

"Ricci also had this carefreeness and calmness, only with Breel it seems to me that it's all a step higher. And he did it in a way where I have to say: very strong!"

'Strong' is certainly the word to describe his performances at Euro 2020.

 

Embolo scored his first tournament goal for Switzerland in their opening draw with Wales, a game Robert Page's men would likely admit was one they should have lost. Embolo should really have been the match-winner: he attempted at least twice as many shots (six) as anyone else in the contest, goalkeeper Danny Ward denied him another two goals, and a VAR review intervened after he set up what looked to have been the decisive third goal.

Switzerland have since scored six more goals, three against Turkey and three in that amazing last-16 tie with France, and Embolo has neither scored nor assisted any of them. And yet, his attacking influence cannot be dismissed. After all, this is a player who scored five times in 31 Bundesliga games last season, who has averaged a goal every 243 minutes in 107 games for Schalke and Gladbach in Germany's top flight, but was summed up as follows by former Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel: "He's a player who runs enough up front for three. That means we don't expect a goal a game from him."

Prior to the quarter-finals, only two players – Kylian Mbappe (25) and Joakim Maehle (23) – had attempted more dribbles than Embolo (21) at Euro 2020. Seven of those take-ons were in the opposition box, the most of anyone at the tournament. He has had 30 touches of the ball in the opponents' box in four games, a figure bettered only by Alvaro Morata (32) and Mbappe (35). That sort of dynamism on the ball has proved key for a side who have averaged 52 per cent of the ball in their matches, the 11th-highest figure of all 24 teams.

 

What we have also seen is a supreme contribution off the ball, one that perhaps is at odds with a player sometimes seen showing more spirited antics off the pitch than on it. His combined total of 41 duels won and recoveries at Euro 2020 was the highest tally among forward players over the first four rounds of fixtures. It is precisely that mixture of hard work and direct running that could be critical to their chances against Spain, who are expected to dominate possession and persist with a high defensive line.

This tournament has looked like being a watershed moment for Embolo: a showcase not just of his ability, but his commitment to the cause and, at just 24, his leadership. Keep that going against Spain, and it will really be worth singing about.

Sven-Goran Eriksson heaped praise on "perfectionist" Roberto Mancini as the Italy head coach continues to oversee the stunning transformation of the Azzurri at Euro 2020.

Italy will face Belgium in the quarter-finals on Friday after setting a new national record by extending their unbeaten streak to 31 games thanks to a last-16 triumph over Austria.

A proud football country but a national team on their knees after failing to qualify for Russia 2018, their first World Cup absence since 1958, Mancini is the mastermind behind a drastic recovery following his appointment more than three years ago.

Banishing the nightmares of Gian Piero Ventura's dismal tenure, Italy have only conceded more than once in one of their past 18 matches at major tournaments, dating back to the beginning of Euro 2012.

They have conceded just 13 goals across these matches (eight clean sheets) with the only game where they did concede more than once coming in the 2012 European Championship final against Spain (a 4-0 defeat).

As a whole country unites behind 1968 European champions Italy, former Roma, Sampdoria, Lazio, England and Manchester City boss Eriksson hailed Mancini.

"Italy are playing very, very well," Eriksson, who coached Mancini at Sampdoria and Lazio in Serie A, told Stats Perform. "In the first two, or the first three games, they were the team that played the best football of all. Why? I don't know. However, they have many good players without any doubt, playing in top clubs, important ones.

"And then they have Mancini, Roberto. Clearly, he's been a manager for a long time now, he's been in Italy, he's been in England, in Russia I think, in Turkey as well. However, I knew, 25 years ago, that Mancini would have become a great manager. Because I've had him as a player for eight-nine years, and back then he already was like a manager.

 

"He was everything at Sampdoria: warehouse worker, cook, everything. And manager as well. Because he lives for football and it's always been like that for him. He is very curious – 'Why are we doing this during training?', 'Why don't we do this, or that?'. He would always come to me with questions about our training. And he was always talking about football.

"He's doing a great job, I understand it and I am very, very happy for him because he is also, in his job and I think in his life, a perfectionist. There are no half measures with Mancini. He is all or nothing. When he goes to training, he is all. When he changes club, like when he came with me from Sampdoria to Lazio, he was the same at Lazio. He was giving everything, and he wanted to win at any cost. He is a winning mind, a very winning one."

Eriksson added: "He is also a very generous man. For example, he would invite all the players and the whole coaching staff to the restaurant, once a week or every two weeks.

"Fantastic, fish-based, from Genova. And he would always pay, everything. He's a great man. I think very highly of him, and I am happy that he is doing very well."

Italy have reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship for a fourth consecutive tournament. Each of those previous three appearances at this stage have been decided by a penalty shoot-out, with the Italians eliminated by Spain in 2008 and Germany in 2016 while progressing past England in 2012.

Indeed, that accounts for three of a total of five European Championship penalty shoot-outs Italy have participated in – more than any other nation prior to the 2020 edition.

Italy have won all four of their matches at Euro 2020. They have never won five consecutive games at European Championship finals, while only twice previously have they won five or more in a row at any major tournament (World Cup and Euros), winning seven in a row at the World Cup from 1934 to 1938 and five in succession at the World Cup in 1990.

"I don't see a weak spot. Mancini, as perfectionist as he is, always wants to play good football. And maybe this is a weak spot," Eriksson said. "However, it's not actually. I like seeing the football played by Italy, because they attack, they play the ball pushing forward, they don't play like tic-tac, tic-tac. They get the ball, they steal the ball and then go. They lose the ball, they fall back, they defend, aggressive. This is a kind of football that is very nice to see.

"It's clear that Barcelona, Spain, play good football. However, I don't like it that much, because there are a thousand passes before they decide to attack for real. I know that Mancini is not like that. Mancini wants to attack. I hope that this style gets to the end."

Roberto Martinez will decide on Friday whether Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will play any part in Belgium's Euro 2020 quarter-final tie with Italy.

De Bruyne was forced off early in the second half of Sunday's 1-0 last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle problem, while Hazard damaged his hamstring later in the same game.

Both players have travelled to Munich for Friday's showdown with Italy, though neither took part in Belgium's final training session ahead of the match.

Martinez admitted on Monday it was unlikely either De Bruyne or Hazard would be fully recovered in time, and the Spaniard still remains unsure if either player will make the squad.

"As you know they have not been able to train today," he said at Thursday's pre-match news conference. 

"There is still another 24 hours to go and they are positive they can recover. It is now a race against time to make a decision.

"We won't make a decision until the last minute. At the moment it's impossible to say whether they will get fit."

Asked if he is playing mind games by making Italy guess as to the pair's availability, Martinez said: "We are trying to get them fit. It has nothing to do with games or arrogance.

"We are in tournament mode. If they are not available tomorrow, we hope to have them available later."

Injury-plagued forward Hazard has struggled for fitness over the past couple of seasons and Martinez appeared to suggest the Real Madrid man has less of a chance of being fit.

"For Eden, it's difficult as it's a muscle injury," he said. "For Kevin, it's another type of injury. It's a decision for the medical staff. We will then make a decision when we hear back."

 

The winners of Friday's match at the Allianz Arena will face either Switzerland or Spain for a place in the final.

Italy needed extra time to overcome Austria in the last round, with that 2-1 victory extending the Azzurri's unbeaten run to a new national record of 31 matches.

Roberto Mancini's side have conceded more than once in only one of their last 18 games at major tournaments, conceding just 13 times in total across that sequence.

Martinez got the better of Mancini in the 2013 FA Cup final, with Wigan Athletic stunning Manchester City, but the Spaniard is full of praise for what his opposite number has achieved.

"Italy are a great team," he said. "They press with many players and are very dynamic, with many players able to counter-attack.

"If I have to mention one quality in particular it is the synchrony. That is credit to Mancini and that is why they are unbeaten for so long.

"Italy and Belgium are statistically the best teams in the European Championship, and the teams that have won the most games since qualifying.

"It's a pity we're meeting them already, just like we faced Portugal too early."

Against no side have Belgium played more games at major tournaments without winning than Italy (four, level with France and Germany).

The only European nations Italy have faced more often at the same tournaments without losing, meanwhile, are Germany (nine) and Austria (five).

However, the Red Devils have won seven of their last eight matches at the European Championships – the exception being a 3-1 loss to Wales in the 2016 quarter-finals.

Italy head coach Roberto Mancini hopes Belgium duo Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will feature in Friday's Euro 2020 quarter-final clash despite Red Devils boss Roberto Martinez suggesting they will not be fit. 

De Bruyne was forced off early in the second half during his side's 1-0 win over Portugal on Sunday.

The Manchester City midfielder was seen with ice on his left ankle while watching on from the sideline, where he was later joined by Hazard after the Real Madrid winger damaged his hamstring late in proceedings.

Martinez revealed on the eve of the game – the first ever between Italy and Belgium in a knockout tie at a major tournament – that it is "impossible" to predict whether the pair will be available to play a part in Munich.

Mancini, however, said the best players deserve to play in the biggest games and would have no issues should they recover in time. 

"It's always nice for the fans to see all the best players on the pitch; that's what makes football special," he told a media conference.

"We face the best team in Europe along with France, maybe the best in the world. They are on top of the ranking, but we'll try to win. 

"I respect Belgium, but we'll need to play as we know, we are aware of our qualities. Belgium are preparing for an important game and the same goes for us."

 

So impressive in the group stage, the Azzurri had to be patient before landing the decisive blows against Austria in a last-16 clash at Wembley that went to extra time.

Mancini's side prevailed 2-1 in the end, setting a new national record in the process as they extended their unbeaten run to 31 games.

"We knew Austria could create trouble for us and we knew it could have been the most difficult game because it was the first one in the knockout phase," Mancini explained.

"Every game can make you stronger if you improve. We suffered against Austria, but we had 27 shots. It was a tough game, but we deserved to win. There are no easy games, that's what the Euros are teaching us."

This is Italy's fourth consecutive appearance in the quarter-final stage of the European Championship.

Each of those previous three appearances have been decided by a penalty shootout, with the Italians eliminated by Spain in 2008 and Germany in 2016 while progressing past England in 2012.

Indeed, that accounts for three of Italy's five European Championship penalty shootouts – more than any other nation prior to the 2020 edition.

Luis Enrique pledged there will be no complacency from his Spain side as La Roja prepare to take on Switzerland in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020.

While Spain needed extra-time to see off a resurgent Croatia 5-3 in the last 16, Switzerland stunned world champions France 5-4 on penalties after a dramatic 3-3 draw in Bucharest.

Both of those ties took place on Monday, albeit Switzerland's game edged into Tuesday local time, and the teams now face a quick turnaround for Friday's contest in Saint Petersburg.

This is the first meeting between Switzerland and Spain at the European Championship.

Their three previous meetings in a major tournament came in the 1966, 1994 and 2010 World Cups, with La Roja winning the first two and Switzerland triumphing last time out – albeit Spain went on to win the trophy despite that group-stage defeat.

However, that defeat in South Africa is Spain's only loss to Switzerland in 22 meetings in all competitions.

The teams met in October and November last year, in the Nations League group stage, with Spain winning 1-0 at home before drawing 1-1 on the road, and Luis Enrique is under no illusions as to the scale of test his team will have to pass if they are to face either Belgium or Italy in the last four.

"The reality is Switzerland have got through and nothing else matters," Spain's head coach told a news conference.

"The good thing for us is that both teams know each other very well. We competed recently in the Nations League.

"They're going to be a very tough team to face and I think for the spectator there might not be some big names, but they're a great group of players.

"They're a match for us in terms of the way they press, the way they attack, so it's going to be very difficult for us."

Spain are the first team in European Championship history to score five or more goals in consecutive games, having defeated Slovakia 5-0 in their final group match before edging Croatia in a thriller.

They had not scored more than four goals in any of their first 42 matches in the competition, though Switzerland have netted three times in each of their last two games, having never scored more than twice in any of their first 15 matches at the Euros.

"We need to be hungry again, greedy, to make it to the next round," Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic, who will be shorn of the suspended Granit Xhaka, told reporters.

"From this point on I can't say I'm satisfied and happy that we made it so far because, for me, the next step is always the most important.

"We want to succeed, make it to the next round. We know that we have to play against one of the strongest teams, Spain, one of the favourites, but we will try to take our chance and make it to the next round."

Italy and Belgium will meet in a knockout tie for the first time at a major tournament on Friday, with two European heavyweights ready to fight it out for a semi-final spot at Euro 2020.

So impressive in the group stage, the Azzurri had to be patient before landing the decisive blows against Austria in a last-16 clash at Wembley that went to extra time.

Roberto Mancini's side prevailed 2-1 in the end, setting a new national record in the process as they extended their unbeaten run to 31 games.

That streak now faces a serious test against Belgium, who knocked out reigning champions Portugal in the previous round. Victory did come at a cost, however, as both Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard suffered injuries in the 1-0 result.

While the Italy game may come too soon for the pair, Roberto Martinez retains hope they will be able to feature again, provided, of course, their team-mates find a way to get past Italy.

"I think they are the team that have played the best games," Belgium forward Dries Mertens – who plays his club football for Napoli in Serie A – said ahead of the fixture against some familiar faces.

"For sure the first three games they played very good football and they were very combative, it was beautiful to see them play."

Italy have reached the quarter-final stage for a fourth consecutive edition, and each of those previous three last-eight appearances at European Championships have been decided by a penalty shoot-out.

Considering the respective form of both nations – Belgium have won seven of their previous eight outings, going back to Euro 2016 – it would be no surprise to see the eye-catching battle go the distance in Munich.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium - Thorgan Hazard

There will still be a need for Italy to be on Hazard watch at the Allianz Arena: Thorgan – younger brother of the injured Eden – has been directly involved in six goals in his past seven starts for his country (four goals, two assists) and has scored in his previous two appearances at Euro 2020.

The Borussia Dortmund man could become just the second player for Belgium to score in three consecutive major tournament appearances, matching the feat of Marc Wilmots at the 2002 World Cup.

Italy - Matteo Pessina

Atalanta midfielder Pessina has scored in successive games, but no player has ever managed to do so for three in a row when representing Italy at a European Championship campaign.

Christian Vieri has done so at a World Cup previously, enjoying a four-game scoring streak at the 1998 edition. Italy exited at the quarter-final stage on penalties that year to eventual winners France.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Against no side have Belgium played more games at major tournaments without winning than Italy (4, level with France and Germany). The only European nations Italy have faced more often without losing are Germany (9) and Austria (5).

- Italy have only conceded more than once in one of their past 18 matches at major tournaments, dating back to the beginning of Euro 2012. They have conceded just 13 goals across these matches (eight clean sheets) with the only game where they did concede more than once coming in the 2012 European Championship final against Spain (a 4-0 defeat).

- Belgium have won seven of their last eight matches at European Championships – the exception in this run was at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2016, when they lost 3-1 to Wales.

- Italy have never won five consecutive games at a European Championship, while only twice previously have they won five or more in a row at any major tournament. They managed seven in succession at the World Cup from 1934 to 1938, then five on the bounce at the 1990 edition.

- Belgium eliminated reigning champions Portugal in the round of 16 – four of the five nations to win a knockout stage tie (including finals) against the reigning European champions have gone on to win the trophy, with the exception being Italy at Euro 2016.

- Since Roberto Martinez's first game in charge in September 2016, Belgium have won more games (47) and scored more goals (175) than any other European nation in all competitions.

Paul Pogba "lost the plot" in France's dramatic Euro 2020 last-16 exit to Switzerland, according to 1998 World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit.

Didier Deschamps' side appeared to be coasting towards the quarter-finals on Monday after overcoming a 1-0 half-time deficit to lead 3-1 through Karim Benzema's double and a sumptuous long-range effort from Pogba.

But Haris Seferovic's second of the game nine minutes from time preceded a last-gasp equaliser from Mario Gavranovic, the build-up to which saw Pogba lose the ball too easily in midfield.

During the game Pogba was seen clashing angrily with team-mate Adrien Rabiot, with the families of both players also reportedly remonstrating in the stands.

France went on to lose 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out, with Kylian Mbappe missing the crucial spot-kick, and former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Petit was at a loss to explain the world champions' implosion.

"I don't really understand what happened to France versus Switzerland," Petit told PaddyPower.

"During the game we only played well for 20 minutes after [Hugo] Lloris stopped the penalty. After it, we looked confident and like a good team.

"But then there was one incident – Pogba lost the ball for the second Swiss goal – and France collapsed.

"We lost everything. Concentration, team spirit, desire – and the tie. Worst of all, we started fighting on the pitch between ourselves.

"There was a big clash between Rabiot and Pogba, who lost the plot, after the second Swiss goal and from then on we had no control, no confidence.

"We looked average – it's hard to explain."

 

It was a strange outing for Pogba, who had largely impressed with an industrious performance in central midfield. 

No France player won more than his 19 duels, while his 72 successful passes was also a team high and he had an impressive 93.6 per cent passing success rate in the opposition half.

By contrast, Mbappe's miss in the shoot-out was emblematic of a disappointing tournament in which the Paris Saint-Germain superstar failed to score.

None of his six shots against Switzerland managed to hit the target, including a glorious opportunity in extra time.

Petit alluded to the issues Mbappe had pre-tournament with Olivier Giroud, who had complained of a lack of service during a warm-up friendly against Bulgaria, leading to reports of a dispute between the two.

"Mbappe was asking for more responsibilities before the tournament, and there were stories about not passing the ball to Giroud," Petit added.

"There was even fighting in the stands between Rabiot, Mbappe and Pogba's families after the second goal.

"Then Mbappe's penalty is saved in the shootout. We looked so far away from the World Cup-winning team.

"It reminds me of our team in 2002, when we went out in the group stage of the World Cup. It's a real shame because it doesn't need to be like this."

 

Alvaro Morata says he knows why he has been the target of the boo boys during Euro 2020 but is not prepared to talk about the reasons until after Spain's campaign is over.

The Juventus striker has scored twice during the tournament, including a fine effort that put Luis Enrique's side back in front during extra time of the exhilarating 5-3 win over Croatia in the last 16.

At the same time, Morata has missed a glut of opportunities. Indeed, his six missed big chances – as defined by Opta – is the most of any player, and the return lower than an expected goals rate of 3.95.

More may also have been expected given Morata has had 15 shots in total (joint highest with Cristiano Ronaldo), eight of which have been on target – the joint-best with Patrik Schick, who has four goals to his name.

Morata's indifferent finishing has led to heavy criticism from sections of the fan base, while the ex-Chelsea forward revealed his family had been the target of abuse and threats – actions head coach Luis Enrique rightly described as "criminal" and urged for police action to be taken.

He will have the opportunity to keep silencing his critics when Spain go up against Switzerland in the quarter-finals on Friday and Morata has no issue addressing his detractors when the time is right.

"I know the reason [why they keep booing me]," he told Deportes Cuatro. "I know it perfectly well and it isn't very difficult to understand.

"When the European Championship finishes, if everything goes well, I will speak. I have no problem. I am fully aware why they boo me, of course."

 

Spain's eventual triumph over Croatia was an instant European Championship classic but Morata has not spent much time reviewing that game.

He added: "I haven't watched [the goal] a lot.

"I really want to watch the match. I have seen highlights, but I want to watch it with the whole team to improve.

"It was a match of many emotions and it was good for people who watched it in television, but we lost control of the match twice and that can't happen again.

"The [Croatia] match will be remembered as long as we keep winning."

As well as having the unwavering support of his coach, Morata's team-mates seemingly have full confidence in his ability to lead the line too.

Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta says Morata is going through similar experiences to Spanish greats David Villa and Fernando Torres but has already proven capable of handling the pressure.

"Alvaro is becoming more and more mature. He has received criticism, but he is the forward of the team," Azpilicueta told Marca.

"It happened to Villa, to Fernando...it's not easy. Alvaro has shown that he knows how to be and face the challenges that lay ahead.

"He has confidence in himself and not only because of the goal, but also because of the great game he played."

Youri Tielemans has identified what makes absent Belgium teammate Kevin De Bruyne such a "special player" ahead of their Euro 2020 quarterfinal against Italy on Friday.

Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez declared that Manchester City midfielder De Bruyne will miss the quarter after sustaining an ankle knock in their last-16 win over Portugal. De Bruyne was also absent from training on Wednesday.

De Bruyne, who missed Belgium's opening 3-0 win over Russia with a facial injury, has scored one goal and provided two assists during Euro 2020, helping the Red Devils win all four games, meaning Martinez has a difficult job replacing him.

"Kevin is a special player because in my opinion, he always makes the right decision, even if you think he misplaces a pass, it’s not," Tielemans said during a news conference ahead of the quarterfinals.

"Always does something in his mind, always makes the right decision, very efficient, has a lot of assists or goals, that helps our team a lot."

He added: "As a team we have to create more options on the ball, move more, and make the right choices.

"Maybe we were under pressure a little bit, second half against Portugal, they had a lot of offensive options on the pitch, made it difficult for us to get out of there, as a team we have to find those solutions."

De Bruyne was replaced early in the second half against Portugal due to injury, before Belgium survived a barrage of pressure, with the 2016 European champions ending with 23-6 shots.

Belgium, who finished third at the 2018 World Cup and lost in the quarters at the 2016 Euros, ground out the win in a sign of maturity according to Tielemans.

"We learnt lessons from 2018, we’re more realistic, we play nice football, certain matches we have a lot of possession, create chances," the Leicester City midfielder said.

"Like you saw against Portugal there’s moments you have to suffer as a team, you might not get many opportunities, you have to score them, that’s where we learned from Russia, to be efficient, decisive in the right moment, when we have an opportunity to score we remember that from 2018."

Forward Dries Mertens is one candidate to come into the Belgium XI to replace De Bruyne against Italy, having replaced him against Portugal.

Mertens plays his club football with Napoli in Serie A, and added that quarterfinal opponents Italy appeared full of confidence.

"I’ve seen they have a lot more confidence now, they’ve played many matches and won a lot without giving goals away," he said.

"It gives confidence, experienced players but also young players, the way they celebrate when they win, many people didn’t expect that, it gives them a lot of confidence."

The 34-year-old also added there was no thought about Euro 2020 being his or this generation of Belgian players' last chance to win a trophy.

"No, not really," he said. "We do need to be realistic, realise we’re here now, we have a chance, you don’t get chances with a national team to win, every two years you have one chance to win one trophy, its very little.

"We’ve been doing well for a few years now, this is a chance we need to take, we have great facilities, we have great staff, people who know where we want to go.

"Those are important moments, I believe in the future of the Belgium team. This is a chance we have to take."

Arsenal have made an offer for Italy international Manuel Locatelli and lead the race for his signature, claims Sassuolo director Giovanni Carnevali.

Sassuolo midfielder Locatelli, 23, has impressed at Euro 2020, scoring two goals for Italy in the 3-0 win over Switzerland and helping the Azzurri reach the quarterfinals by stepping up during Marco Verratti's injury-enforced absence.

Locatelli's performances, combined with a strong 2020-21 campaign for Sassuolo who finished eighth in Serie A, have garnered attention with Carnevali confirming strong interest from Arsenal and Juventus.

"Juventus are the only Italian club we talked to about Locatelli," Carnevali told Sky Sport Italia. "They have interest, we spoke to [director Federico] Cherubini last week.

"We have not yet discussed the financial details, but we have a good rapport and will talk it over soon.

"It’s true that there are foreign clubs interested, including Arsenal, and so far they are ahead and are the only side realistically to have made an important proposal for Manuel."

Spanish pair Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have also been linked with Locatelli, who flirted with a switch to Juventus last off-season.

Carnevali added: "We are trying to leave the lad calm, so I haven’t spoken to him or his agents yet. We can think about Locatelli’s future but above all we care about his present and that means Italy doing well at the Euros,"

It is expected that Sassuolo will demand €50m for the former Milan youth product, who joined Sassuolo on loan in 2018 before signing permanently in 2019.

Joachim Low will now have the opportunity to "process a heavy heart" following Germany's Euro 2020 exit but his successor Hansi Flick does not have the luxury of time.

Germany were knocked out of the European Championship with a 2-0 defeat to England at Wembley in the last 16 on Tuesday.

It was a result that brought Low's reign, which saw him guide Die Mannschaft to World Cup glory in 2014, to an unceremonious end.

Flick will now take over after winning seven trophies in an 18-month spell at Bayern Munich, which included a Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League treble in 2019-20.

And Low is happy to hand over responsibility to the national team to his former assistant, having led Germany at seven major tournaments in his 15 years in charge.

"You can imagine what the mood was like [after the game]," Low told his final media conference as coach. "I spoke to the team and many of those working behind the team, they've been in my life for a long time, the players and the support staff. And, of course I spoke to the team and we said goodbye this morning.

"I haven't planned what I'm doing next, I just have to digest what's happened. It helps to have time to process a heavy heart and we'll see what the next few weeks bring.

"After 15 years, of course, I'm happy to pass the baton on to another coach. There were some amazing experiences that I had, there were lots of qualifying matches and tournaments that were amazing and I think, with a bit of time, I will get a sense of perspective on it."

National team director Oliver Bierhoff, meanwhile, made it clear Flick will be under immediate pressure.

Germany return to action in World Cup qualifying in September with games against Liechtenstein, Armenia and Iceland.

They will be expected to prevail in each of those matches but have work to do after a shock defeat to North Macedonia back in March left them third in their qualifying group with six points from three games.

And Flick will be under no illusions that he needs to quickly turn that situation around and secure qualification for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

"As Germany it will always be our ambition and our inspiration to be at the forefront, we've got good players," Bierhoff said. "What we didn't manage to do this time was to have a certain continuity to get that into our game.

"Now Hansi Flick is going to do what he can, the aspiration will be to qualify easily and aspire to win [the World Cup].

"I think he's going to be able to work really well with the team, we're going to sit down in the days to come and go through the plan.

"We're going to be talking about what kind of football he wants to play, we want a team that has a clear identity. He doesn't have a lot of time."

Flick may use those favourable opening games as a chance to re-establish Germany's incisiveness.

Only three teams across Europe's top five leagues (Atalanta 437, Napoli 434 and Barcelona 417) created more chances from open play than Bayern's 415 in 2020-21.

By contrast, Germany's total of 25 from four games was below the average for Euro 2020 of 28.96. England have managed just 18 from open play in the tournament, but the Three Lions' ability to create chances and convert them when it mattered was ultimately the decisive factor in bringing an end to Low's reign.

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