Football Features

Mancini’s “brick wall” stands firm: Winners & losers from Group A’s concluding matchday in Euro 2020

By Ben Green

Published: 19:33, 20 June 2021

Italy and Wales have qualified for the Euro 2020 knockouts after finishing first and second respectively in Group A.

Gli Azzurri had already confirmed their place in the round-of-16 prior to their showdown against Wales, but they took to the Stadio Olimpico looking to consolidate top spot and maintain their flawless record to the tournament. Both of which they achieved, beating 10-man Wales 1-0 in a frantic showdown.

Switzerland, meanwhile, collected their first win of Euro 2020, beating Turkey — who leave the competition without a point — 3-1 at the Baku Olympic Stadium, but the result was not enough to leapfrog Wales into second, with the Dragons’ superior goal difference working in their favour.

So, the first group has concluded, but who were the winners from matchday three in Group A?

Winner: Roberto Mancini

Italy have not only qualified for the knockouts; they have qualified in style. When Roberto Mancini was drafted in to take the Italy reins in 2018, Gli Azzurri were still battered, bruised and deflated from Gian Piero Ventura’s ill-fated reign, in which they failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.

Three years on and Mancini has exorcised those demons and then some, matching the nation’s all-time unbeaten run (30 games), while winning the last 11 games while keeping a clean sheet in each of those, which constitutes to over 1,000 minutes without conceding a goal.

Italy are a notoriously difficult nation to break down; this is, after all, the country responsible for the ‘Catenaccio’ playing philosophy, which translates to “door-bolt” and rose to prominence in the 1960s. True to form, Mancini has now continued that trend and kept the Italian brick wall well and truly alive.

Before the match Mancini compared Wales to Stoke City, remembering the frustrating Tuesday nights in Staffordshire during his Man City coaching days, and in truth the Dragons proved a difficult opponent to break down, but after the contest, the Italy manager praised the ‘intelligence’ of his players to find the win.

“We made eight changes, but we can adapt because the guys are very clever,” Mancini said in his post-match interview.

“They wanted to win, they have a good mentality, and we deserved to beat Wales.”

Loser: Turkey

The pre-tournament narrative was that Turkey would be a dark horse. In truth, the logic made sense. They were entering the tournament as the last team to beat France in a competitive game of international football — June 2019 — while they conceded the joint-fewest goals in Euro 2020 qualifying.

Not only that, but Senol Gunes had a squad replete with elite talent; Hakan Calhanoglu created the most chances in Europe’s top five leagues across 2020/21 (98), Burak Yilmaz top scored as Lille pulled off the unthinkable and usurped PSG in Ligue 1 (16 goals), while Caglar Soyuncu inspired Leicester to FA Cup glory.

However, the Crescent-Stars have exited the tournament with a whimper, failing to produce in all three of their group games. It hasn’t so much been that Turkey have failed to make the knockouts, but the manner in which they received Group A’s wooden spoon. Underwhelming would be an understatement.

Winner: Xherdan Shaqiri

Xherdan Shaqiri made Switzerland history on Sunday afternoon after becoming the first ever player to score in four consecutive major tournaments. The mercurial Liverpool midfielder marked the occasion in fitting Shaqiri style, uncorking a curling effort straight out of the top drawer.

Known as a scorer of great goals, rather than a great scorer, Shaqiri rarely does tap-ins, instead his personal tally resembles a collage of Puskas Award contenders. You will often find YouTube cut-ups of Shaqiri’s goals set to dubstep, and this latest opener vs Turkey will certainly make the next montage.

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Collecting the ball on the edge of the box, Shaqiri took one touch to open up his body, glanced at Ugurcan Cakir between the sticks, and unleashed with laser-guided precision. It was the kind of caressing finish indicative of Shaqiri’s talents: his ability to control the pace, precision and accuracy of the ball.

Of course, his bicycle kick in Euro 2016, in which he won ‘Goal of the Tournament’, remains the magnum opus of his European Championship career, but this latest finish — before adding another later on — was another screamer that just offered fans a brief reminder of what the pint-sized playmaker is capable of on his day.

Loser: Ethan Ampadu

Ethan Ampadu has become the youngest player in European Championship history to be shown a straight red card. In fact, the 20-year-old is also just the second ever player from the Home Nations to be sent off in a European Championships game. The first since 1968.

Then, Alan Mullery was given an early bath in Yugoslavia’s 1-0 win over Alf Ramsey’s men. Now, Ampadu was given his marching orders after catching Federico Bernardeschi on the ankle. The challenge looked clumsy and awkward, with referee Ovidiu Hategan under no doubts, and his decision backed up by VAR.

Given his first start of the tournament by Rob Page, Ampadu endured a testing afternoon against a well-oiled Italy side, and his ephemeral showing ended in disaster. Fortunately for Ampadu, Wales stood firm with a numerical disadvantage and kept the scoreline respectable.

Winner: Mancini’s midfield (a nod to Verratti)

Arguably the most impressive aspect of Italy’s game so far has been the midfield trident of Manuel Locatelli, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella, with each player bringing a different quality to the table: Jorginho the tempo-setter, Locatelli the press-resistant goal-getter, and Barella the marauding mezzala.

You would have been forgiven for forgetting that Roberto Mancini took Marco Verratti to the tournament. But, against Wales the PSG midfielder was given the nod, and there is only one word that can sum up his performance: “wow”. This was a firm reminder of his preternatural, God-given talents.

Matteo Pessina made the breakthrough with his first goal for Italy, further enhancing the reputation of Mancini’s midfield, but Verratti was the standout performer, dictating the tempo, toying with Wales’ midfield and spraying passes with an Andrea Pirlo-esque accuracy.

The key question for Mancini now is, which combination does he go with for the knockout rounds? Locatelli-Jorginho-Barella has been sensational, but Verratti laid down a marker here. He is the gold standard for the modern midfielder, and what a luxurious position of surplus Mancini is in with his midfield options.

Loser: Vladimir Petkovic

Petkovic carries a sophisticated aura about his demeanour and that has largely translated to Switzerland’s style of play, with the Rossocrociati proving entertaining and chaotic at times. But, that approach has been to their detriment in Group A as they finished third.

Switzerland, who finished the group on four points and with a goal difference of -1, now face an anxious wait to see if they are one of the four best third-placed teams to reach the round-of-16, but given the quality of the squad, it should not have come down to this.

Even in their final game they allowed a misfiring Turkey to get their first and only goal of the tournament, while there was a staggering 42 shots in the match, at least eight more than in any other Euro 2020 game to date. That has ultimately proven their Achilles’ heel, an inability to temper the tumult.

Winner: Rob Page

Drafted in under less-than-ideal circumstances, caretaker manager Rob Page has done a fantastic job navigating the Wales ship and charting a path to group qualification. For the second tournament running, the Dragons will be in the knockouts, but can they replicate their semi-final success from Euro 2016?

Well, right off this side at your peril. Page has cultivated a winning mentality in his squad and the camaraderie is evident for all to see, as evidenced by their habitual, end-of-match team talk on the turf, with captain Gareth Bale the chief cheerleader and motivator.

Soprano exploits aside, the Real Madrid man remains an elite attacking threat and, combined with fellow speedster Dan James, as well as Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey, there is no reason why Wales cannot impact the knockouts like Chris Coleman’s side did five years ago.