Lamine Yamal helps Spain's style evolve, Granit Xhaka pulls strings for Switzerland - Euro 2024 hits and misses

15 June 2024, 18:20 | Updated: 16 June 2024, 08:05

Yamal helps Spain's style evolve

Spain's meeting with Croatia ended a run of 136 competitive fixtures in which they have had more possession than their opponents, dating back 16 years to their win over Germany in the final of Euro 2008.

And yet, despite only having a 47 per cent share of the ball in Saturday's Group B encounter, the win could hardly have been more convincing, sealed during a clinical first-half showing.

It is only 18 months since Spain exited the World Cup with a limp penalty shoot-out loss to Morocco during which they made 1,000 passes and yet only mustered one shot on target, a statistic which summed up their struggles in turning possession into chances.

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Watching this much-changed side against Croatia, though, a side featuring a 16-year-old Lamine Yamal on one flank and a 21-year-old Nico Williams on the other, was a very different experience.

Instead of directionless passing, there was incision, typified by the Fabian Ruiz through-ball that carved Croatia open for the opening goal, and the many moments when Williams and, to an even greater extent Yamal, sprang forward following transitions.

Their speed and directness appears to have given Spain a different dimension from other recent tournaments. It may be at odds with their identity but it is one which makes them a more difficult opponent, and a better bet to go deep this time around.
Nick Wright

Unfancied Italy pass first test with promise

Defending a title on the international stage is filled with too many examples of catastrophic failure to count, but Italy's was expected more than most after missing out on the World Cup altogether in the three years since they won the delayed Euro 2021.

Keep the champagne on ice that they dispatched the 66th-ranked side in the world to get their title defence off to a positive start, but that is exactly what it was.

That they had to do so after falling behind to the earliest goal in European Championship history is perhaps both a sign of where they are, and, that like in 2021, this Italy side could remain greater than the sum of its parts.

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Certainly, after that early calamity they showed resolve where other nations may have wilted in a Westfalenstadion dominated by Albanian supporters. Instead, they scored two quick goals, had a number of other impressive chances and did not give away another shot on target until second-half injury-time.

Some of their free-flowing attacking football was a sight to see, and Gianluca Scamacca justified his inclusion at the spearhead of the Italian frontline as much for what he provided others than his own goal threat.

Fine tuning is still needed; Italy's full-backs both bombed on regularly but could have been utilised better, and defensively they looked susceptible on the odd occasion Albania ran at them.

As tournament defences go, this was nothing to write home about. But as Italy's expectations go, it was a decent start.
Ron Walker

Xhaka pulls strings for Switzerland in player-of-match display

Granit Xhaka put in a captain's performance for Switzerland as he led his side to a 3-1 opening win over Hungary.

  • Hungary 1-3 Switzerland - Match report and player ratings
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The midfielder was key for club last season as he helped Bayer Leverkusen to a surprise Bundesliga and German Cup double, and is translating his fine form to the international stage.

The ex-Arsenal man had the most touches, the most passes completed and the most passes in the final third of any player in Cologne as he pulled the strings for Switzerland.

The 31-year-old's superb display was deservedly rewarded by UEFA as he was named the player of the match.

The UEFA technical observer panel said: "He was excellent in possession, both in build-up play and in supplying penetrating passes.

"He displayed a great work ethic and showed superb leadership, offering great organisational skills."

Scotland face Switzerland next in Group A on Wednesday and Steve Clarke's side will have to limit Xhaka's influence if they are to get a much-needed positive result.
Declan Olley

'Dark horses' Hungary now left with little room for manoeuvre

Hungary were many people's dark horses for the Euros after going through their qualifying campaign unbeaten, but following the chastening 3-1 loss to Switzerland in Cologne, Marco Rossi's side are now in danger of not even making it out of a tough-looking Group A.

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They produced a limp first-half showing at the RheinEnergieStadion to deservedly trail 2-0 at the break and, despite improving in the second period - which was not hard - it was too little, too late.

Rossi held his hands up after the match, taking responsibility for his team's lethargic display, saying: "The first half was very bad, we were too passive.

"I am not looking to point fingers. I am the coach, so I take responsibility.

"It's hard to correct the kind of mistakes that we made. Our players do not make mistakes like this every day."

Hungary will need to show more of what we saw in the second half, especially from their influential captain Dominik Szoboszlai - invisible before the interval and more like the player we saw in the first half of last season for Liverpool - when they face hosts Germany in Stuttgart on Wednesday if they are not to be on the verge of an early exit from the tournament.
Richard Morgan

Uncharacteristic Croatia must tighten up

For a nation that consistently punches above its weight at the World Cup, Croatia have a surprisingly mediocre record at the Euros, only reaching the quarter-finals - and no further - twice in six attempts.

Being drawn in a group with Spain and Italy did nothing to increase the chances of Croatia finally reaching the final four - and nor did their first outing in Germany.

Zlatko Dalic's side worked their way back into the game after a passive start, but they were blown away in a 13-minute spell before half-time. Usually so robust, each of Spain's goals were aided by disorganised and weak Croatia defending.

Equally concerning for Dalic will be how little influence his fabled midfield was able to exert, with only Mateo Kovacic emerging from the contest with credit. At times, Luka Modric looked like the 38-year-old that he is.

Maybe that's because, unlike at Real Madrid, Modric was working with limited quality in front of him. Andrej Kramaric and Ante Budimir were anonymous, while Bruno Petkovic's penalty miss summed up his contribution.

Fortunately for Croatia, they have what should be their easiest group game up next, facing Albania on Wednesday. The fact that only eight teams are eliminated at the group stage also works in their favour.

But Dalic's team need to tighten up defensively - and demand more from their forwards - if they are to be taken seriously at this tournament.
Joe Shread

Rank outsiders Albania will take confidence from historic night

Along with Georgia, Albania were priced as high as 800/1 to win Euro 2024 by some bookmakers. But for a few minutes of their opener against holders Italy, they could afford to dream.

Inter Milan left-back Federico Dimarco's shocking throw was seized upon by Nedim Bajrami, who could not believe his luck as he raced onto the loose ball and found the inside of Gianluigi Donnarumma's near post.

It was a gift, and one that had been finished off competently. Not only that, it was the fastest goal in the entirety of the European Championship's 66-year history.

Unperturbed, Italy turned the game in their favour with two goals in five minutes, but while the opening goal proved to be Albania's only shot on target all night, what they lacked in attack, they made up for in defence.

After Nicolo Barella's 16th-minute winner, the Italians managed only three more shots on target all night, only one of which came after the break.

The job was already done by that point, but Albania have shown they are not out in Germany - backed by thousands of fans, many donning the distinctive traditional qeleshe hats - to solely make up the numbers.
Dan Long