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Serie A

Ajax show Juventus that winning requires more than individual quality

All this time, Juventus thought they needed someone the caliber of Cristiano Ronaldo to reach the next stage of their evolution. But in two matches, Ajax showed them that another way exists.

Ajax were everything Juventus weren’t in the Champions League quarterfinals, using the full length of the pitch and all 11 players to dismiss another favorite. They played with a ferociousness and collective mentality that the Bianconeri couldn’t match.

Usually, it’s a choice between one or the other, but Ajax managed to beat the seven-time defending Serie A champions with a combination of substance and style, a formidable one-two punch that left the Italians without breath and response. Ajax moved in quick sequences, making two or three touches in a flash and regularly ducking out of tight situations. Not even a team as defensively conscious as Juventus could track them.

Ajax didn’t bother man-marking Ronaldo; they had bigger plans in mind. They had their own game to execute, and in the end, Juventus had to adapt to them.

Tullio Puglia – UEFA / UEFA / Getty

Manager Massimiliano Allegri can downplay it all he likes, but the fact is that his Juventus lacked the personality and determination of his Dutch opponents. Juventus played too much of this season with the handbrake on, and on many of those occasions, they relied on individual brilliance to get them across the line.

That didn’t work in the Champions League.

Few teams win trophies playing as poorly as Juventus have this season. They’re the champions of winning without playing well, but that only lasts so long.

Imagine what Juventus could achieve if they were conditioned, and more importantly, allowed to play like they did in the second leg of their last-16 encounter against Atletico Madrid. Staring down a 2-0 deficit on aggregate, Juventus threw away the shackles and embraced the challenge. They pressed like they hadn’t all season and left Diego Simeone’s Atletico – the team that never dies – in a heap.

But that was merely an anomaly. Juventus only played that way out of necessity, which, considering the attacking talent at the club’s disposal, is a shame.

Ajax can’t afford that luxury. They have quality, just not enough to sit around and wait for someone to win the match for them. So they attack in bunches, knowing they’re better as a team than individuals. The end product hasn’t always been there, but the commitment to their football has given them a chance to win. They wouldn’t have the same success if they hoofed the ball forward in the hopes that Hakim Ziyech – the talented winger whose foolhardy shots are his only letdown – scored all the goals.

“What impresses me the most isn’t the work rate or the technical ability, both of which are exceptional,” Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero said Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti. “It’s the way they fill the pitch, their understanding of space and time, their tactical nous … all at such a young age.”

It’s not even about playing pretty football. The important distinction to make is that Ajax understand how to attack and make an opponent vulnerable. It’s about finding solutions to problems on the pitch – and that takes some creativity and cojones.

The Old Lady hardly stoked the imagination in this competition or in Serie A. They came into Tuesday’s match with the third-most crosses attempted and the most long balls played in the top five European leagues. If someone didn’t get on the end of those hopeful balls, nothing would happen. Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic can’t be expected to convert every single one of those passes.

Ronaldo wasn’t even the problem here. He did what he could, converting his side’s only two real chances against Ajax over the two-legged affair. Juventus signed him to deliver on the big stage, and that’s what he did. They just didn’t get the same performance from the rest of the team.

Juventus don’t have to entertain the masses to be more successful, but they can’t expect to progress if they continue to do the bare minimum. That’s worked in Serie A because teams give them too much respect. It’s a different game entirely in Europe, where 180 minutes of football can change anything. Ajax went for it – and they were the ones rewarded.

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Serie A

Italy completes transformation from abject failure to Europe's finest

Luke Shaw’s goal two minutes into Sunday’s final was a gut punch that would’ve, in another time, knocked the confidence out of Italy. It could’ve led to more heartache. But this team was forged through hardship. A single goal was never going to ruin this moment.

To win Euro 2020, Italy first needed to walk through the fire. Go back to Nov. 13, 2017, the night Italy missed out on the 2018 World Cup. An inquisition began at all levels of public life, tearing at the very soul of the people’s country for an answer to an impossible question.

How can something like this happen?

If the Italians couldn’t quite face the reality before – the reality that they had lost relevance in one of the few pursuits that brings them together – it hit them hardest on that fateful night in Milan, when a goalless draw against Sweden knocked the country out of the world’s favorite tournament.

Then something changed. Roberto Mancini, who came in from the wilderness to take Italy’s top job in May 2018, saw and nurtured the potential that previous coaches ignored. He noticed there could be another, and perhaps better, way of playing. Italy didn’t need to defend a 1-0 lead – not with the quality of players coming through.

Mancini’s side proceeded to dominate matches. It thrashed teams it should’ve thrashed. It gave no freebies to the minnows of international football. It showed a ruthless streak against the likes of Liechtenstein and Armenia that Italy hadn’t shown before, and confidence grew in a program and a team that had lost so much of it.

A few decisive wins later, Italy didn’t look like Italy again but like something new entirely, proving it didn’t need to play defensively to be successful again. Italy could score goals at will and play with possession and flair, and it could still defend when situations called for calm. Except defending would only be an option, not a necessity. And it was a viable option, too, with veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci ready for any call to action.

To get the best out of pacy wingers like Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne, and energetic midfielders like Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella, Mancini gave them the freedom to show their personality. Shackling or forcing them to fit into some rigid system would’ve harmed their development, and crucially, their production. Mancini’s preference for attacking football was a choice rooted in pragmatism rather than idealism.

CARL RECINE / AFP / Getty

He simply made sure he didn’t get in the way. Predecessors Gian Piero Ventura and Antonio Conte shoehorned aging and limited players into fixed formations, hoping to squeeze out results. It worked at Euro 2016, when Conte relied on sound tactics to get a rag-tag group to the quarterfinals. But Ventura’s blatant misuse of players like Insigne – who remained on the bench throughout that disastrous showing against Sweden – left scars that needed healing.

Mancini’s XI rarely followed a specific blueprint. Full-backs played like wingers. Midfielders scored goals. The ball was something to cherish, not to bludgeon out of bounds.

If he was a stubborn ideologue, Mancini would’ve forced his players to adopt the conservative counterattacking principles that brought success earlier in his coaching career. He won trophies with Inter Milan and Manchester City not by throwing caution to the wind, but with measured performances.

Instead, he adapted to the team at his disposal, and Italy started winning again. The Azzurri went unbeaten for 33 games, all the way to Sunday’s final. And with a wonderful mix of attacking brilliance, midfield tranquility, and defensive solidity, they beat England 3-2 on penalties at a hostile Wembley Stadium. Chiesa created chance after chance, and midfielders Verratti and Jorginho maneuvered out of tight quarters to keep the game at their tempo.

Everyone on the team played for each other, and that was Mancini’s hope from the start. The manager forged close bonds with the unit that he formed in 2018, and as a non-playing member of Italy’s 1990 World Cup squad, he made sure no one would feel as excluded as he once did.

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So in the last group-stage encounter against Wales, the 56-year-old gave time to players who had yet to appear in the tournament. Goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, midfielder Gaetano Castrovilli, and 21-year-old forward Giacomo Raspadori played for a few minutes in an otherwise inconsequential game, just so they could take part in the start of something special.

That sense of togetherness powered Italy throughout four grueling knockout matches. It dug deep in extra time to ward off Austria before denying Belgium’s comeback attempt and beating Spain on penalty kicks. Italy’s belief grew with every result.

That’s why Shaw’s goal on Sunday was just a blip, not a crushing blow. It was a test Italy had passed before. Even as roughly 60,000 people booed its every touch, the team regained its equilibrium, controlling more and more of the ball, and the game.

“You all know where we started from,” goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who saved two of England’s penalty kicks, told Rai Sport afterward. “That early goal could’ve killed us, but that’s not who we are. We are the ones who never give in.”

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Serie A

4 key questions that will determine who wins Euro 2020 final

With the Euro 2020 final between Italy and England on the horizon, we’re examining the key factors that will help determine whether football is heading home on Sunday, or if it’s going back to Rome.

Can Italy handle Kane’s movement?

One of the most intriguing tactical wrinkles from Italy’s semifinal victory over Spain was Luis Enrique’s surprise usage of Dani Olmo in a false nine role; Spain using a non-traditional center forward isn’t new, but few expected to see it against the Azzurri, especially after the manager’s staunch defense of Alvaro Morata all tournament long. It was interesting, primarily, because of the way Italy’s veteran defenders struggled to react to it. Olmo was able to drag Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci out of position and create big gaps for his fellow forwards to run into. It didn’t result in a goal, but it’s a tactic that could serve England well in the final.

English fulcrum Harry Kane is by no means a false nine, but he’s proven countless times – for both club and country – that he’s extremely comfortable dropping deep and facilitating the attack with his outstanding passing range. Chiellini is well aware, too, dubbing the matchup with the Tottenham star “extremely tough.”

Shaun Botterill – UEFA / UEFA / Getty

“I have always liked (Kane) a lot. I still remember one of his first matches with England, when we played against them in Turin,” the Italian captain said. “Even then he made a huge impression on me. … He knows how to play deep and how to play a defense-splitting pass for a teammate.”

If Kane can find pockets of space behind Italy’s midfield and in front of the defense, then he could do some serious damage setting up chances for Raheem Sterling, who has been the Three Lions’ most consistent scoring threat throughout the competition.

Who will dominate the midfield?

The vaunted Italian midfield trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti, and Nicolo Barella will be looking to dictate the tempo on Sunday after chasing shadows for much of the semifinal win over Spain. In theory, they should have more time on the ball in the showpiece match at Wembley; England will likely be content to sit in its solid defensive structure and allow the Azzurri to exchange short passes in unthreatening areas.

Claudio Villa / Getty Images Sport / Getty

For Italy to avoid simply having sterile possession, Barella’s darting runs into the penalty area – a trademark of his game – will be of the utmost importance. That’s the type of movement that can unsettle a sturdy English backline that hasn’t conceded a goal from open play in the tournament. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips will need to be cognizant of the Inter Milan star’s positioning at all times, and communication with the center-backs when Barella does spring forward has to be quick.

England also has the option to be more proactive and cut off progression through the midfield before it can even begin. Mason Mount may be tasked with denying supply into club teammate Jorginho to make sure England isn’t overrun in the center of the pitch. Doing so would force Bonucci and Chiellini to bypass Jorginho and force passes into tight areas, or hit long balls over the top for Ciro Immobile to chase down. If that’s how the contest plays out, England will be extremely content.

How adventurous will Southgate be?

This is one of the most critical questions heading into every England match. Gareth Southgate has found the perfect balance at every turn thus far, making the necessary tactical tweaks to outplay and outwit the opposition. His base system always remains intact – a mid-to-low defensive block that relies primarily on Kane and the wide forwards to create chances in transition – but he’s been able to make slight, decisive adjustments along the way. What does he have in store for Roberto Mancini and Italy?

Catherine Ivill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Reverting to three central defenders and utilizing wing-backs – as he did against Germany – seems unlikely for the final, mainly because it would only heighten the numerical advantage that Italy is already likely to enjoy in midfield. Some version of the 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 hybrid that England used against Denmark figures to be the approach on Sunday, with Mount being a vital defensive contributor, as outlined above.

The other key question, as always, is who plays on the right wing. Bukayo Saka has done nothing to warrant being dropped from the lineup, but without having to track and worry about the injured Leonardo Spinazzola down that flank, maybe Southgate can afford to be a little more adventurous and start one of Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, or Phil Foden. At the very least, he has game-changing options on the bench, and at the end of a long tournament when everyone is a little weary, that could make all the difference.

Can Immobile offer … anything?

Reaching the final of any major tournament is an accomplishment in its own right. Doing so in spite of your primary goalscorer is even more impressive. Immobile, so prolific at club level with Lazio, has always had detractors when it comes to the national team, and they may feel vindicated following a pair of shocking performances against Belgium and Spain. His showing in the quarterfinals was particularly woeful.

Insidefoto / LightRocket / Getty

Despite what his name suggests, Immobile always works hard, constantly hassling and harrying defenders; his willingness to run into the channels and chase down long balls played a key role in creating Federico Chiesa’s goal against Spain. But, after scoring twice in the group stage, that one sequence has been the extent of his impact in the knockout matches. His most notable involvement from Italy’s recent wins was feigning injury before immediately popping off the ground to celebrate Barella’s goal against Belgium. It was absolutely hilarious, but his lack of actual attacking involvement is a serious issue.

Immobile struggled to hold the ball up against Spain, meaning when the Azzurri did finally gain possession, it often ended with a pass that ricocheted off his foot and wound up right back with the opposition. Without Spinazzola in the lineup, Italy needs to progress the ball through the middle to make headway, and having someone who can often look like he’s wearing cinder blocks for boots is an obvious impediment. Of course, it’s absolutely possible that the 31-year-old has a career-defining moment Sunday at Wembley and silences his critics. Given the lack of suitable replacements – backup No. 9 Andrea Belotti is a gritty workhorse but not exactly a prolific threat – Mancini and Italy will be desperate for Immobile to deliver on the big stage.

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Serie A

Preview, predictions for Euro 2020 quarterfinals

It’s time for the quarterfinals at Euro 2020. Here’s hoping the tournament saved some drama after an epic round of 16. Below, we examine the four matches on tap this week, highlighting the key factors that will determine which nations advance and predicting the result for each fixture.

Friday, July 2

Switzerland vs. Spain (12 p.m. ET)

  • Venue: Krestovsky Stadium (St. Petersburg, Russia)

It’s fitting that the winners of the two most scintillating last-16 matches now get the chance to replicate those performances against one another. Conventional wisdom suggests that after such explosive encounters, fans should expect fewer fireworks in the ensuing game. That’s down, in part, to simple mental and physical fatigue; riding the rollercoaster as Spain and Switzerland did before coming back to do it all over again a few days later is taxing. The respective managers will also surely be hammering home the importance of defensive solidity after both sides conceded three goals in their last fixtures.

But at this point, who knows? Maybe Luis Enrique and Vladimir Petkovic will decide that their best chance to succeed is actually to go for broke. After slow starts to their respective tournaments, these two teams have combined for 16 goals in their last four outings; Spain’s attack is purring, and the Swiss, so long a risk-averse unit, have found joy in trying to take the initiative and play on the front foot.

Switzerland can cause problems for an unconvincing Spanish backline – even if Unai Simon doesn’t hand out any gifts this time – but Spain’s depth should prove the difference for La Roja. Unlike Didier Deschamps and France, Enrique won’t tie one hand behind his team’s back from the opening whistle.

Prediction: Spain advances

Belgium vs. Italy (3 p.m. ET)

  • Venue: Allianz Arena (Munich, Germany)

Based on sheer star power, this should be the most enticing match of the quarterfinals, at least on paper. In reality, though, Friday’s second tilt could be defined more by who isn’t on the pitch than by who is. All indications are that Belgium will be without creative force of nature Kevin De Bruyne and captain Eden Hazard after both suffered injuries in a slim last-16 win over Portugal. Romelu Lukaku is more than capable of taking over matches by himself, and he may be tasked with doing just that if neither De Bruyne nor Hazard is fit enough to feature in Munich. How Roberto Martinez lines up his team to mitigate the likely absences of his marquee playmakers – and ensure Lukaku isn’t isolated up front – will be fascinating.

Quality Sport Images / Getty Images Sport / Getty

His counterpart on the opposite touchline, Roberto Mancini, also has some important decisions to make. There are growing calls for Mancini to insert the electrifying Federico Chiesa into the starting lineup over Domenico Berardi after the Juventus winger’s dynamic performance off the bench in Italy’s extra-time triumph against Austria. Influential captain Giorgio Chiellini, meanwhile, is progressing toward recovery after suffering a muscle injury earlier in the tournament and could return for the Azzurri.

The individual battles across the pitch are tantalizing here. Who will win the midfield scuffle? Who will grab the upper hand down the flank between Leonardo Spinazzola, perhaps Italy’s standout player thus far at the Euros, and the rampaging Thomas Meunier? Can aging center-backs on both sides handle the prolific strikers they’ll be tasked with slowing down? Expect a tight affair that could require more than 90 minutes.

Prediction: Italy advances on penalties

Saturday, July 3

Czech Republic vs. Denmark (12 p.m. ET)

  • Venue: Baku Olympic Stadium (Baku, Azerbaijan)

Denmark arrives in Baku as the favorite to reach the semifinals after transforming adversity into achievement following the collapse of creative fulcrum Christian Eriksen and defeats in its first two outings.

Since those losses to Finland – which was entirely understandable considering the circumstances – and Belgium, the Danes have been an irrepressible attacking force. Kasper Hjulmand’s men are joint-second in the tournament with Italy on nine goals scored, tied with Spain for top spot in shots on target per match (7.3), and third in successful dribbles (11.5). Much of the attacking impetus comes from the left side, where wing-back Joakim Maehle and Eriksen stand-in Mikkel Damsgaard have been penetrative threats and the team’s best source of service for the suddenly in-form Kasper Dolberg.

Like Denmark, the Czech Republic has legitimate claims to the “Team of Destiny” mantle after stunning the Netherlands in a comprehensive last-16 victory. Patrik Schick’s four goals have helped plenty, as has the play of West Ham duo Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal. But the Czechs will have to be tidier against a Denmark side that can break on the counter in the blink of an eye. Jaroslav Silhavy’s team has completed just 75.3% of its passes – the lowest among the 24 teams at Euro 2020 and nearly 10% worse than its opponent Saturday in Azerbaijan.

Prediction: Denmark advances

Ukraine vs. England (3 p.m. ET)

  • Venue: Stadio Olimpico (Rome, Italy)

England the overwhelming favorite in the quarterfinal of a major tournament? What a time to be alive. After ending the nation’s curse against Germany, the Three Lions are superbly positioned to reach the final and will meet a Ukraine side coming off a punishing, potentially Pyrrhic last-16 victory over Sweden. Can Andriy Shevchenko’s team – full of faces very familiar to England players and supporters – find the energy to go again after expending so much of it just to reach this point?

Jan Kruger – UEFA / UEFA / Getty

The biggest question surrounding England, meanwhile, hinges on a potential formation shift from Gareth Southgate. After he reverted to a three-man defense against Germany, this contest may call for a more offensively minded approach; four across the back, with newfound national hero Jack Grealish reinserted into the starting lineup for more attacking impetus, seems the obvious move. Southgate’s ethos has always been to keep things tight defensively – boring football is perfectly fine by him if it delivers results. But he can still accomplish that while lining up his team to take the initiative against a beleaguered opponent that figures to sit back and cede possession. England, the only team yet to concede a goal in this tournament, can grind out the win if necessary. But it really shouldn’t have to.

Euro 2020 has served as a stark reminder to never rule out the underdog. But actually predicting the favorite to fall – against all evidence – is another matter entirely.

Prediction: England advances in extra time

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