Euro 2024: Spain blanks Italy to reach knockout round

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Europe beware – Spain might just be back.

The three-time European champion advanced to the round of 16 at Euro 2024 after a 1-0 win against holder Italy on Thursday.

A 55th-minute own goal by Riccardo Calafiori settled the Group B game at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen.

But that didn’t begin to tell the story of a statement performance from Spain, which surely marks it as one of the favorites to win a record-extending fourth European Championship.

“I think it was the best Spain performance I have taken charge of,” coach Luis de la Fuente said. “I don’t see a ceiling on this team. The sky is the limit.”

Spain totally dominated defending champion Italy, with 16-year-old winger Lamine Yamal further enhancing his reputation as one of soccer’s most exciting young stars.

Player of the match Nico Williams also tormented Italy’s defenders and was the width of the crossbar away from scoring in the second half.

It took Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to keep the score down with a string of fine saves until inadvertently pushing the ball into the legs of Calafiori, who couldn’t prevent it from ricocheting into his own goal.

“They deserved to win and we were never in the game,” Italy coach Luciano Spalletti said. “There was too much of a gulf. We were constantly stretched, we were never able to squeeze the gaps between the various units and they were able to cause us problems. They caused us more problems than the scoreline suggests, let’s not beat around the bush.”

Spain produced a throwback performance that brought to mind the years when it ruled international soccer when winning back-to-back Euros and the World Cup from 2008 through 2012.

Having failed to dominate possession for the first time in 136 competitive games in its opening 3-0 win over Croatia, Spain was back to its old ways in starving Italy of the ball and dictating play in a largely lopsided game.

Chances came thick and fast in the first half, with Donnarumma pulling off a string of saves to keep the score goalless.

For all of Spain’s superiority, it took Calafiori’s own goal to break the deadlock after halftime.

Donnarumma pushed Alvaro Morata’s glancing header into the legs of Calafiori, who could only watch as the ball ricocheted into the back of the net.

Williams was then millimeters away from extending the lead with a curling shot that hit crossbar.

“We dominated across the board,” Williams said. “Italy are an excellent side but we played very well and deserved to win.”

Williams is just one of the bright young stars in De la Fuente’s team. Yamal is another and the Barcelona teenager, who has a $1 billion buyout clause, showcased his talents with slaloming runs and tricks.

Barcelona midfielder Pedri looks like the modern-day answer to Spain great Andres Iniesta.

“I want to underline the quality of this generation of players, particularly those in this squad. Spanish players are the best in the world,” De la Fuente said.

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Spain has endured frustrating times since it last won the Euros in 2012, with early exits from the last three World Cups.

At the last Euros, it lost on penalties to Italy in the semifinals.

But there have been signs of its resurgence in recent times, having won the UEFA Nations League last year. Now it looks well-positioned to add another major title in Germany.

“Essentially we haven’t achieved anything yet,” De la Fuente said. “Football can be very cruel. We have to be cautious, humble and show respect.”

England 1, Denmark 1

A draw Thursday with Denmark — a semifinalist last time, don’t forget — means England is unbeaten and all-but certain to advance to the round of 16.

It also was a slack, mistake-filled display that left coach Gareth Southgate angrily gesturing at his players for gifting a slew of scoring chances late in the game.

“The team didn’t function today, that is my responsibility,” said Southgate, who heard jeers from fans behind the England goal in a ragged second half.

Harry Kane gave England another fast start at Euro 2024, scoring it the 18th minute, but the captain was substituted off in the second half as the team faded.

Denmark leveled in the 34th when Morten Hjulmand fired in a powerful low shot from long distance, after Kane gave away the ball in defense.

Eight years with Southgate has earned England sustained tournament success. The Three Lions reached the final of Euro 2020 — after beating Denmark in the last four — and a semifinal and a quarterfinal at the past two World Cups.

“We’re in the environment of winning on the biggest stage,” the coach acknowledged, adding “you have to accept what (criticism) comes our way.”

England has never won back-to-back games to begin a Euros and a pattern of second-game syndrome has repeated at three straight tournaments.

Opening wins in the past three years have been following by tepid 0-0 draws with Scotland and the United States, now a 1-1 with the Danes who deserved more.

“I can’t say we are disappointed but it’s a shame,” Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand said. “There is a result we could have gotten.”

Still, England started Euro 2024 by beating Serbia 1-0 and now sits top of Group C with four points. That tally always has been enough to advance in the 24-team Euros format where four third-place teams from the six groups go forward to the round of 16.

England can finish in any position from first to third in the Group C standings after playing unbeaten Slovenia next Tuesday.

Slovenia drew 1-1 with Serbia earlier Thursday, four days after getting the same result against Denmark. Serbia meets Denmark in their final games also on Tuesday evening.

Southgate had defended his players from what seemed like unfair criticism for the nervy nature of the win against Serbia, ceding some control after Jude Bellingham’s early goal.

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Bellingham was subdued Thursday and Southgate removed the stellar strike trio of Kane, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka in one sweep in the 69th. Jarrod Bowen, Eberechi Eze, Ollie Watkins came on and within two minutes Watkins almost scored with a shot after a darting run.

The coach’s patience seemed to run out in the 85th when his players repeatedly gave away the ball and surrendered scoring chances. He gestured from the sideline with both index fingers pointing to his temples, urging them to think more.

England had led by seizing on sleepiness in the Denmark defense. Hesitation by Victor Kristiansen let right-back Kyle Walker surge past him to steal the ball for a pass across the goalmouth.

When the ball reached Kane he poked home a left-footed shot for a record extending 64th England goal for the captain.

Kane had his part in Denmark’s leveler. His unwise pass out of defense soon went to Hjulmand, who strode forward to fire a low shot past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and in the net off his right-hand post.

The game was played beneath a closed stadium roof on slippery turf that cut up after steady rain this week.

The teams had royal watchers from the stands with the king of Denmark, Frederik X, and future king of England, Prince William, at the game.

An England team packed with aristocrats of club soccer and stars of the Champions League looked more common on Thursday.

“To achieve extraordinary things you have got to go through some difficult moments,” said Southgate, whose team typically sticks around for the final week. “Today was a difficult moment without a doubt.”

Serbia 1, Slovenia 1

A late strike denied Slovenia a first-ever win in a European Championship as Serbia snatched a draw Thursday.

Zan Karnicnik’s 69th-minute goal put Slovenia on the brink of a historic win until substitute Luka Jovic leveled deep in stoppage time to keep Serbia’s chances of advancing to the knockout stage alive.

The goal sent the Serbia fans into raucous joy but also saw them throw flares and other objects onto the field.

By that point, the ground around both goals was littered with plastic cups that had rained down from the stands in the final 10 minutes, prompting announcements over the stadium’s speakers urging the fans to stop.

The equalizer was virtually the last action as the referee blew fulltime immediately after the players restarted.

The Slovenia players collapsed to the ground in disappointment.

“Serbs do not die so easily,” Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic said. “We do not give up and nor will we. We believe all the way to the end and the reward came for believing.

“We didn’t accept that we would lose to Slovenia tonight, we didn’t want to accept this result and that’s why the reward came.”

It would have been Slovenia’s second win in a major tournament and its first since victory over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.

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“Slovenia has shown that it has a place here at the European Championships,” Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek said. “Sports and football can be cruel but I believe karma will play its part for this team. We have played a fair game in an atmosphere for the ages.

“We have felt disappointment because we know how strong the Serbia players are, how good they are at dead-ball situations. There was a lack of concentration in the last minute but a big thank you to the players for the heart that they have shown in this arena.”

Slovenia — which drew against Denmark in their opener — plays England in its final group match on Tuesday, when Serbia faces Denmark. Serbia lost to England in its first match and could have found itself eliminated with a loss in Munich.

Serbia soccer officials threatened to quit the competition even before a ball had been kicked becasue of offensive fan chants reportedly heard during the Albania-Croatia match.

“I’m just focusing on the game,” Stojkovic said when asked about it. “Honestly speaking, I didn’t even read anything. Believe me or not, it’s true.”

With both teams needing a win on Thursday to boost their chances of progressing, the match started at a fast pace and Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic had to make two early saves.

Those two shots on target in the first eight minutes were as many as Slovenia had in total in its draw with Denmark.

The best chance of the half fell to Slovenia in somewhat fortunate circumstances. Timi Elsnik tried to pass to a teammate but the ball came off a Serbia defender and fell kindly back to him for a thunderous effort which crashed off the right post. Benjamin Sesko fired the rebound woefully over.

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Slovenia eventually broke the deadlock with a move started and finished by Karnicnik. The defender won the ball deep inside his own half and ran some 40 yards before picking out Elsnik on the left and racing into the box to collect the cross and tap home at the back post.

Serbia almost leveled immediately but Aleksandar Mitrovic — who scored in his previous two matches against Slovenia — hit the crossbar.

Serbia threw everything at Slovenia in the final stages. Even Rajkovic came up for the final corner but it was Jovic who leapt highest to head it past Oblak in the fifth minute of added time.

“I love him very much” Stojkovic said.

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