“If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead”


Erma Bombeck


“Football can be very beautiful and it can be very cruel, we have had to experience that today,” a shocked Ajax coach, Erik ten Hag, said after the wild night at Amsterdam where Tottenham Hotspur scripted a dramatic comeback in the Champions League semifinal, 2018-19. Until Lucas Moura burst into the scene, the match was all about Ajax, but Moura snatched the match from the jaws of defeat.

Indeed, the beautiful game can haunt you for a brief period when a bunch of determined folks show up and decides to hit back, no matter what the situation is, no matter, how impossible it is – the cruelty of the game could be experienced at that time – it becomes a legend for the winner, for the loser, it becomes a long and lonely night of despair.

No one was expecting this to happen. No one was could understand what was happening in Bucharest. No one could feel their senses for a brief period. No one expected a French exit from the Round of 16. Everyone expected them to lift the trophy. The French were the hot favourites and they possess such a brilliant team – still, they were out in yet another dramatic night of European Football. Football can be so cruel.

Your talents determine what you intend to do whereas motivation determines you, but it is the attitude that determines how well you do it. Pressure is something when you don’t know what to do, but you don’t feel it all when you soak it up and go for the kill till the last breath – Switzerland never gave up!

After the breathtaking display at Copenhagen, the contest at Bucharest was supposed to be in favour of the French. The world was still trying to catch its breath after the thriller at Copenhagen and regaining all its consciousness to enjoy the French display, but the start was stunning and surprising as well.

Didier Deschamps decided to surface a team with a here-men defence – something with which the French team is not familiar with because either 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 have always been their formation of choice and in the middle of the tournament, experimenting with 3 defenders at the back was nothing but an ill-advised one. And, the inclusion of Clement Lenglet at the backline made France suffer. Someone like Kurt Zouma would have been much better.

The French looked less comfortable with the formation and even though they started to gel with the progression of the match, sadly, it cost them.

The three-men backline struggled to adapt to the unfamiliar formation and found themselves behind when Zuber found space down the left and dug out a wonderful cross. Seferovic rose the highest in the centre, miles over Lenglet, and planted an unstoppable downwards header into the bottom left – Hugo Lloris had no chance.

What was going on in Bucharest?

On the touchline, Didier Deschamps had the good grace to look concerned. He was hoping to become the first man to win both the Euros and the World Cup as both player and manager and now, his team was a little rattled all of a sudden!

But, this French side is so brilliant and unique that they are able to put the foot on the paddle immediately under any kind of pressure. They gathered themselves and launch a couple of attacks. First, Paul Pogba nearly quarterbacked Kylian Mbappe clear, but Elvedi stayed strong and then Rabiot bustled down the left and chips across the face of goal for Benzema. Sommer got a fingertip to the cross, diverting it away from danger.

The French formed triangles down the left – Robiot flicked into the stomach of Freuler. The referee ludicrously awards a free-kick for handball. Mbappe drove the free-kick straight into the wall. The ball came back to him. He sent a first-time diagonal screamer well wide of the right-hand post.

The French bossed the centre of the park and final third, but the clinical finishing was missing – Switzerland looked confident enough in weathering the storm.

After the break, Switzerland got a great opportunity to stretch the lead.

The referee stopped the play and went over to the VAR screen. Benjamin Pavard clearly upended Zuber, and so the referee, who had shown no interest whatsoever at first hand, reversed his decision and pointed to the spot – penalty to Switzerland.

Ricardo Rodriguez took the penalty, with no conviction whatsoever. He aimed for the bottom left. Lloris read his intention, and parried the weak spot-kick, before flopping on the ball, then springing up to celebrate wildly – a lifeline for France and they played in a fashion that almost buried the Swiss hopes.

France snaffled a loose ball in midfield. Antoine Griezmann worked it infield from the right. Mbappe slipped a ball down the inside right channel for Benzema, who controlled it with his heel, dragging it in front of him, over Sommer, and into the net – the French were back and more to come.

Two minutes later, Griezmann and Mbappe played a one-two down the left, having been sent into a pocket of space after some good work by Pogba and Coman. Griezmann dinked a cross to the far post. Benzema rose to head home from a yard out!

Spare a thought for Rodriguez, who missed that penalty for a 2-0 lead just two minutes and 19 seconds ago.

With fifteen minutes remaining Benzema, on the edge of the Swiss D-box, aimed a curler towards the top right that was blocked. The ball came back to Pogba who tried for the same corner and whacked it into the postage stamp, gracefully and at pace. He took a pose. He deserved to vogue. That was absolutely brilliant.

Wait, just wait – the match was not over yet!

Similarly to the Copenhagen drama – with just ten minutes remaining, there was a space for Mbabu down the right. He crossed and Seferovic got ahead of Kimpembe and Varane, and flashed another unstoppable header past Lloris, this time into the top left!

Like Luka Modric, Switzerland have a leader in the shape of Granit Xhaka, who was not giving up that easily. He was the nucleus in that quarterback area and dictated the game. Again, he overcame the pressure built up by Pogba and N’Golo Kante.

Xhaka had gone toe-to-toe with Pogba all night in the quarterback role. Both Manchester United and Arsenal fans must have been wondering where these types of elite performances have been at club level over the past few years.

With the stoppage time around the corner, Pogba was dispossessed in the centre circle. Xhaka passed down the middle for Gavranovic, who turned Kimpembe on the edge of the box before firing into the bottom left – Lloris had no chance.

The heartbeat increased more when, in the 94th minute, Xhaka hoicked forward for Mehmedi, who very nearly brought the pass under control – but not quite and France advanced straight up the other end, Sissoko drove down the right and found Coman, level with the left-hand post, 12 yards out.

Coman chest that down and creamed a rising shot off the junction of bar and right-hand post.

The Swiss and their supporters surely had the heart on their mouth.

During the extra-time – nothing dramatic happened like Copenhagen and the game was decided by penalties.

It was up to Mbappe to put France on level terms in the penultimate penalty kick, but Sommer read one of the best players in the world so well that he moved the right way and denied the World Champion. Obviously, you would send your best player for taking the decisive penalty and Deschamps was absolutely right, but it was not France’s night, rather the celebration of the Swiss, who came back into the game twice despite taking the lead and missing the most decisive penalty in the crucial juncture of play – lightened up Bucharest.

“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.”


Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

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