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EURO 2024

Italy recover from disastrous start to win Euro 2024 opener

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Nicolo Barella celebrates scoring Italy s second goal against Albania in Dortmund. AFP

Italy recovered from conceding the fastest goal in the competition’s history to get their defence of the European Championship title off to a winning start on Saturday as they came back to beat Albania 2-1 in front of a partisan crowd.

Nedim Bajrami stunned the Italians and delighted a huge Albanian support in Dortmund as he smashed in the opener after just 23 seconds, his strike pulverising the previous record for the quickest goal at the Euros of 67 seconds by Dmitri Kirichenko of Russia in 2004.

Yet Italy’s response to falling behind was quick too, as Alessandro Bastoni headed the Azzurri level on 11 minutes and Nicolo Barella’s glorious effort put them ahead just past the quarter-hour mark.

From then on Luciano Spalletti’s team looked much more assured, although they really should have won by a greater margin rather than face an anxious finale as Albania pushed for an equaliser.

Their performance -– the first 23 seconds apart -– was largely encouraging before an enticing showdown with fellow heavyweights Spain in nearby Gelsenkirchen next Thursday.

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Whatever happens in that match, Italy are already well-placed to advance to the knockout phase of Euro 2024 from Group B, in which Spain defeated Croatia 3-0 earlier on Saturday in Berlin.

Italy are in some ways an unknown quantity coming into this tournament, with the reigning champions having also missed the last two World Cups and failed to fully convince during qualifying.

Only five of Italy’s line-up at kick-off here started the final of the last Euros three years ago, with a new-look team featuring Bologna centre-back Riccardo Calafiori winning just his third cap.

Bajrami makes history

Albania, though, are appearing at just their second major tournament having also gone to Euro 2016.

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The novelty of the experience for them helps explain why the home of Borussia Dortmund was a sea of excitable Albanian fans decked in red and black who made up the vast majority of the crowd.

They could hardly believe it when their team, coached by the Brazilian former Arsenal and Barcelona left-back Sylvinho, opened the scoring almost straight from kick-off.

Italy’s Federico Dimarco took a throw from the left-back position but played it loosely back into his own box. Bastoni was caught on the back foot, and Bajrami –- who plays in Italy for Sassuolo — pounced to control and fire past Gianluigi Donnarumma at the goalkeeper’s near post.

It was a similar start to Italy’s last European Championship match, when Luke Shaw put England ahead inside two minutes in the final at Wembley in 2021 before the Azzurri came back to win on penalties.

This time they drew level when Dimarco and Lorenzo Pellegrini played a short corner routine on the left before the latter crossed for Inter Milan centre-back Bastoni to head in at the back post.

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Italy had regained their composure and soon went in front on 16 minutes, a Jasir Asani clearance dropping straight to another Inter player in Barella, who made the cleanest of contacts at the edge of the area to send a first-time shot past goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha.

They should have added to their lead before the interval, with Davide Frattesi hitting the post after meeting a lovely reverse pass by Gianluca Scamacca in the box.

Scamacca was then denied by Strakosha, while Fedrico Chiesa curled a shot just wide on the hour mark.

Italy then sat back, but Albania did not manage another attempt on target and the second-lowest ranked nation in the competition could not find an equaliser despite their best efforts late on.

-AFP

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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EURO 2024

Spain inflicts pain on serial cup  losers, England

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Euro 2024 - Final - Spain v England - Berlin Olympiastadion, Berlin, Germany - July 14, 2024 Spain's Mikel Oyarzabal celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Again, football is not going home as serial cup losers, England failed on Sunday to win the European championship after losing 2-1 to Spain.

Fantastic Spain! They set a record by being the first four-time winner of the trophy and did it in beautiful fashion, winning all their seven matches.

They controlled the final match from kick-off to final whistle and are worthy winners.

And yet another positive, Yamal Lamine, the Moroccan born kid star has become the youngest player at age 17 and a day, to win a major trophy, sending into the archives, the feat by Pele in the 1958 World Cup.

For England, it is yet another cup loss. In two years’ time, it will be 60 years since they won a major trophy, the World Cup.

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Even then, their 1966 World Cup win is still shrouded in controversy. Great Spain, they have extended the long wait of England for major football victory.

 Mikel Oyarzabal’s 87th-minute goal clinched the  2-1  victory for Spain.

He  slid in to poke home Marc Cucurella’s cross, just when the game at Berlin’s Olympiastadion seemed destined for extra time after the latest show of resilience by England at the tournament.

Substitute Cole Palmer equalized for England in the 73rd minute to cancel out Nico Williams’ opener in the 47th from 17-year-old prodigy Lamine Yamal’s pass.

Spain also won the title in 1964, 2008 and 2012.

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EURO 2024

Player of the Euros, Lamine Yamal is 17 today

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The most exciting player on the most exciting team at Euro 2024 – Spain’s Lamine Yamal – turns 17 on Saturday, but the birthday celebrations will have to wait while he prepares for Sunday’s European Championship final against England in Berlin.

“I’ve told my mum that if we win I don’t want any presents, I just want to celebrate in Madrid with my mates,” Lamine, as he prefers to be called, said in an interview with Spain’s Marca outlet on Saturday.

“That would be crazy, to celebrate with people on the streets all the way from the airport. Everyone would go crazy! We would arrive with incredible euphoria.”

Yamal has been breaking records since making his professional debut for Barcelona less than 15 months ago, the last one becoming the youngest goalscorer in Euros history with a stunning curled long-range shot against France that helped his side reach the final.

The youngest to play, start and score for his club and his nation are other records he has broken since. Against England at Berlin’s Olympiastadion he may have the chance to reach even higher ground if he helps his side win a record fourth European Championship title.

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It would strengthen his case as the most productive young player in Europe and surely put him in the frame to be named player of the tournament.

Lamine fever has set in, with his father making headlines last week by publishing on social media a December 2007 photo of his baby son in the arms of former Barcelona forward Lionel Messi.

Messi, 20 at the time and starting a career which would take him on to win the Ballon D’Or eight times, was posing for a charity calendar, and just happened to be cradling in his arms a baby who 17 years later would take the European Championships by storm.

His father told Spanish TV La Sexta it was “just a life coincidence”. The reporter suggested maybe Messi’s blessing had somehow given Yamal his remarkable talent, to which his mother fired back: “What if it was the other way around?”

Yamal, born in Spain to a father from Morocco and a mother from Equatorial Guinea, is the latest wonderkid to make headlines in a country that has become one of European soccer’s most fertile production grounds for world-class players.

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Following in the footsteps of Barca academy teenage sensations Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati, Yamal has established himself as an important part of Barca’s forward line.

He has also been highly influential for Spain in Germany as the player with most assists (3), key passes (16) and clear chances created (6).

He has been a nightmare for opponents, running up and down the right channel and showing great technique and vision to deliver key passes, making him one of Spain’s most dangerous weapons.

He was close to scoring several times in Spain’s first five games in Germany, but it wasn’t until their sixth – the semi-final against France, that he finally made his mark with a candidate for goal of the tournament.

“We have seen genius from a genius,” Spain coach Luis de la Fuente said. “We are very lucky that he is Spanish and that we are going to enjoy him for many years to come.”

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-Reuters

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EURO 2024

Spain and England’s paths to the Euro 2024 final

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 Euro 2024 - Semi Final - Spain v France - Munich Football Arena, Munich, Germany - July 9, 2024 Spain players celebrate after the match REUTERS/Heiko Becker/File Photo

Spain and England have experienced very different journeys to Sunday’s Euro 2024 final. We look at their path to Berlin below.

ENGLAND

England 1 Serbia 0

An early header by Jude Bellingham rewarded England for a good first half in their first game but they went off the boil and ended up hanging on for the win as manager Gareth Southgate’s gamble of starting with Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield backfired.

The tally of 11 shots – six by Serbia, five from England – was the lowest in a European Championship match since 1980, but within weeks England fans would have seen five shots as wild entertainment.

England 1 Denmark 1

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England led through Harry Kane but struggled for control all game and Denmark deservedly equalised with a 30-yard pile-driver by Morten Hjulmand after a wild pass from Kane, who spent more time around his own box than the opposition’s. Results elsewhere later meant that England were guaranteed progress on four points.

England 0 Slovenia 0

A dull game where England managed three shots on goal ended with them nevertheless top of their group on five points, though it was the Slovenian players and fans celebrating at the end as they progressed to the knockout phase for the first time.

Round of 16: England 2 Slovakia 1 after extra time.

Ivan Schranz put outsiders Slovakia ahead in the first half and England seemed unable, almost unwilling, to do anything about it in another toothless display. They were rescued by Jude Bellingham’s brilliant bicycle kick in the 96th minute and won it with a Kane goal in extra-time – their only shots on target.

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Southgate was widely criticised for his inactivity, with the focus on his decision to throw on striker Ivan Toney with one minute of stoppage time remaining.

Quarter-final: England 1 Switzerland 1. England win 5-3 on penalties

In a tight game Breel Embolo put Switzerland ahead after 75 minutes, with Bukayo Saka levelling with a great shot 10 minutes later as England improved, but were still shot-shy.

It went to penalties, but what for so long had been England’s weakness suddenly looked a strength as Cole Palmer, Bellingham, Saka, Toney and Alexander-Arnold all scored confidently and Jordan Pickford saved from Manuel Akanji.

Semi-final: England 2 Netherlands 1

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For the third knockout game in a row England fell behind, to a superb Xavi Simons shot, but they responded brilliantly with an exhilarating first-half display that was unrecognisable from the stodge previously served up.

They equalised with a VAR-awarded Harry Kane penalty and went close several times. The second half was quieter but exploded in the 91st minute when substitute Ollie Watkins scored to take England into their second successive European Championship final.

SPAIN

Spain 3 Croatia 0

Spain set their Euros stall out with an impressive opening match demolition of Croatia with first-half goals by Alvaro Morata, Fabian Ruiz and Dani Carvajal.

Spain 1 Italy 0

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A 1-0 win secured by an own goal might sound close but Spain totally outclassed the defending champions, firing in 20 attempts on goal, to gain revenge for their elimination by Italy in Euro 2024.

Spain 1 Albania 0

Already through, Spain made 10 changes for the game but were still comfortably in charge and won it with a superb early Ferran Torres strike.

Round of 16: Spain 4 Georgia 1

Despite the shock of going behind via Robin Le Normand’s own goal, Spain delivered another emphatic display.

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Rodri equalised and second-half goals by the impressive Fabian Ruiz, Nico Williams and Dani Olmo saw them home.

Quarter-final: Spain 2 Germany 1 (aet)

After the Georgia cruise, Spain faced a considerable step up against the host nation but were deserved winners.

Olmo put them ahead early in the second half but Germany levelled a minute from time via Florian Wirtz.

The game was into the 119th minute and looked set for a penalty shootout when substitute Mikel Merino headed the winner.

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Semi-final: Spain 2 France 1

Randal Kolo Muani put France ahead but two goals in five first-half minutes settled another deserved victory.

At 16, Lamine Yamal became the youngest scorer in a Euro or World Cup – and Spain’s 10th different scorer at the tournament – with a lovely curler, before Olmo scored for the third successive knockout game.

-Reuters

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