Ladies and gentlemen, we have our upset of the tournament. Switzerland have done the unthinkable and dumped France out of Euro2020. The favourites, the World Cup holders, shunted from the competition pencilled in as theirs. Concurrent world and European champions for a second time, they said. Not on our watch came the Swiss retort.
First they came back from 3-1 down in the final minutes of regular time, then they dug deep to make it to penalties. And with their first five penalties converted to lead 5-4 up, Kylian Mbappe’s whipped effort was met with a rock-solid hand from Yann Sommer. The wait to confirm the legitimacy of the save felt like an age, but Sommer’s left foot was on the line, celebrations went off and a stunning Monday of football had the most spectacular end.
The reward for Switzerland is a quarter-final meeting with Spain on Friday, but also the exorcism of a developing hex. This made it four consecutive major tournaments of getting out the group stages having fallen at the first hurdles in the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, and Euro 2016. Though they stumbled at times here, they have finally made the leap.
The glory for head coach Vladimir Petkovic was on a similar level to Didier Deschamps’ dismay. Both totally unexpected but, on balance, deserved. The French turned up, but the Swiss turned it on.
To have one round of 16 match finishing 3-3 in normal time from what looked like a done-and-dusted 3-1 can be considered a blessing. To have two in the same day, well, I’m not too sure if there is a word for that. But Switzerland took a page out of Croatia’s book to rise out of their malaise from the 81st minute.
This here in Bucharest was certainly the more impressive salvage operation. Because for it to take place, Switzerland had to vanquish their own in-game demons. They held a 1-0 lead thanks to Haris Seferovic’s first-half header, and just seven minutes into the second were presented with the opportunity to go 2-0 up from the spot.
However, Ricardo Rodriguez’s strike low to Hugo Lloris’ right was kept out expertly. And then, in under four minutes, Karim Benzema happened.
A stunning take and dink over Sommer levelled matters before a 59th-minute close-range header after Antoine Griezmann’s dink was tipped by the Swiss goalkeeper. France, now at their swaggering rampant best after stinking out the joint, then made it 3-1 when Paul Pogba curled a stunner into the top corner from 30 yards.
With 15 minutes to go, the tie looked done. But the persistence and control that got Switzerland into their original position of dominance resurfaced. Seferovic headed in his second before second-half substitute Mario Gavranovic sat down Presnel Kimpembe and fired into the same corner that Rodriguez failed to find to make it 3-3 in the 90th minute.
We all expected to see a different type of France here. The scorched earth mavericks who took it easy during the early stages, topping the Group of Death and yet underwhelming all at the same time. Beating Hungary, a couple of draws against Germany and Portugal. All to get through to the bit where it matters most.
And yet, they were just as naff for the best part of the first hour. Granted, Deschamps had injuries to manage, doing so with a 3-5-2 to mitigate for issues that seemed to exclusively impact left-sided and -footed players.
Adrien Rabiot deputised initially at left-wing-back, with Benjamin Pavard on the other side. It was clear the five defenders in the starting XI were going to do just that. Disappointing for the spectacle, but understandable from Deschamps, who almost thanked the injuries for checking French optimism, stating his star-studded line-up “mustn’t underestimate” the Swiss.
Well, they did. Beyond the flourishes of Mbappe streaming down the left, Benzema brooding around the box and Griezmann trying to bring them together, the Swiss were immaculate. Defensively sound and, crucially, patient when they pushed forward.
They did the latter with immense composure, strumming the ball around decisively through Granit Xhaka, contributing to the most free-flowing elements of the first half.
Seferovic’s opener was the epitome of their technical and mental aptitude. The striker’s effort from range was recycled calmly out to Steven Zuber on the left, who created enough space to put in a perfect cross into the middle of the box. Seferovic had made the run, accompanied with a bump that Clement Lenglet wore as badly as white socks with a suit, rising to head beyond Lloris.
France’s disjointedness was only going to get more pronounced by chasing the game. There’s something very American football about them: offensive and defensive teams within the XI operating independently of each other. So when Kingsley Coman replaced Lenglet, the areas for Switzerland to exploit grew.
It only took one man to do so. Zuber’s stop-and-go sprint down the left took him from the Swiss half, to the white line of the French penalty area. Pavard’s tackle was clumsy, Zuber’s immediate jump up to his feet noble. But a second look on VAR gave Switzerland the clear spot-kick.
So came the compound blows: Rodriguez’s miss, Benzema’s one-two, Pogba’s lick of the postage stamp and an impending French flex for the final 15 minutes.
But Seferovic exercised his aerial dominance once more, flinging himself into the path of Kevin Mbabu’s cross from the right to ramp up the tension. And when Gavranovic had the ball in the net for the first time in the 85th minute, the correct offside call from the assistant referee felt like a reminder that lightning does not strike twice.
Then again, this is football. And with Pogba dispossessed on the halfway line, Xhaka found Gavranovic, who held his nerve to created extra room and fire low and true to take us to extra-time. Regular time wasn’t quite done there though, as Coman struck the bar with the final action of four minutes added time.
Unlike in the earlier game, it was the trailing band that stepped up for the second-half. Croatia’s leglessness that contributed to Spain’s eventual 5-3 win was at odds with Switzerland’s drive, characterised by Xhaka continuing his regular time domination.
So did his opposite man, Pogba, who looked to have prised the clearest opening when he threaded Mbappe through in the second half of extra time. But the Paris Saint-Germain speedster opted to let the bowl roll onto his left rather than take it early with his right, rippling the outside of the side-netting to continue the steady creep towards penalties.
Of course, as Mbappe strode forward, casual body language experts had a field day. The scoreless wonder of this tournament for the do-or-die spot-kick? Even redemption at the most would not have been enough for a player who may only 22 but is already burdened with discussions of just how great his greatness is. For those who cast shade, here was more grist to the mill.
The irony is his penalty was the sweetest of his shots on the night. And it will go on to be one of his most memorable, alongside his goal in 2018’s World Cup Final. The winners-elect have been toppled unceremoniously. As deserving an end for them as it was the start of a fairytale for Switzerland.
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