picture by Mark 92 at Dutch Wikipedia
Tomorrow, August 3rd, the semifinals of the European Championship – more commonly referred to as the Euro – four European powerhouses will face off, with 2nd-ranked Germany facing off against 3rd-ranked France while 5th-ranked England battles the home side in the Netherlands…at least that was what the headline was supposed to read. In fact, as soon as the groups and the brackets were revealed sports writers across the globe already knew that was how their article introducing the semifinals would go, but the truth is far more exciting. Instead of watching the same premier teams battle it out we watch for two weeks as underdogs clawed their way to the top of a tournament that hasn’t seen a winner apart from Germany since 1995. The conventional wisdom did get one match right: England and the Netherlands will be facing off in one semifinal match as both teams swept their groups and moved easily through the quarterfinals, this will be the premier match of the 2017 Euro. The other match is a complete shock, with Denmark facing off against the Austrian debutantes.
Group Stage and Quarterfinal Upsets
The upheaval in European women’s soccer was not completely unexpected. In my posts handicapping the four groups I made note that most of the traditional powerhouses had looked weaker than normal and that they could be vulnerable to being overtaken, but the sheer volume of surprise finishes was a surprise to the world.
In Group A, Norway failed to register a single point after earning a place in the semifinals in 9 of the 11 Euros in history. The Norwegian team, ranked 11th in the world, had failed to advance from the group stage just once before – in 1997 – but couldn’t register a single goal in their three group matches this year.
In Group B, the favorites floundered their way into the quarterfinals with Germany earning two unconvincing wins, while Sweden tied Germany and lost to Italy, but was saved from an early elimination by a surprising Russian victory over Italy in the opening match. Without that Russian win the Swedes wouldn’t have escaped the group stage.
Group C posted the most alarming result, with 3rd-ranked France coming second in their group to Austria, who had never even been to a major tournament in the history of the team. Before this year Austria had never qualified for the Olympics, the World Cup nor the Euros, but now they are just one game away from making the finals. France, taking the opposite trajectory, was supposed to roll through the group but was 8 minutes away from being eliminated until they got a miracle goal to draw their final game.
In Group D the English squad did exactly what they were supposed to do, convincingly winning all 3 group matches, while each of the other teams took one game from the others. Spain went through by the slimmest of margins when they were supposed to compete for the title.
The quarterfinals were no kinder to the favorites, as Germany was beaten by Denmark, Sweden was beaten by Netherlands, France was beaten by England, and Spain was beaten in penalties by Austria. Only the Sweden vs Netherlands match would have been projected to produce the same winner if the matches had been set before the tournament began. Instead, Germany will fall out of the top 4 for the first time since their reunification. The Soviet Union and East Germany still existed the last time Germany didn’t make the semifinals. Similarly, there has never been a European Championship where Sweden or Norway weren’t in the top 4. Scandinavia will be unrepresented in the finals for just the third time ever. We are also guaranteed to have a new champion, since England, Netherlands, Austria and Denmark have never won. England has appeared in the finals twice, but none of the other teams have even made the final game.
Two Different Semifinal Matches
Both of the semifinals matches, just like every other match during the Euro, will be broadcast online on Watch ESPN and over cable on one of the ESPN networks, so if you’re excited to watch it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a way.
The first match at noon-EDT on Thursday will pit Denmark vs Austria in what is probably the most surprising semifinal match in the history of the Euros. The Austrian side has not yet lost during the tournament, while Denmark has won every game that wasn’t against the Netherlands. Nadia Nadim and Pernille Harder have been phenomenal all tournament at the front of the Danish attack, while the defense has allowed just two goals all tournament, and one came from the penalty spot. Denmark is the favorite in this game, but they will be playing against an Austrian side that is used to being the underdog. Austria has been favored in exactly zero of their tournament matches, but that hasn’t kept them from being unbeaten throughout. None of their players, with the possible exception of Nina Burger, have stood out from the rest, but they play as an amazingly cohesive unit having allowed just one goal in their four tournament games while scoring five for themselves. Furthermore, they showed a new kind of grit when they played 120 minutes of soccer to a 0-0 draw against Spain in the quarterfinals before dispatching them in pks to advance. No first-time entrant into the tournament has made the finals since the 80s, but Austria looks poised to break that streak.
The second match of the day, starting at 2:45 EDT, is probably the match that most people wish would be the finals. Only two teams have won all four of their games in the tournament, and both of those teams will be playing when England faces the Netherlands. Both teams have looked neigh unbeatable during the tournament, with both teams having allowed just one goal. The English side will be hoping for Jodie Taylor to continue her magical tournament as she looks for her record-tying 6th goal of the tournament. Only German legend, Inka Grings, has ever scored 6 goals in a single tournament and nobody has every scored 7. In contrast, the Dutch side has been very equal in their scoring, with Lieke Martens scoring twice and a bunch of players each notching one goal to earn their victories. This projects to be a very offensively-minded game with the two defenses working hard to control the talent and pace of the opposition. The crowd will certainly give the Dutch side a boost, with an expected crowd in excess of 30,000 supporters, but the English squad certainly has more defensive talent to help contain the Dutch speed. The winner of this game will be the heavy favorite to win the tournament.