WEEK two of Euro 2020 has been completed, in what has been a very satisfying run of group games that have lived up to and gone beyond expectations.
Maybe our hunger to see big tournament events again has coloured our appreciation of these games more than usual. It is also no coincidence that the matches that stirred our emotions the most also happened to be the games that had a full complement of spectators in attendance. It may even have something to do with the excellent way the games have been officiated both on the field and off it with VAR.
Now we can look forward to a weekend of knockout action from the Round of 16, starting with tomorrow's unlikely fixture of the sides that showed the most hunger to qualify, mainly Wales and Denmark, who face-off at 5pm. While the amazingly exciting Italians should have the measure of the rather workmanlike Austrians at 8pm.
As pointed out, one of the pleasures from this tournament, that may have rightly gone unnoticed but deserves to be acknowledged, is the quality of the refereeing and the marked improvement in assessment and accuracy of the VAR officials.
36 matches in and there has hardly been an incidence of controversy regarding either the officials on the field and their counterparts in the VAR studio.
These high standards shown by Euro VAR is in stark contrast to the shenanigans that constitutes your average weekend of deliberations in the Premier League.
The VAR decisions in Euro 2020, in large part, have been correct. They have been timely in their deliberations, not interrupted the flow of the game, and most importantly deal with the actual incidence/offence rather than a VAR interpretation of what's understandable for a referee to get wrong.
VAR's performance has been a revelation for Sky Sport's Premier League pundit Gary Neville, who is working with ITV for Euro 2020, admitting that,
One of the advances in the officiating was the decision, before the tournament, to change the handball rule so that accidental handballs in the buildup to a goal would no longer be seen as a foul. This is welcome news to defenders all over the world who are forced to tuck their hands behind their backs like a speed skater to avoid accidentally having the ball graze their arm.
However, it doesn't seem to count if the defender is in the opponent's box. One of the few controversial VAR decisions saw what looked like a legitimate goal from Italy's Giorgio Chiellini scratched off due to a handball, even though the ball clearly struck Chiellini's arm by accident and as a consequence of the two Swiss defenders pushing his arm into the path of the ball.
Even in this, you could understand why the goal was struck out. Chiellini, whether by mistake or not, achieved an advantage that led to a goal by the use of his arm and thus unfair on Switzerland.
The other controversial VAR moment happened in Monday night's group decider between Belgium and Finland. Where Belgium's Romelu Lukaku appeared to have opened the scoring with a clean side-footed strike into the Finn's goal from the edge of the six-yard box. Lukaku put away the goal, celebrated with his teammates and fans, returned to the halfway line for the restart before the VAR official questioned whether Lukaku was offside. What followed was a Premier League long deliberation by VAR. Minutes passed while we waited for a conclusion, which minutes later called Lukaku offside.
Subsequent replays of the goal also, chillingly, reminded us of the Premier League as we were left scratching our heads as to what part of Lukaku was offside? Even his clothing, a favourite decider in the Premier League, was onside. It left a level of frustration with the decision so familiar to those of us who follow the Premier League. Such was the similarity with the English decisions I checked to see if it was an English official in charge of VAR for that game. As it turned out, it was a German referee but if he ever gets tired of Bundesliga games there is definitely an opening for him in the VAR box or Stockley Park in the Premier League.
Luckily for all involved, none of these controversial decisions played a part in the inevitable outcome of the games. As it stood, both Italy and Belgium had qualified for the next round before these games even started. But it would be really unfortunate if, later on, any errant VAR decision would affect the outcome of a game in such an entertaining and well-administered tournament like this.