With the real thing postponed until next summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, the eEuro 2020 finals were conducted this weekend as 16 nations came together to compete in the biggest international virtual soccer championship ever.
Whittled down from the 55 preliminary entrants by playoffs last month, the 16 teams -- who were made up of between two and four gamers from their national efootball team, playing on Konami's eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 on Playstation 4 -- entered the final two-day phase of the competition having been drawn into four groups.
With the group stage finished on Saturday, the quarterfinals, semifinals and final happened on Sunday as Romania, Serbia, Italy and France advanced to the "Final Four." The knockout games were 'a best of three', with the final 'a best of five', so the scorelines below reflect the series score and not an individual game.
Quarterfinals: quick results and high drama
With 16 nations whittled down to eight on Saturday, the second day of the UEFA eEURO 2020 finals weekend saw the tournament reach the quarterfinal stage. The action began with the Netherlands playing host to Romania, who came into the crunch tie on a high having previously eliminated a strong Germany side in the group phase. This first quarterfinal didn't disappoint as Romania fought back from the brink in a best-of-three battle with the Orange to secure yet another shock victory.
Spain then took on Serbia to determine who would be facing giant-killers Romania in the semis, and the tie went the full distance thanks to some last-gasp heroics from David de Gea. However, it was Serbia who eventually emerged on top to send Spain home and go sauntering into the final four.
Italy made light work of Israel, needing just two games to wrap things up with an aggregate scoreline of 5-0.
France then followed suit by seeing off Croatia as quickly as possible, winning 2-1 and 3-1 in their first two games to seize the last remaining semi spot.
RESULTS (best of three games):
Netherlands 1-2 Romania
Spain 1-2 Serbia
Italy 2-0 Israel
France 2-0 Croatia
Semifinals go down to the wire
The semifinals were once against settled in best-of-three format with the first game between Romania and Serbia going all the way. The two teams headed into the tiebreaker having won a game apiece only to find the score once again deadlocked at the half-time stage. However, cometh the hour, cometh Aleksandar Mitrovic -- the Serbia striker waiting until the 88th minute to break Romanian hearts and send his country into the grand finale.
Elsewhere, it took three games and a penalty shootout to separate Italy and France in their semi. With tension mounting and a place in the final at stake, it was a truly horrendous Panenka gaffe from Moussa Sissoko that brought Les Bleus' glorious run to an embarrassing end.
RESULTS (best of three games)
Romania 1-2 Serbia
Italy 2-0 France
Final: Italy triumph in dramatic fashion
And so the stage was set, with Serbia and Italy going head to head in a best-of-five(!) gauntlet on their respective quests to be crowned champions of the inaugural UEFA eEURO tournament.
As you might expect, the final was a far more cautious affair than the effervescent bout of games that preceded it, with Italy taking two of the first three games. Anything other than a win for Serbia in game four would see their opponents take continental gold and with 28 minutes on the clock, Fabio Quagliarella put Italy in the driving seat with a predatory finish befitting a veteran poacher.
Serbia did indeed dig deep and managed to produce an equaliser on the hour-mark through a Luka Jovic bicycle kick.
Momentum swung back and forth for the rest of the second half as Italy began pushing for the crucial goal and then, as the clock ticked into stoppage time, the fateful moment arrived. Lorenzo Insigne latched onto a through ball, cut inside his marker, curled a shot past Serbian goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic and won the eEUROs with the last meaningful touch of the entire tournament.
It was coolness personified and an inspired finish that proved to be a more than fitting end to a fantastic spectacle.
Serbia 1-3 Italy
Saturday's group format was a little unorthodox, but basically four teams played two opening fixtures, with the winners of both games facing each other (the "Winners match") knowing that another victory would see them automatically qualify for the quarterfinals.
The two losers also faced each other (the "Losers match"), with the victor earning another chance at qualification for the next phase by facing the loser of the "Winners match" in an all-or-nothing tiebreaker.
The winner of this playoff then qualified for the quarterfinals as group runner-up as the top two teams from each group went through.
Clear? Clear. Not like a UEFA tournament to be unnecessarily complicated, is it?
As you might expect, things began in Group A, where Spain and Germany were the heavyweight contenders amid a flurry of high-scoring opening bouts.
La Roja just about nudged past Romania by winning their first match 6-5, while their German rivals dished out a comprehensive 5-1 demolition to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Spain then ensured they finished top of the group with a 4-2 victory over Germany in the winner's match -- though they definitely had goalkeeper David De Gea to thank.
Bosnia were eliminated by Romania in the losers' match, finding themselves on the wrong end of an 8-2 flaying.
However, they did leave eEuro 2020 with a parting gift in the shape of a marvellous consolation free kick from Miralem Pjanic.
Group A was then closed out with a shock result as Romania pipped Germany 4-3 in a tiebreaker, with a golden goal straight from kickoff which sent the former through alongside table-toppers Spain.
🤯🤯🤯 Incredible scenes! 🇷🇴— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) May 23, 2020
Golden Goal to decide the tie, and Romania score it RIGHT FROM THE KICK-OFF! 😱
🇷🇴 4-3 🇩🇪 - Romania eliminate Germany and reach the quarter-finals! #eEURO2020 | @hai_romania pic.twitter.com/KciAd6rjm9
Spain 6-5 Romania
Germany 5-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Losers match: Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-8 Romania
Winners match: Spain 4-2 Germany
Tiebreaker match: Germany 3-4 Romania
In Group B, Italy found themselves inspired by a motivational message from real national team coach Roberto Mancini as they trounced Denmark 5-1 in their first game.
The Azzurri then met Serbia (who beat Turkey 6-1 in their opener) in the group winner's match, only to sneak a dramatic 6-5 win over their opponents and ensure themselves top spot and a place in the knockouts.
Turkey then eliminated the Danes in flamboyant fashion in the Group B losers' match -- a 7-2 trouncing typified by this perfect, laser-guided pass from Oguzhan Ozyakup to set up Burak Yilmaz for the second goal.
Serbia then met Turkey in the Group B tiebreaker, with the former powering into the runner-up spot with a narrow 4-3 win.
Denmark 1-5 Italy
Serbia 6-1 Turkey
Losers match: Turkey 7-2 Denmark
Winners match: Italy 6-5 Serbia
Tiebreaker match: Serbia 4-3 Turkey
Group C began with Montenegro beating Luxembourg 2-1 and Netherlands squeezing out Croatia in a tense 3-2 thriller.
The Dutch then put a fine cap on things by beating their Montenegrin opponents 2-1 to finish top of the pile.
Sorry we missed that opening 🇳🇱 goal. Here it is... pic.twitter.com/MBe7LlzcH8— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) May 23, 2020
And so, Montenegro were pitted against Balkan rivals Croatia in the Group C tiebreaker, which saw both teams trading blows throughout a tight and attritional tie.
After extra time proved fruitless, the game was ultimately settled with a nervy penalty shootout.
Both sides missed a succession of spot kicks before Croatia snatched it deep, deep into sudden death as unlikely hero Dejan Lovren held his nerve amid the mounting pressure.
After two legs AND Golden Goal, only a penalty shoot-out could decide the Group C runner-up! 😱— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) May 23, 2020
And yep, you guessed it, even that was epic... 👇
Bravo Croatia! 🇭🇷👏👏👏#eEURO2020 | @HNS_CFF pic.twitter.com/2tFqxHjvva
Montenegro 2-1 Luxembourg
Netherlands 3-2 Croatia
Losers match: Croatia 5-3 Luxembourg
Winners match: Montenegro 1-2 Netherlands
Tiebreaker match: Montenegro 2-2 Croatia (pens: 4-5)
Austria got Group D underway with a 2-1 victory over Israel, which was swiftly followed by France's 3-2 spanking of Greece.
France then beat Austria 2-0 with Kylian Mbappe on the scoresheet in the winner's match to finish top of the group and thus seal their own safe passage through to the quarters.
Israel were able to bounce back in the loser's match, winning 2-1 and condemning Greece to their fate, landing themselves a berth in the Group D tiebreaker against old foes Austria -- the second time the two nations had faced each other at eEuro 2020.
Another close, cagey skirmish ensued which remained goalless until two quick-fire goals in the space of two minutes propelled the Austrians into a commanding lead.
However, Israel wasted no time hauling themselves back into it as Eran Zahavi pulled one back to suddenly spark a fairly tepid tiebreaker into life.
Indeed, with the clock ticking over into the 85th minute, Israel scored again to square things up at 2-2 and usher in extra time and, eventually, penalties.
Austria scored their first two spot kicks then missed their next four as once again it took sudden death to separate the teams -- Israeli sinking the decisive penalty to clinch that last remaining quarterfinal berth.
Austria 2-1 Israel
France 3-2 Greece
Losers match: Greece 1-2 Israel
Winners match: Austria 0-2 France
Tiebreaker match: Austria 2-2 Israel (pens: 2-3)