After missing out on the 2018 World Cup Italy returns to the international scene and are fancied to make it through the group stages without too much trouble. It’s been asserted by many commentators that their failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia had to mark not only the end of an era for their squad of players but also for a philosophy of Italian football. Following Roberto Mancini taking charge in 2018, a whole host of mainstays in the national team retired which gave way to an injection of youth and energy in his side – with the experienced core of Chiellini and Bonucci in defence remaining. Indeed, there’s now a seemingly perfect balance in this Italy team which is as resilient as ever defensively whilst Marco Verratti and Jorginho pull the strings in midfield, trying to exploit opposition weaknesses by finding their pacey and clinical front three. It’s proven fruitful so far as the Azzurri have racked up a 25-game unbeaten streak - including a 100% record in qualifying - and will quietly fancy their chances of going all the way in this tournament hoping to give birth to a new era of glory for Italian football.
Wales’ run during Euro 2016 became the stuff of legend for football in the country however it’s unlikely to be replicated this time around as the squad is five years older and, it has to be said, is weaker. Their matches are typically low scoring due to their defensive style of play so any hopes of qualifying are dependent on being able to nick a goal (6 of their last 9 matches have finished 1-0). Granted, Gareth Bale could always produce a moment of magic however even he has had a torrid time on the pitch recently, and beyond him it’s hard to see who could make the difference as their squad is sadly just devoid of much top quality.
If Italy are to take first place in this group, it’s not an easy task to predict who takes second. Firmly in contention are Switzerland who have boasted a strong generation of talent for the last few years but always seemed to fall short in setting the heather alight. Two last 16 finishes in the preceding European and World Cup tournaments probably don’t reflect the quality which they have, particularly given that they lost them to Poland and Sweden – ties which would many would agree were winnable. They are led by their talismanic midfielder Granit Xhaka who dictates all of their play; however, his poor temperament also has to be noted, which he’ll have to contain if they’re to succeed. Xherdan Shaqiri is a maverick player and whilst he may not have managed to feature for Liverpool regularly since joining, the creative responsibilities of his national team still rest on his shoulders. An area for concern for the Swiss is that only 33% of their shots were on target during their qualifying campaign and their main centre-forward Haris Seferovic has only managed to score once in eleven matches.
Now it wouldn’t be unreasonable to label Turkey as dark horses in this tournament so keep an eye on them. They’re led once again by the mastermind behind their phenomenal third place finish at the 2002 World Cup: Şenol Güneş, who now has several players plying their trade at the top level across Europe. Çağlar Söyüncü & Merih Demiral form a centre-back partnership as strong as any at this tournament, their creative genius Hakan Çalhanoğlu is rumoured to be wanted by both Chelsea and Manchester United, and up front Burak Yılmaz has recently fired Lille to glory in Ligue 1. What’s more is that the Turks will essentially have what will feel like home advantage with all three of their games being held in Azerbaijan – their neighbouring country whom they share close bonds. Once all these pieces are added together, they seem to take the form of a serious side who should attain at least second place this group and who knows how much further? …
Winner: Italy Runner-up: Turkey
One of the favourites for Euro 2020 once again will be Belgium’s red devils – though perhaps not to the same extent as at the World Cup. For several years they’ve been widely deemed to have the strongest squad in international football which includes the irreplaceable Kevin De Bruyne, their focal point Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard – unplayable on his day – among others, Roberto Martinez has an embarrassment of riches. Belgium much like their English counterparts have an issue in qualifying from their group in second gear yet when it comes to the big stage, they don’t find things so smooth and Belgium would appear to suffer the same shortcoming. Whilst they won all 10 games in qualifying, scored the most goals of any team (40) and only conceded 3 times, it’s worth bearing in mind that they’ve only managed 1 clean sheet in 7 matches against sides who have qualified for this tournament. Another side with a ‘Golden Generation’, the difference they have in comparison to England or Portugal for example is that their squad is aging and will likely be making their final go of it here. Their main man De Bruyne is 29 years old, Alderweireld 32, Courtois 29, Eden Hazard 30 and so on. Group B shouldn’t pose any real problems for them and should they secure first place then in the first knockout round they play one of the best placed third-place teams however beyond that it’s anyone’s guess how they fare.
Similar to group A, if the favourites are presumed to finish top of the group, it becomes quite an interesting battle for second place with three sides of a similar pedigree. A solid defensive unit, Denmark finished qualifying top of their group and followed it up by finishing second ahead of England after a win and a draw against the Three Lions. No shame would have been found in a couple of losses to Belgium in the Nations League and one would expect the same result this time around, however they should probably have enough to see off the other sides in this group. Christian Erikson may be their conductor but the Danes aren’t limited to him; English fans will be familiar with Jannik Vestergaard (Southampton), Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford) and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Tottenham) whilst Martin Braithwaite has made 29 appearances for Barcelona this season. Kasper Schmeichel has achieved some incredible feats in replicating his legendary father’s Premier League and FA Cup accomplishments and will now dream of also repeating his glorious Euro ‘92 win. No one gave the Danes a chance in that tournament almost 30 years ago and likewise they don’t this time - could history repeat itself…?
Taking part in their first ever European Championships are Finland, who it has to be said will not be given a fighting chance by many. In fact, they will probably view it as an achievement to escape the group - albeit there is always the slightly higher possibility with a third-place finish in this tournament. If recent form is anything to go by then they may not be the whipping boys many have suggested that they’ll be. They did lose narrowly to Switzerland but then held decent sides in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Ukraine to draws in their qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup and incredibly pulled off a win against World Champions France in November. In terms of personnel, it’s unlikely many readers of this blog in the UK will be aware of any Finnish players other than Rangers’ Glen Kamara and of course the Norwich hitman Teemu Pukki who scored an impressive 10 goals in qualifying and 26 in the Championship this season for his club. If Finland are to cause any sort of damage at this tournament, then you can bet it will feature a goal from the heir to Jari Litmanen’s crown as the king of Finnish football – Teemu Pukki.
Where Denmark finished second to the Belgians in the Nations League, Russia were their runners up in qualifying for this tournament (yes, we struggle to get our head around this format as well) and it should be a straight shootout between these two for second at Euro 2020. They come into this competition after wonderful success in 2018 when they produced their best ever World Cup finish, defeating Spain and losing out narrowly to finalists Croatia on penalties, however we have to caveat this by acknowledging that they were buoyed by a roaring home crowd. Perception of the national team among the Russian public has been like a yo-yo as the highs of the World Cup had followed a period of despair and now once again there doesn’t seem to be much confidence as they finished 2020 by drawing with minnows Moldova and being annihilated 5-0 by Serbia. Aside from creative genius Aleksandr Golovin of Monaco, almost all of their squad - which still has plenty of talent - play their football in Russia, including frontman Artem Dzyuba and veteran Yuri Zhirkov. If they’re to emulate the glories of the former USSR who won the inaugural European Championships in 1960, then they’ll firstly have to once again completely turn around their fortunes.
Winner: Belgium Runner-up: Denmark
Another giant of the international scene making their return to tournament football are the Netherlands who qualified for neither Euro 2016 nor the World Cup in 2018. After Ronald Koeman took the reins following such disappointment, the Oranje quickly got their mojo back as they looked assured and driven. However, after losing Koeman to Barcelona, they appointed Ronald De Boer took charge who has not found life so easy in his new role – becoming the first manager of the Netherlands to fail to win any of their opening four matches. As football fans we’re often inclined to perceive teams through the lens of past glories and anyone expecting this current crop of players to be anything like those who brought us Total Football in the ‘70’s or the phenomenal Oranje side of the ‘90’s is likely to be disappointed. If being brutally honest, if Holland were ever to have been considered among the top teams it would have been due to their imperious commander Virgil Van Dijk who will be notably be absent due to injured. He leaves a huge void not only in terms of defensive capability but also leadership. That’s not to say that they’re a poor outfit – they still have talented players such as Frenkie De Jong and Memphis Depay who will both have to be on top form to have any success. They’ll undoubtedly escape this group but that’s not saying much given their opposition, and we reckon the misery will resume for De Boer once his side come up against a team of top quality.
Whilst the Netherlands will be relieved but not surprised to qualify, North Macedonia will be absolutely ecstatic at the chance to take part and rightly so – their road to qualification was anything but simple as they achieved third place in a group which they were tipped to finish bottom of and then impressively defeated Kosovo and Georgia in playoff matches. Goran Pandev is the only player of note for the side and this tournament represents something of a fairy-tale ending for the man who made his debut over 20 years ago and had already retired from international duties believing he would never play at a major tournament. Many will write off this tiny football nation but size doesn’t count for everything and they’ll be drawing inspiration from the performance of Iceland (a country a fifth of their size per population) at Euro 2016. What’s more is that in their last match they pulled off a David vs Goliath story as they defeated Germany away from home.
Ukraine’s form coming into this tournament has been a mixed bag to say the least. Since the turn of the year, they have played four matches and drawn them all 1-1 – one against World Champions France in Paris, which is an impressive feat, but then followed up by three disappointing matches against Finland, Kazakhstan and Bahrain. Going back a little further though, they finished top of a qualifying group ahead of current holders Portugal and a decent Serbian side as they conceded just four goals – only Belgium and Turkey conceded fewer in the qualifiers. Being defensively sound is the key for their manager and legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko with his centre-back partnership and goalkeeper all having a strong relationship due to playing for the same club. Real quality can be found in players such as Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko and Oleksandr Zinchenko. A concern for Ukraine though, is a lack of a prolific goalscorer as top scorer in qualifying Oman Yaremchuk only hit 4 goals. Despite this we still believe that they have the ability in other areas which can sneak a goal, possibly nabbing second place.
Entering Euro 2016 as dark horses, Austria limped out of the tournament with a miserable single point after they’d been surprisingly beaten by Iceland and Hungary – which was ironically from a draw against eventual winners Portugal. In qualifying this time around, they finished second behind Poland and thoroughly beat North Macedonia home and away so should be guaranteed at least three points here. UK-based readers will most likely be aware of names such as ex-West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic, the talented Marcel Sabitzer of RB Leipzig and of course Champions League winner David Alaba yet Austria have a squad largely playing at the top level, mainly in Germany’s Bundesliga. All of the aforementioned will have to be on their best form as they look to make amends for their disastrous turnout at the last European Championships.
Winner: Netherlands Runner-up: Ukraine