The Bumper Euro 2020 Preview - Part 1
And so, here we are.
In just five days' time, the 16th European Championships will commence, setting in motion a tournament that features 24 teams battling it out in 51 matches over 31 days across 11 host nations.
It's been a long time in the making; in fact, a whole year longer than anyone expected, but it's now tantalisingly close. Every manager has now announced their final 26-man squads, who are beginning to gather in their base camps. All harbour ambitions of lifting the trophy at Wembley next month, but only one will do so.
In this pair of bumper posts, I will run through each of the six groups to profile the competing countries, examine who some key players might be, and of course, offer up some predictions as to how well everyone might do.
No, I’m not foolhardy at all, whatever gave you that idea?!
Without any further ado, then, we'll crack on with the first half of the draw, which takes us through Groups A, B, and C.
Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Wales
Euro 2020 will begin in earnest when Italy host the first game in Rome, and the Italians will be playing in their first major tournament since the last Euros five years ago after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Despite that, they remain a strong proposition, with experienced Juventus central defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci included in their squad, alongside an attack spearheaded by Lazio’s Ciro Immobile and Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne. Washing away the disappointment from the World Cup is top of the to-do list, and they should be looking at least for a quarter-final spot.
Their opening opponents Turkey may well be the tournament’s surprise package, with a 4-2 victory over the Netherlands in March, alongside a 2-0 win over France in 2019, proof of their ability. Striker Burak Yılmaz hit a hat-trick in the former fixture, and he will be crucial if Turkey are to mount any sort of serious challenge to be the tournament’s official dark horses, especially with Cenk Tosun out with a knee injury. Also in the mix is the cornerstone of their miserly defence that conceded just three times in qualifying, Leicester centre-back Çağlar Söyüncü. Turkey could crash and burn, but if they fulfil their potential, a memorable tournament is possible.
That sentence is also true for Wales, who were the most recent surprise package in 2016, when they made it all the way to the semi-finals. Talisman Gareth Bale is without doubt the best Welshman competing at the tournament, and Robert Page’s side will need big things from him if they are to stage a repeat of their exploits in France last time out. Strong centre back Ben Cabango also comes into the tournament in excellent form, having enjoyed a good season with Swansea City in their run to the Championship play-off final. However, even with all that in mind, Wales might simply have drawn too tough a group this time around, and anything more than being one of the four best third-placed teams should be considered a good result.
The final member of the Group A quartet is Switzerland, who may rather be relying on one of Turkey or Italy slipping up in order to progress. That’s not to say the Swiss don’t have talent of their own in their squad, with Borussia Mönchengladbach striker Breel Embolo included alongside Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri, and Granit Xhaka a well-known threat from set-pieces, but progression will be tough. Much like Wales, that third-placed spot should be what they are initially looking for, with anything above that being a bonus.
Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Russia
There’s plenty of Premier League representation in Group B, and nowhere is that truer than in the Belgium camp. No fewer than nine members of Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils squad ply their trade in the English top flight, with the standout of that nonet being Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne. His presence means Belgium will always be a threat going forward, especially with Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku leading the line. Officially, Belgium are the best side in world football at the moment, so their credentials for a shot at the title are genuine, and once they have topped this group, they should be looking at a deep knockout-stage run.
Denmark also have several names that will be familiar to English fans, with the likes of Leicester’s FA Cup-winning goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and Tottenham’s holding midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg included in their squad. Huddersfield Town fans will also recognise goalkeeper Jonas Lössl and centre-back Mathias ‘Zanka’ Jørgensen, but the Danes’ key man will undoubtedly be former Tottenham and current Inter Milan midfielder Christian Eriksen, who was their top scorer in qualifying. Beating Belgium will be a very tough ask, but second place and a possible shot at the quarter-finals should not be beyond Denmark.
Fellow Scandinavians Finland will be making their debut at the Euros this summer, having finished second in their qualifying group. Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki hit 10 of their 16 goals in qualifying, and he will again be relied upon to provide the goods at the tournament proper, partnering Brentford’s Marcus Forss in attack. The competitive nature of the Euros means that it is all on the day, and while progression is not beyond Finland, it remains difficult. A place in the last 16 would be a good result for the Eagle-Owls.
As well as having a Premier League feel to it, there’s also a Nordic feel to Group B, borne out by its final contenders, Russia. They already have experience of playing group favourites Belgium, having played them twice in qualifying. Hardcore Chelsea fans may recognise a 37-year-old Yuri Zhirkov, now of Zenit St Petersburg, in midfield, but their most notable player in that position is Valencia’s Denis Cheryshev. Russia’s key fixture is against Denmark. Win that, and they put themselves in the best possible position for automatic qualification. Lose it, and it could all go badly wrong.
Austria, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Ukraine
Alongside Finland, this summer’s other debutants are North Macedonia, who made it to the finals not through the regular qualification process but through the Nations League play-offs. Having finished second in League D thanks to three goals from Leeds’ Egzijan Alioski, they progressed through play-off path D too, defeating Kosovo and Georgia on their way. Alioski is one of only five members of the squad plying their trade in Europe’s top five leagues, with the scorer of the winning goal against Georgia, Genoa striker Goran Pandev, another. North Macedonia will be in no doubt about the size of their challenge and have little chance of making it out of the group, but it’s their first time at the Euros – let them enjoy it!
Certainly not making their debut are the Netherlands, who, despite a recent fallow period that saw them fail to qualify for the most recent Euros and World Cup, have a long and proud history at this competition, with five semi-final appearances, one of which, in 1988, led to eventual glory. They have a young squad, with the likes of Juventus centre back Matthijs de Ligt, Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, and PSV Eindhoven forward Donyell Malen all out to impress. Much like Italy, they will be keen to wash away past struggles and herald the beginning of a new era, and they should have the ability to make the last eight, provided they don’t implode.
One side who very much do have the potential to implode are Austria, who rather flattered to deceive in France five years ago. Despite the presence of a lot of talent, most notably Bayern Munich defender David Alaba and former West Ham striker Marko Arnautović, now of Shanghai Port in the Chinese Super League, they finished bottom of their group in 2016. Should they wish to improve on that this time around, qualifying top scorer Arnautović will need to bear a lot of weight as one of only three recognised forwards in the squad, with their crucial game in the battle for second being against the group’s final side.
That side are Ukraine, who should really be the favourites for that second place spot, and may even, if things don’t go entirely to plan for the Netherlands, could take top spot. Their quality is backed up by the fact they topped a tough qualifying group containing Serbia and defending champions Portugal, with the four goals of Gent’s Roman Yaremchuk a factor in that. 17 members of their 26-man squad represent either Shakhtar Donetsk or Dynamo Kyiv at domestic level, but English fans will recognise Manchester City full-back Oleksandr Zinchenko and West Ham striker Andriy Yarmolenko. Ukraine stand a very real chance of making it out of the groups.
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Look out for Part Two, dropping shortly before the tournament begins!