The Bumper Euro 2020 Preview - Part 2
The anticipation continues to gather pace.
At the time of uploading this post, we're now just over 48 hours away from the start of the 16th European Championships, and it's fair to say we're very much into the swing of things. When Turkey and Italy get the competition underway on Friday night, that swell of excitement will reach a crescendo that may very well not start to dissipate until the conclusion of the final a month later.
Provided everything doesn't go horribly wrong, of course.
But it won't! Key parts of that pre-tournament excitement are optimism and belief! Everything will go right. It has to...
On that note, shall we see who the remaining 12 competitors are? We ran through Groups A, B, and C in Part 1 of this post, so we'll examine D, E, and F here.
Let's get going.
Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Scotland
England being joint-favourites heading into a tournament is a strange situation to be in. The hope is nothing new, but the fact there might actually be something to back said hope up is! Led from the front by Harry Kane, England are in a similar situation to the Netherlands with a very young squad, and with Reece James, Declan Rice, and Jack Grealish, alongside one of only two members of the squad to play outside England - Jadon Sancho – there are bags of potential in the England team. I refuse to get too carried away, but this is an extremely talented group of footballers, and the prospect of a Wembley final might just gee them up a touch.
One side who will be hoping perhaps more than any other that we English do get too carried away are Scotland, who, having made it to their first major tournament since 1998, have an immediate opportunity to make it one to remember with a victory over the Auld Enemy. There’s plenty of Premier League representation in the Scottish squad, with Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson being the most notable, but the influence and magic of Aston Villa’s John McGinn in midfield cannot be understated. It’s also a major opportunity for Chelsea youngster Billy Gilmour to impress. Scotland have nothing to fear, and will just enjoy the occasion, whatever stage they reach.
If Scotland want tips on beating England, they could do worse than to examine the Czech Republic’s tactics, who were the only side to beat the Three Lions in qualifying. It was a surprise when that happened, but it shouldn’t have been a huge shock; the Czech Republic have always had good footballers, and this year they come in the shape of West Ham pair Vladimír Coufal and Tomáš Souček, among others. Both have had excellent seasons, borne out by the Hammers’ sixth-placed finish. Group D is competitive, and there’s no reason to think the Czechs couldn’t at least make it to the last 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams, if not as group runners-up.
Looking to spoil that party are the very strong Croatia. Midfielder Luka Modrić is one of only two players at this tournament to have won the Ballon d’Or – the other being Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo – and he will pull the strings at a seventh consecutive major tournament for the Croatians. Alongside Modrić, the midfield is a scary prospect, with Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić and Inter Milan’s Ivan Perišić included, while young Marseille centre-back Duje Ćaleta-Car, who previously attracted interest from Liverpool, will also seek to have a productive tournament. The Croatians reached the World Cup final in 2018, and should certainly be looking towards a quarter-final berth at the very least.
Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden
There’s something that stands out about the Spain squad, and it’s not the fact that Brighton and Hove Albion have more players in it than Real Madrid (they do, though). No, it’s the fact that Luis Enrique, despite being allowed to name a 26-man squad, has elected to take only 24 players to the tournament. Despite that, it’s testament to Spain’s quality as a footballing nation that there’s still a huge amount of talent in the squad. Manchester City centre-back Aymeric Laporte, who recently changed his allegiance from France, will be more than useful at the back, with Liverpool’s Thiago Alcántara pulling the strings in midfield. Laporte’s City teammate Ferran Torres has shown himself to be a player of the highest quality in recent times, and while Spain may not quite hit their self-made heights of a decade ago, they should be looking for a semi-final spot.
Battling Spain for the group win is most likely to be Poland, who were underwhelming at the World Cup three years ago, but more than have the ability to strike back strongly this time around. The lynchpin of their attack, and their squad as a whole, is one of the best players in the world in Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, who hit 48 goals in 40 appearances in all competitions for his club this season. The loss of Arkadiusz Milik to injury is a blow, but when Lewandowski is leading your line, nothing else really seems to matter. I also have a vested interest in hoping centre-back Michał Helik has a good tournament, on account of his domestic club being Barnsley. With the group they have been handed, Poland should be looking at progression to the last 16.
Bordering Poland to the south is Slovakia, and this group presents a perfect opportunity for the neighbours to get one over on one another. If the Slovakians are to do that, they will need experienced attacking midfielder Marek Hamšík to take much of the weight, but their defence, which conceded just 12 goals across all of qualifying, including the playoffs, may be what they turn to in order to grind out the results they need. It will be difficult for Slovakia to make it out of the groups, but their strong defence means they are well-placed to be that tough opponent that no one wants to face if progression does come down to an attritive battle.
Hamšík plies his domestic trade for IFK Göteborg in Sweden, and with the third Scandinavian side at the tournament the final one of the Group E quartet, that fact may be of use to both sides. Even without bringing Hamšík into the equation, the Swedes will be determined to build on a run to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and are not a proposition to be sniffed at, even without larger-than-life striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A man who is part of the Swedish attack, however, is highly-rated Real Sociedad youngster Alexander Isak, while experienced midfielder Sebastian Larsson is also included, as is Manchester United defender Victor Lindelöf. Mainz midfielder Robin Quaison, the Swedes’ top scorer in qualifying, could also enjoy a productive tournament, and there really is nothing to suggest that Sweden won’t reach the last eight, just as they did in Russia.
France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal
If EVER there was a group of death! The 2014 world champions, the 2016 European champions, and the 2018 world champions will all do battle in one group, and the attention that those three are getting must leave poor old Hungary feeling rather left out. However, the “group of death” could prove to be a bit of a misnomer, because with the fact that third-placed teams can still make it out of their group, it’s a real possibility that all three giants still make it into the last 16.
Supposed whipping boys Hungary finished fourth in their qualifying group, securing an impressive victory over group winners Croatia in the process, before coming through play-off path A with wins over Bulgaria and Iceland. However, their quest to cause a seismic upset will be dented by the loss of 20-year-old RB Leipzig midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai, who scored the injury-time winner against Iceland. Even with another Roten Bullen pair included, in goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi and centre-back Willi Orbán, springing a surprise really does seem a push.
With that in mind, anything other than two of the three giants finishing in the automatic qualification spots would be an almighty shock. World champions France are another of the pre-tournament favourites, and featuring the likes of Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kanté, and Antoine Griezmann, amongst a plethora of other big names, it’s easy to see why. Even with these competitors, they should be looking to top the group, and anything other than a semi-final run at the bare minimum will be hugely disappointing for Didier Deschamps’ men.
Deschamps led France to the final in their home tournament in 2016, where they lost after extra time to Portugal. The Portuguese boast the highest-profile name of all at the tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo, but the wealth of attacking talent he is surrounded by, including Atlético Madrid’s €113m man João Felix and Liverpool’s Diogo Jota, will provide sleepless nights for defenders. Manchester City centre-back Ruben Dias, fresh off a very impressive Premier League-winning campaign, will also be looking to play a big part. Portugal are another side that will have sights on at least a semi-final run, but do not bet against them defending their trophy.
Group F is rounded off by Germany, who suffered a catastrophic fall from grace at their last major tournament, dumped out in the group stages of the World Cup. It is of course a push to imagine them doing that badly again, but a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Spain in the Nations League back in November suggests they remain very vulnerable. Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry was their top scorer in qualifying, which, let’s be fair to them, they did breeze through with their only minor blip being a 4-2 reverse to the Netherlands, but goals do seem to still be an issue. If ever there was a time to beat one of the perennial powerhouses of European football, it’s now.
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