Euro 2020 Preview
Hi, I thought I’d give this a bash as everyone is getting so hyped for an International tournament after last year’s horrific summer. My interest in International football wanes significantly in between major tournament’s so part of this is me familiarising myself with the teams involved and part of it is me wanting to write something. So here we are. There’s also a YouTube preview coming tonight on the Arn & Eddie channel. Which can be accessed thusly;
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Yes, it is actually called Euro 2020 even though it’s taking place in June/July 2021. It’s a marketing thing. They couldn’t get all the material reprinted. Stiil, if you were collecting Euro 2020 stickers you’ve had a whole extra year to get the job done. This is the 60th anniversary of the first European Championships that took place in 1960 so UEFA decided to play them across eleven countries to celebrate. And they’ve stuck with that despite the pandemic. Not the sharpest tools. This is the 16th Euros. Germany and Spain have the most wins with three each. Germany have made it to six finals in total making them the most successful side. They also have the most semi-final appearances with nine. England have made it to the quarter finals stage on seven occasions but have never won the tournament. The only ever English win was Alan Shearer taking home the Golden Boot at Euro ‘96.
There will be fans in attendance although this varies from country to country. Some are allowing 50% or less capacity. Hungary are going all in. Games at the Puskas Stadium will take place in front of a full house.
If the bookies are to be believed; Italy should romp home here followed by either, or possibly both, of Turkey and Switzerland. With four out of six best third placed teams advancing a good group performance isn’t necessary to actually win the whole thing.
Roberto Mancini’s Italian side is out for vengeance after they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Mancini’s side qualified here by winning all ten games in qualifying and hasn’t lost since a 1-0 reverse to Portugal in the Nations League in September 2018. They are tight defensively, as you’d expect from an Italian side, and have looked comfortable in their warm up games. I’ve heard them called a “dark horse” but honestly, they should be among the favourites.
Goalkeeper was a problem position for Italy with Buffon retiring but they’ve ended up with two decent ones. Salvatore Sirigu and the likely starter Gianluigi Donnarumma. The Milan keeper is out of contract during the tournament so may be playing for big, big money and a move. The back line has a tonne of experience. Giorgio Chiellini was talked out of retirement and is probably in his last major tournament at age 36. Leonardo Bonucci also has over 100 caps. Watch out for young Alessandro Bastoni, of Inter, as the future of Italian defending.
In the midfield Italy has an embarrassment of riches. Verratti, Jorginho and Barella are all excellent but Manuel Locatelli could be the stand out. Between him and Barella expect Italy to fire in some long range shots. They’re likely to play three of those four in central midfield with two wingers dropping back to support in defensive situations. Domenico Berardi likes to cut in from the wing on one side and you’ve got Insigne on the other flank. Ciro Immobile is as good a striker as anyone in the competition and they’ve got back ups and players who can rotate in.
I have a list of four teams that I think can win the Euros if circumstances are right. Italy is on that list. It could be even more open than that depending on how the groups play out but don’t write this Italian team off. They are playing as a unit and are way better than the side that failed to make the World Cup.
Turkey have gone back to Senol Gunes, the coach who took them to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals. Can his magic touch be replicated here? They have a smattering of great footballers and a coach that knows how to play on the counter. The central defence has Merih Demiral of Juventus and Caglar Soyuncu of Leicester so that’s likely to be an area of strength for them. They have a lot of tricky midfielders including Hakan Calhanoglu from Milan and Yusuf Yazici who just won Ligue 1 with Lille, where he plundered 14 goals from midfield. Cengiz Under has yet to produce at club level but he’s a useful asset for Turkey. Up front they will be heavily reliant on another Lille player; 35 year old striker Burak Yilmaz. He’s got 29 goals for Turkey and will probably add to that.
Turkey are being painted as legitimate underdog chancers. There are some who think they’re struggle in this group but they do have a good squad and I reckon they’ll get out of here and could face a weaker side in the round of 16.
Switzerland are likely to play 3-4-3 with creative wide players. The three central defenders protecting Yann Sommer in goal. Most of the squad plays in the Bundesliga and they should have a sense of unity. Granit Xhaka should provide some steel in central midfield to allow more space for the attacking players to operate in. In particular Xherdan Shaqiri and his lethal left foot. He is prone to shooting when better options are available though. Goals could well come from Benfica’s Haris Sererovic although Mario Gavranovic is the form player having scored 7 goals in his last 8 Internationals.
Switzerland are organised and sensible in how they go about their game. They could cause an upset but lack strength in depth if they lose key players.
Prediction: Group Stage
Wales have had a disrupted preparation for the tournament thanks to manager Ryan Giggs committing actual crimes. He’s been replaced by Rob Page, the U21s coach. Page’s only previous experience prior to that was at Port Vale and Northampton Town. It could become a Cinderella story but I’m not seeing it.
The squad leans heavily on the experience and abilities of Gareth Bale. If Wales are going to do anything it’ll be because of him and Aaron Ramsey, the Juventus midfielder. A lot of their defensive options are from the reserves of Premier League teams. Midfielder Dylan Levitt plays for Man Utd for example. He has more caps than appearances for Istra 1961, where he was on loan this season. Dan James is a boon to Wales as he provides an out-ball that’s not Bale. They also have Liverpool youngster Harry Wilson who’s been doing bits for Bournemouth and Cardiff in loan spells. He’s good from set pieces, which could be key for Wales’ success.
It’s hard to see Wales as anything but cannon fodder in Group A but they are capable of surprising the other teams here due to their speed up front on the counter. I can’t see that being enough.
Prediction: Group Stage
Belgium are odds on to get out of Group B, which is a relatively weak group compared to some of the others. Russia have declined since their World Cup and Denmark could well slide into second. Finland are rank outsiders. Only North Macedonia and Hungary have worse odds at topping their respective groups.
When I was looking at squads I had a peak at Belgium’s reverses and they include Alexis Saelemaekers from Milan, Adnan Januzaj and Yari Verschaeren. It’s fair to say they’ve got a strong squad. In Thibaut Courtois they may have the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment. The back line is a potential weakness with experienced, IE old, defenders making up a fair chunk of the squad. Jan Vertongen and Thomas Vermaelen should have some of the forwards in this group licking their chops. It’ll be interesting to see if Roberto Martinez goes with tried and tested or mixes it up with someone like Dedryck Boyata or Jason Denayer.
Belgium have three other areas of strength; midfield, wide and target men. Their midfield in the squad is a great mixture of solid capable players like Axel Witsel, Nacer Chadli and Dennis Praet and the more explosive attacking central midfielders who can make things happen like Kevin de Bruyne and Youri Tielemans. It’ll be interesting to see if Hans Vanaken, the 6’ 4” attacking midfielder from Club Brugge, can work his way in there.
Out wide there are several options. Eden Hazard has had a miserable time at Real Madrid and has suffered from too many injuries but that should leave him relatively fresh here. He’s not really done well in major tournaments and he’s not getting any younger so that should spur him on. On the other side they have the electric pace of Jeremy Doku, unless they leave him to be an impact sub. Dries Mertens, of Napoli, has dropped off a little bit but is still a good option as well.
In attack they may be heavily reliant on Romelu Lukaku but what a player to be reliant on. He’s dominated Serie A this season and helped Inter to their first Scudetto in a decade. If he gets injured it could be big trouble though as Michy Batshuayi and Christian Benteke are the other forward options. Doku can also play through the middle so that’s another option. I’d be tempted to put a bet on Lukaku as top scorer because he should get a few in this group and Belgium may rely on him for goals.
Belgium should breeze through this group but it doesn’t always work like that. Despite their obvious star power Belgium have often failed to click on the biggest stages. If they come up against a really good team their chances of progression go down based on cohesion. It’s last chance saloon for some of these boys and this Golden Generation for Belgium is running out of time. If they don’t win here do they ever?
Age Hareide, the coach who qualified Denmark for this tournament, has left because his contract expired after the Euros (as in July 2020). He’s been replaced by Kasper Hjulmand from Aalborg. His coaching career is…not great. He’s spent most of it at Nordsjaelland with a failed year at Mainz in 2014-15 before coming back. As Denmark coach he’s won 9 of 13 matches though including an impressive 4-0 win over Austria in the WCQ and a win over England in the Nation’s League.
In Kasper Schmeichel Denmark has a reliable keeper leading the team. Can he replicate what his dad did in 1992 and win the Euros? Jannik Vestergaard is a rock at the heart of defence and Andreas Christensen is a smart, reliable partner. In midfield they boast Thomas Delaney from Dortmund and Inter’s attacking midfield wizard Christian Eriksen. He’s key to how Denmark will play. Linking attack and defence. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has had a great season for Spurs and will help protect the back line.
Up front is where Denmark are lacking an obvious goal threat. Kasper Dolberg has only 7 International goals and Barca’s Martin Braithwaite has 9 in 50 caps. Will they be overly reliant on Eriksen’s creativity or can someone like Mikkel Damsgaard or Jonas Wind step up? Bologna winger Martin Skov Olsen could chip in with a few. He scored twice in the win over Austria.
Denmark have clear quality in some positions but not all. They don’t have a squad capable of pushing into the latter stages. If Eriksen is kept quiet they may struggle to get out of the group. I think they’ll be fine until the knock outs though.
Finland are in their first major tournament. Ever. Thanks largely to Teemu Pukki who scored ten goals in qualifying. Finland believe in promoting from within and manager Markku Kanerva started out as the U21’s coach in 2004 before becoming assistant manager in 2011 and taking over the main job in 2016. Maybe there’s something to that approach?
The current squad will do well to get out of the groups. Any positive results will be seen as a success. In goal they do have Lukas Hradecky from Bayer Leverkusen, who’s very good. He’ll need to be, I anticipate he’ll be quite busy. Finland are going to be a feelgood story, unless they get battered. I like the idea of the plucky underdogs battling the odds. Finland in their first major finals will struggle but I love an underdog.
Prediction: Group stage
Russia will get a boost from being at home, which helped them a lot at the World Cup. Stanislav Cherchesov is still there leading from the sidelines too. Russia have not really kicked on from the World Cup boost though. In 2020 alone they registered losses to Sweden, Turkey and a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Serbia, who didn’t even qualify. They also lost to Slovakia in WCQ.
This is an aging squad. Yuri Zhirkov is still in there at 37 years old. They do have a few midfield players who exploded onto the scene during the World Cup still in there. Denis Cheryshev, a winger at Valencia, seems to perform much better at International level in a more advanced role. Aleksei Miranchuk, of Atalanta, is a goal threat from midfield as is Monaco’s Aleksandr Golovin. Russia will likely go on the offensive against Finland and Denmark but play more cautiously against the better Belgian side. They’ll need skipper Artem Dzyuba to chip in with some goals. He has 29 for mother Russia so far.
Russia should escape the group if results in other groups go their way but will almost certainly run headlong into one of the big boys in the round of 16. I can’t see them going any further. A lot will depend on how far home support can drive them. If they do progress as a ‘best third placed’ team they will probably end up in Bucharest. If they can win there, by some miracle, they would have home advantage in the quarter finals. Imagine that.
Netherlands are odds on to get out of this relatively weak group. The bookies favour Ukraine over Austria but it is close between those two. Macedonia are 40-1 to take the group!
Frank de Boer is the latest in a string of former Dutch players to take charge of the national team. His record is fine but they got battered by Turkey in March and recently drew with Scotland in a friendly in a game they were twice losing. To say he’s untried at this level would be an understatement. He bombed at Inter after a great six year stint with Ajax. He also failed at Crystal Palace and was last seen in the MLS coaching Atlanta. De Boer has a record as Dutch manager. He’s the first in their history to not win any of his opening four games.
The current Dutch squad has the backbone of that great Ajax team that nearly made the Champion’s League final and has since been sold across Europe. De Ligt and de Vrij are likely to resume their old central defensive partnership after the injury to Virgil van Dijk ruled him out of contention. Goalkeeper is a problem position after Jasper Cillessen was named initially but then left out after a positive COVID test. He was likely to be their starting keeper. The Dutch are falling out with each other before the tournament even starts!
It’ll be interesting to see if any of the younger players break in to the Dutch side during the tournament. They’ve got Ryan Gravenberch, 19, knocking on the door in central midfield. Donyell Malen, 22, is an option if none of the other forward players are firing. The squad is overloaded with talent like the Dutch side that won Euro ‘88. They do have Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Memphis Depay but I personally think Luuk de Jong could end up being their goal threat. To the point where I’ve put him in my fantasy team and if the big clogger makes a mess of things I’m going to lose that.
Netherlands are lucky they’ve been handed an easy group because once you’re past that Ajax team from a few years ago there’s not much depth and a few positions would worry me. That said unless they are on the wrong end of an upset, the brackets should favour them until they play an elite team.
Most nations have home grown coaches and that’s kinda true of Franco Foda. His club management career is mostly at Sturm Graz, where he had every managerial post and came back for a second run after a failed stint with Kaiserslautern. He is, in fact, German but given he’s been working in Austria almost none stop since 1997 I’m sure the people think of him as one of them.
Austria may have a problem in goal where the most capped player is Pavao Pervan (Wolfsburg) with 7. Either he or Alexander Schlager will start. Previous #1 Heinz Lindner wasn’t even included in the squad, which is a daring decision from Foda. It could come back to bite him if they concede silly goals. Austria are blessed with some star players. David Alaba is world class at left back. Marko Arnautovic is proven at this level to be a great striker/winger but he’s spent the last two seasons slumming it in the Chinese league with Shanghai Port. He may not be as match fit as he could have been at West Ham.
A lot of the squad plays in Germany many of them teammates. There are three Hoffenheim players for example and the Leipzig duo of Konrad Laimer and Marcel Sabitzer should start in midfield. Both full backs like to get forward and with 6’ 7” Sasa Kalajdzic up top they are dangerous on crosses.
Austria should get out of the group stage, despite their goalie issues, but are likely to face Italy in the round of 16 and I can’t see them progressing further.
They’re managed by legend and all-time top scorer Andriy Shevchenko. As with Finland, Ukraine have promoted from within. Shevchenko was previously the assistant manager before taking over the main job. This is his first managerial job and he’s surrounded himself with people from AC Milan where he had his most success. They beat Portugal in qualifying and won’t be pushovers.
The bulk of the squad plays in the Ukrainian league, which gives them the benefit of team cohesion as a lot of them come from either Shakhtar Donetsk or Dynamo Kiev. They do have a few experienced hands too. Tricky West Ham winger Andriy Yarmolenko is their most capped outfield player. They have one of the youngest average ages in the tournament (only behind Turkey, England and Wales) and this could be the start of an exciting generation of play for Ukraine. They could provide a few upsets and I see them making it to the knock out stages.
Like Finland, this is North Macedonia’s first major tournament. Taking them there is Igor Angelovski. He’s exactly four months older than me so I’m interested to see if being a football manager ages you worse than having a normal day job.
North Macedonia won’t have too many familiar faces to those watching at home but you should recognise their leading scorer and veteran striker Goran Pandev. At 37 he’s captaining the side in what will probably be his only major tournament. In midfield they have some real gems. Enis Bardhi is a terrific free kick taker. He’s been playing in La Liga for four years. Elif Elmas plays for Napoli and was headhunted by Turkey as he has Turkish blood. You should recognise Leeds full back Ezgjan Alioski too.
Macedonia is a fairytale. They’ll be happy with anything and wil fight for everything because they’ll probably not get a chance like this for quite a while.
Prediction: Group stage
England are always short on the odds due to fanatical England support at major tournaments. They are favoured here in, again, a relatively weak group. The Czechs are not great, Scotland are overachieving already and Croatia are getting old. England historically don’t do well at major tournaments and fucking up the group stage would be fairly typical in spite of the odds.
Gareth Southgate is England’s most successful big tournament manager since Bobby Robson and took England all the way to the semi finals of the World Cup before being beaten by group opponents Croatia. Perhaps something to keep in mind. Southgate also guided England to third place in the Nation’s League for what that’s worth. England’s approach of promoting a successful U21’s manager has been pretty successful so far.
Jordan Pickford had a terrible start to the season but has come back from that and remains England’s number one with Man Utd’s Dean Henderson breathing down his neck. Southgate caused controversy by selecting four right backs for the squad but Trent Alexander-Arnold got injured so it’s back down to three. Stones and Maguire is a fairly experienced centre back pairing and there’s a possibility Kyle Walker plays as part of a back five allowing Shaw and Trippier to get further forward.
Declan Rice and Kalvin Philips are both holding players so only one will play with Henderson for leadership and an attacking midfielder through the middle, which is likely to be Mason Mount after his excellent season with Chelsea although Jack Grealish is likely to feature somewhere given his popularity and form.
Up front England have lots of options. It’s likely Harry Kane starts but in DCL he’s got a good deputy with aerial prowess. England have a lot of tricky, quick wide players like Bukayo Saka, who could play as a wing back. Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden should be involved in some capacity and there’s also Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham. Southgate has a genuine selection headache with the quality he’s got.
England’s tournament will probably be decided by the defence. If it can perform England should go deep. If it doesn’t, and I’m not confident on this, England will struggle against better sides. The attacking options are certainly pleasing but two of England’s group opponents will probably set out their stall to defend.
Zlatko Dalic took Croatia to a World Cup final, and probably should have won, three years ago. He still has most of the team that accomplished that and yet Croatia are being widely written off before the tournament starts. Ivan Rakitic retired. As did Mario Manzukic. The latter is the hardest one to replace. It’s likely Croatia will play without a recognised striker and rely on the likes of Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic cutting in from wide areas. Potential salvation comes in the form of Andrej Kramaric but he prefers to play in an attacking midfield. Another option is Bruno Petkovic, a 6’ 4” giant who’s good in the air and capable with the ball at his feet. If he’s trusted he may well add to his 6 goals for Croatia so far.
Defence is also a problem area for Croatia. 31 year old Dejan Lovren and veteran defender Domagoj Vida will be in charge of things back there. Behind them is one of two relatively untested keepers with big potential; Dominik Livakovic from Dinamo Zagreb and Lovre Kalinic of Hadjuk Split. They’re both very talented but the lack of experience could hurt them. Kalinic is 6’ 7” but Livakovic distributes the ball better and is a better shot stopper so it depends what Dalic wants to go for.
Midfield is where Croatia have an embarrassment of riches. Luka Modric is still a world class player with incredible vision. He’ll likely play in the hold behind the front man, depending on who that is and be given some creative freedom. In central midfield they boast Marcelo Brozovic from Inter, Mateo Kovacic from Chelsea and an array of talented reserves including Mario Pasalic from Atalanta who gives them better options with his forward runs. The wide men include Nikola Vlasic who can play anywhere and is good on the ball (a Croatian trait). Josip Brekalo is a great dribbler. Croatia have a tonne of options but some of them are unproven.
Croatia are better than their odds suggest and have a strong chance of topping Group D. However they lost to Slovenia recently and struggled to best Cyprus. In their latest round of friendlies they lost to Belgium and could only draw with Armenia. This is not a form team. I see them going quite far if they can get their mojo together but that’s a big if.
Steve Clarke has already massively overachieved by getting Scotland to their first major tournament since 1998 with a penalties win over Serbia in the play offs, which was somewhat of an upset. Scotland are in the ‘just happy to be here’ boat and anything beyond 3 defeats would be considered a success. Especially if they can get a result against the hated English.
As with England, Scotland are very strong at a full back position. In Scotland it’s left back where they have three. Andy Robertson (Liverpool) will start and Kieran Tierney (Arsenal) will probably be accommodated somewhere as well with Greg Taylor (Celtic) watching on. In midfield Scotland have a talismanic talent in John McGinn. His determination and long range shooting will no doubt have a big impact on Scotland’s progression. Man Utd’s Scott McTominay will probably play a holding role to allow him to do that. Watch out for Chelsea youngster Billy Gilmour. He’s not had much football but he’s a real talent.
Where Scotland seem to be most lacking is up top. They’ve added English born striker Che Adams. Or Che McAdams as he’s now being dubbed. Although all three strikers have less than 20 caps combined and may lack the ability to trouble defences at this level. McGinn aka McGinniesta is Scotland’s best goal threat with 10 for his country so far. If they can keep it tight at the back they may cause an upset.
The Czechs have a fairly untested team. A lot of them come from the Czech domestic leagues. If they do well at the Euros some of these lads will get headhunted I’m sure. Their star name is striker Patrick Schick who bangs them in for Bayer Leverkusen. He has 10 in 25 for the national team. He’s strong, quick and works hard. If he’s not playing at outright centre forward he has good on-the-ball skills and can contribute assists.
The side is reasonably good in midfield with West Ham’s Tomas Soucek a key player. Captain Vladimir Darida has been part of the national set up for a decade. Antonin Barak may surprise a few people. He’s had a good season at Hellas Verona scoring 7 goals from midfield. He’s 6’ 3”. Jakub Jankto from Sampdoria is another good option for them.
Overall I don’t think the Czechs have the quality to get through to the knock out stages. I can see them finishing above Scotland but that’s about it. Their warm up games were a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Italy and a game against Albania that they’ve not played at time of writing. I think they’re going to struggle.
Prediction: Group stage
The bookies fancy Spain, obviously, and after that it’s a toss up between Sweden and Poland as to who also goes through. Maybe both, who knows? Slovakia are a long shot.
Spain are coached by the somewhat insane Luis Enrique. A man who decided no Real Madrid players were good enough for his squad and also named a squad of 25, not 26, because not everyone would play anyway. He’s been accused of Barcelona bias, having worked there as a player and coach on and off since 1996. He did play for Real Madrid before that though. He actually quit the Spanish job in 2019 for “personal reasons” but returned a few months later as if nothing had happened.
Spain, historically, are a country that play wonderful possession football but are completely toothless in front of goal. That changed in the heady days of David Villa and Diego Costa but we’re back there now. Spain have struggled in front of goal in recent months. Mainly because Alvaro Morata is not on form and there’s no alternative. Morata is likely to start at the Euros but Gerard Moreno with his 5 in 11 strike rate for Spain is waiting in the wings. Man City youngster Ferran Torres has also banged in a bunch of goals for the national team. This could be the tournament he comes of age as a forward.
Spain will likely control possession in the majority of their games due to their style and the players at their disposal. The midfield is strong but lacking in variety. Dani Olmo could have a big tournament if he cements his position as Spain’s attacking midfield threat. It’s also a huge chance for 18 year old Pedri who just finished his first season with Barcelona. He can play in an assortment of positions and is very skilful. Mikel Oyarzabal is another really exciting attacking player
After striker their second most worrying position is centre back with Sergio Ramos missing the tournament with injury. 20 year old Eric Garcia is heir apparent but this may come too soon for him. Aymeric Laporte is Spanish now so he’s likely to partner Pau Torres. In goal David de Gea has been a liability at times this season and there are no other good options. Brighton’s Robert Sanchez is Spain’s third choice keeper.
Spain are not at their best but will still overwhelm some of the sides in this group. If they concede an early goal breaking teams down could be a real problem if they face a defensive wall. They have their own issues at the back too. They should escape the group but I doubt they’ll win the whole thing. Depth into the tournament depends on the draw.
Poland are coached by Portuguese former Juventus midfielder Paolo Sousa. He’s had a bizarre career in football management that reads like an FM journeyman save. Portugal U16s, QPR, Swansea, Leicester, Videoton, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Basel, Fiorentina, Tianjin, Bordeaux and now the Polish national team. He took over this year after Jerzy Brzeczek was sacked for not getting the best out of star striker Robert Lewandowski.
Poland are not just Lewandowski. They have two good, experienced keepers (whose careers were almost ruined by Arsenal) in Szczseny and Fabianski. Jan Bednarek, of Southampton, is a very solid centre back. As is Benevento’s Kamil Glik. Right back Bartosz Bereszynski has been with Sampdoria since 2017. Matheus Klich had a good season with Leeds. Piotr Zielinski is a really talented attacking midfielder who got 8 goals for Napoli this season. Alongside Lewandowski is Arkadiusz Milik. He may be out of favour at Napoli but he scored 9 in 15 games on loan at Marseille.
A lot of Poland’s success will depend on if they can get Lewandowski free to score goals. He’s obviously going to be heavily marked and targeted during the tournament and that makes Poland potentially one-dimensional. If Milik and Zielinski can make space for him Poland should do ok.
Janne Andersson’s Sweden qualified for their first World Cup in 12 years under his guidance in 2018 and they trailed Spain in Euro qualifying so we know how they’ll do against the Iberian favourites (P2 W0 D1 L1). Last year they had a bit of a COVID meltdown and lost 6 of their 8 games but the wins were Russia and Croatia. They bounced back in 2021 and are 5/5 for wins. Sweden are a bit unpredictable.
I’m going to come out here and say it; I don’t fancy Sweden at all. They were hoping to get a boost with Zlatan coming out of retirement but he got injured and is missing the tournament. Their future star in the making is Dejan Kulusevski (Juventus, 21) but he can win games on his own. Alexander Isak’s club form doesn’t seem to translate to Internationals and he’s only got 6 in 22. Seb Larsson is almost certainly in his final tournament at age 36 and his experience will be helpful with Ibrahimovic out of the picture. The defence rests on Victor Lindelof having a good tournament, which doesn’t seem likely after his season. Number one keeper Robin Olsen has spent the entire season on Everton’s bench.
For some reason I feel like this group will have a lot of drawn games so I can’t see Sweden progressing even if they avoid bottom spot. Kulusevski could provide enough moments of magic to see them through.
Prediction: Group stage
Stefan Tarkovic is a complete mystery to me. I’m not knowledgeable about Slovakian national team politics. All I know is he took over as head coach in 2018 and left after 6 days. He came back two years later after Pavel Hapal was sacked last October. Tarkovic’s first job was overcoming Northern Ireland to reach this tournament, which he did. The squad he’s inherited contains a fair few players who competed in the Euros 5 years ago. Some of them are a bit old.
Marek Hamsik is still the captain. He’s now 33 and playing for Goteborg in Sweden. His experience will be invaluable. They also have Milan Skriniar, the Inter central defender, who is one of the best centre backs at the tournament. Stanislav Lobotka is a great midfielder but he does like a pint. If the Slovakia lads can keep off the beers and not have a massive falling out with management they could sneak into the round of 16. All the teams in this group are beatable under the right circumstances.
Prediction: Group stage
The much talked about ‘Group of Death’ features two heavy tournament favourites in France and Portugal, the World Champions and European Champions respectively, as well as perennial contenders Germany and plucky Hungary. The bookies have it finishing in the order I’ve selected with Hungary getting mashed three times.
Didier Deschamps has tournament pedigree. He’s won the World Cup. If he wins here he might as well bail on International football because what else is there to do? Presumably he’d have a bash at back to back World Cups with the next one being in 2022? France are tournament favourites and with good reason.
France will only struggle in this tournament if they have in-fighting. This could be caused by Karim Benzema coming in from the cold but there is a logical reason for Benzema’s return. Kylian Mbappe is one of the world’s finest forwards but he thrives on space behind defences. If everyone defends deep against France they’ll need another option. Olivier Giroud is also in the squad but Benzema offers France another world class finisher of a different type to Mbappe.
France are blessed in every other department with insane quality. Hernandez, Pavard, Verane and either Kimpembe, Kounde, Zouma or Lenglet is a phenomenal defence. There are slight question marks over the partnership at the back but not many. Midfield is incredible. Pogba, Kante, Lemar, Rabiot, Sissoko, Toliso etc give France a lot of options in how they can play. Up front the creativity of Griezmann, the pace of Coman and the dribbling skill of Dembele gives them more options again. They even have two 6’ 4” forwards in Giroud and Thuram if they need to knock it long. They’ve got three good keepers. It will be a great, great team performance to put France out.
If France can avoid in-fighting they should clear this group, even though it’s very strong. Their attacking options are frightening and anyone who dares play a high line will certainly be punished for it.
Fernando Santos has been in charge since 2014 and won the last Euros back in 2016. They were less than thrilling in the last World Cup, going out in the round of 16, but Santos has that win on his record from five years ago.
Portugal has a great squad. They have incredible strength in almost all areas and the only real way the tournament can go badly for them is if they fall into the old pitfalls of “pass to Ronaldo”, which seems to be the National teams main tactic for the past 15 years. But Portugal don’t need to rely on Ronaldo as they have genuine quality everywhere on the pitch. At the back they still have Pepe, now aged 37, with Ruben Dias alongside him. Both full backs are sensational. Raphael Guerreiro of Dortmund on one side and Joao Cancelo of Man City on the other. Both marauders, aiming to get to the byline and cause problems and both can play in central midfield too.
Speaking of central midfield; Portugal has a ton of great players there. It’s likely they’ll play two holding players in William Carvalho and Danilo Pereira to allow Bruno Fernandes more room to play in going forwards. They also have Joao Moutinho, Renato Sanches, Ruben Neves and Sergio Oliveira in there. Up front Ronaldo is likely to start through the middle with Bernardo Silva playing wide one side and Joao Felix on the other. If that doesn’t work they’ve got Diogo Jota, Andre Silva (who scored 28 goals in 32 games for Frankfurt this season), Goncalo Guedes and Pedro Goncalves.
The amount of flair, technique and also pace that Portugal possess is stunning. However Santos prefers to play a cautious approach in big tournament. They only won one game in 90 minutes on route to their Euros win 2016. Expect a tentative Portugal that can switch to a free flowing one if the opportunity arrises.
You should never write the Germans off. They have reboots and resets galore when things go wrong. They don’t need to start a tournament well, or even play well at any point during it, to win. After getting embarrassed in the group stages at the World Cup in 2018 it’s a surprise that Joachim Low is still in charge but he is the same German manager who won the World Cup in 2014 and is currently on his second rebuild as Germany manager. He will be gone after this tournament, thus ending a remarkable run dating back to 2006.
I’ve seen several experts give their opinion on how Germany will line up for this tournament and they don’t agree. I’ve asked German friends as to what the line up will be and they don’t agree either! That does rather beg the question; does Low even know what his best XI is? Will Germany play three at the back? They have the defenders for that and it would allow Kimmich to play right side as an attacking player. Or is Kimmich simply too valuable as a central midfield player to be wasted on the wing? Can Low manage to get Goretzka, Gundogan and Kroos in the same starting XI? Should he? Up the top does he opt for the smarts of Kai Havertz or the pace of Leroy Sane? Does he play Werner through the middle given his movement or Gnabry?
There are very few things for sure about Germany’s line up. They may opt to field Emre Can as a third central defender so he can bring the ball out. Although that potentially has defensive risks. Will big Nic Sule play at right back in a flat four so they can switch to a three without making a substitution? And the big question; where do you play Thomas Mueller? Or is he done at this level? Do you need to play someone alongside Hummels with pace or just hope his positioning is enough? There are so many questions surrounding Germany that won’t get answered until we’re a few games into the tournament. Which, in my mind, makes them one of the most fascinating teams in the tournament.
Their first game is France, which is hard but they have home advantage in Munich. Then they play Portugal, also at home, before finishing up against Hungary, also at home. Having the fans behind them will definitely help but if they don’t get a result in the first two games and they find themselves piling forwards against Hungary they run the risk of being hit on the break. This group is going to hard for Germany. But also, for everyone else.
Hungary used to have an amazing pedigree. Twice runners up at the World Cup in 1938 and 1954, QF’s twice more in the 1960s. Third in the Euros in ‘64. Didn’t qualify for a single major tournament between 1990 and 2016. Never made it out of the groups in their three world cup appearances since the 60s. Ferenc Puskas and all that! I bet there are a few old Hungarian lads revelling in another chance to enjoy a tournament so long after the last time.
And they got dumped into the group of death but Hungary play a counter attacking style so this could suit them. If they’d faced more defensive minded sides like, say, Slovakia or Macedonia they might have struggled to break them down. Their star man is Dominik Szoboszlai but unfortunately he’s been out injured for six months and hasn’t made it. It was his goal that put Hungary in this tournament and they will suffer without him.
They should be defensively resolute. They’re organised and have a good keeper in Peter Gulacsi and centre half Willi Orban. Both play for Leipzig. One of their key midfield players, Adam Nagy, plays for Bristol City. What a world.
Hungary will find this group very challenging. You shouldn’t completely write them off but it’s very unlikely they’ll escape the Group of Death.
Prediction: Group stage
France to beat Portugal in the final
Italy and Netherlands to make the semis
Belgium, Croatia, Spain and Turkey to make the quarters
Golden boot: Romelu Lukaku
Player of the tournament: N’golo Kante
I look forward to coming back to this in a month to see how wrong I was. Or…maybe how right I was. I did tip Greece as a dark horse when they won the Euros. As far as I know I was the only one who did. These picks are definitely safer. Turkey are my main dark horse pick but this is a tight tournament after a long season. Players will be tired. A lot are missing due to injury. It’s the kind of tournament where if a team can click at the right time they can ride a wave to the title. This could well happen to Italy, who are getting tipped heavily, or England. I feel like it’s very open and there are a lot of potential winners if the big boys faulter. Given the circumstances France might slip up and go out in the group stage blowing the whole tournament wide open! Come on North Macedonia and Finland, everyone’s second teams!