Five years removed from Portugal's coronation just outside Paris, the next European Championship begins on Friday, and with it comes the quest for the 2016 host and runner-up to make amends and follow a World Cup title with another triumph—and for 23 other national sides to do something about it.
France is as good if not better than it was when it lifted the World Cup trophy in Russia three summers ago, and after an extra year's wait due to the pandemic, it's out to confirm its status as the world and region's preeminent team—it's No. 2 FIFA world ranking notwithstanding.
Before the competition begins, with Italy facing Turkey in Rome, we examine team form, ability and outlook based on the draw to rank the 24 contenders vying to be crowned European champion (group opponents listed in order of when they'll play in the opening stage).
Group Opponents: Germany, Hungary, Portugal
France is the world champion, and it has such strength in depth that a notional second team would be a reasonable challenger. In Didier Deschamps, it has a leader who could become the first man ever to win both the World Cup and the Euros as both a player and a coach. Kylian Mbappé scored four goals at the World Cup and is even better now, his extraordinary pace meaning teams effectively have to sit deep against France, which in turn gives the midfield, anchored by N’Golo Kanté, space to play.
Karim Benzema is a controversial selection given he will face trial in October on charges of conspiracy to blackmail his former international teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape (a scandal that dates back six years). It may be he proves a disruptive influence, but the only other doubts are the fact the fullbacks are, by modern standards, not particularly attack-minded, which can make France a little sterile going forward; and the susceptibility of the center backs, as Raphaël Varane has not had a great season and Presnel Kimpembe is not as commanding as Samuel Umtiti, who is ruled out with knee problems.
Group Opponents: Hungary, Germany, France
Portugal is the defending champion, and it is better now than it was five years ago. It won the UEFA Nations League and has such depth in forward areas that there’s every chance João Félix will not start. Cristiano Ronaldo may not be especially mobile anymore, but he scored 11 goals in qualifying and it’s probably easier to build a system that can accommodate an essentially static goal machine in international football than in the club game. Fernando Santos remains a pragmatic coach and, despite a last-16 exit to Uruguay at the World Cup, there’s no reason to believe that, at 66, his tournament instinct is dulled. He builds solid, uncompromising teams, and at the heart of his defense this summer, he will have Man City's Rúben Dias, fresh off being named FWA Player of the Year in the Premier League.
The big problem is that Portugal is in by far the toughest group, with France and a Germany side that has been inconsistent of late but will have home advantage in all three group games. Finishing second in the group could then lead to a last-16 meeting with England at Wembley Stadium.
Group Opponents: Sweden, Poland, Slovakia
Sergio Busquets’s positive COVID-19 test has impacted preparations, but that aside, this is a Spain group that should be able to move on from the chaos of the World Cup, when manager Julen Lopetegui was sacked on the eve of the tournament. Luis Enrique, having stood down because of his daughter's serious illness (9-year-old Xana tragically died of cancer in August 2019), and then returned despite the bafflement of his replacement Robert Moreno, has built a squad along the lines of his Barcelona team: good in possession but a little more direct than the side of 2008–12. That he has picked only 24 players, including none from Real Madrid, could come to look very strange with hindsight, but at the moment the impression is of a manager who knows his own mind and isn’t especially bothered about political concerns. A 6–0 win over Germany in the Nations League last November suggested just how potent his side can be—and the draw could have been a lot tougher.
Group Opponents: Turkey, Switzerland, Wales
Since failing to qualify for the last World Cup, the first time it had missed out in 60 years, Italy has been on a distinct upward path and enters the competition unbeaten in 27 matches. Roberto Mancini’s uncompromising approach seems ideally suited to international football, and he has blended a team that came undefeated through qualifying. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are an experienced center back pairing, while there is quality and balance in a midfield of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolò Barella (provided Verratti is fit after an injury late in PSG's season). Federico Chiesa, Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne offer plenty of creativity, but the issue could be goalscoring: Neither Ciro Immobile nor Andrea Belotti has much of a record for the national team. The other doubt is that, impressive as this run may be, Italy is yet to play a side of the very highest level under Mancini.
Group Opponents: Russia, Denmark, Finland
For the golden generation, hopes are beginning to fade. It may be that Russia 2018 represented Belgium’s best chance to win a trophy. Belgium is still ranked No. 1 in the world, has a proven and well-practiced style of play and the draw has not been too unkind, although it will have to play two away games in the group, against Russia and Denmark. While Romelu Lukaku is in the form of his life and Belgium is well-stocked at wingback, there are injury concerns over Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard. At the back, meanwhile, Vincent Kompany, who provided a commanding presence, has retired, while Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are not quite the players they used to be.
Group Opponents: Croatia, Scotland, Czech Republic
England reached the semifinals of the last World Cup, and this squad has more youthful attacking quality than any other in living memory. The issue for Gareth Southgate is one of balance. Especially with Harry Maguire missing, there is a decision to be made on whether England operates with a back four or a back three, and how many holding players are included in midfield. In goal, Jordan Pickford is ebullient but gaffe-prone, while Raheem Sterling, who three months ago would have seemed a guaranteed starter, finished the season poorly. And how do you fit in Jack Grealish?
Then there’s the draw, which, quite apart from a testing group, almost certainly would mean England facing one of France, Portugal or Germany in either the last 16 or the quarterfinals. Even home advantage in up to six games may mean less if a significant minority of fans continues to boo players taking a knee as a protest against racism.
Group Opponents: France, Portugal, Hungary
The squad is exceptional, and all the more so since Jogi Löw went back on his decision after the group-stage exit at the last World Cup to jettison Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller (although Jérôme Boateng remains out of contention). But Löw has struggled to try to impose a proactive approach on the side for much of the past decade. Even the World Cup win in 2014 came after a return to the counterattacking of '10 from the quarterfinals onward (two hard-fought 1–0 wins and the demolition of a hysterical Brazil). The 2018 World Cup exposed Germany’s openness at the back, and raised questions about Löw’s struggles to integrate the young players who had won the Confederations Cup the previous year, and that leakiness has been exposed recently in games vs. Spain, Switzerland and Turkey, who respectively scored six, three and three against the Germans. A home defeat in March to North Macedonia in World Cup qualifying hardly inspires confidence.
Group Opponents: Finland, Belgium, Russia
The draw has been good to Denmark, whose form has improved under Kasper Hjulmand. Belgium is the only side to have beaten the Danes in their last 13 games, which included a win and a draw against England. This is a typically solid Denmark, marshaled by an excellent goalkeeper in Kasper Schmeichel, and with Simon Kjaer and Andreas Christensen, a reliable center back pairing protected by Thomas Delaney and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The problem, as it so often has been for Denmark over the past three decades, is creativity, responsibility for which lies almost entirely with Christian Eriksen.
Group Opponents: Netherlands, North Macedonia, Austria
There’s a danger always of triteness when speaking of war in the context of football, but the conflict in the east of Ukraine will provide a sense of common purpose, as exemplified by the controversy over Ukraine’s shirts. They show a map of Ukraine that includes Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and originally included the slogans “Glory to Ukraine” and “Glory to the Heroes” before a UEFA ruling that the latter must be stripped altogether while the former can remain on the back of the neck. It’s been suggested they echo slogans used by Ukrainian fascists in World War II, although both appear to have much wider usage, while the former became a chant during the protests against the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych before he was ousted in '14.
But beyond the kit-inspired rallying cry, Ukraine also has a hugely promising midfield, with Taras Stepanenko flanked by Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ruslan Malinovskiy. Goalscoring may be an issue, though Roman Yaremchuk has 40 goals in all competitions over the past two seasons with Gent. And nobody can have complete confidence in goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov.
Group Opponents: Wales, Italy, Turkey
Vladimir Petković has switched from his usual back four to a back three as he goes into his third tournament as Switzerland national coach, which means Ricardo Rodriguez often tucks in as a third central defender rather than operating at fullback. Much will depend for Switzerland on the form of four players who have been involved only sporadically for their clubs this season: Xherdan Shaqiri, Fabian Schär, Steven Zuber and Ruben Vargas. If they are fresh, then Switzerland could easily progress from a group that is intriguing rather than intimidating. Either way, the Swiss will face the familiar problem of a lack of attacking firepower, with neither Breel Embolo nor Haris Seferović consistent goalscorers at the national level.
Group Opponents: Ukraine, Austria, North Macedonia
For the Dutch this is a first major tournament (Euros or World Cup) since 2014. It has not won a game at the Euros since '08. Being in the weakest group should mean they break that drought this time around, but they may not go much further. This is a gifted generation of players, based around the nucleus of the Ajax side that reached the Champions League semifinal in '19, but all the gains that were made under Ronald Koeman look as though they may have been given back under Frank de Boer. Although he has lost only two of his first 11 games in charge, performances have not been good, the 2–2 draw against Scotland in the penultimate warm-up game was shambolic, and Virgil van Dijk's absence robs the Oranje of its defensive anchor.
Group Opponents: England, Czech Republic, Scotland
Four of the players who started the World Cup final three years ago—Danijel Subašić, Ivan Strinić, Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Rakitić have retired internationally—and attempts to bring in new blood have apparently led to factions within the squad. Noticeably it’s the older players who remain who have, with the exception of Luka Modrić, been out of sorts. Blighted by injury, Šime Vrsaljko is not the player he was, while Dejan Lovren has seemed reluctant to accept that he is now a backup to Domagoj Vida and Duje Ćaleta-Car. Results in the fall Nations Leagues games were poor, and Croatia lost away to Slovenia in World Cup qualifying in March.
Group Opponents: Italy, Wales, Switzerland
Turkish football seems for an eternity to have been locked in a struggle between the approaches of Fatih Terim on one hand and Şenol Güneş on the other: one with faith in character and leadership, the other more systems-driven. Güneş has primacy at the moment and has put together a bright young side, spearheaded by an elder statesman. Burak Yilmaz, who will turn 36 four days after the final, is the oldest field player in the squad by almost nine years, but his goals were instrumental in Lille winning the Ligue 1 title. The central defensive pairing of Merih Demiral and Çağlar Söyüncü is inexperienced but pleasingly old-school, and in front of them is a hugely exciting and technically gifted midfield.
Group Opponents: Slovakia, Spain, Sweden
Poland qualified with few difficulties but concerns over the standard of football led to Jerzy Brzęczek's being replaced by Paulo Sousa. The former Basel and Fiorentina coach is engaging and charismatic, but his insistence on a back three has raised concerns in a country that his historically preferred a four. There are doubts, too, about whether his proactivity can be effective at the national level. With Robert Lewandowski being supplied by Piotr Zieliński, though, Poland has the firepower if it is able to control possession. It did suffer a blow with an injury that will keep forward Arkadiusz Milik out of the competition.
Group Opponents: Czech Republic, England, Croatia
Scotland has waited a long time for this. Euro 2020 will be its first major tournament since 1998, with the added bonus of two games at Hampden Park and another one at Wembley against the auld enemy, England. Nobody could pretend this is a side anywhere nearly as gifted as some of the Scotland teams of the '70s or '80s, but it is well organized and with Kieran Tierney operating on the left of a back three and Andy Robertson at wingback, there does seem to be a solution to the problem of having two high-class left backs in the squad. Ché Adams and Lyndon Dykes have shown signs of forming a useful strike pairing, although it’s not clear Steve Clarke will go with two up front.
16. CZECH REPUBLIC
Group Opponents: Scotland, Croatia, England
Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side will be one of the few sides in the tournament to press hard, although not necessarily that high. After losing 5–0 to England in its opening qualifier, it conceded only six goals in the rest of the campaign and beat England in Prague. Goals from open play are the big problem, with a lot of the onus on Patrik Schick, but the Czechs are physically imposing and offer significant threat from set plays. That said, Tomáš Souček comes into the tournament after a great season at West Ham and has proven he can be a goal threat with runs from deep.
Group Opponents: Spain, Slovakia, Poland
Sweden reached the quarterfinals of the last World Cup, when the feeling seemed to be that the team had been rather more cohesive without Zlatan Ibrahimović than with him. Then he came out of international retirement—only to be injured. The question is how much disruption the possibility of him playing has caused. Given the level of opposition, a run of five straight wins this year perhaps isn’t anything to get too excited about, but it may have restored morale after six defeats in eight last year. The challenge does get a bit steeper in the opener vs. Spain, with Juventus winger Dejan Kulusevski missing out after a positive COVID-19 test.
Group Opponents: Switzerland, Turkey, Italy
How do you follow up a surprise semifinal five years ago? Ideally you’d have qualified for the World Cup, but a home defeat to Ireland in the final group game put that to rest. There were signs of an uptick in form under Ryan Giggs, but the manager has been suspended as he faces domestic violence charges, and Wales will instead be led by his assistant, Robert Page.
Gareth Bale remains the key figure, a player capable of turning games on his own, but it’s not entirely clear whether he will start as a false nine. Wales probably plays better with Kiefer Moore at center forward, but an orthodox target-man would seem to play into the hands of group foes Italy and Turkey, both of which have central defenses that excel in the air. Add in the shuttling between Baku and Rome, and this could be an uncomfortable tournament.
Group Opponents: Belgium, Finland, Denmark
It feels like the dawn of a new age. Neither Berezutski twin, no Sergei Ignashevich, no Igor Akinfeev … the veterans have finally left the heart of the Russian rearguard, although Yuri Zhirkov, at 37, remains at left back. This is a side looking to build on surprising progress in the World Cup it hosted, but that regeneration feels very much like a work in progress. Artem Dzyuba, a target-man of the old school, remains up front, and there are plenty of hardworking midfielders, but manager Stanislav Cherchesov is yet to settle on a new goalkeeper and central defensive partnership. Home advantage, though, could help in what looks like an evenly matched group.
Group Opponents: North Macedonia, Netherlands, Ukraine
No Austria manager has ever had such a high winning percentage as Franco Foda, and this is only the second time Austria has ever qualified for the Euros (as well as cohosting in 2008), yet the mood is one of indifference and pessimism. Austria finished six points behind Poland in qualifying, but it beat the teams it was expected to beat comfortably and looked little more than effective. David Alaba is an elegant defender, and there is quality, notably through Marcel Sabitzer, in midfield, but Austria’s hopes of springing an upset probably lie in 6' 7 Salzburg center forward Saša Kalajdžić. That said, the draw could be much tougher.
Group Opponents: Denmark, Russia, Belgium
Finland’s hope is to be the new Iceland and, perhaps, it could be. This is a tight-knit group with the feel of a club side. Many of the players were part of Markku Kanerva’s squad that qualified for the European Under-21 Championship in 2009, but there was little hope when Kanerva was appointed senior national coach five years ago after a run of two draws and nine defeats in a row. But Finland won its Nations League group and has emerged as a solid unit, although it's over-reliant on Norwich City's Teemu Pukki for goals. The draw, though, is tough.
Group Opponents: Poland, Sweden, Spain
Pavel Hapal was sacked after the qualifying playoff semifinal win (in penalty kicks) over Ireland and replaced by Štefan Tarkovič, who led the side by Northern Ireland (in extra time) in the final. Slovakia is in the tournament, but there is a sense that nobody can quite work out how. There was a victory over Russia in World Cup qualifying in March, but there were also draws against Cyprus and Malta. Marek Hamšík was absent from those games but, in his final tournament, can he really make that much difference? A pair of aging fullbacks hardly inspires confidence, either.
Group Opponents: Portugal, France, Germany
The improvement in Hungarian football goes on. Euro 2016 was its first qualification for a major tournament in 30 years, and there are promising signs for the future. This tournament, with games in the new Ferenc Puskás Aréna, was seen as a key part of the program of development, but the problems caused by the injury to Dominik Szoboszlai compounded a brutally difficult draw. Marco Rossi’s side is solid enough, unbeaten in 11 games going into the tournament, but it feels as though every point will be a bonus.
24. NORTH MACEDONIA
Group Opponents: Austria, Ukraine, Netherlands
North Macedonia was the lowliest beneficiary of the Nations League qualification route and will be seen as a test case. The hope is that admitting an in-form minnow means countries with a bright generation of players are not held back by a coefficient that effectively guarantees them difficult qualifying draws, and North Macedonia’s win at Germany in World Cup qualifying in March suggests it is ready for a major tournament. At 37, Goran Pandev, a Champions League winner with Inter, is the obvious star, but the set plays of Enis Bardhi perhaps offer North Macedonia’s best hopes of causing an upset.
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