UEFA Euro 2020 Preview: Part 1

It’s finally here!

After a year delay due to the global pandemic, UEFA Euro 2020 is set to kickoff this weekend (live on ESPN/ESPN+).  24 teams, 51 matches, 11 host cities, one champion. Even from an American perspective, there is still a lot to be excited about when it comes to this tournament.  The superstars will be out in full force, as well as a group of young players ready to make a name for themselves and a group of older players looking for one more shot at continental glory.

Still, a lot of questions remain heading into this edition of the Euros.  Who are the favorites?  Who could go on a run?  What player is under the most pressure and who could steal the show?

I’m here to give my thoughts on a few of those questions over the course of a two part preview which will provide analysis of each of the 24 countries participating in Europe’s top international competition starting this week.

So, let’s take a look at the teams in Group A-C

Group A

Italy

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Quarterfinals)

Manager: Roberto Mancini

Overview: The Italians come into Euro 2020 looking to rid the stench of their previous finishes in 2012 when Spain crushed them 4-0 in the final and in 2016 when they lost a nine-round penalty shootout to Germany in the quarterfinals.  Former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has this team playing dynamic offensive football to go along with the stalwart defense the country is known for.  Italy went a perfect 10 for 10 in qualifying, outscoring their opponents by a 37-4 margin.  Outside of four players, the rest of the squad all hail from Serie A clubs.  The veteran Juventus duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are still at the heart of the defense and most of this team’s best players hover around that 30-year-old mark.  However, there’s a solid group of young players looking to make an impression, headlined by 22-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.  If the Italians manage to maintain their scoring prowess while keeping the same defensive consistency, they definitely have an outside chance of being crowned champions of Europe.

Best Player: Ciro Immobile

Like I mentioned in my top 10 forwards article, Immobile’s goal-scoring record is extremely impressive.  He’s scored 56 goals the past two seasons in Serie A and hasn’t fallen below the 15-goal mark since the 2015/2016 season.  In qualifying, he was tied for second on the team with three goals.  A similar player to that of Luca Toni on Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning team, Immobile will be depended upon to be a force in leading the line for his country at the Euro’s.

Player to Watch Out For: Federico Chiesa

Juventus snapped up Chiesa from Fiorentina right before the summer transfer window closed and he immediately paid dividends.  The 23-year-old scored eight goals and added eight assists in league play and scored three of the club’s four goals during their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 exit vs. FC Porto.  He’s a play-making winger who tied for the team lead with three assists during Euro qualifying for Italy.  Having learned under Cristiano Ronaldo this past season, we’ll see if Chiesa can translate his recent success to the Euro stage.

Prediction: Semi-finals

 

Switzerland

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Round of 16)

Manager: Vladimir Petkovic

Overview: Switzerland are coming off of their best finish at the Euros in 2016 when they were eliminated by Poland in the Round of 16 via a penalty shootout.  While not a traditional powerhouse, the Swiss have been a tough out the past few years at major tournaments and do boast a decent amount of talent.  Wing-back Ricardo Rodriguez provides a nice change of pace on the outside while Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri are fixtures in the midfield.  The team also field a couple of Borussia Monchengladbach’s better players in goalkeeper Yann Sommer and striker Breel Embolo.  Switzerland managed to top their group in qualifying but were unable to beat the other Euro 2020 team in their group, Denmark.  The key to their success will be to stay compact defensively and hope to get enough goals from their offense.  Based on this year’s format of a handful of third place teams advancing to the knockout stage, they should be able to pick up enough points to do so.

Best Player: Haris Seferovic

While maybe not the overall play-maker Shaqiri is, Seferovic is probably the most in-form attacking player Switzerland have.  The striker is coming off of a 22-goal season with Benfica in Portugal and has been a consistent presence up top for the Swiss over the years.  At 6’2”, Seferovic will look to be an outlet for his team when they get pinned in, but of course his main objective will be to put pressure on opposing defenses at the other end of the field.

Player to Watch Out For: Remo Freuler

A part of an exciting Atalanta side in Serie A, Freuler’s passing and play-making ability from the midfield make him a valuable asset for club and country.  He’s a major reason why the Swiss have great depth in the center of midfield, but he might be depended upon more than normal due to the form of some of those other players, as well as their durability.  Switzerland will face tougher competition this summer than they did during qualifying, so guys like Freuler will have to step up so they can continue to score goals at a high rate.

Prediction: Round of 16

 

Turkey

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Group stage)

Manager: Senol Günes

Overview: In their first Euro appearance since their improbable semi-final run in 2008, Turkey only managed to win their last group match in 2016 before being eliminated.  This time around, they look to be a more serious threat after a qualification campaign that saw them only finish two points behind France in their group.  Their recent success has to be attributed to their improved defense, as they kept a clean sheet in eight of their 10 qualifying matches.  That unit is led by the likes of Juventus center-back Merih Demiral and Leicester City center-back Çaglar Söyüncü.  Up front, this team has a variety of offensive weapons, including Leicester’s Cengiz Ünder as well as a lot of great domestic players.  Turkey looks like they finally have the right combination of guys on both ends of the pitch.  They should have enough to advance out of Group A, and depending on the matchups, could have a chance to make a similar run like they did in 2008.

Best Player: Hakan Çalhanoglu

It sure seems like Calhanoglu has been around forever, but he’s only 27-years-old.  He’s coming off of a four goal, nine assists season with AC Milan which also included 174 Shot-Creating Actions.  Calhanoglu isn’t the goal-scorer he once was, but his passing ability is still top notch.  Turkey have plenty of options going forward, but he’ll be the one to jump start the offense when needed and should have plenty of chances to showcase his skills.

Player to Watch Out For: Burak Yilmaz

Captain of the national team, Yilmaz helped lead Lille to their first Ligue 1 title in France since 2011 this past season.  He did so by leading the team with 16 goals scored in his first professional season with a team outside of Turkey.  At 35-years-old, the striker’s speed isn’t what it used to be, but his instincts and finishing prowess in front of goal remain.  He’s looked good in Turkey’s FIFA World Cup qualifiers this year, having already scored four goals in three matches.  If he can keep up his goal-scoring form, Turkey will be a load to handle.

Prediction: Quarterfinals

 

Wales

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Semifinals)

Manager: Rob Paige (caretaker)

Overview: Despite losing to their rivals England in group play, Wales topped their group at Euro 2016, which was the beginning of their amazing run to the semi-finals where they lost 2-0 to the eventual champions Portugal.  While some of the main players from that team won’t be showing up at Euro 2020, there’s still a lot of intrigue with this team.  The majority of the players are 25 years old or younger, with the defense harboring most of that youth.  Tottenham’s Ben Davies is the most recognizable name alongside a pair of 20-year-olds in Chelsea’s Ethan Ampadu and Liverpool’s Neco Williams.  The midfield is strong, led by Juventus’ Aaron Ramsey and featuring youngsters such as Liverpool’s Harry Wilson and Manchester United’s Daniel James.  Things have already been made difficult with caretaker manager Rob Paige having to take over for the legendary Ryan Giggs after he was arrested last November on suspicion of assault.  This team shouldn’t be taken lightly, but more than likely, they will struggle to recreate the same magic they did in 2016.

Best Player: Gareth Bale

While he’s been very much a controversial figure at times during his club career, the Welsh national team still begins and ends with Bale.  He tied for second at Euro 2016 with three goals and also tied for first on Wales in goals scored during this past round of qualifiers.  Bale has a hand in every part of Wales’ offense, including set pieces.  Despite being 31 years old, he’s been able to flip the switch for his country when called upon.  If he can turn back the clock a bit, Wales has a chance to advance out of the group stage.

Player to Watch Out For: David Brooks

Another one of Wales’ dynamic midfielders, Brooks is coming off of a five goal, seven assists season with AFC Bournemouth in the English League Championship.  He was also with Bournemouth during the last two seasons of their recent stint in the English Premier League.  Despite having dealt with a few injuries early in his career, Brooks is still a fast player and a great passer.  He’s aggressive on the offensive end and fearless in the way he tries to beat opposing defenders.  Wales are going to need production from players not named Bale in order to win matches at Euro 2020 and Brooks could be one of those guys who is up to the task.

Prediction: Group stage

 

Group B

 

Belgium

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Quarterfinals)

Manager: Roberto Martinez

Overview: Belgium enter Euro 2020 as number one in the FIFA World Rankings and were the highest scoring team in qualifying with 40 goals total.  However, time is running out for the “Golden Generation” to come up with a signature win after they fell short in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 to Wales and the semifinals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup to France.  Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will be playing behind a defense that was strong during qualifying but likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen might not hold up against stronger competition.  However, for opponents to get to Belgium’s defense, they’ll have avoid getting pegged back by an attack overflowing with talent.  Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku is coming off of a career season and led the team with seven goals during qualifying.  While it’s been difficult the past few years at Real Madrid, Eden Hazard has been in fine form with the national team and should be a major contributor if he remains healthy.  Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco are solid secondary options if Belgium’s stars aren’t cutting it.  This team should be considered one of the favorites to win it all and should have no trouble topping their group.  However, it remains to be seen if this team has what it takes to get over the hump later on in the tournament.

Best Player: Kevin De Bruyne

An unfortunate facial injury during the UCL final will keep De Bruyne on the sideline for at least Belgium’s opening fixture.  When he does get on the pitch though, he’ll be one behind the wheel of Belgium’s high-octane offense.  While he’s a good goal-scorer in his own right, Belgium has plenty of guys who can score.  What they don’t have is another player on the same level as De Bruyne when it comes to service into the box and operating a counterattack.  De Bruyne has the ability to change a game with a flick of his foot and has to be some kind of player to clearly stand out from a group with this much talent.  As long as he can get up to game speed quick after the layoff, he should be one of the top performers of the tournament.

Player to Watch Out For: Thorgan Hazard

While maybe not the same caliber of player as his brother, Thorgan is a crucial part to Belgium’s style of play.  He’s been installed as a left wing-back in manager Roberto Martinez’s system, with the ability to provide pace and extra offense on the outside.  Injuries maligned his latest season at Borussia Dortmund, but Thorgan did see a lot of action in the UCL.  While this might not be his natural position, he’s been successful in it so far with the national team.  His contributions could become even more valuable if he’s able to play a positive role on either end of the pitch for Belgium.

Prediction: Quarterfinals

 

Denmark

Last Euro appearance: 2012 (Group stage)

Manager: Kasper Hjulmand

Overview: After suffering in the Group of Death at Euro 2012, Denmark failed to qualify for Euro 2016.  Now they’re back having just narrowly missed out on topping their group in qualifying.  This team has a group of quality veterans, highlighted by Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.  EPL center-backs Jannik Vestergaard and Andreas Christensen provide depth to a unit that only conceded six goals during qualifying.  Christian Eriksen remains the team’s best offensive player having scored five times in their qualifying matches.  Up top, RB Leipzig forward Yussuf Poulsen will be a dangerous man for teams to defend.  With Belgium in this group, the most likely scenario will be that the other three teams will be battling for second or one of the third-place spots good enough to advance.  With the talent that they have, Denmark should be expected to advance, but from that point, they’ll probably need a favorable matchup if they wish to go further.

Best Player: Simon Kjær

The AC Milan center-back was the club’s most consistent option on defense this past season, helping them qualify for the UCL next year.  As the captain for Denmark, Kjær is most responsible for organizing the team’s defense.  However, he’s also a solid option going forward for set pieces.  He was a part of Denmark’s Euro 2012 team and will be motivated to help lead his country to a better finish this time around.

Player to Watch Out For: Martin Braithwaite

Many people scratched their heads when Barcelona signed Braithwaite from Middlesbrough before the 2019/2020 season.  While it took him a bit to get an opportunity, the Danish striker came up big in a lot of important spots for the La Liga giants this season, including scoring three goals in the UCL.  He was able to translate his recent success at the club level to Denmark, as he tied for second on the team in goals scored during qualifying.  Braithwaite has more times than not been placed on the outside as a winger more than as a traditional forward, but he has the ability to play either position.  He’s a good shout for someone who could be a good source of goals for Denmark this summer.

Prediction: Round of 16

 

Finland

Last Euro appearance: N/A

Manager: Markku Kanerva

Overview: One of two nations participating in their first European Championships, Finland qualified behind Italy in their group off the back of six clean sheets.  While the team is mostly made of players from their domestic league, Finland do have the luxury of calling in a few players who have been in good form vs. top competition.  Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukáš Hrádecký is coming off of a fine season and central midfielder Glen Kamara was a pivotal part of Rangers winning the Scottish Premiership.  Up top, striker Marcus Forss played a role in helping Brentford earn promotion to the EPL next season.  While this team most likely doesn’t have the firepower to make it out of the group stage, they should be a fun team to watch.

Best Player: Teemu Pukki

The “Pukki Party” makes its Euros’ debut this summer after the striker basically dragged Finland through qualification on his own, scoring 10 of their 16 goals.  Pukki once again helped Norwich earn promotion to the EPL this past season, with his 26 goals the second-best total of his career.  Still getting it done at 31-years-old, Pukki’s best attribute is making the right run at the right time, as well as his overall positioning in the box.  We’ve seen in recent history that one man can make a difference at this tournament, so Finland will have to hope that Pukki can continue to pour in the goals in order to stave off elimination.

Player to Watch Out For: Robin Lod

Lod is a familiar name to some American soccer fans as he has been with Minnesota United FC in Major League Soccer for the past few seasons.  Lod had his best season for Minnesota in 2020 when he scored seven goals and added five assists in the regular season.  He’s already got two goals and two assists in six starts this season for the Loons.  Lod most likely will be placed somewhere in the midfield for Finland when they begin their campaign this weekend.  As far as someone other than Pukki creating an offensive spark, he could be the guy to do it.

Prediction: Group stage

 

Russia

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Group stage)

Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov

Overview: Russia have been bounced at the group stage in their past couple of Euro appearances, having been unable to recreate the magic of their unexpected semi-final run in 2008.  While their group wasn’t the toughest, Russia did manage to score 33 goals during qualifying, which was the fourth best total in Europe.  Unable to rely upon Igor Akinfeev to bail them out, Russia will have to hope that goalkeeper Anton Shunin is up to the task of filling his gloves.  On defense, Mário Fernandes provides steady play at right-back.  In attack, Valencia’s Denis Cheryshev will look to repeat the same form he showed at the World Cup in 2018.  With a team of mostly domestic league players, it’s tough to predict how Russia will do, but they should be in the mix for at least one of the third-place spots that could advance to the next round.

Best Player: Artem Dzyuba

At 32-years-old, Dzyuba remains Russia’s best goal scorer.  At the club level, he’s coming off of a 20-goal season with Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian Premier League.  For his country, he led the team with eight goals during qualifying.  At 6’5” and 201 lbs, Dzyuba is a mountain of a man and an extremely tough mark in the box.  He’s the focal point of Russia’s direct style of play and their best hope to score enough goals to help them advance.

Player to Watch Out For: Aleksandr Golovin

After a great performance at the World Cup, Golovin secured a move to French club AS Monaco in Ligue 1.  Despite less playing time, the 25-year-old is coming off his best season for them with five goals and nine assists.  Golovin is an overall offensive midfielder and he’ll be playing just behind Dzyuba in Russia’s formation.  If he’s able to build upon his World Cup and club success, Russia will be in good shape going forward.

Prediction: Round of 16

 

Group C

 

Austria

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Group stage)

Manager: Franco Foda

Overview: Austria were the only team in their group at Euro 2016 who didn’t advance to the knockout stage, due to the fact that they didn’t win a match and only scored one goal.  Similar questions about their offense remain heading into Euro 2020 as former West Ham United forward Marko Arnautovic led the team with four goals during qualifying.  As far as support from the midfield, captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Christoph Baumgartner are solid.  Inter Milan’s Valentino Lazaro also had a good showing during qualifying.  The defense is entirely made up of players from the German Bundesliga, so they are used to going up against high-powered offenses.  While not one of the more lethal teams at this tournament, Austria have the advantage of playing in a weaker group, which means they should have enough to at least advance to the knockout stage.

Best Player: David Alaba

Having just signed for Real Madrid as a free agent, Alaba is ready to impress his new club with a great performance at Euro 2020.  Alaba’s versatility makes him a truly great player.  We could see him lining up at center-back for Austria or as a defensive midfielder or possibly even further up the pitch.  He should be successful wherever he plays and will find a way to contribute on both ends.  Whether he can get support from the rest of his team, especially on the defensive end, remains to be seen.

Player to Watch Out For: Marcel Sabitzer

Arguably the engine of RB Leipzig’s ferocious attack, Sabitzer will be tasked with the same role for Austria this summer.  Usually installed somewhere centrally for club and country, Sabitzer is capable of putting in a few goals, but excels more at creating opportunities for others.  He’ll play a crucial role on set pieces as well for Austria and he’ll be expected to contribute to breaking up play in the midfield.  If his technical qualities are on point, there’s hope that Austria can make it out of their group.

Prediction: Round of 16

 

Netherlands

Last Euro appearance: 2012 (Group stage)

Manager: Frank de Boer

Overview: It’s been a long road back for the Netherlands after they lost all three of their group matches at Euro 2012 then followed that up with failing to qualify for Euro 2016.  While the hiring of Frank de Boer as manager wasn’t without skepticism, what can’t be denied is the amount of talent at his disposal.  While Virgil van Djik will miss the tournament due to his ACL injury recovery, the Dutch still have a talented group of defenders such as Stefan de Vrij and Manchester City’s Nathan Aké.  In the midfield, former Liverpool player Georginio Wijnaldum led all players with seven goals during qualifying.  Up top, it’s all about Lyon winger Memphis Depay and if he’s able to stay in-form as he seeks a move to a big club this summer.  The talent is there for the Dutch to make a deep run this summer, but de Boer’s tactics may end up costing them a chance at the grand prize.

Best Player: Matthijs de Ligt

At just 21-years-old, this will be de Ligt’s first opportunity to represent the Netherlands at a major tournament.  He’s already had a lot of success at Ajax and Juventus most recently and he hasn’t even reached his ceiling.  He’ll have to adjust to playing in a different system, but he’ll be sandwiched in between a pair of talented center-backs no matter what.  With no van Djik in the team, de Ligt will have to step up as the leader of the Dutch defense.

Player to Watch Out For: Frenkie de Jong

Much like de Ligt, de Jong earned a big money move after his success with Ajax in the UCL, only he opted to sign for Barcelona.  While his counting stats aren’t spectacular, de Jong is extremely good in possession and as a link between the offense and defense.  He’s still learning at 24-years-old, but already possesses the skills to be one of the top midfielders in Europe.  The Dutch have plenty of people who can score, but it’ll be up to guys like de Jong to put them in the best positions to do so.

Prediction: Round of 16

 

North Macedonia

Last Euro appearance: N/A

Manager: Igor Angelovski

Overview: The true Cinderella of Euro 2020, this is North Macedonia’s first ever appearance at a major tournament as an independent nation, and they qualified in style.  They beat Kosovo 2-1 in their first playoff match before defeating Georgia 1-0 to officially qualify.  They most recently made news in March when they delivered Germany their first World Cup qualifying home loss in 20 years by a score of 2-1.  You’ll be hard pressed to name any North Macedonia players off the top of your head, but a guy EPL fans might recognize is Leeds United outside-back Egzijan Alioski.  Levante midfielder Enis Bardi will be an option to provide some offense for this team.  The odds are stacked against North Macedonia, who should be commended for already making history.  However, with that win vs. Germany still fresh in their minds, the players and coaching staff know that anything is possible.

Best Player: Goran Pandev

Still going strong for club and country at age 37, Pandev is the main source of goals for North Macedonia.  He scored the decisive goal in their 1-0 win over Georgia to qualify for Euro 2020 and was their leading scorer overall during qualification.  He may not wow you with athleticism, but Pandev is a clinical finisher when he gets in front of goal and his offensive instincts remain sharp.  It’ll be a cool moment if North Macedonia score their first European Championship goal, and if I had to bet money on who will do it, my money is on Pandev.

Player to Watch Out For: Eljif Elmas

From one end of the age spectrum to the other, this 21-year-old joined Pandev as North Macedonia’s top goal scorer during qualifying.  Elmas has had limited opportunities to play with Napoli in Serie A, but he’s been on good form with the national team.  Elmas actually has a similar build to Pandev but is much more skilled.  He may end drawing the most attention of opposing defenses, which should open up space for others in attack.

Prediction: Group stage

 

Ukraine

Last Euro appearance: 2016 (Group stage)

Manager: Andriy Shevchenko

Overview: One of five teams who didn’t lose a single qualifying match, Ukraine surprisingly topped the reigning champions Portugal in their group to qualify for Euro 2020.  Despite being led by the country’s all-time leading goal scorer in Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine actually got in because of their defense and the five clean sheets they were able to keep.  This is a roster primarily of players from the Ukrainian Premier League, highlighted by Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Marlos.  West Ham United winger Andriy Yarmolenko and Genk forward Roman Yaremchuk headline an attacking group looking to punish opponents who don’t take them seriously this summer.  If Ukraine can maintain the same defense they showed in qualifiers, there’s a chance they make it out of this group.  However, on paper, it seems as though Ukraine are headed for their third straight group stage elimination at the Euros.

Best Player: Ruslan Malinovskyi

Malinovskyi was a huge part in helping Atalanta qualify for the UCL next season, scoring eight goals and adding 12 assists.  That play-making ability translated over to Ukraine, where he was second on the team in qualifying with three goals and had a team leading three assists.  Malinovskyi plays at a fast pace, is a great passer, and has a good first touch.  While this roster includes a couple of quality forwards, Malinovskyi might have to get more involved in the goal-scoring in order for Ukraine to make it out of their group.

Player to Watch Out For: Oleksandr Zinchenko

The Manchester City left-back saw an increase in playing time this past season and had the honor of starting for City in the UCL final.  Zinchenko loves to get forward in order to put crosses into the box and has great pace.  The 24-year-old has been learning from the best at City in Pep Guardiola and has plenty of big match experience.  If he can avoid the mistakes on defense, he should be a major positive for Ukraine at Euro 2020

Prediction: Group stage

 

Be on the lookout for part two of my UEFA Euro 2020 preview on Thursday!

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