Though still incomplete, the line-up for the next European Championship finals is taking on a very familiar look, but which giant amongst the confirmed teams will stand tallest?
Wembley final May Give England a True Edge
Euro 2020 will be the first Euro tournament to feature 24 teams and the first to be hosted across multiple venues. Wembley will also host its first final in a major international-level tournament this century. That itself could give England an edge if they get to the showpiece itself, and they are one of several frontrunners that look formidable at this moment in time.
The Three Lions qualified for the finals with a game to spare, having gone into their final qualifier vs Kosovo with wins in four of their last five outings. Their attack went into overdrive during that sequence of matches, with Gareth Southgate’s men averaging 4.6 goals per-game. Their two matches prior to that had also seen them score four or more goals before the half-time whistle.
Overall, England have been winning in style under Southgate this year. Indeed, each of England’s seven qualifying wins all produced a winning margin of two goals or greater without even the need for extra time.
Naturally, however, the more knowing of England fans will remain unimpressed. England have been unstoppable in every qualification group faced since the disastrous Euro 2008 qualifiers, only to fall short at the final tournament, and often – more specifically – lose against a fellow nation that was top-seeded in the prior qualification draw.
Nonetheless, England captain Harry Kane continues to lead by example, with two hat-tricks in his last six appearances for the Three Lions. Apart from the obvious, his presence up front has eased much of the defensive pressure that has seen England lose shape and composure in ‘big’ games of years past.
Iberian Power, but not Without Caution
Euro 2016 saw Portugal wrest the balance of power away from their Iberian neighbours Spain, who had themselves won the preceding two European Championships.
Just like England, both of the Iberian giants laid waste to most of their opponents during the qualification campaign. Portugal have been particularly impressive, losing only one of the last 17 games played since the end of the World Cup, winning nine times. However, there is one potential problem – Cristiano Ronaldo, or the future lack thereof.
Even way past his prime, Ronaldo seems unstoppable, and matched the mid-prime Harry Kane in the Euro 2020 qualification scoring charts until the bitter end. Portugal will be much poorer for his absence when the inevitable happens, and with ‘#CR7’ having now added the European Championship to his collection of trophies – and lost his last realistic chance of a World Cup winner’s medal – there is no guarantee that he will be amongst the Portugal XXIII next summer.
That said, there are plenty of other standout players at the ready, with Bernardo Silva standing out after scoring three qualifying goals. Even so, the disparity between Silva and Ronaldo seems to justify wariness of an impending ‘transitional’ period, where the reigning European champions are forced to readjust after the international retirement of their greatest ‘son’ since Luis Figo.
Spain, meanwhile, went into their final qualifying match with Romania having fully vindicated their return to archetypical Spanish football. Boasting a qualification phase passing success rate of over 90%, and an average possession rate of over 70%, Spain’s usual ‘tiki-taka’ style has translated itself very well onto a new generation.
While it hasn’t always enjoyed the same flow it did prior to the international retirement of Xavi and Iniesta, Sergio Busquets’ deeper-lying role has given players like Dani Ceballos and Saul Niguez license to make the tiki-taka system their own, and maraud in the way the modern game demands. There is also much encouragement to be taken from the fact that Alvaro Morata, Sergio Ramos and Rodrigo had all pitched in with an equal number of goals prior to the Romania game, with Paco Alcacer just one behind the trio at that time.
Redemption-Seeking Nations Coming Back Stronger
The likes of Belgium and the Netherlands cannot be overlooked as genuine contenders, and both have something to prove. Belgium’s rise over the past decade is well-documented, and the slew of talent is unabating, making a first major trophy for the nation look increasingly inevitable. The Netherlands will also be a popular pick within the range of exciting football markets for Euro 2020 nearer the time of the finals, having negotiated the most difficult UEFA Nations League group last year, and gone on to finish as runners up in that inaugural tournament.
However, there is one nation that will stand out as particularly desperate to make Euro 2020 a success story – namely, Germany. The four-time world champions endured a horrific sham of their World Cup defence in Russia, most embarrassingly losing to South Korea in a match that many had cited as a potential landslide before the tournament. They then finished bottom of their Nations League group and, but for a revamp, would have been relegated to League B.
The year of 2019 has shown green shoots of recovery. Not unlike great rivals England, Germany have used a disastrous tournament in a positive way, blooding new talent to replace the old guard.
Phasing out that ‘old guard’, players like Kai Havertz and Timo Werner have proven priceless additions. Impressively, the latter man hit seven goals across four matches, prior to his final Bundesliga match before the international break, installing him as the Bundesliga’s second-top goalscorer during said break.
Though the Germany squad’s newly youthful core will provide some degree of fallibility, Manuel Neuer’s unrivalled experience – as the only player in the most recent German XI to have hit a half-century of caps – remains a crucial stabilising factor.
Les Bleus to Honour ‘Class of 2000’?
With France already winning the ‘big one’ last year, some are led to question whether that same hunger will be reflected at Euro 2020.
People were in exactly the same school of thought two decades ago, as the continent geared up for Euro 2000. Those that questioned Les Bleus’ ability to create history were forced into humility, as France beat Italy 2-1 in golden-goal extra time at the final. Today’s crop have showed utmost professionalism in the aftermath of ultimate glory, with a Euro 2020 qualifying tournament that saw them win eight of ten games and average 2.5 goals per-match.
Such numbers imply that Deschamps’ men have the momentum to match their ancestors, and as for players to keep an eye on, there are too many to mention. The prospect of seeing Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe up front is truly mouth-watering, and both men know what it takes to go all the way in a major tournament.
There are other versatile attackers within Deschamps’ blue army too, with Wissam Ben Yedder and Moussa Dembele jointly topping the Ligue 1 scoring charts over the international break.
‘Bleus’ Favourites, but a Close Call
Current odds point to the France squad of 2020 doing as Deschamps et al did twenty years ago, and winning the European Championship. Average market odds of just 7/2 against them winning Euro 2020 compare very favourably to the likes of Belgium, Spain and Germany.
However, there appears to be a lot of faith in England (currently priced at around 9/2) finally burying their Euro curse and winning silverware at long last.
With or without home advantage in the final, England need to find the mental strength that was so lacking in their recent semi-final appearances, for both the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA Nations League. Should they do that on this occasion, and use the Wembley atmosphere to their advantage, then there is little reason to believe that the ‘Three Lions’ cannot go all the way.