The Cardinali Corner: EURO Championship

**This is another great post from friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali**

2020(1) EUROs Final

Wow.  Another round of edge of your seat action.  Both games to extra time.  One to penalties, one ending after an extremely controversial penalty call.  When the dust settled, we are all set for England and Italy on Sunday afternoon.  Let’s hope for more intense, competitive soccer to cap this baby off.

I ended up getting both picks right last week, bumping me up to 9-5 in the knockout rounds and 5-1 over the past two rounds.  If you are still reading, I am guessing you don’t need me to introduce to you into all of the stars on these two teams again so I am going to try and get a little more into the weeds here about what we can expect to see on the field.  We will start by looking back at the semi-final games to see how we got here.

To this point in the tournament, Italy had not been questioned quite the way Spain questions teams.  Yes, Austria took them to extra time, but that seemed more due to Italian nerves and lack of finishing than what Austria did.  Italy has played all their games actively on the front foot, constantly pushing the ball forward and pressing the defense.  When they are on defense, they have relied on an impressive high press to force quick turnovers that they can turn into attacks.  Due to the experience of Chiellini and Bonucci along the back line, the Italians have more trust that they can press up field and still be covered.  Even against world number one Belgium in the quarterfinals, Italy was able to control the ball and play the game at their pace.  That just does not happen against Spain.  Instead, for the first time Italy was forced to play without the ball.  Not only that, but Spain dropped Morata (their starting striker) and started Olmo as a false 9 to really lean into the ball control mindset.  As a result, Italy really struggled to start the game.  They looked anxious without the ball and rushed when they had it.  Every possession seemed to be turned back over to Spain within two to three passes and then Spain would possess for five or six minutes.  However, all of Spain’s possession really did not amount to many chances, surely helped by the discipline of Italy’s backline.  After the half it was a different story as Italy appeared to realize that their chances on the ball were going to be limited and they needed to be more careful with them.  Immobile was able to find the channel on Spain’s right side several times early in the second half.  While Spain was still able to control possession, the Italian counter attacks suddenly seemed sharper.  None more evident that the run of play leading to the Italian goal in the 60’.  Following a Spanish cross from the Italian right side (which there are no Spanish players near because they have no striker on the field), Donnarumma pivots and rolls the ball out quickly to his left.  Within two passes Immobile is just about sprung in behind the Spanish backline.  The Spanish defenders cut the last pass out, but because of the speed with which the Italian attack was able to push them up field, the ball falls into tons of empty space.  Chiesa anticipates excellently, crossing from his position on the left and picks up the ball at the top of the box.  There are no Spanish players close enough to close his angle down, Chiesa gets the ball onto his daring right foot, and he absolutely buries it.  Interestingly enough, both sides made changes directly following the goal with Italy subbing off their star striker Immobile, and Spain bringing on theirs in Morata.  Italy clearly shifted to a more defensive philosophy but ultimately could not hold the clean sheet as Morata combined with Olmo on a beautiful 1-2 to beat the Italians for an equalizer.  Spain continued to dominate possession through extra time, ending up near 70% for the game.  Both sides had a few more chances, although Spain had more than Italy, but from the moment extra time started this game seemed destined for PKs.  As I mentioned after their last shootout, Spain has missed five consecutive in game penalty kicks.  Italy was able to win the toss for first kick, but a poor effort from Locatelli was saved.  With the chance to grab the game by its throat, Olmo missed way over the goal.  To me, that was the moment the game was over.  The next two kicks for each team were buried, and after Italy hit their 4th kick to take a 3-2 lead, the chance fell to embattled Spanish striker Morata.  He had been dropped from the XI for this game, only to come on in the 62’ and score the equalizer in the 80’.  Morata’s personal roller coaster ride continued as his kick was poor and saved easily by Donnarumma.  Jorginho then stepped up for Italy and spent the Spanish home with his trademark jump hop penalty.

Italy was forced to adapt to a style of game that they did not want to play.  All the talk before the game was about these two teams having the best midfields in the tournament and whether that would decide the game.  To be frank, the Spanish midfield dominated.  Pedri was probably the best player on the field, and Jorginho had possibly his worst ever game in terms of passing.  But the Italians still won.  And Spain needed to chase an equalizer to even force extra time.  The Italians were pushed by a game, albeit young, Spanish squad and they stood their ground.  After taking out the world number one in Belgium in the quarters and Spain in the semis, the Italians have no reason to believe that they cannot continue their winning ways against England.

The England – Denmark game brought us more extra time, more excellent Gareth Southgate managing, and more controversy.  Once again, England trotted out a different starting XI, with Saka returning to the side in place of Sancho after missing the last game with a slight knock.  Early on Denmark seemed to be controlling the pace of play with smooth and patient passing through the midfield.  England was sitting back and playing conservatively, as has been their wont early in games in this tournament.  Denmark was able to draw back-to-back fouls against Mount and Shaw to push the ball up the pitch just far enough so that their free kick could make England uncomfortable.   There has been a lot of debate over whether Pickford should have done better, but whether he should have or not, he was not able to stop Damsgaard’s strike and England had conceded for the first time in the tournament.  In the aftermath of the goal Harry Kane could be seen imploring his team to keep their heads, and he seemed personally determined to make sure that happened.  Kane was able to wriggle loose in behind on Denmark’s left side minutes after the goal, with an equalizer only denied by a wonderful Schmeichel save against Sterling.  Not two minutes later, Kane dropped deep into midfield before playing an absolutely beautiful through ball to Saka, once again in behind on Denmark’s left.  Saka’s cross to a sprinting Sterling didn’t quite get there, but an intercepting Kjaer’s clear attempt did nothing other than steer the ball into his own goal.  A huge staple of Denmark’s tournament to this point has been their ambitious wing back Maehle’s aggressive runs into attacking areas up Denmark’s left.  England made it a clear point to attack the space that his runs left in behind.  Saka repeatedly made runs in behind. Mount got in behind a few times.  Kane drifted out to the flank a few times.  England found a weakness and there was just not much Denmark could do about it.  After a very competitive first 65 or so minutes, Denmark went with a triple substitution, and it did not work out in their favor.  Removing Damsgaard was a big blow to their midfield dominance to that point and slowly but surely England started to take control of the game.  When Saka was subbed out for Grealish, Sterling moved to the right side to fill Saka’s spot and continue the assault on the Denmark left.  Denmark held admirably through regular time, but it was clear that Sterling was exacerbating their defensive hole with a couple of nice runs to the by line.  From the first minute of extra time Denmark looked to be playing for penalty kicks and the English lions could smell blood in the water.  England held basically all the possession at this point against a side that looked to be exhausted and it felt like only a matter of time before they would get the game winner.  Not surprisingly, that winner came by way of a penalty drawn when Sterling once again got in behind Denmark’s left.  Sterling angled his run into the box, took a minimal amount of contact, and went down.  In the few days since there has been PLENTY of debate on the merits of the penalty and whether England deserved the call.  On top of that, Kane’s penalty was actually saved by Schmeichel before he was able to hammer in the rebound.  England got the goal they needed and fairly easily saw the game out through the second period of extra time.

The way I look at it is that England was clearly the better team over the last hour plus of the game.  There was at least one other occasion where Sterling went down in the box and the call didn’t go England’s way.  And in the 15’ of gameplay after the go-ahead goal, Denmark was barely able to get a kick of the ball.  England deserved to win the game, its just a shame that it had to come under controversial terms because to some degree it overshadows their excellent performance.  They have still yet to allow an open play goal at the tournament.  After limping to two goals in three group stage games, England has scored eight in their last three games, including four from Harry Kane.  England is in top form and is playing in front of their home fans.

I expect the final to be an absolutely riveting game.  For the first time this tournament I anticipate Southgate will trot the same starting XI out.  He has been very much horses for courses so far in this tournament, but what England did against Denmark would be a sound strategy to attack Italy.  Italy’s 4-3-3 formation looks very much like a 3-2-5 when they are on the attack.  Left back Emerson (filling in for the injured Spinazzola) pushes high up the field in a manner very similar to Maehle of Denmark.  England repeatedly punished Maehle for his attacking runs by getting in behind and I would expect them to look for more of the same against Italy.  I think Southgate will stay with Saka starting on England’s attacking right.  Saka has been excellent in all of his appearances in the tournament to date and his defensive responsibility is surely a part of the manager’s trust in him.  Grealish has seemed to become the instant offense super sub for England so look for Saka to run himself into the ground for as long as he can, and if England needs a goal Grealish will come on.

Italy has gone with essentially the same XI in all of their games, other than injury substitutions.  Despite some pretty poor performances in the elimination rounds, expect Immobile to stay in the lineup up top.  He is the ultimate counterattack artist – full of pace and always on the defender’s shoulder.  He was called for offside twice with in the first 5 minutes against Spain, and his run in behind was a huge part of the run up to Italy’s goal.  I mention this because without Spinazzola last game, Italy’s offensive game shifted much more towards balls over the top and in behind to Immobile.  His pace can cause a lot of problems for Maguire if the service is right.

I have seen a wide range of predictions for how this game will go.  I fully expect England to continue their defensive style early in the match.  Personally, I thought their possession play against Denmark down the stretch was impressive, but I doubt they will be able to do that over 90’ against Italy.  The Italian midfielders really struggled against Spain, but England’s lineup doesn’t really present the same kinds of challenges.  These teams have combined to allow one goal from open play so do not be surprised if it is a low scoring affair.  This one is a total tossup.  Generally, I would lean to the in form stud striker (my guy Harry Kane in this case), but I have to go with my heart here – Italy is the pick.  Forza Azzurri!!

Some fun bets with decent odds:

  • Final to be decided in extra time (+400)
  • Final to be decided in penalties (+550)
  • Kane to score anytime (+165)
  • Insigne to score anytime (+350)
  • Sterling to score anytime (+300)
  • Chiesa to score anytime (+400)
  • Final score bet Italy 2-1 England (+1050)

 

 

The Cardinali Corner: Euro Semifinal Preview

**Another great post from the friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali

Semifinals
Friday gave us two extremely entertaining quarterfinal contests, with Spain winning possibly the ugliest shootout of all time and Italy leveraging an early lead to eliminate world number one Belgium 2-1.  Saturday’s games didn’t have quite the same pizazz, although the Czech Republic was able to push Denmark before eventually failing to equalize in a 2-1 Danish win.  England finally flexed their offensive power in a dominant 4-0 win over the Ukraine to round out the weekend.

My picks went 3-1 in the Quarterfinals, with the only loss being an Italy team that I was actually rooting for.  Reverse jinx for the win!  More seriously, I picked Belgium despite thinking that Kevin De Bruyne would be out for the game.  He ended up playing, and playing pretty well, so I deserve that loss.  The remaining games will all be played at Wembley Stadium in London in front of 60,000 plus spectators.  England will essentially be playing in front of English fans only.  There will assuredly be some home field advantage, but I’m interested to see if it can help to galvanize in the event England ever do fall behind.  So far in 5 games they have not had to face that situation.

Italy v Spain, Tuesday 3 PM
Italy played a complete game against Belgium.  They got contributions from all over the field.  The return of Giorgio Chiellini [Juventus] the 36-year-old Italian captain really bolstered the back line.  After Being essentially untested to this point in the tournament, Gianluigi Donnaruma made multiple excellent saves in the first half to keep out both De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.  Nicolo Barella [Inter] chipped in with an early goal to get the Azzurri on the board, and Lorenzo Insigne [Napoli] added a wonder strike which ended up being the game winner.  Italy looked dominant and well poised to go all the way in this thing, that is until the 79th minute when Leonardo Spinazzola [Roma] pulled up lame.  Spinazzola has been an absolute monster on the left side for Italy.  He plays some combination of left back in a four-man defense and a left wing back making deep probing overlapping runs.  Being clocked at the fastest top speed of anyone in the tournament is a big reason he is able to perform in this manner and has been a big reason Italy has been such a difficult matchup so far.  Insigne is a right footed player that plays advanced on the left wing, ahead of Spinazzola.  This allows Insigne to cut infield to his stronger foot while Spinazzola keeps the attacking width to stretch the opposing defense laterally.  As previously mentioned, Italy is deep.  They have a capable back up in Emerson [Chelsea] who performed solidly filling in for Spinazzola in match day 3, but when you lose arguably the best player of the tournament to this point, it is a blow.

Spain seemed to be actively trying to lose at various points against Switzerland.  Their collapse seemed imminent only to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Spain started out on the front foot with their infamous ball domination.  This led to an early Jordi Alba [Barcelona] chance resulting in a Denis Zakaria [Monchengladbach] own goal.  Tough break for Zakaria as it seemed like Alba’s shot was on target.  Bad day for him all around as he was unable to take a couple of chances in his first game back from injury.  Anyway, Spain seemed to be happy with the 1-0 lead and played pretty conservatively after the early goal.  Switzerland took some time to adjust to Spain’s constant possession, but they eventually started to take control of the game on the back of an aggressive high press.  A couple of good chances eventually resulted in a defensive misplay from Spain that the Swiss pounced on.  Xherdan Shaqiri [Liverpool] was able to calmy slot home to even the score in the 68th minute.  Switzerland seemed to have all the momentum but just under 10 minutes later Remo Freuler [Atalanta] was shown a straight red for a harsh challenge, taking the wind out of the Swiss sails.  If not for the red card, I don’t think Spain would have even made it to extra time.  Credit does have to be given for the Spanish effort in extra time as they repeatedly bombarded the Swiss goal, only to be denied over and over by Swiss keeper Yann Sommer [Monchengladbach].  Substitute Dani Olmo [RB Leipzig] spent a lot of time on the ball in extra time – although he didn’t look particularly dangerous – and fellow sub, Mikel Oyarzabal [Real Sociedad], came close a few times before ultimately the game headed to penalty kicks.  Spain won the toss and first kick.  Continuing a stunning trend of FIVE CONSECUTIVE penalty misses, Spain missed their opening kick.  Both sides traded goals before a save from Spanish keeper Unai Simon [Athletic Bilbao] evened the score.  Spain again failed to take the lead, only to get bailed out when Ruben Vargas missed the target for Switzerland.  Spain finally managed to take the advantage provided to them, scoring the next two kicks to move through.

Italy has been the most consistently high performing team in the tournament.  They have won all five of their games by a combined score of 11-2.  They allowed one goal in extra time and one via penalty kick.  Spain has been a much more up-and-down side.  They are the highest scoring side in the tournament on 12 goals, but they have played 60 minutes of extra time.  They have been prone to defensive lapses at various times in the tournament and I think those momentary occasions where they lose their focus will be their downfall here.  Italy seems like a team on the rise, and they are fully prepared to use this tournament as their coming out party.  I look for a low scoring contest here with high possibility of an Italian clean sheet.  The loss of Spinazzola will definitely hurt but look for this Italian side to adapt their shape and tactics accordingly.

England v Denmark, Wednesday 3 PM
In the only game where they had to leave their home country, England ensured that would not be to their detriment.  They made their trip to Rome a business trip, calmly and clinically dispatching of the Ukraine.  England jumped in front early when Raheem Sterling [Man City] finally decided to pass to Harry Kane [Spurs], who not surprisingly produced a technically sound finish.  Kane would be heard from again later along with Harry Maguire [Man U] and Jordan Henderson [Liverpool] adding set piece goals for England.  With Bukayo Saka [Arsenal] unavailable due to injury, Jadon Sancho [recent Man U signing] was awarded his first start of the tournament.  Mason Mount [Chelsea] returned to the team as well as Gareth Southgate shifted back to defensive back 4.  Sancho provided an interesting new dynamic to the English attack. To this point England had used Saka and Phil Foden [Man City] on the attacking right.  Both are left footed players who are more prone to tucking infield onto their stronger left foot.  As a right-footed player, Sancho was much more aggressive pressing down the right-hand touchline and keeping England’s attacking width.  Sancho also has excellent feet and, on several occasions, attacked defensive one on ones, unbalancing the Ukraine defense. It will be interesting to see how the XI lines up against Denmark.  Saka will be fit and he played very well in his two starts.  But Sancho has provided a bit of a different look for the three Lions and the team doubled their goals tally in his only start.

Denmark came out very hot in their quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic.  Thomas Delaney [Dortmund] came completely uncovered on an early corner kick for a 1-0 Denmark lead.  The Czech side had several early set pieces of their own but were unable to convert any of them.  Just a few minutes before half time the Danes tacked onto the lead when a cool Kasper Dolberg [Nice] finish came on the end of an exceptional cross from the outside of Joakim Maehle’s [Atalanta] right boot. The Czech got one back on Patrik Schick’s [Leverkusen] calmly slotted volley.  That put Schick level with Christiano Ronaldo in the golden boot race.  The Danes didn’t sit back, but Maehle and Mikkel Damsgaard both had good efforts rebuked as they were unable to extend the lead.  The Czech’s continued to press for an equalizer and there was some excellent effort by Denmark to keep the lead.  In particular, substitute striker Yussuf Poulsen [who seems to have lost his spot to a red hot Dolberg] tracked back 60 plus yards on one occasion to break up a Czech attack inside the 18-yard box.  The Danish back three of Jannik Vestergaard [Southampton], Simon Kjaer [AC Milan] and Andreas Christensen [Chelsea] have been the backbone of this team.  They have worked together beautifully, adapting as Christensen makes probing jaunts up field on occasion, and still staying sound and sturdy at the back.  Denmark may not have been very highly regarded coming into this tournament, but they have lots of young talent, even without Cristian Eriksen, and they play excellently as a team.

Andreas Christensen has already sad that Denmark knows what their plan is to stop Harry Kane.  I agree that they have experience on their side between Christensen and Vestergaard matching up with Kane on the field and midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg [Spurs] playing with Kane for years.  But when Kane gets rolling, he is very difficult to stop.  3 goals in the past two games for Harry, who seems to be creeping up on the golden boot race.  There is a path here to a Denmark win.  Ukraine had a period late in the first half against England where they seemed to be causing problems down the English right side and if Denmark were able to get out in front, England could be put into an awkward position trying to chase.  Ultimately, I think England goes through on the strength of their sound defensive foundation and the support of their home fans.  I say they finally concede but look for Kane to get back on the score sheet and set up an Italy v England finale.

The Cardinali Corner: Euro Quarterfinal Preview

This is part of recurring guest posts from friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali

Quarterfinals
Let’s start with a quick recap of the round of 16 games.  Of the 8 total games, 4 went to extra time with one lasting all the way to penalty kicks.  Belgium seemed to utterly control the game against Portugal and cruised to a 1-0 victory on the strength of a Thorgan Hazard missile.  Unfortunately, they lost both Kevin DeBruyne and Eden [The Elder] Hazard to injury and neither will be playing in this next round of games.  Italy really struggled on their first trip outside of Rome.  They needed VAR to bail them out on a regular time Austria goal, scored 2 in extra time, then conceded their first goal of the tournament and had to hang on for dear life to survive.  France (my self-proclaimed biggest lock) attempted to win a game by only playing for 25 minutes of it.  Switzerland had other ideas.  They fought with everything they had for 120 minutes, were nails on all their penalty kicks, and got a save on Kylian Mbappe’s PK to seal it.  A fitting end to Mbappe’s tournament that was filled with missed chances and 0 goals.  Don’t be surprised if he is a man on a mission at the World Cup next year.  Spain played a roller coaster of a game ending in a 5-3 extra time win over Croatia.  They gave up a horrendous own goal, and then tried to collapse by conceding 2 in the last 5 minutes plus stoppage time, but in the end they have 10 goals in their last two games (more than any other team has scored in the entire tournament) and they are moving on.  Sweden vs Ukraine was an exciting back and forth affair with each side scoring on a great chance early, hitting the woodwork several times after, and a game changing red card in extra time.  For anyone that saw the slow-motion replays, Marcus Danielson’s challenge looked nothing short of painful.  That being said, I am not convinced it was even a foul.  He played the ball, his leg was below knee level, and the Ukrainian player came in late right into Danielson’s leg.  Either way, Sweden tried to hang on but the Ukraine was able to find the game winner late in extra time.  England continued their stout defensive ways (they have yet to concede a goal), yielding really only one big chance.  Two if you count Timo Werner’s, but no one who has watched him play the last 6 months thought he was scoring there.  England also continued the trend of Jack Grealish being the key to their goal scoring.  He entered with a little over 20 minutes remaining and was directly involved in both of England’s goals.  The Netherlands looked rather unlike the team from the group stages, showing their nerves through a combination of bad misplays and missed chances.  An early second half red card for an intentional hand ball proved to be too much for the Dutch to handle and the Czech Republic picked up the 2-0 victory.  Lastly, we had Denmark utterly dismantle Wales.  The Welsh had a few early Gareth Bale chances that he was unable to take and eventually they just got totally over run.  Denmark took it 4-0 and it easily could have been 5 or 6.  That’s 8 goals in the last 180 minutes for Denmark.

After starting out at 4-1 on my picks, I dropped the last three games of the round to finish 4-4.  2 losses because of red cards (Sweden and Netherlands), 1 game that everyone on the planet got wrong (France) and one toss up that didn’t break right (Germany).  I think the thing that I underestimated the most was the match sites.  Italy had to leave Rome for the first time, and it clearly impacted them.  England got to play at home in front of entirely English fans (due to travel restrictions, foreign fans have not been permitted into the country).  To that end, this round is the ONLY TIME that England will not be playing in London.  There doesn’t seem to be other location related impacts to the round, but I will mention them in the previews below for informative purposes.

Switzerland v Spain, Friday 12 PM – St. Petersburg, Russia
These two teams were a part of the highest scoring day of elimination games in EURO history.  Switzerland played their ideal game against France.  Yes, they missed a penalty kick that could have made the game 2-0 and followed it up by giving up 3 goals in the next 20 minutes.  But they kept their poise, fought back to tie in the 90th minute, and earned the well-deserved win in PKs.  If we are being honest, they played much better than France.  Granit Xhaka [Arsenal] put on a stunning man of the match display in midfield.  Pogba and Kante outplayed by Xhaka and Shakiri.  Who could have guessed?  Unfortunately for the Swiss, Xhaka also picked up his second yellow of the tournament and, due to the very harsh disciplinary rules at the EUROs, he is ineligible for the match with Spain.

Ever since the Cava bottle was popped by a hilarious Dubravka own goal in their final group game, the goals have been flowing for Spain.  In the first 210 minutes of the tournament, they scored exactly one goal and missed two penalty kicks.  In their last 180 minutes they have scored 10 times.  Of course, they also had some unexplainable defensive plays against Croatia.  One silver lining was that it gave embattled Spanish star Alvaro Morata [Atletico] a chance to score a truly special game winner in extra time.  Spain seems to be rolling on offense right now, but at the same time they just don’t seem like the type of squad that will be feared.

Switzerland had maybe the best performance of any team in the round of 16.  It can not be understated how talented France is and coming back from a two-goal deficit to knock out the defending World Cup champs is truly something that will be remembered in Switzerland for a long time.  They have recently played Spain in tight low scoring affairs which is what I expect we will see here.  Spain allowed Croatia back into the game far too easily for the position they put themselves in but managed to keep their composure and scored twice in a relatively stress free extra time.  I’ll go with Spain here in a tight one.  Sergio Busquets [Barcelona] has been hugely impactful after returning on match day 3.  That combined with Xhaka’s absence, and the fact that Switzerland may have exhausted all their bullets against France, is the decider for me.

Italy v Belgium, Friday 3 PM – Munich, Germany
On the surface, it may seem like Italy got lucky in their extra time win over Austria, but when you dig a little deeper that isn’t quite the case.  Italy dominated in attacks (74 v 49), and attempts (27 v 16) and just missed a cracker of a goal early when Ciro Immobile’s knuckleball rocket clanged off the post.  The thing with Italy is that they don’t have your prototypical superstar.  Their roster is talented top to bottom with no real drop off from starters to the bench.  Federico Chiesa [Juventus] came off the bench to score the first Italy goal with a left (off) footed finish following an absolutely wonderful first touch off the chest and second touch off his right foot.  Oh, by the way, he was the man of the match when he started in match day 3.  Don’t be surprised to see him in the starting XI against Belgium.  Their second goal was also scored by substitute Matteo Pessina [Atalanta].  If there was one word for Italy, it would be deep.

Despite Belgium’s comfortable 1-0 win over Portugal where they completely nullified Christiano Ronaldo, any Belgium fan is down after that game.  Just when it seemed like their train was going to really get going with KDB and Eden both appearing to be at the height of their powers supporting Lukaku and the other studs, they lose both to injury.  Tough few months for De Bruyne if they get bounced here after Man City couldn’t muster anything when he left the champions league final against Chelsea.  It does appear that both injuries are minor and both guys could be available for a semi-final match, assuming Belgium can get there.

I go back and forth on this game every time I think about it.  I do think getting a win outside of Rome last round galvanizes Italy a bit going forward.  But here’s the thing, even without two of their biggest guns, Belgium still has probably the best player and he’s an absolute man.  Romelo Lukaku plays in Serie A against all the guys on Italy’s backline week in and week out.  All he did this year was score 24 goals (second in the league to Ronaldo) in 32 games and has been in excellent form in this tournament.  I am interested to see if Belgium deploys him in a more central role with De Bruyne out as he has been playing wide on the right the past few games, but wherever he is, Italy will need to look out for him.  My heart is with Italy, and honestly my head kind of is too, but I just have a weird feeling about Belgium in this one.

Czech Republic v Denmark, Saturday 12 PM – Baku, Azerbaijan
I have to say that I was very impressed with the way the Czech Republic played against Netherlands.  I still think the Oranje would have eventually pulled it out if not for the red card, but the Czechs kept the pressure constant and never allowed the Netherlands to get into the game.  When they did get the break of the red card (which probably would have been a goal if Matt De Ligt had not handled the ball), they leveraged that advantage and ground the game until they could break through.  Tomas Holes [Slavia Praha] was particularly impressive in the midfield and Patrick Schick [Leverkusen] tallied his 4th goal of the tournament.  He will be looking to tie Ronaldo in the golden boot race, and push himself closer to a $100 million transfer evaluation, against Denmark.

Denmark’s front line through the group stages had been led by Youssuf Poulsen [RB Leipzig] and his 2 goals.  He had a bit of a thigh/glute issue and was unavailable against Wales, replaced by Kasper Dolberg [Nice].  What did Dolberg do? Only score two goals including an absolutely beautiful right to left bender around a defender and into the bottom corner.  Poulsen may be available for this one, but I expect Dolberg to hold his place after that performance.  Plus, there is an epic photo of him after one of the goals with his hair sticking out in all directions as if he’s getting electrocuted and that has to count for something.  Denmark had far too much for Wales and their wing back Joakim Maehle [Atalanta] has been especially impressive this whole tournament.  Fun fact: I am going to make a point to watch Atalanta more this upcoming year.  They have guys performing at super high levels all over these EUROs.

Both of these teams play very similar styles and I expect another well played game.  Lots of organized smart play with pointed and sharp counter attacks.  Denmark really appears to be hitting their stride following the early difficulties they faced in these EUROs, but as a favorite in this one, does the pressure start to become a strain on them?  I’m hoping not as Denmark is my pick here.  Let’s hope the goal train keeps rolling.

England v Ukraine, Saturday 3 PM – Rome, Italy
I have often said that Gareth Southgate has a job I would envy during the club season, and dread when the English team is actually playing games.  Hanging out at whatever premier league games you want, being sharply dressed, strong beard game – all good things.  Having the media over analyze each and every decision you make, getting blamed for anything that isn’t perfect and not getting credit for when you’re right – not so much.  To that end, I questioned last week if Southgate would switch his formation to match up with Germany’s wide wing backs and, if he did, would it work out?  Well, the answer was that yes, he would change – starting Kyle Walker [Man City] on the right of a back three, and a resounding yes as his decision worked out beautifully.  England totally neutralized the German attack with an extremely defensive formation, before Southgate brought in wonder boy Grealish who immediately paid dividends in the lead up to the first goal and eventually combined with Harry Kane directly to put the game away (that’s two assists and an involvement in the last three England goals).  One interesting observation is that Raheem Sterling continues to seem very reticent to pass the ball to Harry Kane.  I’m not sure if this opinion is shared by a lot of people, but Sterling has always seemed a bit selfish to me.  However, he did manage to score his third goal here to get England on the board.  He also followed that up with a horrible give away to Thomas Muller in a position where, frankly England were lucky not to concede.  The full Sterling experience.

I wrote last week about how much I had enjoyed watching the Ukraine and that did not change in the round of 16 matchup with Sweden.  Andriy Yarmolenko [West Ham] had another goal contribution setting up Oleksander Zinchenko [Man City] for an excellent finish early on before Sweden leveled.  Both teams ran themselves ragged with the Ukraine eventually subbing off 5 of their 6 forward players before the end of extra time.  The game seemed destined for penalty kicks as Ukraine couldn’t capitalize on 20 minutes of a one-man advantage, only to see a wonderful Zinchencko cross in the 120’+1 find Artem Dovbyk’s head to send Ukraine onwards.

I told multiple people this week that I was glad England beat Germany because now when they lose to someone else it will be really crushing.  The thing is, I’m not so sure that is going to happen anymore.  They have been so well organized defensively, and the talent up front doesn’t need much to eventually find a goal.  This is the only game they will play outside of Wembley and while I think that plays a part, I just don’t think Ukraine can match the talent levels.  England is the pick here.  I expect them to continue their clean sheet record and find a goal or two to move on.  Maybe they will start passing to Kane now that he proved he can get a goal even when they seem to be actively avoiding him.

Picks
Spain
Belgium
Denmark
England

 

2020 EURO: Match Day One

All 24 teams have played one match so far and, as always, there are storylines galore!

GROUP A
All of the hype coming in about the return of The Azzurri did not look unwarranted in Italy’s tournament opening hammering of Turkey, 3-0.  In fact, this was probably the most dominant performance from any team that actually won their game (see Group E if you do not know to what I’m referring).  The Paisons outshot a decent Turkish squad 23-4 and had over 60% of possession.  Italy’s 3 points puts them in the unsurprising position as clear group favorites, and that position was solidified by the 1-1 draw in the other game of this group between Switzerland and Wales.  This was a great result for Wales, who got the equalizer in the 74th minute and then held on.  Switzerland looked good, particularly their goalscorer Embolo, but have to walk away disappointed by the draw.

Next Up
Wales vs. Turkey, Wed at noon
The Welsh got a HUGE point from Switzerland and can be in great position if they can get another result here.  As for Turkey, they have to shake off their opening match and remind themselves that points from Italy may not come for anyone, so their qualification campaign starts now.

Italy vs Switzerland, Wed at 3:00
This is probably the best match of the group, on paper, but it has some added import for the Swiss after their draw with Wales.  Can they steal a result here or will Italy waltz into the Knockout Stage with another 3 points that would pretty much lock up the group?

GROUP B
There isn’t an “in-the-lines” storyline in this tournament that seems to even matter when thinking about the Christian Eriksen situation.  Ericksen, the Danes best player, collapsed on the field, suffering a major cardiac arrest, apparently flat-lining before needing CPR resuscitation to bring him “back to life.”  Wow.  There is no way to even mention that and then seamlessly talk about sports again, so I won’t try.  Just saying how horrible that situation must have been for the Denmark squad, who ended up losing to Finland in a game where none of the Danes’ 18 shots found the back of the net, while the Finns scored on their ONLY SHOT for a 1-0 win.  Out of context, the win is a great moment for the Finns in their first ever major tournament match, but it is hard to celebrate after what happened.   In the other match of the group, Belgium looked every bit of their #1 world ranking, getting a pair of goals from Romelu Lukaku and another from Thomas Meunier for a convincing 3-0 win over Russia.  With Denmark getting 0 from their opening match, the top of this group looks as decided as any of them after Day One.

Up Next
Finland vs. Russia, Weds at 9:00
Finland is sitting on 3 points and the Russians are on 0, so this game is kind of huge.  Any result here for the Finns would likely mean advancement, while Russia has to shake off the Belgium defeat and try to get themselves out of this group.  3 points for Russia is most certainly what they’re looking for.

Denmark vs. Belgium, Thurs at noon
As if the Danes haven’t been through enough with the loss of their best player and then a loss to a team whom they outshot 18-1, now they are sitting on 0 points and staring in the faces of the #1 team in the world, who looked damn good in Game One.  There is still a path for the Danes to get through, but they could really use a result here, setting up a showdown with Russia for potential qualification.  As for Belgium, they only have Finland after this, so any result here should mean that they only a win over Finland for group victory.  A win here would all be lock it up unless we all believe that the Finns can win again.

GROUP C
This has probably been the most entertaining group so far, as both games were a lot of fun.  The first match of Group C saw Austria pick up a couple of late goals to beat a feisty North Macedonia team, 3-1.  As Doogan noted in the preview, it was fascinating to see how Austria’s star, David Alaba was used in this game.  The conversation was about what they would do with him, and they left him in the back for most of the game, but whenever he did venture up, good things happened, including on the game-winner, where he just used his elite playmaking skills and superior quality to put his team ahead.  He was obviously the best player on the field for either team and picked his spots to show it beautifully.  This was a really fun game.  And, then there was the second game, which may have been the most entertaining of the all Day One matches.  After a scoreless (but wildly entertaining) first half, the Netherlands got two quick goals to start the second and looked like they were going to roll over Ukraine.  But, the Dutch had some disturbing defensive lapses, allowing two goals in 4 minutes (75th and 79th) to tie the score at 2-2.  And, then, just when it looked like they were going to have a really deflating draw, Denzel Dumfries scored in the 85th minute to win it.  Wow!  If the rest of this group’s games are as good as the first two, sign me up!

Up Next
Ukraine vs. North Macedonia, Thurs at
9:00
These two teams both looked good in their opening matches, but both came away with nothing to show for it.  This could be a wide open game here, as a draw might not do either of them any good in the long run.  While maybe not the most important match on the grand scale of the tournament, this could shape up to be a fun one.  If Ukraine can win here, they will have a really good shot to advance, likely only needing a point from their finale against Austria.  If North Macedonia wins, they will also have a shot, but they are staring at the Dutch in the final fixture.

Netherlands vs. Austria, Thurs at 3:00
The two winners on Day One in Group C will meet here on Day Two in a really big match.  While both teams are in good shape to move on, the difference between the group winner here and runner-up is likely to be the difference between facing Italy in the Round of 16 or facing a third-place team.

GROUP D
As entertaining as the Group C games were, the Group D opening match may have been the most well-played game of the tournament thus far.  England looked really good in a 1-0 win over arch-rival Croatia on the strength of a Sterling goal early in the second half.  Three points in a really tough match against the second-best team in the group is a fantastic start for the high expectations of the Three Lions.  The other game of the group saw one of the greatest goals I have ever seen off the foot of Czech Republic’s Patrick Schick, who beat the keeper from FIFTY-TWO YARDS away to give the Czechs a 2-0 lead over Scotland, and that’s how it finished.  Thrilling goal aside, this was a really fun game.  The Scots got 17 shots and actually won the possession with 56%, but it was the Czechs with better chances and the two goals.  Should be really interesting to see how these two teams look in their upcoming matches in this interesting group.

Up Next
Croatia vs Czech Republic, Fri at noon
This is a pretty enormous game here as the Croats lost to England and the Czechs beat Scotland, so the Czechs are sitting on 3, but awaiting England in their finale, while Croatia is sitting on 0 with Scotland still to come.  The winner here is very likely to advance, but the loser isn’t done.  A draw would make it all very interesting.

England vs. Scotland, Fri at 3:00
This is great!  England got a big 3 points in a tough, hard-fought match against Croatia and now have to face a team that would have a generational win if they can pull off the upset.  Scotland lost 2-0 to Czech Republic in their first game, but played well, getting off 17 shots.  Any result would be Scotland regardless of how the rest of the tournament plays out, but a win would be absolutely legendary.

GROUP E
The first game of Group E was a bit of a shocker, as Poland fell to Slovakia, 2-1 thanks, in part, to a red card in the 62nd minute of a tie game.   The Slovaks looked really good, regardless, but playing a man up for 30 minutes was a great boon to their hopes here in this tournament.  All the expectations on this Polish side (which seemed warranted) could start to get heavy as they go as they are now the only side without any points and have two tough matches upcoming.  This was a brutal result, for sure.  On the other side, Slovakia is now sitting atop the group all alone after Day One.  Wow!  The other game in this group may be the most talked-about match of the Opening Days, despite not seeing a single goal.  Spain and Sweden ended with the ole nil-nil draw, but you’d never know it if you watched the game at any point.  At one point early in the second half, Spain had 91% possession and had completed nearly 1000 passes to Sweden’s 150.  It’s always interesting to me when the one thing that everyone says could be a problem turns out to be a problem.  And, that is exactly what happened here, as everyone was afraid that Spain’s only issue is a lack of a goal-scorer – and that was on full display on Monday, as Alvaro Morata reminded me of why he frustrated the HELL out of me during his Chelsea days.  He’s a “scorer” who just can’t score.  As an unabashed fan of every beautifully gorgeous thing that Spain does as an international squad, this game was incredibly frustrating.  But, wow, did they DOMINATE this game, so focus on the positive, people…right?  The one bright spot for a Sweden team that just kind of held on with white knuckles was Isak, who looked great.

Up Next
Sweden vs. Slovakia, Fri at
9:00
The two teams in this group that have to be thrilled with their start to this tournament now face off on Match Day Two here in Group E.  Slovakia upset Poland and is in really good shape to advance if they can get any result here.  Sweden played the big favorites, Spain, to a draw and have to feel great about that point.  If they can win this, they could be in pole position to get through here – and maybe even win this group.

Spain vs. Poland, Sat at 3:00
This was always an AWESOME game on paper, but after the early results, this game is even more fascinating now.  Spain got a frustrating draw against Sweden and

GROUP F
The “Group of Death” kicked off with a scary opener and a fascinating nightcap.  Portugal “managed” to get 3 points with a 3-0 win over Hungary that looks great in the scorebook, but didn’t look so great on the field.  This game was scoreless for 83 minutes before Guerreiro broke through and then Ronaldo had one controversial goal and one BEAUTIFUL goal to make it 3-0 – a score line that could be important in this ridiculous group.  It was a road game, yes, but it was Hungary, and the Portugese were somewhat listless for most of this game.  It was about as unimpressive as a 3-0 game can be, but that doesn’t matter – they got what they needed against a happy-to-be-here Hungarian squad.  The second game was awesome.  While “highlights” may have been lacking, it was a jewel of a game won by the France, who was clearly the better team, 1-0.  Germany, in defeat – with no context at all – may have actually been more impressive than Portugal was in victory.  This French team is just way too loaded.  As Doogan put it, you don’t have to find reasons why they will win this tournament – we might want to start looking for reasons why they won’t.  And, I’m struggling to find any, personally.

Up Next
Hungary vs. France, Sat at 9:00
The absolutely loaded French roster goes from Munich to Budapest to take on Hungary.  Even on the road, there is no reason to think that Mbappe, Kante, and Co. won’t get 3 more points here and get ready for Portugal in the finale, which could be for all the Group F marbles.  With Portugal beating Hungary by 3, the French will want to better that to ensure that they only need a draw with Portugal to win the group.  Otherwise, they could be staring at England in the Round of 16.

Portugal vs. Germany, Sat at noon
For the second straight time, the Germans will be the host country in the best match of the Match Day.  Not only is this a ridiculously interesting match because of the quality on both sides, but it is also of the utmost importance.  The Germans, obviously, need something here to avoid a 0-point start.  They do get Hungary to close it out in the final Group, so they will know how many goals they will need, but they still probably want to avoid needing it.  As for Portugal, with a 3-0 win over Hungary in the bag, if they win here and France doesn’t beat Hungary by more than 3, they may only need a draw with France on the final day to win the group.  And, winning the group would give them a 3rd-place team in the Round of 16, whereas a second-place finish probably pits them up against England.

EURO 2020: Group F

France (2), Portugal (5), Germany (12)*, Hungary (37)*

I never understood how the soccer-heads could always dub some group as a “Group of Death.”  How can every tournament have one RIDICULOUS group?  And, yet, it does seem that way every single time.  And, EURO 2020 is no different.  The official Group of Death is Group F.  This group is absolutely insane.  The defending EURO champs AND each of the LAST TWO World Cup champs!!!  Nuts.  If you didn’t know the groups and were asked to blindly pick the four semifinalists, wouldn’t France, Portugal, and Germany be three of the most likely choices – if not THE three most likely (all due respect to Belgium and others)?  And, they’re all in the SAME GROUP?!?  Awesome!  The most salient insight I can offer here is:  Poor Hungary…

France, the defending World Cup champs and 2016 EURO runners-up are the odds-on favorites to win a second straight major tournament this month.  This team is absolutely LOADED.  Doogan can speak to these guys below more than I can, but the forwards are disgustingly good, particularly Mbappe (who is in the conversation for Best Player in the World), Dembele, Griezmann, and Benzema, the backline is flooded with major club defenders like Pavard, Varane, Zouma, Kimpembe, among others, and the midfield has Pogba, Sissoko, and maybe the greatest player in the history of the sport, Ngolo Kante.  I don’t know if I agree or disagree, but that’s just what people are saying…  The one possible wrinkle in this group is that the Frenchmen open the tournament with a game against Germany in Germany, which will obviously be tough, and then they face Hungary in Hungary, which won’t be as tough, but coming off of the Germany game and looking ahead to the Portugal game, they better get themselves 3 points there on the road.

While La France is the defending World Cup champs, Portugal is the reigning champ in this event, having defeated the French in the 2016 finals, 1-0, without an injured Ronaldo.  But, Ronaldo is healthy again and, even at age 36, he is still world class.  He is now just 6 goals shy from tying the all-time record goal for country (some dude named Ali Daei scored 109 for Iran…) and could get it this month.  But, Ronaldo’s incredible Portugal career started surrounded by elite talent, then carried the team in his prime and now seems to be ending just as the country welcomes another wave of talent.  38-year old Pepe is still there, but the Portugese team has added some young guns including the Man City trio of Ruben Dias, Bruno Fernandes, and Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota from Liverpool, and Joao Felix from Atletico – all five of whom are 26 or younger with Joao clocking in at a mere 21 years of age.  Ronaldo is still here, so they the sky’s the limit this year, but the post-Ronaldo future for Team Portugal is also rather bright.  Like France, though, the Portguese are not hosts in this group, so they open the tournament in Budapest against Hungary and then travel to Munich to face Germany.  Then, finally, they will get a “break” from road games with just a little friendly against France back in Budapest.  Wow!

The great Yergey Love is still at the helm of Germany (even though any article you read will talk about some dude named “Joachim Low,” don’t worry about that – Yergey Love is still the German coach).  The 61-year old Low has been the German head man for 15 years now – a run that included the highs of the 2014 World Cup title and the lows of the disastrous 2018 follow-up campaign that was ugly on the field (last place in their group) and even uglier off the field (widespread reports of a Remember the Titans level of racial divide inside the locker room).  It was about as ugly a performance as could be possible for a country as historically great as Germany is.  But, the comeback for the Germans has not been made easy by placement in this group and having their first two matches be against France and Portugal…ouch!  Fortunately, for them, they get to play all three Group Stage matches in Munich, and, even if they lose their first two, they get Hungary in the finale of the last group, so they should know how much they need to run up the score to get through, even as a 3rd-place team.  Low has gone back to the well for one more run with veterans Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels, and feature some up-and-coming stars like the Chelsea pair of Antonio Rudiger in the back and Timo Werner up front.  They also roll out, essentially the entire Bayern midfield, including Joshua Kimmich, who has quickly become one of the world’s elite central midfielders.  This team may be different and a little wobbly for typical German teams (see a 2-1 loss to North Macedonia in March), but count ‘Ze Gerrrrmans out at your own risk.  Not only do they have 4 World Cup titles to their names, but they have also won this tournament three times (1972, 1980, and 1996) and finished runners-up three more times (1976, 1992, and 2008).  The last game they played at the EUROs was a semifinal loss to France in 2016…and the next game they will play at the EUROs is again against that French team here in 2020 Group play.  Wow!

With the group they drew and the injury to their best player, there is not a lot to be optimistic about for Hungary entering this tournament.  But, there are a couple small reasons for a modicum of hope.  First, they play their first two matches in Budapest (shhh…we don’t have to mention that the two opponents are the defending EURO champs followed by the defending World Cup champs).  And, rumor has it (I will not reveal my sources…okay, yes, I will, it’s Doogan) that their homefield advantage will be aided by the fact that Hungary is the only European nation allowing full attendance at these games.  Second, they seem to be on form even without Szoboszlai, having only lost once in their last 11 games.  But, it’s safe to say that the competition has ratcheted up a bit here, so their talented keeper Peter Gulasci will be tested, and they will have to get something from 33-year old veteran Adam Szalai, who has 23 international goals on his resume, but has had a very disappointing club season.  A point, any point, has to be considered a success for the Hungarians.

Doogan’s Thoughts:

-Karim Benzema is one of the world’s best strikers but hasn’t played with France since 2015 after some off-field stuff. So…the World Champions have ADDED one of the world’s best strikers and none of the key players have had any age decline. You almost try to figure why this team  WON’T win the tournament. About all I can come up with is: do they have the hunger to go and prove themselves again (after a LONG club season) when they’ve already done it?

-As a Premier League fan, it will be fun to see this Portgual team come together and potentially be elite. Ruben Dias was the best center back in the Prem this year. Joao Cancelo was probably the best right-back in the league. Bruno Fernandes was top 3 in the league in goals and assists. These are Prem stars. I’ll also throw in a mention for Andre Silva, who scored 28 Bundesliga goals this year, which was only topped by Lewandoski.

-Feels like Germany is being dismissed a little bit for this tournament. They still look pretty great! I’ll mention Bayern’s Serge Gnabry and Man City’s Ilkay Gundogan as two particularly dangerous and creative attacking midfielders.

-#ChelseaWatch: Aside from those mentioned by Bry, I’ll note that Olivier Giroud and Kai Havertz (France and Germany, respectively) will both have key roles to play for their teams at some point, even if they’re not starting, which I don’t expect they will be. Havertz, after all, scored the lone goal in the Champions League final two weeks ago (had to throw in one more mention!)

EURO 2020: Group E

Spain (6)*, Sweden (18), Poland (21), Slovakia (36)

This group is very interesting, as the favorite is a Spain team that is talented, but very young.  Sweden and Poland would be really close for that #2 spot with Sweden trying to move on to the post-Zlatan Era and Poland trying to maximize the Lewandowski Era.  Slovakia is the biggest ‘dog here, but they are no slouches and can definitely throw this group for a loop.  The opening Spain-Sweden match should be excellent and then Sweden-Poland to end the group on June 23 could be a de facto elimination game.

I was introduced to international soccer in 1994 when the World Cup was on American soil, but I fell in love with international soccer in 2006 when I had just come back from living in a tiny African country called Togo only to see my former home country make the World Cup for the first time ever.  Les Eperviers!!!  But, while I was obviously fixated on the Togolese (and a failed American campaign), I completely fell head over heels for the grace and style of the team from Spain.  They went out in the Round of 16 to Zinedine Zidane and France (who famously went on to headbutt his way to a runner-up to Italy that year), but I was hooked on Spain.  And, it turned out to be for obvious reasons, as they were really, REALLY good.  That team went on one of the greatest runs in international soccer history, winning the 2008 EUROs, the 2010 World Cup, and the 2012 EUROs.  Now, obviously the 2021 Spanish team has almost nothing to do with the team I fell in love with, as a decade has passed, and this team is now stuck in a rut of notorious flame-outs (didn’t get out of the Group Stage in the 2014 WC and lost in the Round of 16 in the 2016 EUROs and 2018 WC), so it’s time to rekindle some Spanish magic!  This is a very young and inexperienced team, but also a very talented one, led by Gerard Moreno, who scored 30 times for Villareal this year and Juventus’s Alvaro Morata, who has scored 19 times for his country.  The loss of Barcelona’s future star, Ansu Fati, to injury will hurt, but there is talent here, and they should be considered the favorites to win a tough group.

Maybe their biggest threat here will come from Sweden, a team they are very familiar with having edged them out for the top spot in the same qualifying group.  The Swedes are coming off of a quarterfinal appearance in the 2018 WC, but had a disappointing EURO 2016, finishing last in a tough group.  This will be the first Swedish team I have ever seen without their transcendent star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who came out of retirement for this tournament, but got hurt in qualifying (which is no surprise since he’s thirty-freaking-nine).  But, this team was solid without him and could be dangerous, particularly if they hand the keys to a couple of 21-year olds, midfielder Dejan Kulusevski and striker Alexander Isak.  This group opens with Spain vs. Sweden on Monday!

Another threat to Spain in this group is Poland, who had their best-ever EURO finish in 2016, making it to the quarterfinals before losing – on PKs – to the eventual champ, Portugal.  But, they flamed out of the 2018 World Cup, finishing last place in a group that many picked them to win.  The Polish attack will revolve around one of the greatest players on the planet, Robert Lewandowski.  One of the best players in long history of Polish football, Lewandowski has scored 53 goals in 46 games for club and country this year, including a record-setting goal-scoring campaign for Bayern.  He good…

A decided underdog in this group, Slovakia, will try to repeat their 2016 feat of turning underdog status into Knockout Stage qualification – which was their first ever appearance in a major tournament.  They have a star in Milan Skriniar, a supremely talented midfielder who helped Inter Milan win Serie A.  After beating Northern Ireland in a playoff to get here, the Slovaks are on good form, having already knocked off Scotland and Russia just in the past couple of months.  They are the most likely in this group to go home, but “dark horse” isn’t a poor title for them here.

Doogan’s Thoughts:

-Unfortunately, some COVID issues popping up in this group. Spanish captain Sergio Busquets and Sweden’s Kulusevski both tested positive in recent days which throws their status into doubt moving forward.

-It’s random that Man City’s Aymeric Laporte is on the Spanish team. He’s from France. Has a French name. Played for France youth level teams up through age 21. Then this year he decided to switch countries and play for Spain.

-Marek Hamsik always a fun player to watch for Slovakia. Good player and usually a nice mohawk.

-#ChelseaWatch- The fearless captain Cesar Azpilicueta will surely offer the Spanish team a reliable performance no matter where they decide to deploy him.

EURO 2020: Group D

England (3)*, Croatia (14), Czech Republic (40), Scotland (44)*

This is one of the best England teams ever…oh wait, we say that in advance of every international tournament.  And, they haven’t won a World Cup since 1966 and have never won a EURO Championship.  Is this the year?  It could be…  Their group is not easy, per se, but navigable, and they should win it.  Croatia is always good – and has been a thrown in the English side, including beating the Three Lions in the World Cup semis in 2018 on a 109th-minute goal by Mandzukic.  The Czechs are never an easy out, and there’s nothing that Scotland would rather do than beat England.  But, this is still the English group to lose.

If anyone can underachieve with a loaded roster, it’s England, but even the GOATS of disappointing, heart-breaking flameouts might not be able to screw this one up because this iteration of the Three Lions is really, REALLY good.  At 11/2 odds to win it all, England is oddsmakers’ second choice to win it all behind only France at 5/1.  They have a stout defense loaded with top Premier League talent (Maguire, Stones, James, Chilwell, Shaw, Walker) a strong midfield (led by emergent Chelsea star and a personal favorite, Mason Mount, and Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson), and a ridiculously talented group of forwards (Rashford, Saka, Sterling, Foden).  And, of course, there is Harry Kane, the reigning Golden Boot winner, who was the top-scorer (12) for the second-highest scoring team in all of qualifying (37 total goals behind only Belgium with 40).  The question marks are the tactical ability of manager Southgate and the immense pressure that is always placed upon the Three Lions.  And, the fact that they always fall short in this event, having only made the semis once (1996) and never played in a EURO final.  But they are coming off a semifinals at the WC, so this team might be ready.

Easily the biggest threat to England winning their group is Croatia, the team against whom they open the tournament.  The World Cup runners-up in 2018 won a really tough qualifying group and should be considered legit contenders to go pretty deep in this tournament.  However, there are concerns.  The Croats are still very talented, but also aging, particularly, their all-everything midfielder, Luka Modric, who is now 35 and apparently showing some signs of decline.  There are a slew of solid midfielders around Modric (Croatia always seems to produce great middies), including Chelsea’s Kovacic, a pair of Milan men in Perisic and Brozovic, and a potential future star in Vlasic, so it’s not all on their star, but they do need him to do Modric things if they are to go far this month.  Sunday’s opening game against England should be really good.

If the Croats show their age, they could be challenged for #2 in this group by the Czech Republic, who, while rarely talked about, have been a fixture in this event – making every EURO since 1996.  They made the semis in 2004 and the finals in 1996.  They struggled in 2016, losing all three of their matches, and they aren’t really seen as a real threat to do much this year, but it’s a proud program with a breakout Premier League star in Tomas Soucek, who has scored 10 times for surprising West Ham this season.  They probably don’t have enough around Soucek to challenge England, but their match against Croatia a week from today should be interesting.

Of all the teams that could have shown up at the #4 spot in England’s group, the most interesting happened – Scotland.  The Scots have not made a EURO since 1996, but they beat Israel on PKs in a playoff semifinal and then beat Serbia in PKs in the playoff final – going 5-for-5 in both shootouts.  And, now, they will try to get to the Knockout Stage here for the first time ever.  There are actually a good amount of Premier League players on this roster, including Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn, who scored 7 times in qualifying (no one else on the team had more than 1).  No matter what happens in the other matches, the June 18 showdown at Wembley Stadium against England is going to be must-see TV, and, if the Scots can pull off the upset, it could be a “remember where you were” soccer moment.

Doogan’s Thoughts:

-When your soccer focus is on the Premier League, the England team always looks like an All-Star squad, but moreso now than like 5 years ago. I’m still not totally sold, but hard to the Czechs or Scots giving them too much trouble. On top of all the stars Bry mentioned above, there are two other attacking options who have long been rumored for big club moves: Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho. They both might be finally making those moves this summer and maybe what they do here will play a role in where they end up.

-The retirement of Mandzukic looks tough for Croatia because I don’t see a striker option that can compare. But, maybe there’s some guy I just don’t know about.

-#ChelseaWatch: On top of the Chelsea men Bry mentioned, Billy Gilmour is in the Scottish squad. The 20-year-old (who looks like he’s 14) got some run for the Blues this season, and while I don’t think he’ll be starting it will definitely pique my interest whenever he gets on the field in this tourney.

 

EURO 2020: Group C

Netherlands (16)*, Austria (23), Ukraine (24), North Macedonia (62)

What a dream group for the Dutch, as this is clearly the weakest group and should be a pretty smooth path for the Orange to the Knockout Stage.  The question is who will get that #2 spot and whether the North Macedonians can pull off an upset similar to their win over Germany in March.

The big winners of the lottery draw seems to have been The Netherlands, as the Dutch are only the 8th most likely team (according to oddsmakers) to win the tournament, but they are the biggest favorite to win their group of any team in any group.  And, maybe they need to ease into this as this historic soccer powerhouse failed to qualify for the 2016 EUROs and the 2018 World Cup.  In fact, they haven’t played a single game in this tournament since 2008…which is REMARKABLE for a team with such a rich soccer history.  It remains to be seen if this new crop of Orangemen can find “it,” but if they do, they may be led by the former ManU wing, Memphis Depay.  But, the soccer gods gave them a cushy group, so they should set themselves up nicely here.

The second spot in this group is wide open, and it might just be the upstart soccer program from Ukraine.  Coached by former Chelsea striker, Andriy Shevchenko, the Ukrainians were very good in qualifying and are led on the field by another Andriy – West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko – and a Ruslan – Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi.  Another feather in Ukraine’s cap is that most of the team plays club together Dynamo Kyiv, and it’s always interesting when a team just brings their best club team to an international tournament.  A lot of times, it works.

The other team that in strong contention for the other auto-bid to the Knockout Stage is Austria.  This team is very defense-oriented team without a ton of international talent, but they do have Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, who should be used as more of an offensive weapon for the Austrians than he is at Bayern.  The Austrians have a good shot to make it to the Knockout Stage for in this tournament for the first time ever – in fact, they have never even won a match in this event.

And, finally, this group is rounded out by the lowest-ranked team in the whole tournament, North Macedonia.  They finished third in their qualifying group (behind Poland and fellow-Group C member, Austria), but beat Georgia in something called a “Path D playoff” or something like that.  It wouldn’t be unnatural to overlook this team, but it might not be wise either, as just three months ago, they shocked Germany – yes, GERMANY – with a 2-1 win in World Cup qualifying.  It snapped a 35-game unbeaten streak for the Germans in WC qualifying, and it wasn’t entirely a fluke.  North Macedonia had more shots on target (3-2) and more corners (5-2) than ‘Ze Mighty Germans.

Doogan’s Thoughts:

-Weak group but I think an interesting one. The Dutch team was looking like they’d be a real threat in 2020 but they’ve lost the world’s best center back, Virgil Van Dijk, to injury, and a lot of their guys have just had somewhat disappointing seasons. Matthijs de Ligt (center back, Juventus) and Frenkie de Jong (midfield, Barelona) are seen as two of Europe’s future super-stars after they helped lead Ajax to the Champions League semifinals two years ago. And I’m intrigued by this Wout Weghorst, who I knew nothing about but has averaged 18 goals a season in the Bundesliga over the past three years.

-Oleksandr Zinchenko a man to watch for Ukraine. He’s established himself at starting left back for Prem champs Man City. Believe he’ll be in a midfield role for this team.

-David Alaba actually just departed Bayern for Real Madrid like last week. Him and Zinchenko both examples of guys that have certain roles for their club teams and then very different ones for their country. Alaba clearly the Austrians best player so they will probably look to get him involved in ways he won’t for a Bayern or Real. For Austria, also interested to see Sasa Kalajdzic, who netted 16 Bundesliga goals this year and is 6’7″. You don’t see many non-keepers that tall!

-For the Macedonians, Ezgjan Alioski had a solid Premier League season for Leeds and Elif Elmas is the young gun who has established himself as a 2-year starter for Napoli at just 21-years-old. Clearly the minnows here but they have some real players.

-None of the players in this group won the Champions League this year. #ChelseaWatch

 

EURO 2020: Group B

Belgium (1), Denmark (10)*, Russia (38)*, Finland (54)

Group B is a bit top-heavy here, as they feature the World #1 in Belgium as well as another legit contender in Denmark.  The one thing that could throw this group for a loop is the unknown of the Russians, who are hosting.  But, the Finns seem like a squad that is just happy to be here, as they have qualified for a major international tournament for the first time ever.

Belgium’s “Golden Generation” might be slightly on the downslope in 2021, but they are still close enough to the pinnacle to be ranked #1 in the world and the one of the three favorites along with France and England (according to oddsmakers) to win this tournament.  Their 3rd place at the 2018 World Cup was seen as somewhat of a disappointment, which should tell you all you need to know about just how much talent has come out of this tiny country in recent years.  Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne may both be on the “back nine,” but they’re much closer to the 11th tee than the 17th green…if you will allow me to overplay a metaphor.  They also have Milan’s Romelu Lukaku (who scored 4 goals in the 2018 World Cup) and the Real Madrid keeper, Thibaut Courtois.  This is a relatively navigable group, and the Red Devils are the clear favorites here with a shot to win their first ever major international tournament.

But, Group B isn’t going to be easy, particularly with a very dangerous Denmark team lurking.  The Danes are red hot, winning three 2022 WC qualifiers by the combined score of 14-0 (pay no attention to the fact that it was Israel, Moldova, and Austria).  They also beat England at Wembley Stadium in October, which was only the 3rd time in the last 50 games that the English national team has lost on their home soil.  Plus, they are hosts in this tournament, so their Group Stage games will be played in Copenhagen.  As long as I’ve been alive, they’ve had a Schmeichel in goal, so that’s a familiar sight, and they have Milan’s star playmaker, Christian Eriksen, leading the outfield.  This is a very good team and their match against Belgium on Thursday is one of the best Group Stage matches of the entire tournament.  The Danes did win this thing back in 1992, so there is a history here, as well.

The one thing we know about Russia here is that we really don’t seem to know much at all, do we?  It appears as if they have completely flipped their roster from the last time we saw them on the international stage (when they made the Final 8 as the host of the 2018 World Cup).  But, apparently, there are reasons to be optimistic.  First of all, they are hosting, and they are notoriously tough at home (see: 2018 World Cup reference in previous sentence).  But, they have a promising striker named Arten Dzyuba, and they have shown some offense potency in qualifying, but it has had to be as their defense has been somewhat shoddy (only 2 clean sheets and 18 goals conceded in just 11 games since the start of 2020).  The combination of host venues and the presence of a weak Finland could get the Ruskies through to the Knockout Stage, and the unknown of this roster could be unknown “great,” but it could also be unknown for a reason.  I see no reason to think that this team could challenge their best ever EURO finish of a semifinal appearance in 2008.

While Finland is probably just an also-ran here this year, it will be a fantastic month for the Finns, who will be playing in the first major tournament in their nation’s history!  In EURO qualifying in 2016, Finland didn’t win a single game, going 0-9-2.  And, just five years later, they finished second in their group (behind only Italy) to allow them to be the debutants of the EURO 2020 Ball.  Their coach is a 57-year old former school teacher who has absolutely no club-level coaching experience.  Led by Norwich’s Teemu Pukki (great name!), this team is reminiscent of the Icelandic emergence of the last half-decade.  So, if you like underdogs, this collection of blond-haired, blue-eyed gentlemen might just be your team.

Doogan’s Thoughts:

-I’m hopeful De Bruyne is able to be himself after having his face broken by Chelsea in the Champions League final two weeks ago (oh, in case anyone missed it, CHELSEA WON THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE). De Bruyne is a transcendent talent and probably the right answer to: “Who is the best player in the Premier League?” It would be nice to be able to watch him without having to root against him like I do when he’s playing for Man City.

-Eden Hazard will always be one of my all-time favorites, but he’s done basically nothing the last two years for Real Madrid due to injuries. He is a giant X factor for this tournament. Will we see the real Hazard or even something close to it?

-#ChelseaWatch: Andreas Christensen will be the key presence in defense for Denmark after coming on as a sub and turning in a very nice performance in the Champions League final (which Chelsea won, by the way. Champions of Europe. No big deal.)

-All I have on Russia is that Dzyuba, mentioned above, was dropped from the team temporarily this past year because of….well, you can see for yourself.

EURO 2020: Group A

Group A:  Italy (7)*, Switzerland (13), Wales (17), Turkey (29)*

This is a fun and balanced group that has a clear favorite (Italy) and a clear underdog (Wales) alongside a vulnerable #2 (Switzerland) and a dark horse contender (Turkey).  The tournament kicks off with an interesting Italy-Turkey match today at 3:00.

The host nation, Italy, is the clear favorite here as this international powerhouse is back after a bit of a down period, including the ignominious 2018 World Cup where they failed to qualify for the first time in 60 years.  They have only won one EURO ever and that was in 1968, but they have a shot here this year to end that drought.  The Azzurri went 10-0 in qualifying (and unbeaten in their last 27 matches!!!), including a combined 17-0 difference in their last 7 matches.  They have their typical stout defense along with very Italian-style midfielder (including Milan’s Nico Barella, Chelsea’s Jorginho and PSG’s Marco Verratti) that runs the show with creativity and flair.  They are tough to score on and, if they can continue to find offense, they will be a really tough out.

The Italians will open the tournament on Day One against one of the popular dark horses, Turkey.  The Turks made the semis in the 2008 EUROs and the 2002 World Cup, and while they are not picked to equal that success this year, they weren’t picked to do it in either of those years either.   They have a star midfielder in Hakan Calhanoglu and a legit goal-scorer in Burak Yilmaz.  They are probably #3 in the pecking order here behind Italy and Switzerland, don’t be surprised if they make some noise and could even finish top-2 here and not need a wild card to advance.

Switzerland is the consensus #2 in this group (though, I think Turkey is right there with them) having won 6 straight entering the tournament, but the competition hasn’t been all that stiff.  This team might be vulnerable here with that June 20 match against Turkey potentially being the difference between advancing and not.  The Swiss made it to the Round of 16 in 2016, but, surprisingly, that was the first time they’d ever made it out of group play in this event.  It’s a wide-open group, which is both good for and because of Switzerland’s potential vulnerability here as the projected #2.

And, finally, we’ve got Wales.  Don’t be fooled by the FIFA rank of 17, this isn’t a great team.  But, they do still have Gareth Bale and they also have the memories of a magical run in 2016 where, somehow, they made the semifinals – a run that included a shocking knockout of #1 Belgium – in their first ever EURO appearance.  If they are going to make another run, they will likely need results in each of their first two matches – tomorrow against the Swiss and Weds against Turkey – because Italy awaits on the Final match day of Group A.

Doogan’s Thoughts: 

-First off, great start here Bry! You know I am ready for this tournament after a 5-year wait since the last one and 3 years now since the last “major tournament” with the 2018 World Cup.

-As you say, it’s a wide-open group and I think I like Wales more than you do. To me, Italy are clear favorites but I wouldn’t be surprised by the order for any of the other three behind them.

-I’m interested to see this striker Yilmaz for Turkey. 35-year-old but has never been on the radar of this Premier League-centric fan. But he led the line for a Lille team that just beat out mighty PSG for the Ligue 1 title in France, so he’s clearly legit.

-The nucleus of this Swiss team has been together for a long time now, which is a good thing but…they also haven’t accomplished all that much. It feels a little like a college basketball team that brings everyone back but you’re left wondering: is that really a good thing?

-Anyone who pays any attention to international soccer is familiar with Italy’s legend goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. After two decades, the 43-year-old is still playing club ball but has finally retired from the national team. That’s opened the door for another Gianluigi: Donnarumma. A 22-year-old who has all the makings of taking this role for the next 15 years or so. He took over as AC Milan’s starter at age 17 and has just secured a move to PSG, so his profile is really on the rise. Will be interesting to see how he does replacing Buffon this month.

-Finally, on the #ChelseaWatch, 20-year-old Ethan Ampadu will be in contention for a starting spot for Wales. He’s been out on loan from Chelsea the last couple years and likely will be again but he is seen as a possible future contributor to the Blues and has versatility to play either defensive midfield or center back.