The Cardinali Corner: Euro Round of 16 Preview

Guest post from a friend of BSB, Ray Cardinali

 

Belgium v Portugal – Sunday 3 PM

We start with the number one team in the world – Belgium – facing off against (arguably) the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.  This game could easily be the championship and unfortunately someone is going home in the round of 16.  I could probably spend an hour telling you all the things that I’m excited to see in this one, but I will try to brief.  In their final group game Belgium was finally able to field their ‘A’ team.  If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve noticed Romelu Lukaku [3 Goals, created 2 others, built like a horse] and Kevin DeBruyne [1 goal, 2 assists in only a game and a half, best passer of the ball in the world] but they also trotted out Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel against Finland.  Both are recovering from injury and are legitimate world class talents.  That being said, Belgium’s Golden Generation has yet to actually win anything, and the window is starting to close on this team.

Portugal is led by the Ronaldo machine [5 goals, 1 assist], but unlike some of the past Portugal squads, this team is loaded with talent around Cristiano.  Diogo Jota has really developed since leaving Wolves for Liverpool last summer and poses an excellent threat opposite Cristiano.  They also have probably the best centerback over the past year – Ruben Dias of Man City – and an in form keeper in Rui Patricio.  Portugal barely escaped the group of death, but they have the talent and experience [defending Euro Champions] to beat anyone at any time.

Look for a lot of offense in this one.  While Belgium has only yielded one goal to date, they have faced nothing like the firepower Portugal will bring.  Both sides play super aggressively and are going to load up on offensive talent to try and avoid their defense becoming the focus.  One big X-factor to me is Bruno Fernandes.  The Manchester United midfielder was an absolute superstar during the past Premier League season, but his form has been so poor over the past few weeks that he found himself on the bench for Portugal’s final group game.  I thought Renato Sanches actually played excellent in his place, but not having full Bruno is definitely a hit.  I am going to lean Belgium in this one.  I look for them to be aggressive in the midfield and control possession in a fairly open game with lots of chances.

 

Italy v Austria – Saturday 3 PM

After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy has been far from anyone’s idea of a powerhouse.  Oh what a difference a few years can make.  Italy became (I believe) the first team to win all of their group stage games without allowing a goal.  For their third game they essentially rested their entire team, and still won 1-0 without ever really being tested.  Led by streaky goal scorer Ciro Immobile [record holding 36 goals in Serie A two years ago] and 22 year old keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma [3 clean sheets, only 2 shots faced] Italy has won their last 11 contests by a score of 32-0.  They play an aggressive style, constantly moving the ball forwards with their various talented midfielders making deep probing runs in behind.

I have to admit I didn’t know much about Austria coming into this tournament.  They played really well in their first game against North Macedonia, struggled in a 0-2 loss to Netherlands, and then pulled out a 1-0 win over Ukraine to advance to the knockout stages. They have been led by the excellent David Alaba [Bayern] who they have deployed literally all over the field in their three matches.  More predictably, they will have Stefan Lainer deployed on the right as an aggressive winger.  Fun fact, Lainer was actually ranked #1 in the EURO player ranking [every player in the tournament is ranked upon their play to date] following Austria’s third game.  He is at 10th following the end of the group stages.

Austria is definitely game and they have enough talent to trouble Italy, particularly defensively, but it won’t be easy.  Hopefully Christoph Baumgartner [winning goal against Ukraine] can return from the head injury he suffered in the last game to give Austria a little more attacking talent.  I don’t see it being enough though.  Italy is rolling right now and I don’t see that stopping here.  Look for them to control the middle of the field and just apply too much pressure for Austria to handle.

France v Switzerland – Monday 3 PM

Oh France.  They have legitimate world class players at every position and several on the bench.  You probably know Kylian Mbappe [fastest man around], Paul Pogba [Blond streaked afro], and Antoine Griezmann [now long haired] – but they also have N’Golo Kante [recently won man of the match in both legs of the champions league semi-finals and also the finals] and the recently reinstated Karim Benzema [was exiled from the France national team for a strange sex tape blackmail scandal].  Long story short, they are loaded through and through and are the defending World Cup Champions.

Switzerland qualified as a 3rd place team in their group behind Wales and Italy.  They had a big 3-1 win over Turkey in their final group game that saw them through.  They have been led by midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri [Liverpool, 2 goals, 1 assist] who had an absolute worldie of a goal against Turkey.  They have a few more big names dotted around the lineup and I have personally enjoyed watching their striker Breel Embolo, a big man with lots of pace.

Switzerland is a game side and they definitely have some skilled players, but they can’t match up with France.  The French have really not been impressive so far in this tournament, but even so they went through the group of death without a loss.  When they were pushed against Hungary and had to have a goal, they got it.  When they sat back against Germany and lost out big in expected goals, they still won the game 1-0.  France may lose at some point, but it wont be to Switzerland.  Willing to say this is the biggest lock of the round.

Croatia v Spain – Monday 12 PM

Croatia was my bandwagon team for the last World Cup.  First, Dubrovnik is probably my favorite place I have traveled to, and second, Luka Modric is a legitimate stud.  He is the only man other than Cristiano or Messi to win the Balon D’or [footballer of the year] since 2007!!! They did lose Mario Mandzukic off of the team that challenged France in the last World Cup Final, but they still have Ivan Perisic marauding on the right side and in their third group game, Modric was at the peak of his powers assisting Perisic for one and scoring a sublime strike of his own.

Here is something that I found stunning about Spain after three games.  They lead the tournament in attacks with 209 [next is Germany on 177] and clear chances with 7 [next highest is 4].  It took them awhile to break out – putting up a goose egg against Sweden and 1 against Poland – before breaking out for a 5 spot against an undertalented Slovakia.  In classic Spain fashion, they have loads of talent in the midfield – Sergio Busquets returned against Slovakia after missing the first two games – and some on defense (particularly Jordi Alba) but not so much in front of goal.  Hence the chances and the relative lack of goals.  They don’t play quite the same style that helped them to titles at EURO 2008, World Cup 2010, and EURO 2012, but the biggest issue is the lack of a goalscoring assassin up top.

I’ve gone back and forth on this game a lot.  Croatia fits the crafty veteran role perfectly and I always will have a soft spot for that.  Combine that with Modric’s play in the last game and they are a more than game underdog [+400 when I checked].  In the end I am going with Spain because, although he hasn’t played much, my guy Adama Traore is an absolute freakshow and that tips the scales for me.

Sweden v Ukraine – Tuesday 3 PM

Sweden topped Group E with two wins and a draw.  They played possibly the most conservative game of anyone at the tournament in their first match against Spain, at one point in the second half Spain had possession numbers up near 90%, but managed a 0-0 draw and followed that up with 1-0 and 3-2 wins over Slovakia and Poland respectively.  Far and away Sweden’s best player has been Emil Forsberg [3 goals], a dangerous wide midfielder who has a tendency to make deep probing runs in behind the defense.  Their game has been built on a combination of defensive rigidity, and well timed offensive spurts.

Ukraine was surprisingly one of my favorite teams to watch during the group stages. They have a couple of recognizable names from the big leagues around Europe, probably most notably their manager Andriy Shevshenko former AC Milan and Chelsea star.  They have been led at this tournament by Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk.  Both have 2 Goals and an assist.  Yarmolenko in particular is trying to prove his worth after a season spent essentially on the bench for West Ham United.  That said, they advanced with only 3 points as the last team to make it, interestingly scoring all 4 of their goals over two separate 5 minute game periods.

Not going to lie I got fired up both times Ukraine pulled the Yaremchuk/Yarmalenko doubles in their first two games, but its tough to see them moving on here.  They took advantage of Netherlands essentially falling asleep for two goals in their first group game (which they still lost) and did the same against North Macedonia for their only win.  Sweden is the pick here.  If they could keep their composure over 90 minutes against a Spain side that constantly had the ball, I don’t see them letting their guard down against the Ukraine here.

England v Germany – Tuesday 12 PM

Much like Belgium/Portugal, I could probably write an entire dissertation just on this game.  If you watch soccer at all, you know England’s biggest names.  Yes, Harry Kane is still on the team although you may not have noticed since he has done about as much on the field in this tournament as I have.  England did not face a particularly difficult group round, but along with Italy they were the only two teams to allow 0 goals.  The problems have come on the other end.  Raheem Sterling has emerged from the Manchester City bench to score the only two goals for England so far.  It will be interesting to see if Mason Mount can clear COVID protocols prior to the game (it should be close from what I am reading) and how that effects the XI that Gareth Southgate goes with.  Mount would seem to be a no brainer as a pseudo number 10 in the middle of the field, but the most fluid England has looked offensively was probably the first half of their third group stage – with Jack Grealish filling in for Mount.

Germany has been one hell of a roller coaster ride this tournament.  After failing to escape the group stage at the last World Cup, there was a lot of pressure on the Germans to make some noise here.  Another roster that is absolutely loaded with talent, but is really missing that in form striker up top to tally the goals.  Timo Werner has been nothing short of awful, basically since moving to Chelsea last summer.  Kai Havertz, after scoring the only goal in the champions league final, has started to get his form back and has been particularly dangerous at this tournament.  Germany played excellent against France, but could not get past the Kante wall, and still easily could have lost 0-3 [Mbappe had a goal and assist called off by VAR].  Then they came out flat against Portugal, went down 1-0 on a penalty, and seemed to be on their way out of the tournament.  Eventually a Portugal own goal tied the game right before half and seemingly changed Germany’s whole demeanor.  Over the next 25 minutes or so they scored 3 more goals (could have been 6) and essentially abused Portugal wide on both wings.  Robin Gosens [1 goal, 2 assists] and Joshua Kimmich [2 assists] have been particularly dangerous.

As I mentioned, Germany played very well against both France and Portugal despite some clear defensive issues.  Germany is playing a particularly aggressive style essentially playing with 1 defender on occasion and forcing their wing backs incredibly high up the field.  France used their supreme talent and a low block defensive gameplan to hold Germany down.  Portugal refused to adapt and got beaten out wide repeatedly (they played 3 different guys on the right to try and mark Gosens and no one could).  The reason I mention this, is that both of these teams play with a back four, the same way England has so far in the Euros.  England has the personnel to play a back 3 (one of the biggest reasons Hungary was able to slow Germany so well), but I imagine it would hard to justify moving to a more defensive formation after scoring only twice in three games.  Germany is my pick here although I wouldn’t be surprised by anything.  Germany is essentially all in on their offense and England appears to be all defense at this point so we have a bit of a strength on strength, weakness on weakness thing going on here.

Netherlands v Czech Republic – Sunday 12 PM

The Oranje! I love the Netherlands, their style is extremely pleasing to watch.  They are led by their talisman Memphis Depay [2 goals, 2 assists] and captain Georginio Wijnaldum [3 goals].  They have also gotten a huge boost from wingback Denzel Dumfries [2 goals].  Outside of a 2 goal in 5 minute lapse against Ukraine, they did not allow any goals and racked up an impressive 8.  They are talented, attack minded, and in excellent form.

The Czech Republic advanced on the strength of a 2-0 win over Scotland a 1-1 draw with Croatia.  They have a couple of very good Premier League players in wingback Vladimir Coufal and Tomas Soucek [both of West Ham].  Their main man so far in this tournament has been Patrik Schick [3 goals].  Unfortunately, those are the only 3 goals they have been able to score, most recently getting shut out by England.  They did manage to ask some questions in the second half of that game, but it was inevitably not enough to push one over the line.

The Czech Republic has been more than game so far in this tournament and I would expect nothing different here.  The only problem is, they may be running into a buzzsaw.  Netherlands is going to possess the ball, they are going to attack, and they are more than likely going to score multiple goals, all things England did not really do against the Czechs.  Netherlands is the pick here and is currently my dark horse finalist pick.  Too much offensive firepower, and too much oranje.

Wales v Denmark – Saturday 12 PM

To me, Wales’ story starts and ends with Gareth Bale [2 assists].  After being loaned to Tottenham mid-season, Gareth settled down towards the end of the season and really started to find his form again.  He doesn’t quite have the pace to run past defenders as he used to, but there is still wonder in those boots and he has evolved his game accordingly.  He routinely drops deeper into midfield to link up play and has been creating absolutely wonderful opportunities for his teammates all over the field in this tournament.  Supported by the pace of Daniel James [Manchester United] and Aaron Ramsey [Juventus], Wales has a couple of weapons that they will lean on heavily.

As I am sure everyone knows, Denmark’s story starts and ends with Christian Eriksen.  His on field collapse and subsequent cardiac episode have been well covered and I will not try and find the words to reiterate how difficult that must have been for everyone involved.  Luckily Christian appears to have recovered to some degree, is out of the hospital, and hopefully is on the path to someday getting back on the pitch.  Make no mistake, before this tournament started Denmark was among the leading underdog picks, largely based on the absurd talents of Eriksen.  Not to disparage the rest of the roster as they have talent at all four levels – attack [Yussuf Poulsen, 2 goals], midfield [Pierre-Emil Hojberg, 3 assists], defense [Andreas Christensen, 1 goal] and in goal [Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City].  They clearly were emotional in losing following Eriksen’s game one collapse, but they bounced back to dominate the first half against Belgium [only falling off after Kevin DeBruyne entered at half] and crush Russia 4-1 in a had to have it game.  They appear to be starting to get back in rhythm at the right time.

I could honestly see this game going either way.  Bale is playing world class right now and he has the kind of ability that can win a game on its own.  Also remember that in the last iteration of this tournament, Wales made an epic underdog run to the semifinals.  That said, I have to go with Denmark here.  Their play is trending in the right direction, they have more across the board talent than Wales, and if anyone ever deserves anything in this game, it is the players that had to watch one of their teammates flatline on the field before being resuscitated.

 

Picks

Belgium

Italy

France

Spain

Sweden

Germany

Netherlands

Denmark

DISCLAIMER – I literally started watching soccer 18 months ago.  I have watched probably 90% of Premier League games in that time, a smattering of Bundesliga games, and as many Champions and Europa League games as I could.  I have tried to read and absorb as much information as I can in that time period, but I often don’t really understand the gameplans and tactics.  Long way of saying, I may have more information than you, but I am far from an expert.  Don’t blame me if all my picks are wrong!

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.

Hawks Game 4 reactions: All takes welcomed

In between the lines

What a difference a half of basketball can make. The Sixers seemed to be cruising along on their way to a 3-1 series lead, ready to validate that game one was a fluke. At that point, they had outright won or split 11 of the 14 quarters in the series. Then they let a desperate Hawks team tie up the series.

Mr Pessimistic (aka every Philadelphia dad) will tell you that this proves they need a more traditional closer and more players with an overall ability to create their own shot. They will also say that clearly Embiid is too injured to carry this team through playoffs and that Doc is no better than BB. The Ben haters will be out in full force, the Dwight bashers will tell you he cost us critical points and the George Hill search party should be kicking off. They let an Atlanta team shoot horrible from the field and still win. Yet another year of not reaching the ECF is ahead…

But then there’s glass half full guy, they are more rare, but do indeed exist. These Hawks are very strong at home and needed a historically bad half from Jo to eek out a must-win game. Tobi still played very strong (so strong that it would have made too much sense to let the ball find him down one with 15 seconds to go). Jo was clearly bad and something was not right, but he still fought his way to 20 boards and a helluva effort. Three games left and two are in Philly so we got this…

Where’s the truth? Sports imitating life here- it’s somewhere in the middle. It still seems more likely than not that the Sixers win this series, and their reward will be either a hobbled Nets team or a perplexing Bucks team.

 

The best from online

Dave Chappelle always makes me feel better. And so does the Vinsider.

https://twitter.com/vinfosh/status/1404636233771499523?s=21

 

The bottom line

Turning to Master Yoda here- “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

There’s fear alright- Jo appeared to have no legs and championship aspirations and that’s a really scary thought. It’s then easy to be furious that he is putting his best year together so this happens while the Nets are wounded. Why wouldn’t you hate this whiny Hawks team and hate that garbage injuries always seem to happen to us? Let’s not even talk about suffering.

Forgetting Master Yoda, have no fear about this Game 4 loss as we will bounce back thanks to our own Thy-master, Jo and Ben- officially named today three of the top defenders in the Association. And if there truly is a problem with Jo’s health moving forward, well at least we know how to do suffering the right way in Philly.

Hawks Game 3 reactions: Jo and Ben versus (all of) Atlanta

In between the lines

There was a LOT to feel good about with this game. And that’s accounting for the angst and nerves related to injury scares with Danny (calf, end result of boot), Tobi (dumb cameraman) and Jo (any time he makes a slight grimace). The defense was absolutely stifling in a few stretches, a very encouraging scene with a likely battle looming with Brooklyn. Tisse should be commended tonight, you will gladly have him use all six of his fouls against Trae, especially if he is able to hit a three and throw down a few dunks along the way.

Trae was essentially a non-factor. This was one of the quietest 28-point efforts I have ever seen. In fact, he was the game’s high scorer, but he also had 10 of his points in the last 7 minutes after the game was decided. Instead, the best offense of the night goes to the dynamic duo of Jo and Ben. Coming out of halftime, they tortured the young Hawks D and it seems that they could have legitimately had their way against them 2v5.

I was prematurely frustrated when Jo came back in around the seven minute mark up by 20. Doc proved right there as the Hawks still had some fight. However, there is no excuse for him to be on the court with less than one minute in what was a 16-point win. While Doc may have been sending a message that he does not plan to take this Atlanta squad lightly, he definitely shouldn’t be taking any extra wear and tear on a torn meniscus lightly either.

 

The best worst from online

http://www.espn.com/video/clip/_/id/31610890

Another day, another swing and miss by Stephen A. “[Atlanta], the future you have been waiting for, has finally arrived.” If Game 3 is any indication of the future for this Hawks franchise, I guess that sometimes it is better to live in the past. The poor Hawks fans had a tough night as the biggest thing they had to cheer about was when Embiid came up gimpy- stay classy Atlanta.

 

The bottom line

The Sixers are clearly the better team and appear fully motivated to prove this to everyone the rest of the series. Tell your mom, your neighbor, that Celtics fan at your gym, and definitely tell Stephen A. Let’s also check-in with the wins remaining to a Championship tracker. 10 (as of tonight), then 9-8 to eliminate the Hawks, Seventy-Sixers.

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.