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.
-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