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.
-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.