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.
-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.