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.
-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!)