A year later than the competition’s official title would suggest … Euro 2020 finally gets underway today!
Fans will be treated to a month-long football feast as the second-biggest competition in international football leaves a trail of euphoric celebrations and despairing heartbreak in its 51-match wake.
Delayed like most other sporting events pencilled in for last summer by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Euros will go ahead mostly as planned as a pan-European quest to crown the continental champion.
Two of the initial host sites, Dublin and Bilbao, were forced to back out, but 11 cities across Uefa’s regional territory will stage matches, from this evening’s opener at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy to the July 11 final at Wembley Stadium in London, UK.
There are 24 teams taking part, with 16 progressing through the initial group stages to the knockout rounds (comprised of the six group winners and runners-up, plus the four best third-place teams).
So, who are the favourites? Well, that should be fairly obvious to most followers of the sport. France are the reigning World Cup champions and the losing finalists five years ago on home soil. They have quality all over the pitch, have improved as a team and added some brilliant young players.
Just a look at the squad list would put fear into most nations. Les Bleus have an outstanding defence, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba in midfield, and have added Karim Benzema to the already ridiculous frontline of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and prolific international goalscorer Olivier Giroud.
A step below the French, there is a bunch of teams who have the quality to go far and offer some dynamic competition. Portugal are the reigning European champions after their 1-0 victory against France in the 2016 final, and have since added a UEFA Nations League trophy to their cabinet.
Any team with Cristiano Ronaldo in the side are capable of great things, especially when you add the likes of Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, Liverpool’s Diogo Jota and Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva to the mix.
Italy are improving all the time under Roberto Mancini’s leadership and based at home for the entirety of their Group A campaign, so the Azzurri will feel confident that they can finish above Turkey, Switzerland and Wales.
The Turks are solid under Senol Gunes and look likely to be the main threat for the Italians with talisman Burak Yilmaz fresh from unexpected Ligue 1 title success with Lille OSC, but the Swiss have some talented players and the Welsh reached the semi-finals last time around led by the mercurial Gareth Bale.
Currently the top-ranked nation in the world, Roberto Martinez’ Belgians are expected to navigate Group B in straightforward fashion against the likes of Denmark, Russia and Finland.
Despite having arguably the strongest first XI in international football, alongside France, being able to call upon the likes of Thibaut Cortouis, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, they have flattered to deceive a little in recent tournaments. Is this finally the moment for them to piece it all together?
The Netherlands will always draw eyes in international tournaments, whether it’s from the history of ‘total football’ on the pitch or the sea of orange in the stands. However, with Virgil van Dijk still missing through injury and the lack of a truly world class front man, it’s hard to see the Dutch getting the job done in the latter stages although they should navigate arguably the easiest group of the lot.
What of Germany? You can never, ever overlook the perennial winners, but if you ask Germans about the prospects of Die Mannschaft this summer they might not be as optimistic as you’d expect.
Since crashing out of the 2018 World Cup in the groups, Joachim Low’s side have been a shadow of their former selves and indeed so is the talent at their disposal. Low will be leaving at the end of the tournament and rather than build for the future he seems determined for one last hurrah, bringing back the likes of Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels to add some tournament experience to the squad.
Spain have gone a little under the radar which may suit them. The generational talent pool that took them to two Euros and a World Cup a decade ago may have gone, but with Ferran Torres, Alvaro Morata, Thiago and the newly-repatriated Aymeric Laporte they will be a threat to most teams.
Finally, having gone almost an entire article without mentioning them, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Or is that the three lions?
England. A nation expects … or do they? It’s the first time in a long time England have a real strength in depth, particularly when it comes to youthful, energetic forwards. After a season that’s been so tiring under difficult circumstances, rotation will be important and there’s plenty of options.
With Harry Maguire’s fitness a doubt and the intense media pressure that no other team comes close to having to burden, can they really go all the way? The heart will always say yes, but the head says no, especially with a very tough path to the final looking likely.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to see any winner other than France. If played on paper, they’d win it nine out of 10 times, but luckily, football isn’t played on paper. I made the mistake of doubting the great mavericks for the 2018 World Cup, wanting to pick them on gut feeling but played it safe with a very ill-fated Germany pick. I won’t make the same mistake again.
I fancy them to beat Spain in the final, who are building a very strong nucleus, while Belgium and Portugal are my other semi-finalists. I’ll go with Turkey for dark horses as I think they’ll spring a few surprises, and I fancy Romelu Lukaku for the Golden Boot. Belgium have a far easier group than Mbappe’s France, so there’s a good opportunity to rack up the goals before matches get tighter and nervy as the tournament progresses.
As for England … it’s heartbreak again. We’ll win our group with ease, be full of confidence and then be dumped out in the round of 16 by Portugal or Germany. On penalties. Again.
But I’ll still be singing that ‘It’s Coming Home!’ as the deciding spot kick sails over the bar and we sink to our collective knees.