Ian Darke’s take on Euro 2020

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Ian Darke's take on Euro 2020

4:30 p.m. ET

  • Ian DarkeESPN.com author

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      Darke, who promoted games for the network during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, is ESPN’s leading voice in football in the United States. He has been reporting on the Barclays Premier League and Champions League since 1982 and has one of the most recognizable football voices in the world.

Euro 2020 could be a European championship that defies any prediction. Spread across 11 cities in the midst of a pandemic, who can know what fate has in store? A COVID-19 outbreak could fail even the most talented teams and even the schedule. Mix up the fatigue factor for players who have had a more busy and hectic season than normal and the tournament could turn into a survival of the fittest and freshest.

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The peculiar 24-team format can also produce stories about the unexpected. Portugal took the trophy in 2016 after finishing third in their group and winning just one game in 90 minutes throughout the tournament. Remember, the European Championship shocked us before: Denmark came off the beach as a late replacement for Yugoslavia and won the whole thing in 1992, and then there was the unbelievable 150-1 triumph of Greece in 2004.

England have never won the competition or even reached the final, but this time they are among the favorites. In Group D drawn, they have the added advantage of potentially being able to play at their home at Wembley except for the quarter-finals, despite not having won a host since France in 1984.

Led by World Cup Golden Boot winner Harry Kane, Gareth Southgate’s roster is full of exciting young offensive talent like Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho. But main defender Harry Maguire is in a race to be fit, and without him the defense against the top teams looks vulnerable.

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There are also concerns about the form of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling. However, Jack Grealish could be one of the players of the tournament if his shin injury is treated successfully and Southgate has enough confidence to select him. Like in 1996, when England made the semi-finals and the nation sang “Football’s coming home” (which it didn’t turn out to be), Wembley is going to play a role.

France is also in demand, as it still has nine of the eleven players who won the World Cup final three summers ago. If you add the return of Real Madrid’s formidable striker Karim Benzema to the national team after a six-year absence, the team looks more impressive than ever.

A three-pointer from Kylian Mbappe, Benzema and Antoine Griezmann is scary and there is quality everywhere, despite goalkeeper Hugo Lloris not having his most convincing year at Tottenham Hotspur. However, France are in arguably the toughest group – Group F – with Germany, Portugal and Hungary having to wonder what they did to deserve so much luck in the draw.

Led by Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and recently recalled Karim Benzema, France’s front runners are more dangerous than ever. Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP via Getty Images

Germany are hoping for a successful farewell to longtime coach Joachim Loew, but confidence in the team doesn’t seem high after a 6-0 humiliation against Spain and a shocking 2-1 loss to North Macedonia in the past nine months. Low has appointed veterans Thomas Müller and Mats Hummels to a squad that is still of enough quality to be dangerous. The first game in the home game against France in Munich could be a mood and form barometer.

Portugal have a stronger squad than the one that triumphed in 2016 in a pretty freaky way. Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Ruben Dias head a high profile cast list, and if ultra-conservative coach Fernando Santos eases his reluctance, they can keep their crown. But it probably won’t.

Hungary looks like cannon fodder against such powerhouses, especially after losing star player Dominik Szoboszlai to an injury on the eve of the tournament. But the home advantage in a rocking Puskas Arena in Budapest could help them to cause one or the other surprise.

Belgium, number 1 in the world rankings, are highly hoped for another long run, as they did at the 2018 World Cup when they reached the semi-finals. They have more or less the same group of players, but Talisman Eden Hazard has been battling for form and fitness while the wonderful PFA Player of the Year Kevin De Bruyne has undergone eye surgery, which at least means he can avoid it to play with a face mask. But it will surely hit him. There is also an aging defense that might be discovered in the latter stages.

Denmark are in Group B with Belgium as well as unpredictable Russia and debutant Finland, who will be counting on goals from Norwich City’s rising star Teemu Pukki. The Danes appear lively as outsiders; With Kasper Schmeichel in goal, a strong defense against England at Wembley, a lot of experience and the clever inspiration of Christian Eriksen, they can make it difficult for everyone.

Could Denmark bring a surprise or two at Euro 2020 with Christian Eriksen? Photo by Jan Christensen / FrontzoneSport via Getty Images

Italy are less cautious than in previous years and have long been unbeaten under Roberto Mancini. Ciro Immobile can score the goals with the help of the full-backs Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne, while the Azzurri also have a classic midfield, the grizzled veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in defense and the flying full-backs in Alessandro Florenzi and Leonardo Spinazzola. However, doubts about the fitness of key midfielder Marco Verratti are cause for concern.

The Italians start the tournament on Friday in Rome with a clash between Group A and a Turkish team with the best defense of all time, which only conceded three goals in qualifying and took four points away from France. This is a difficult group that includes Switzerland, the regulars of the last 16 of the tournament, and Wales, for whom Gareth Bale may not be the force he was in their surprise run to the semifinals after that in 2016.

What about Spain, which won three major tournaments in a row from 2008 to 2012 with a vintage team? The 6-0 win over Germany, in which Ferran Torres scored a hat trick, showed her talent, but there are questions to be answered.

Spain’s preparations have already been severely hampered by positive COVID-19 tests for Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente, forcing others in the squad to train alone and for Spain to debut 16 players in Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Lithuania. Only an optimist would believe other teams can dodge similar problems and the feeling is that this is an unpredictable team that will fall short if Alvaro Morata or Gerard Moreno don’t score many goals.

Spain should have too much for group E rivals Sweden (what a shame that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not fit), Marek Hamsik’s Slovakia and Poland, who could take second place in this group if Robert Lewandowski with his Bundesliga record Holding 41 goals and almost invisible to show that he held out at the previous World Cup.

In England’s group, World Cup finalists Croatia still have 35-year-old Luka Modric in their hands and although results have been modest this season there are new talents like strikers Bruno Petkovic and Nikola Vlasic. Regardless of their recent form, they still have enough good players (including Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic) to give England a difficult opening game at Wembley.

The Czech Republic, 1996 finalist, is hard to read; But West Ham’s Tomas Soucek was one of the Premier League players of the season and they hope to recreate the exciting 2-1 win they had in qualifying against England in Prague instead of repeating the 5-0, that they won at Wembley Stadium.

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In this group too, Scotland is improving, having qualified for its first major tournament in 23 years. Led by Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and cleverly managed by Steve Clarke, a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands in a recent game to catch up has shown that the tartan army is likely to be very competitive. Clarke cleverly downplayed the hype surrounding the clash against England, arguing that games against Croatia and the Czech Republic at Hampden Park are their best chances of scoring the points they need to advance.

The Netherlands themselves have missed the last two tournaments and not everyone is sure if Frank de Boer is the man to usher them into a more successful era. Without Virgil van Dijk leading the defense, it’s hard to imagine them as possible winners. With a home advantage in all three games of a kind of Group C with North Macedonia, Ukraine and Austria, the Netherlands should certainly move into the knockout round.

North Macedonia’s presence at the very first European Championship comes via the route of the Nations League D4 and triggered a nationwide party. Veteran Goran Pandev, 37, is their torchbearer, and this amazing victory over Germany in March will encourage them to believe that they are not just making up the numbers. Could it be this year’s Iceland?

Since I was forced to call at this distance, France would be my pick to win, with Portugal and Italy competing and Denmark a vigorous long shot.