With just over 24 hours to go, and a year later than expected, the excitement is close to breaking point ahead of the 16th European Championships.
Italy and Turkey get Euro 2020 going on Friday night but ahead of that, we’ve taken a slightly sideways look at what to expect as European footballing royalty gets ready for battle.
A…is for About Time! – After the 18 months the world has had, the chance to simply sit back and enjoy this footballing spectacle as it unfolds will be enough to bring a tear to many a fan’s eyes. The multiple venues and extended format of 24 teams undoubtedly splits opinion but for now, let’s just take the time to relax and embrace the good, the bad and the boring!
B…is for Baku – Further east than Baghdad, Baku makes its European Championship debut. There were hopes that an improving Azeri team would qualify for the tournament. However, it wasn’t to be and instead, the Olympic Stadium, which set the scene for Chelsea’s 4-1 2019 Europa League final win over Arsenal, hosts four matches. Three Group A clashes take place on banks of the Black Sea, two of which feature Wales, while it will also be the venue for a quarter-final on July 3.
C…is for Cristiano Ronaldo – Love him or loathe him, Cristiano Ronaldo remains one of the biggest attractions on planet football ahead of his fifth Euros. The Portuguese, 12/1 for the Golden Boot, might be 36 but plays a man much younger and has a point to prove after limping out of his country’s final victory over France in 2016. Whether he’s slamming home from 30 yards, looking doe-eyed towards the camera or falling out with anyone who’ll listen, CR7 remains box-office.
D…is for Denmark – Champions in 1992, can 28/1 Denmark cause another surprise 28 years later? Even De rød-hvide’s most dedicated fans may see that as long-shot but they do have talent, with a spine of Kasper Schmeichel, Simon Kjaer and Christian Eriksen. Barcelona’s Martin Braithwaite might not be as good as his prefix sounds but is also an able competitor. Heading into the tournament on the back of one defeat in 12 and with progress likely through a Group B involving Belgium, Finland and Russia, a quarter-final appearance has to be their minimum goal.
E…is for Extra-Time – After a long season, no manager wants to see their side finish level after 90 minutes in a knockout game. For the victor, that added 30 minutes is usually half an hour more fatigue accrued than their next opponents, while the loser is left to stir on their inability to see the game out for at least a penalty shootout. Even fans are always hoping for penalties, but an added 30 minutes remains the fairest way to separate sides.
F…is for Fernando Santos – In a world where positivity in the media and front-foot football are all the rage, Portugal (9/1 Tournament Winner) boss Fernando Santos seems to rather enjoy treading his own seemingly sullen path. While not quite anti-football, the 66-year-old’s tactics are not exactly expansive either. Expect Pepe and Ruben Dias to keep things tight at the back, William Carvalho and Danilo Pereira to provide a capable shield in midfield and Cristiano Ronaldo to be caught throwing his arms up in frustration when the ball doesn’t quite reach him.
G…is for Golden Boot – While it is tough to see anyone eclipsing Michel Platini’s record of nine goals in a single Euros in 1984, the candidates to claim the gong this year will be backing themselves to do so. Antoine Griezmann notched six times at Euro 2016 but has competition from within the France squad through Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema. Cristiano Ronaldo, who has never earned the top scorer award at a major tournament, Romelu Lukaku and Robert Lewandowski are also in the running, as is a certain Englishman…
H…is for Harry Kane – After winning the Golden Boot in Russia three years ago, England’s captain will be desperate to prove it was no fluke. Harry Kane, 5/1 top be the tournament’s top scorer, has been linked with a big-money move away from Tottenham this summer and another strong tournament performance will only add to his value. At 27, and with the latter stages set to take place in his home city, the Londoner will not want to miss out on leading the Three Lions to glory.
I…is for Italy – All hail the Azzurri! Champions in 1968 and runners-up in both 2000 and 2012, Italy return to major tournament football this summer after missing the 2018 World Cup and could be set to cause a splash. Roberto Mancini has excelled since taking over the side and they are currently on a 27-game unbeaten run, three short of the benchmark set by Vittorio Pozzo’s legendary team of the 1930s. With all three of their group games to be played in Rome, including Friday’s tournament opener against Turkey (Match Betting – Turkey 7/1, Draw 11/4, Italy 8/15), the Azzurri will expect to go far.
J…is for Jack Grealish – Hair long, socks down: there’s something of a throwback about Jack Grealish. His previous off-field antics suggested the same but now all the talk about the 25-year-old surrounds his on-field performances. Some of the tackles he invites as he slaloms through traffic also have the air of the old fashioned about them. However, that magnetism could prove very useful for England this summer. The Aston Villa captain divides opinion but has arguably been his country’s best player in the build-up to the tournament. With him in with a shout of starting against Croatia on Sunday, a few more will be changing their minds about him if he sticks one in the top corner at Wembley (7/2 – Anytime Goalscorer).
K…is for Kylian Mbappe – You may have heard of this guy and the rumours that he’s quite good. After scoring in the 2018 World Cup final, Mbappe is undoubtedly a man for the big occasion and the return to the fold of Karim Benzema could well bring the best out of him and Antoine Griezmann. Les Bleus may have been drawn to face Germany and Portugal in the opening round but when you’ve scored a hat-trick in the Nou Camp as recently as February, that probably doesn’t bother you.
L…is for La Cartuja – Seville is a beautiful city and has two fabulous football stadiums situated close to the town centre. So why the organisers picked the athletics arena on an island on the other side of the ring road when switching La Roja’s games from Bilbao is still a bit of a mystery. La Cartuja, site of the 1999 World Athletics Championship and 2003 UEFA Cup final, will host four games during the tournament, with 16,000 fans allowed to attend…but only if they can get there.
M…is for Match Officials – We all love to moan about the referees and their assistants but as every junior coach is right to point out, you don’t have a game without them. UEFA have named 19 officiating teams for the tournament, including the first South American cohort led by Fernando Rapallini as part of an exchange programme with CONMEBOL. Michael Oliver is the English candidate, while Spaniard Antonio Mateu Lahoz, excellent during the recent Champions League final, is another to watch.
N…is for North Macedonia – Back in 2010, Goran Pandev reached what even he may have thought would be the pinnacle of his career as he played 79 minutes of Inter Milan’s 2-0 Champions League final win over Bayern Munich. However, this summer could eclipse even that as he leads North Macedonia into their maiden major championship. Igor Angelovski’s side took advantage of the generous qualification process and the 45-year-old will be urging his players to do themselves justice, starting on Sunday against Austria.
O…is for Oranje – Back after two major tournaments in the doldrums, The Netherlands could have a leading role to play this summer. There’s no doubt that the Oranje, 14/1 to win the tournament, would have been better prepared this time last year before key injuries and a change of manager took their toll. Still, with all three of their Group E games taking place in Amsterdam, the 1988 champions will be looking to hit the ground running.
P…is for Panenka – The final of the 1976 edition of this tournament gave us one of the iconic moments in football history. With a chance to win the tournament with a decisive kick in the first and so far only penalty shootout to settle the Euros, Czechoslovakia’s Antonin Panenka cheekily chipped home past West Germany goalkeeper Sepp Maier. Since that fabled kick in Belgrade, many have tried to emulate the moustachioed playmaker, quite a few have failed, and someone else will inevitably give it a go this summer.
Q…is for Qualification – It wouldn’t be football without the authorities doing everything to complicate it. The simplicity of the 16-team format worked fine: win two games and you were (probably) through. Some of the teams set to be involved this summer are probably still figuring out how they got here and they’ll have their best boffins crunching the numbers on what they need to make the last-16. Five years ago, Portugal drew all three of their group matches and won the thing…but how?!
R…is for Ruslan Malinovskyi – You may already know it, but if not, remember the name! Ruslan Malinovskyi has been brilliant since joining Atalanta from Genk in July 2019 and is possibly the most talented of a very skilful young Ukraine side (9/2 Group Betting). A wonderfully balanced two-footed midfield player, Malinovskyi’s thrust from central areas makes up for his team’s lack of a bonafide top-class striker. In short, if you’re playing fantasy football, get him in your side!
S…is for Skillzy – Every major championship needs a mascot and for Euro 2020, it’s Skillzy’s turn. Tall and top-knotted, this “larger-than-life character inspired by freestyling, street and panna culture”, whatever that means, follows in the footsteps of Super Victor (2016), Benelucky (2000) and of course, Goaliath (1996).
T…is for Tartan Army – To paraphrase, it has been 23 years of hurt for Scottish football but they’re finally back in the big time. Steve Clarke’s side even have a chance to conquer Wembley when they take on England (Match Betting – England 4/11, Draw 4/1, Scotland 8/1) on June 18! After qualifying the hard way – winning two penalty shootouts – it would be sad to see the Scots go home early. Their squad might be a touch unbalanced, but there is talent there, and they’ll be using Wales’ run to the semi-finals five years ago as inspiration.
U…is for Uniforia – Just like with mascots, major tournaments would be nothing without a new match ball. For Euro 2020, we have Uniforia, a handy combination of “unity” and “euphoria”, which is white with black, blue, neon and pink stripes. Prepare yourself for a month of complaints from goalkeepers that it is “too round” or that the neon and pink trim is bad for visibility.
V…is for VAR – We all loved it in Russia and we all hate it now; well some of us do anyway. Whether it’s the technology itself or those implementing it, VAR seems to have gone backwards. That might be to do with the ludicrous way the rules of the game are ‘improved’ by treating them individually with no regard for potential knock-on effects to other laws. Either way, of all the debutants at Euro 2020, VAR is likely to grab the most headlines.
W…is for Wembley – England’s (5/1 Tournament Winner) national stadium has a fabled history and on July 11, will emulate Paris’ Parc des Princes and Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in hosting the final of the European Championships for a second time. With it also the venue for all of England’s Group D matches and both semi-finals…will football be coming home, to the home of football?
X…is for Xherdan Shaqiri – The Alpine Messi has been in the big time for the best part of a decade and it feels ridiculous to suggest that a man who plays for Liverpool and counts Bayern Munich and Inter Milan amongst his former clubs, has failed to live up to his potential. However, Shaqiri’s lack of consistency has left fans and coaches alike scratching their heads. Switzerland have never made it to the quarter-finals of the Euros and the 29-year-old will be crucial to the Nati’s hopes of creating history.
Y…is for youngsters – Poland’s Kacper Kozlowski is set to be the youngest player at the tournament, with him not turning 18 until October 16. Second to him is England’s own Jude Bellingham, who will be able to vote, serve on a jury and get a tattoo from June 29. Both could eclipse Dutchman Jetro Willems as the youngest player to appear at the Euros at 18 years and 71 days. At the time of writing, there will be 20 teenagers spread across the 24 squads, clearly doing more constructive things than most of us did during our formative years.
Z…is for Zlatko Dalic – After breaking English hearts in Russia, Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic will be hoping to do more of the same on Sunday when the Vatreni head to Wembley. Results have been mixed in recent years but the 54-year-old’s relaxed style has led to plenty of praise from his players. Defeat on Sunday will be no disaster, with second place in Group D (11/10) arguably providing a more accessible path towards the latter stages.
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