We continue our countdown to Euro 2020 with a look at Group E, featuring thre- time champions Spain and football’s deadliest finisher:
FIFA Ranking: 6
Best Finish: Champions (1964, 2008, 2012)
Euro Highlight: Producing a masterclass of possession football to beat Germany 1-0 and win Euro 2008.
Euro Low Point: Nuno Gomes’ second half strike for Portugal sees Spain lose the Iberian derby and crash out at the group phase of Euro 2004.
Manager: Luis Enrique
Key Player: Dani Olmo
Spain of a decade ago feels like a distant memory, and their last knockout phase win at a major tournament was the Euro 2012 Final. After a disappointing World Cup, former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique came in to steady the ship, as Spain fell short of the last four in the 2018 Nations League. Enrique then took a sabbatical, but returned in November 2019 and oversaw a successful 2020 Nations League campaign that included the 6-0 thrashing of Germany. Spain made a shaky start to World Cup qualifying, but currently sit atop of their group.
Xavi and Iniesta may be gone, but Spain hasn’t lost the ability to keep the ball with Rodri and Koke dictating play from midfield. There is new talent going forward, particularly in wide areas in the likes of Dani Olmo, Pedri and Ferran Torres. It was Olmo who scored the critical goals to get Spain out of trouble in their recent qualifiers and he looks set for a major role this summer.
The center of Spain’s defence is vulnerable to pace and without Sergio Ramos, they lack an experienced leader. Enrique has parachuted in Aymeric Laporte to boost the backline, but he’s coming off a mixed domestic campaign. Enrique is also facing a big call between Unai Simon and David De Gea, with the Manchester United man in and out of the team at Old Trafford.
Spain look caught between generations and Enrique needs to decide how far he trusts the youngsters this summer. They’ll make it through the group and when they click they can be devastating. However when the searing pace of Europe’s top marksmen homes into view, Spain could be in trouble.
FIFA Ranking: 18
Best Finish: Semifinalists (1992)
Euro Highlight: Tomas Brolin’s magical one-two interchange with Martin Dahlin and brilliant shot against England sent Sweden into the Euro ’92 Semifinals on home turf.
Euro Low Point: A lackluster showing at Euro 2016 saw Sweden manage just one goal and a group phase elimination.
Manager: Janne Andersson
Key Player: Alexander Isak
Janne Andersson has done a good job of molding the team since 2016, faced with tough draws from qualifying to the finals. Sweden battled their way to the business end of the World Cup. The Nations League brought promotion to League A in 2018, but a return to League B earlier this season with just one win from six matches. They qualified from yet another tough group and came within seconds of beating Spain to plot their path to the finals. World Cup qualifying saw the return of Zlatan and two wins from two matches.
There is a great team spirit to Sweden and they will work hard for each other with Victor Lindelof leading a resilient defence. There is bright talent up front in Alexander Isak, who has excelled at Real Sociedad. While injuries prevent Zlatan Ibrahimovic lining up alongside him, Isak is now a settled presence in the team. Winger Dejan Kulsevski is another exciting talent following a breakout season with Juventus.
For all their endeavor, Sweden struggled against elite competition in Nations League A (France, Portugal, Croatia) and conceded an alarming 13 goals. The loss of Ibrahimovic is a blow, but Andersson’s faith in Sweden’s other veterans may prove costly with Andreas Granqvist, Seb Larsson and Mikael Lustig all perhaps staying around for one tournament too many.
Isak and Kulsevski will be a handful on the counterattack this summer. Sweden showed in qualifying they can trouble Spain, but couldn’t beat them and will likely make the second phase as runners-up. When the knockout phase comes, their recent record suggests they may struggle against top class opponents.
Prediction: Second Round
FIFA Ranking: 21
Best Finish: Quarterfinalists (2016)
Euro Highlight: Robert Lewandowski’s early strike against Portugal had Poland dreaming of a place in the Euro 2016 Semifinals.
Euro Low Point: Petr Jiracek’s late goal sends Poland crashing out of their home tournament of Euro 2012 without a win.
Manager: Paulo Sosa
Key Player: Robert Lewandowski
After a disappointing World Cup, Poland had an underwhelming Nations League in 2018, but made it to the Euros with little trouble, despite a lack of style. This year’s Nations League showed improvement, but the Polish FA decided it was time for a change of philosophy and brought in Portuguese coach Paulo Sosa in the hope of unlocking a more creative style of play. The early results showed plenty of promise in attack, but a late goal at Wembley saw Poland fall off the pace in World Cup qualifying.
The only place to start with Poland is with their phenomenal centre forward. Robert Lewandowski is the perfect penalty box predator and scored a record 41 Bundesliga goals for Bayern Munich this season. Arkadiusz Milik and Kryzsztof Piatek have proved capable foils for Lewandowski in attack, with Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski as a goal threat from midfield. In goal, the reliable Wojciech Szczesny has stepped up to the task of filling the shoes of the legendary Gigi Buffon at Juventus.
The defence was leaky in the Nations League and again in their opening World Cup qualifiers. Sousa has wisely switched to a back three and will be hoping the preparation time ahead of the tournament can fix the problem and find a settled lineup. Key players Piatek and Mateusz Klich have struggled to find their best form at club level this season.
This team isn’t likely to look bereft of ideas the way they did in 2018, and Sousa has some young talent to shape. How successful Poland are at supplying their forward line will be key to their hopes this summer.
Prediction: Second Round
FIFA Ranking: 36
Best Finish: Second Round (2016)
Euro Highlight: Marek Hamsik’s brilliant angled drive against Russia saw Slovakia on their way to the Euro 2016 knockout phase.
Euro Low Point: Getting blown away 3-0 by Germany in the Euro 2016 second round.
Manager: Stefan Tarkovic
Key Player: Milan Skriniar
Slovakia made it to the finals via their Nations league performances, despite finishing bottom of their group in 2018; the reason being almost everyone else in leagues A and B had already qualified. In the playoffs, they overcame the Republic of Ireland on penalties and then Northern Ireland thanks to Michal Duris’ extra time goal. Last fall also saw relegation to Nations League C, while draws against Cyprus and Malta got World Cup qualification off to a terrible start. Slovakia then rallied to beat Russia to get their campaign up and running.
Inter’s Milan Skriniar arrives with a Serie A winners medal and provides a commanding presence at the centre of defence. Goalkeeper Martin Dubravka is making a timely return after missing most of the season with an injury and will provide a solid base alongside Skriniar. There is experience in midfield and Slovakia will be boosted with 33-year old Marek Hamsik returning from the Chinese Super League. Slovakia’s record caps holder has been building up his fitness at IFK Goteborg and looks ready for a last hurrah for his country.
Slovakia is desperately short up front. Playoff hero Duris will likely start in attack but has just two goals this season in the Cypriot First Division. Robert Bozenik, 21, has shown promise, but he too is struggling for goals and games at Feyenoord. New boy David Strelec lacks experience, but did get goals at youth level for his country.
The return of Dubravka is a huge boost for Slovakia, and they won’t concede many with plenty of strong options in defence. However, the lack of a striker leaves them dependent on Hamsik to both create and put away chances. They will frustrate opponents, but a return to the knockout phase looks to be a long shot.
Prediction: Group Phase Exit
June 14th 12pm EST Poland vs Slovakia (St Petersburg)
June 14th 3pm EST Spain vs Sweden (Seville)
June 18th 9am EST Sweden vs Slovakia (St Petersburg)
June 19th 3pm EST Spain vs Poland (Seville)
June 23rd 12pm EST Poland vs Sweden (St Petersburg)
June 23rd 12pm EST Spain vs Slovakia (Seville)
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