The countdown to the delayed European Championships is on and we begin our preview with a look at Group A, which will kick off the tournament when Italy faces Turkey in Rome on June 11th.
FIFA Ranking: 7
Best European Championship Finish: Champions (1968)
Euro Highlight: Luigi Riva’s goal wins 1968 Final replay to send the Stadio Olimpico into raptures.
Euro Lowpoint: Sylvain Wiltord’s injury time equaliser sees the Euro 2000 title slip through Italy’s fingers.
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Key Player: Lorenzo Insigne
After the disaster of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Roberto Mancini has turned ‘Gil Azzurri’ around and now holds the longest unbeaten run in Europe. They qualified with a 100% record and made the last four of the current Nations League as their unbeaten run now stands at 22 matches.
The new look Azzurri have a replacement for the legendary Gigi Buffon in AC Milan stopper Gianluigi Donnarumma with veteran duo Christian Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini leading a typically stingy backline. Italy also has the best possession based midfield unit in the tournament in Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella. Up front, Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne is enjoying a stellar season and is a certain starter in the front three.
Insigne aside, Mancini has chopped and changed his front line in search of the right combination in attack. Mancini has to decide between Lazio’s Ciro Immobile and Torino’s Andrea Belotti at centre-forward, but neither have a great record at international level.
After the humiliation of missing the World Cup, Italy will hold its collective breath when Gil Azzurri hosts Turkey in the tournament curtain raiser. Italy doesn’t have a Baggio or Pirlo of yesteryear, but Mancini has constructed a strong collective with few obvious weaknesses and confidence is sky-high. However, Mancini has a big call to make up front and his team remains relatively untried against top class opposition, which Italy are certain to face in the knockout phase.
FIFA Ranking: 29
Best Finish: Semi Finalists (2008)
Euro Highlight: Rustu Recber was the hero in a dramatic 3-2 penalty shootout win over Croatia to send Turkey into the last four of Euro 2008.
Euro Lowlight: Dismal Euro 2016 campaign ends in group phase exit.
Manager: Senol Gunes
Key Player: Hakan Calhanoglu
Turkey qualified impressively from a tough group, suffering just one defeat and taking four points off World Cup holders France. The Nations League proved a disappointment as Turkey was relegated to League C, but they started their World Cup qualifying campaign by routing Holland and Norway.
Turkey’s qualification campaign was built on the solid central defensive pairing of Merit Demiral and Caglar Soyuncu. Ozan Tufan offers a goal threat from midfield behind AC Milan playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu, who provides the creative fulcrum of the team. Up front, Turkey has received an unexpected boost from veteran striker Burak Yilmaz, who’s enjoying an Indian Summer to his career with Ligue 1 title chasers Lille.
Trabzonspor goalkeeper Ugurcan Cakir is the presumed starter, but lacks experience at international level. Meanwhile, key defender Soyuncu has endured a stop-start season at Leicester and the squad lacks depth beyond the main men.
Their qualifying wins over Holland and France illustrated Turkey’s ability on their day to beat the best. However, their recent slip against Latvia showed they can squander leads and the quick turnaround of tournament matches may not suit veteran forward Yilmaz. If they can hold Italy on opening night, Turkey will be in a strong position to make the knockout phase, but a repeat of the 2008 run to the last four looks beyond them.
Prediction: Second Round
FIFA Ranking: 13
Best Finish: Second Round (2016)
Euro Highlight: Xherdan Shaqiri’s stunning volley lights up Euro 2016.
Euro Lowlight: Andre Turan’s late winner for Turkey ensures a humiliating group phase exit for the co-hosts of Euro 2008.
Manager: Vladimir Petkovic
Key Player: Granit Xhaka
Since the World Cup, Switzerland was surprise semi-finalists at the expense of Belgium in the inaugural Nations League, but won only once in the 2020 tournament. They qualified for the Finals by winning an attritional group that included Denmark, Ireland and Georgia, which reinforced their reputation as tough to beat.
Switzerland has an experienced side, yet their oldest player is 32-years old in goalkeeper Yann Sommer. The defence and midfield look as solid as we’ve come to expect from the Swiss in recent campaigns. Captain Granit Xhaka has proved to be a far better player for his country than Arsenal and Xherdan Shaqiri can provide an x-factor in the final third. What is new for Switzerland is the form of forward Haris Serferovic, who is finally beginning to look an international class striker.
Although he’s a better play for Switzerland than Arsenal, Xhaka’s indifferent form is a worry as is Shaqiri’s lack of game time over the last two years. However the biggest issue for Petkovic to overcome could be the mental hurdle his side have of going beyond the last 16 where they have fallen at three successive major tournaments, Switzerland’s last tournament quarterfinal coming way back at the 1954 World Cup.
This is a battle-hardened team that should make it out of the group phase. Their surprise Nations League hammering of Belgium showed on their day, they can combine steely play with dynamism. However, in the knockout phase, familiar foes in Belgium or Denmark are likely to be waiting and Switzerland have never won a penalty shoot-out.
Prediction: Second Round
FIFA Ranking: 17
Best Finish: Semi Finals (2016)
Euro Highlight: Hal Robson-Kanu’s turn-and-shot bamboozled Belgium to send Wales to the Euro 2016 Semifinals.
Euro Lowlight: Daniel Sturridge’s last-gasp goal saw Wales lose the ‘Battle of Britain’ clash to England in the Euro 2016 group phase.
Manager: Robert Page
Key Player: Gareth Bale
Since their glory run at Euro 2016, Wales has endured mixed fortunes. After missing out on the World Cup, Ryan Giggs took over. After a hit-and-miss qualifying campaign, Bale and Ramsey returned to fitness to get Wales back to the European Finals. Wales won promotion to Nations League A, but Giggs is currently suspended by the FAW pending a court case. Assistant Manager Robert Page has stepped into the breach and made a reasonable start to 2022 World Cup qualifying.
The 2016 team was built around a sound defence and the attacking flare of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale both of whom remain in the fold. However there’s a stronger supporting cast in attack now in the likes of Daniel James, Harry Wilson, Tyler Roberts and David Brooks. It was James who got the critical header in the recent World Cup qualifying win over Czech Republic and Wilson hit a beauty against Belgium.
Giggs’ assault charges came at the worst possible time and teams forced into management changes at short notice rarely prosper at tournaments. Neither Danny Ward or Wayne Hennessey are first choice goalkeepers for their clubs and the defence has looked vulnerable without the retired Ashley Williams. New defenders are emerging in Joe Rodon and Neco Williams but this summer will represent a steep learning curve for them. Meanwhile, both Bale and Ramsey have endured patchy seasons at club level and midfield lynchpin Joe Allen faces a race against time to be fit for the finals.
Bale is still the main man and although he isn’t the force of nature he was in 2016, he has shown he can still do it for Wales when it counts. With an improved supporting cast, Wales will be a threat going forward. However, the defensive frailties are likely to be exposed against top class opponents. In a tough group, Wales’ second match against Turkey looks to be the key to their hopes of progress.
Prediction: Group Phase Exit
June 11th, 3pm EST: Italy v Turkey (Rome)
June 12th, 10am EST: Wales v Switzerland (Baku)
June 16th, 12pm EST: Turkey v Wales (Baku)
June 16th, 3pm EST: Italy v Switzerland (Rome)
June 20th, 12pm EST: Italy v Wales (Rome)
June 20th, 12pm EST: Turkey v Switzerland (Baku)