At this point, we should have seen the European Championships kick off from Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. However, the tournament has been postponed by a year in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The playoffs to determine the final four places in the finals have also been postponed until next season. The draw, however, was made in December and Europe’s elite sides will now re-calibrate their plans to next summer with most of the group fixtures locked.
The tournament is still planned to be a cross-continent affair with fans hopefully allowed back into stadiums by next summer. Here, we run down the runners and riders at the end of a curtailed international season.
Kosovo are two games away from qualifying for a major tournament at the first attempt. This team won plenty of plaudits with their brand of enterprising football with Bundesliga trio Milot Rashica, Besar Halimi and Valon Berisha providing plenty of creativity. However, they do concede goals. Learning the game management lessons of qualifying will be vital to Kosovo’s chances in playoff path D.
23. Bosnia & Herzegovina
After winning promotion to Nations League A, Bosnia came back down to earth with a disappointing Euro qualifying campaign. It was their poor away form that did the damage in qualifying, so Dusan Bajevic will be pleased to draw two home ties in the playoffs. Juventus’ Miralem Pjanic can pull the strings in midfield, and with Edin Dzeko still around to put the chances away, Bosnia look to be favorites in playoff path B.
Iceland are the only country from Nations League A to require a playoff, giving them a theoretically easier group. They weren’t disgraced in qualifying, but scored just 14 goals from 10 games. They will have home advantage for their semifinal against Romania, where only France managed to beat them in qualifying. However, the poor form of Gylfi Sigurdsson is a concern for a side who otherwise struggle for creativity.
At the current rate, Norway may have their own golden generation. They haven’t made a major finals since Euro 2000, but Martin Odegaard (21-years old) is finally making good on his teenage promise, midfielder Sander Berge (22) recently moved to the Premier League for £20 million, and then there’s Erling Haaland, lighting up Europe at 19. Norway still have to blend these talents, but with home playoff advantage against Serbia, they are well placed to qualify.
The headline story of qualifying was Finland making it to their first major finals. They will start against two neighbors in Denmark and Russia. Finland remain a tough well organised side with Lukas Hradecky as the last line of defense, while Teemu Pukki remains paramount to his nation’s hopes next summer.
19. Czech Republic
The Czech’s rebounded from a 5-0 drubbing from England to qualify in second place from Group A. The draw has brought them the dubious honor of a return to Wembley, but this is an improving Czech side. They don’t have a Nedved or a Koller, but Slavia Prague gave a decent account of themselves in the toughest Champions League group and midfielder Jakub Jankto is an exciting talent.
Austria recovered from a poor start to qualify with a game to spare from Group G. Their strength lies in the attacking midfield trident of David Alaba, Marcel Sabitzer and Valentino Lazaro. At the same time, Marko Arnautovic is more than capable when the mood takes him. The draw gave them an opening group game against whoever emerges from playoff path D, giving Austria an excellent chance to get their campaign off to a winning start.
In sporting terms, Ryan Giggs’ team could benefit from the finals postponement, with Joe Allen having time to recover from a season-ending injury. Giggs will be keeping a close eye on what Gareth Bale does this summer, with a move away from Europe less than ideal. Qualifying proved yet again if Bale and Aaron Ramsey are both fit and in-form. Wales will be real threat when they open their campaign against Switzerland, but it’s a big if.
Turkey’s 2-0 win over France was arguably the best performance by any team in qualifying. Turkey then showed their defensive resolve to hold off Iceland and secure their passage. They will play the tournament curtain raiser when they face Italy in Rome, with Serie A duo Merit Demiral and Hakan Calhanoglu vital to Turkish hopes. Scoring remains an issue with manager Senol Gunes surely hoping Cenk Tosun sorts out a new club this summer.
Russia blew away the lesser lights of Group J with eight wins, 31 goals scored, and just one conceded. Then against Belgium, Russia were easily outclassed and beaten home and away. The draw gifted Russia another tie against Belgium and games against Finland and Denmark. Artem Dzyuba followed a strong World Cup with nine goals in qualifying, but Russia need the more subtle talents of Denis Cheryshev and Alexandr Golovin to shine if they are to be more than flat-track bullies.
A comfortable qualifying campaign saw Poland put their dismal World Cup and Nations League behind them. Robert Lewandowski is the main man, but Lewandowski’s poor goal-scoring record at major tournaments highlights the need for alternative threats to worry opposing defenders. The draw wasn’t kind to Poland with tough encounters with Spain and Sweden booked, but they’ll start against the winner of player path B.
Denmark emerged unbeaten from a tight Group D. The Danes underlined their reputation as a tough counter attacking side, securing their passage with a 1-1 draw away to Ireland. They will play all three group games in Copenhagen and will expect to progress. In addition, they’ll need Christian Eriksen in form to knit the attack to their defensive base, while Kapser Dolberg is starting to look like the type of prolific striker Denmark had previously lacked.
Ukraine won the toughest group in qualifying ahead of Portugal and Serbia, and remained unbeaten. Andriy Shevchenko has large contingents from Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk in his squad, giving Ukraine the feel of a club side. Despite a tough opening match against Holland in Amsterdam, Ukraine should enter the tournament in confidence.
Sweden are one of the few international teams to have played in 2020, using two friendlies in Qatar to blood new home-based players and record a pair of 1-0 wins. It also saw a famous name return to the scoresheet as Jordan Larsson, son of Henrik, netted his first international goal. In qualifying, Sweden came within seconds of beating group heavyweights Spain. In the finals, they’ll get another crack at them in their tournament opener in Bilbao.
The Swiss made it to eight finals in their last nine attempts, winning a tough group after finishing fourth in the Nations League. Coach Vladimir Petkovic will be pleased to see midfielder Granit Xhaka seemingly settled at Arsenal, but will be concerned at Xherdan Shaqiri’s lack of football with Liverpool. A major plus from this season has been the emergence of Cedric Itten. They have drawn a challenging group, but after holding Brazil at the World Cup, Petkovic won’t be perturbed.
The World Cup runners-up won their qualification group, despite an erratic campaign. The biggest plus to emerge from qualifying was striker Bruno Petkovic, who stepped into the void left by Mario Mandzukic’s retirement and bagged four goals. The worry for coach Zlatko Dalic will be the age of his star players when the tournament begins; Luka Modric (35), Ivan Rakitic (33) and Ivan Perisic (32). Dalic will hope they have enough left in the tank when they open next summer with another blockbuster clash against England.
The European and Nations League champions failed to win their group and consequently suffered a horrific draw, getting both France and Germany. Ronaldo will be 36 by next summer, while Pepe and Jose Fonte will be 38 and 37 respectively. A new generation is emerging, lead by Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes. For now, Ronaldo remains as the main man, with one eye on the international goal-scoring record.
That tough draw wasn’t what Germany wanted, but it is softened by playing in Munich. It was a solid season for Joachim Low, as he tries to move forward. The postponement means Low will have a healthy Leroy Sane to partner alongside Serge Gnabry, who bagged eight goals in qualifying. The worries are at the other end of the pitch, with Germany’s new look defense exposed by Holland in qualifying.
Luis Enrique is back, but Spain appear caught between generations. Most of the treble winners are gone, but Sergio Busquets and Sergio Ramos remain while Santi Cazorla at the age of 35. Of the up and coming players, Dani Olmo and Adams Traore enjoyed breakout seasons at club level and are on the fringes of the side. Spain remain brilliant at keeping possession, but the defense and form of David De Gea are issues, and they still lack a prolific striker. Playing in Bilbao will help, as they aim to make it beyond the last 16 for the first time since 2012.
In a worrying development, May saw Holland boss Ronald Koeman undergo heart surgery. Koeman has been key to bringing Holland back to the forefront of international football, and his recovery is vital to Dutch hopes. The Ajax talent factory continues to provide new stars with Donny van de Beer the latest to attract interest from Europe’s elite clubs. This is still a young team, and the fright Northern Ireland gave them showed they’re not the finished article. They will start their campaign against Ukraine.
After the humiliation of 2018, Roberto Mancini has stepped up Italy’s rehabilitation as they smashed 17 goals in their last three qualifiers. The new look Azzurri have one of the best possession-based midfields around. In attack, Mancini continues to try different combinations with only Lorenzo Insigne looking to be a lock to play. What remains to be seen is what this team can do against high quality opposition. They will host the tournament curtain raiser in Rome.
England could be the biggest beneficiary from the postponement. Injury concerns over star strikers Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford have vanished. Meanwhile, Gareth Southgate can look at Dean Henderson in goal should Jordan Pickford fail to find consistency with Everton. Southgate can also give starts to Mason Mount and James Maddison. More importantly, Manchester City starlet Phil Foden is set to have an enhanced role at club level, with an England debut likely to follow.
Belgium were the most impressive side of qualifying, netting a perfect 10 wins and demolishing all before them. With Romelu Lukaku back to form and the De Bruyne and Hazard combination, Belgium can be unstoppable. The one worry is the ageing defense, as Roberto Martinez will likely use the next year to give more minutes to younger defenders in Timothy Castagne and Jason Denayer. Despite no home games, the draw has been kind.
France haven’t been at their best, but they remain the favorites. For differing reasons, key men Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Olivier Giroud and Hugo Lloris all endured difficult seasons. France have astonishing strength in depth with Aymeric Laporte and Matteo Guendouzi still uncapped. Their draw was exceptionally tough, but to win the Euros, you need to go through France.