Italy Wraps Up Euro 2020 with Dramatic Penalty Win over England

After a gruelling yet eventful tournament, Italy have once again established themselves as elites in Europe. After several agonizing years exiting tournaments in early stages or indeed missing out all together (despite harbouring a lot of talent), Italy’s place at Europe’s top table had been in question coming into Euro 2020. Viewed as a team in transition, they were never truly expected to do anything of note at this tournament. But maybe they should have been. On an unbeaten run dating back to 2018 entering Euro 2020, they were clearly the most consistent and balanced team in European international football. That run was extended as Italy brush past their group and knockout round opponents to extend their unbeaten run to 34 games and etch their name once more on the Henri Delaunay Cup for the second time in their history.

Road to redemption after World Cup misfortune

Roberto Mancini has swiftly changed the fortunes in his three-year tenure with the Azzurri after the Gian Piero Ventura experiment failed miserably. From missing out on the World Cup in 2018, he has taken it upon himself to experiment with younger inexperienced talents like Spinazzola, Chiesa, Berardi, Barella, Pessina to name a few with phenomenal results. After a dominant display at the previous World Cup, France were considered as favourites running up to the Euros followed by Spain, Germany and England. As mentioned before, Italy’s name did not pop up as the critics felt this team’s mettle had not yet been tested at the highest level.

Even after breezing through the group stages, Italy were still being questioned after an unsteady display against Austria in the Round of 16. The next two games would define their class over the rest of the contestants with a composed display against Belgium providing no space for Kevin de Bruyne to make any drives and a gritty performance to hold out over a Spanish side that outclassed them in the first half of regular time. They certainly made it to the Finals from a tougher bracket having gone through Spain and Belgium to face an enthusiastic England team in front of a hostile home crowd.

Like Father, like son – Following in his fathers footsteps, Federico Chiesa had a superb tournament for Italy, contributing with valuable goals when his team needed them.

It’s Coming Home

Due to Covid regulations, UEFA downsized the locations of the matches to few key arenas and the final and semi-finals were all decided to be played on English soil in Wembley due to UK’s swift vaccination schemes and loosening of restriction for fans presence at the stadiums. This meant England had an advantage and higher motivation to play for the trophy on home soil. England boast a very talented squad which has only improved after their semi-final run in Russia three years ago.  Now a more experienced squad was ready to fight for the coveted trophy with fans chanting “It’s Coming Home” before the tournament commenced. England proceed with an unsteady display in the group stages but, outclassed Germany tactically in the round of 16 breaking ghosts of the tournament’s past. England then cruised past Ukraine and made it to the finals through some luck to get past Denmark in extra time (England played better in extra time and were clearly threatening although it was not a penalty). With a solid defence in Maguire and Stones protected well by Rice and Philips, an ever confident Sterling linking well with Harry Kane upfront and impacts subs who could change the flow of the game in Sancho, Rashford and Grealish, England had a case to put up a strong fight against Italy.     

A final game deadlocked till the last kick

The game started with a bang with England making their mark with a goal from Luke Shaw on the heels of a beautiful counter-attack.  1-0 down, Italy now had to fight for their way back in to make a case for the trophy. Italy played a curious game holding possession and playing short passes trying to find gaps for a breakthrough but, the English defence was steadfast and held strongly and tried to create chances with breakaways but, could not find the final ball. Raheem Sterling was making runs but had a tough night with Chiellini, Barella and Di Lorenzo breaking down any potential threats. Harry Kane was also neutralized and outmuscled with three players on him whenever he had the ball in possession. At the other end, Insigne tested the waters but, could only take weak shots from outside the box. England looked confident and composed and played out the first half with the lead.

Luke Shaw opened the scoring for England with the fastest ever goal in Euro’s history and his first International goal for his country

Both sides made no changes come the second half of regular time. Italy played some long balls into the box but, they did not possess the specific talents to land the ball so Mancini introduced two changes to his side with the introduction of Cristante replacing Barella and Berardi to replace Immobile who was quite all game. Italy now wanted to get the ball in the box instead of playing short passes to breakthrough and after a few decent plays (Chiesa was a beast on one-on-one challenges) got their equalizer through Bonucci who scrapped a goal after the initial ball into the box was tipped over Maguire. England’s biggest error was that they gave possession to Italy for long period of the game and could not get the ball from Jorginho or Veratti. Italy took momentum and created more chances with notable attempts from Berardi and Chiesa. Southgate made two changes to change the flow of the game and get back into gear with the introduction of Henderson for Rice and Saka for Trippier. But, taking back possession after spending long period of the game defending proved to be difficult with only some set piece action the game looked primed for extra time.

Extra time proceeded slowly with neither side unable to threaten for goal, Italy brought on their final substitutes Bernardeschi for Bellotti and Locatelli for Verrati to replace a tiring starting line-up and England brought on Grealish for Mount.  But neither side could find the space to create a scoring opportunity and game was set for penalties and managers were ready. With only 2 minutes of extra-time left, the England managers last two substitutes were questionable not for the players brought in but, for the player removed. Jordan Henderson who was a second half substitute was taken off for Rashford and Sancho replaced Walker. Italy won the coin toss and start the penalty shootout

Southgate’s decision to put Sancho and Rashford into the game with 2 minutes to go before penalties backfired with both players missing from the spot

The first penalty was Italy’s and they scored through Berardi; Kane then replied with a calm penalty. Bellotti stepped up for the second penalty having scored his penalty with Spain but, was saved by Pickford and England then scored their second through Maguire. Bonucci stepped up for the third penalty for italy and confidently executed the ball. Marcus Rashford then had a chance to give England the momentum. The Manchester United frontman has taken many penalties for his club and was brought on for his penalty record. But he scuffed his shot hitting the post.  Italy could now take advantage. Federico Bernardeschi stepped up and stowed away boldly down the middle. Jadon Sancho then stepped up for the fourth which was saved by Donnarumma. With all seemingly lost for England as Jorginho, Italy’s penalty expert who won it against Spain stepping up, Pickford made yet another save to give England a lifeline. The last kick for England is taken by the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka who has never taken a penalty at Senior level. He took the long walk down to face Italy’s big man in Donnarumma standing tall at 6 foot 5 inches. He runs up to his kick but, it is saved and Italy take the win. The win garnering smiles across the world and celebrations across the nation. Mancini’s men will be glorified in history books for their courage and persistence.

Team of the Tournament:

With the tournament completed, we can look at the best players across all contestants who displayed their talents at this month-long battle.     

Goalkeeper:

Gianluigi Donnarumma:

The “Player of the tournament” award winner deservedly was influential in Italy’s winning run. The new PSG big man kept clean sheets in all three group stage games and was influential in the penalty shootouts against Spain and England.

Defenders:

Leonardo Spinnazola:

Spinnazola was one of the best players for Italy who provided a dynamic change of play for Italy. Similar to the left back of past (Fabio Grosso whose heroics in semi-final and finals of world cup 2006 will be forever remembered), he frequently ran down the lane and found his teammates. He was crucial in providing the assist against Austria to break the deadlock and was influential through the tournament, had it not been for his injury in the semi-finals, he would have made a strong case for “Player of the Tournament” award.

Leonardo Bonucci:

Bonucci was a confident and calm figure at the back clearing balls timely and formed a great partnership with Juventus teammate Chiellini. Bonucci also acted as the lynchpin to find his wings and strikers with long passes from the back providing another means of distribution. He was also the man to find the equalizer for Italy to get back into game in the Finals.

Bonucci’s goal brought Italy level and shifted the momentum to the Azzuri

Aymeric Laporte:

Laporte decision to play for Spain after having represented France youth levels came as a surprise as many expected the Manchester City man to play for France alongside Rafa Varane. But the centre back chose to represent Spain and was picked for the tournament squad. After a brief adjustment period in the group stages, he stepped up and took charge of the defence and formed a great backline alongside Pau Torres and Erik Garcia alongside veterans Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordan Alba.  He was beneficial in Spain’s build-up from defence, he was crucial to break Croatia’s momentum after swinging to extra time and made the block on Italy’s break but, could not help the rebound falling to Chiesa who scored the goal. Many will argue Chiellini should have deserved this spot and there would be no debates but, Chiellini was exposed in some areas of the game especially in the game against Spain. Laporte brings a different element to Spain on top of being a leader in the defence somewhat akin to Bonucci.

Kyle Walker:

There were few players who were as composed and as consistent as Kyle Walker at this tournament. Solid at the back and making blindingly fast and creative runs on attack, his awareness to pick out passes were also beneficial for England.

Midfielders:

Jorginho:

The Chelsea man has found a new lease to life under Tuchel after struggling to find playing time under Lampard guiding Chelsea to the Champions league trophy alongside Kante. He came into the tournament with superior confidence and was influential in providing flexibility to the Italian side linking the defence to the attack making interceptions alongside partner in crime Veratti. He also scored the beautiful penalty to end Spain’s run in the Semi-final.

Pedri:

Luis Enrique’s choice to start 18-year-old was a shock but, what we witnessed was the rise of a superstar talent. The “Young Player of the Tournament” winner played a very composed game with a 95% pass completion percentage. Barcelona have unearthed yet another gem who may form the core for the team for years to come. 

Pedri lit up the tournament with his Barca game and in doing so earned himself the Best youth player of Euro 2020 award

Paul Pogba: 

The claims that Pogba plays better for his nation than for his club have been looming for some time. Although, I don’t see much merit it is an undeniable that his performance in this tournament has been anything but spectacular. There may be many names that could have easily put in this spot but, Pogba has been sensational for France. Even in the loss to Switzerland, he was the most influential threat on the field. Had it not been for the poor finishing of Mbappe and Coman’s lack of a final touch, France would have gone through to the Last 8. Nevertheless, Pogba’s silky smooth finish in the loss to the Swiss was a sight for sore eyes and Manchester United should do their best to retain his talents at Old Trafford.

Attackers:

Raheem Sterling:

Sterling was at his best for England at this tournament. He made several marauding runs down the lane and often nestled past several defenders to create chances for England. His pace and aggressive mentality were very crucial for England making it to the finals. He did everything possible to get England to the finals, this should give Pep Guardiola plenty to consider with the transfer window looming and Manchester City’s interest in Harry Kane. 

Sterling had a solid tournament for England contributing vital goals throughout but his dive in the Semi’s marred it for many

Federico Chiesa:

My favourite player of the tournament, the Juventus loanee was a huge figure for Italy. His one-on-one drives were massive and he could not be stopped, he created several chances for himself and was a huge threat down the lane. The defenders had to always keep an eye on him as his dribbling was a constant threat and when the game against England was at a standstill and Ciro Immobile looked hazy, he made several drives without relying on Italy’s short pass strategy to create space for himself to take a shot. He had two shots on target and the spark behind Italy’s Equalizer. Italy’s offense dwindled when he was subbed in the Final. Chiesa in my opinion has a case for the “Best player of the Tournament” and anyone who watched him play with not argue on this point.

Patrik Schick:

This should not come as a shock entry as the Czech Republic and Leverkusen big man has been phenomenal throughout the tournament carrying the small nation to the quarterfinals. He also scored quite possibly the goal of the tournament against Scotland. Cool and composed, he made waves and turned heads across the tournament.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to Back Of The Net

Nail biting Round of 16 stuns Euros which now goes down to Final 8.

The knockouts of the Euro 2020 have started in full swing with exhilarating games and several significant upsets. After four days of knockout games, the bracket for the quarter finals has taken shape with several notable nations bowing out after tough competitions. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the games and our predictions for the quarterfinals.

Day 1: A poor showing and a nail-biting thriller

Denmark vs Wales: 4 – 0

Key players: Gareth Bale (Wales); Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

The Danes dismantled an unorganized and unprepared Welsh side with ease in this game. The Euro 2016 semi-finalists who narrowly clinched the runner up spot of group A, went down a goal in the first half and were thoroughly outclassed by an inspired Danish side who have played heroically since losing star player Christian Eriksen in their very first game of the tournament. Welsh frustrations were only highlighted by the stoppage time red card to Harry Wilson, which looked soft to be fair. The Danes go through to the next round thanks to an inspirational performance and a newly confident forward in Kasper Dolberg who bagged a brace in this game.

Italy vs Austria: 2 – 1

Key Players: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy), L. Spinazzola, David Alaba (Austria)

Italy came into the tournament not having lost in 15 games in a row and cleared the group without any loss. Considered a darkhorse, they faced a very organized Austrian side led by Real Madrid new boy David Alaba. Italy was tested throughout the game which was goalless for 90 minutes. They then scored two goals in the first half of extra time, once again involved on the goal was the AS Roma man, Spinazzola. The left back has taken the Euros by a storm with his speed and deep penetrating runs. Austrian side put up a great fight until the end having scoring a last-minute goal and creating chaos for the last 8 mins of extra time but, the Italians held on to progress to the next round. If there were any cause for concern for the Italian side, it would be the poor showing of Domenico Berardi who despite some significant key defensive contributions failed to convert key chances to close the game.

Day 2: Passion and Pride

Netherlands vs Czech Republic: 0 – 2

Key Players: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Memphis Depay (Netherlands), Gini Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

The Dutch took an early exit after a poor showing against the surprise outfit of the Czech Republic. After losing their defensive leader Matthijs de Ligt early on (sent off for a deliberate handball), the Dutch lost all composure and fell under the pressure from a passionate and organized Czech performance. Patrik Schick was once again the man in the limelight who created the pressure for De Ligt’s send off and scored a fine goal to cap off a brilliant performance.  Now the only question that remains is how far can these underdogs go at the Euros.

Belgium vs Portugal: 0 – 1

Key Players: Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Belgium go through to the Quarter finals after a decent showing against Portugal. Portugal took a very conservative approach against a star-studded Belgium side, attempting to restrict any gaps. Both sides were very composed throughout the game, with Belgium capitalizing on an early chance with a goal towards the end of the first half. Kevin de Bruyne played his usual game and was constant threat throughout the game often suffering heavy tackles from Portugal’s frustrated defensive line. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was quick to remove Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard after the early goal and held on to win the game as they prepare to face tougher competition on their expected road to the Final.

Day 3: Two classic games of passionate football that will be remember for years to come

Spain – Croatia: 5 – 3 (AET)

Key Players: Alvaro Morata (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) 

Spain came into the knockouts with two questionable performances and a final day 5-0 victory over Slovakia. Many questions were raised against Alvaro Morata’s form and Luis Enrique’s tactics at the Euros. Morata did not score in the win over Slovakia but showed signs of improvement from his first two performances. Spain started the game poorly with keeper Unai Simon missing a straightforward back pass from Pedro that ended up in the back of their own net.  But they quickly took control of the game and went up 3-1 shortly after. They looked all set to advance before Luka Modric who took control of the game in the last 15 minutes and Croatia scored twice to levelled the game in stoppage time with notable contributions from Atalanta man, Mario Pasalic. It looked like the momentum was completely on Croatia’s hands in extra time but, the fatigue of the game finally caught up to Croatian side. But the Spaniards were more clinical in extra time and put the game well beyond reach with two well taken goals to advance to the quarter finals. Heartbreak for Croatia but all in all it was an entertaining game for the fans and neutrals.

Take home: Spain showed grit to come back in extra time, they capitalized on the chances and closed down the game. Morata and Ferran Torres look confident but, defensive issues still persist.

France: Switzerland: 3 – 3 (AET) [4-5 Pens]

Key Players: Paul Pogba (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

The Euro 2016 finalists and 2018 World Cup winners were heavy favourites to win the tournament and looked likely to dispatch the Swiss and advance. With the recall of exiled striker Karim Benzema, France was meant to be an even better team. After an indifferent showing in the group stage, France still managed to clear as top seed of a very tough group. Flashes of brilliance were seen but, poor form of Mbappe and Benzema and lack of chemistry were signs of concern. Karim Benzema came alive in the last group stage draw against Portugal but, the dominance exhibited in previous tournaments was not apparent.  The game again the Swiss exhibited parallels with the earlier game between Spain and Croatia. France went down a goal due to poor positioning in the box and Swiss capitalized on the chance. France abandoned the back three by subbing out Clement Lenglet for Kingsley Coman and moved Rabiot and Pavard to the full backs. But things only got worse when Swiss were awarded a penalty in box. A huge save by the French captain Hugo Lloris led to change of winds followed by a genius first touch by Karim Benzema for a French equalizer. Then, France immediately took the momentum away and scored another goal. Paul Pogba introduced further damage with a worldie from outside the box.

The Swiss made changes to bring on some much needed energy and try to break France’s momentum. France failed to capitalize on several breakaway passes from Pogba and the Swiss pulled one back through another header from Haris Seferovic. A brilliant pass from Swiss captain Granit Xhaka setup the equalizing goal for Gavranovic to force the game into extra time. France then lost their Joker who shifted the momentum after Coman and Benzema exited due to injuries. The Swiss held on through extra time with a composed performance from Xhaka who broke several key passes. The game was settled in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, the first four penalties were beautifully executed by both teams. The final penalty for the Swiss was taken by veteran Mehmedi who stepped up with a blank expression. He took his time and executed his kick to perfection. The last kick fell onto a superstar Mbappe who had an abysmal tournament, missed several key chances and clearly lacked the confidence but, this could have been his turning point in the tournament. But the penalty was saved by Sommer who waited a few seconds to get the all clear from the referee and celebrated a well-deserved Swiss victory.

Take home: A scar in Mbappe’s career but, a valuable lesson for the 22-year-old. Pogba and Kante both shined in the game with the former creating several key chances. France still possesses a world of talent with the World Cup just around the corner.

Day 4: Redemption and Rejoice

England vs Germany: 0 – 2

England and Germany both possess very young, talented squads with immense potential for years to come. After the initial loss to France, Germany showed a strong performance against Portugal but, drew with a “never say die” Hungary side. Similarly, England also played with the line-ups but, could not bring the best out their talisman Kane.  The two sides faced on in a slow and tactical approach in the first half. A stealthy finish by Sterling gave England the lead late in the second half but, Germany could not capitalize on the mistake by Sterling with Thomas Muller’s shot moving ever so wide of the goal post. Jack Grealish’s introduction opened up the goal for Harry Kane to score for England and they would hold on to a 2-0 lead. Germany’s attacks were unimaginative at this point only sending long balls to the box in hopes of a half chance at goal. England held on to finish a historic win in over 50 years against the former world champions.

Take Home: Grealish may the key to unlocking Kane for England. Germany can rejoice the successful tenure of Joachim Low and look forward to new mastermind in Flick. The German team has plenty of potential and Hansi-Flick with his success at Bayern and his understanding of the next generation may be the key to create another dynasty.

Sweden vs Ukraine: 1 – 2 (AET)

Key Players: Emil Forsberg (Sweden); Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine created history with a gritty performance and survived a dogged Swedish performance. Sweden missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who committed to return to national side for the tournament only to get injured) were still an emboldened team who put forward a strong group stage performance. A war of attrition between two sides who scored early first half goals was at a standstill and looking to be heading into penalties till Ukraine found some reserve energy to put the game to bed.

Predictions for the Quarter-Finals:

Belgium vs Italy:

Considered by many as the match that may provide the winner of the Euros, Belgium and Italy have shown some great football. Belgium will need their talisman Kevin de Bruyne, who took a knock in the Portugal game, in good form if they are to have any chance of winning against Italy. We saw Belgium completely lose their creativity after de Bruyne left the game against Portugal as did Man City in the Champions League final. They will need his dribbles to break through Jorginho and Verratti. Italy on the other hand have looked strong throughout this tournament but, needed extra time to put the game to bed against Austria. A tough game to call but a heavy tackle on de Bruyne might be all it takes to edge this for Italy.

Prediction: 1 – 2 (Italy Win)

Switzerland vs Spain:

Switzerland made headlines with a huge upset knocking out favourites France. Spain played a similar game but, managed to pull through in extra time against Croatia. Morata looks motivated and will be the key to help Spain go thorough to the semis.

Prediction: 0 – 2 (Spain Win)

England vs Ukraine:

England played a good game but, are still trying to figure out their best line-up to support Kane. Sterling has been phenomenal in this tournament and Mason Mount may feature in the next game after his stint in quarantine. Ukraine have done well to get as far as they have but will face a tough test in England who are desperate to get to the final this time around.

Prediction: 2 – 0 (England win)

Czech Republic vs Denmark:

After losing their first two games, the Danes bounced back valiantly with win over Russia and demolished Wales in the round of 16 with Kasper Dolberg rising up to the occasion at the perfect time. The Czechs have also shown resilience restricting the Dutch to a few chances and capitalizing on a mistake. They also have a star in Patrik Schick. This game a bit difficult to predict as Denmark possess a wealth of talent and a world class goal stopper in Kasper Schmeichel but, one cannot rule out the Czechs who are also playing with superior confidence.

Prediction: 1 – 0 (Czech win)

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Euro 2020 – Who Will Win?

Euro 2020 is just around the corner. The tournament will be played in 11 venues around Europe and will see fans returning to stadiums, some with partial capacity (22% in Munich for example) to full capacity (Budapest). With or without fans, there is plenty of room for drama, upsets and entertainment. We take a look at the tournament itself, the favourites, the rank outsiders and the dark horse and try to predict the winner. Enjoy!

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales)

Roberto Mancini has reignited the Italian national team which has lost only twice in three years and also topped their Nations league group. Italy will be captained by their traditional centre back Giorgio Chiellini but won’t be playing their traditional defensive football. Mancini’s team plays free flowing attacking football (tikitalia) through technically gifted midfielders like Jorginho, Veratti and Barella. In the front three of their 4-3-3 system they have quality and dynamism with options in Berradi, Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa. Italy are strong contenders and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a deep run into the tournament after the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup back in 2018.

Turkey can be the ultimate surprise package in the Euros as manager Senol Gunes will look to repeat the heroics of 2002 World Cup. They play counter attacking football in either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielder Okay Yokuslu dictating the play. The Turks can do a high press but like to adjust it based on their opponent’s passing abilities. They have a solid centre back pairing of Leicester City’s Soyuncu and Juventus’s Demiral. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu provides creativity and flair in attack for Yusuf Yazici and the bulldozer of a striker, and captain Burak Yilmaz who will be crucial for Turkey in the tournament.  They are the dark horses and will be looking to shock the big footballing nations.

Burak Yilmaz will be key to Turkey advancing through the tournament

Switzerland mostly features in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They are a physically strong team and not easy to break down. The wingbacks get heavily involved in the attacks whilst captain Granit Xhaka’s passing sets the overall rhythm. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also plays a key role as the no.10, dropping between opposition’s lines and linking up play. Their main strength is defensive solidarity. The Swiss won their Euro qualification group by only conceding 6 goals in 8 games.

Wales also play with 3 centre backs in a 3-4-3 formation with the ball and defend with a 5-4-1 system. They look to hurt teams on counter attacks through pacy wingers in Gareth Bale and Daniel James. Harry Wilson operates as a fluid false 9 and Aaron Ramsey’s late runs in the box provides additional threat. The alternative attacking approach is the deployment of 6’5” striker Kieffer Moore as a target man. Wales do have star power in their starting 11 but lack depth in squad.

Group Prediction: This is a tight group and the toughest to call (other than the group of death), Italy’s home advantage for all 3 games should see them through as winners, with Turkey pipping Switzerland to second space and Wales finishing bottom. 1st- Italy, 2nd- Turkey, 3rd- Switzerland, 4th- Wales

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia)

The No. 1 ranked international team, Belgium will feature in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation. The formidable three man backline of past tournaments is not as solid as it once was as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are past their prime and Vincent Kompany now retired, but they can still keep it tight at the back when needed. The best playmaker in the world, Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t hesitate to take the shooting opportunities and with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, they are arguably the most lethal team in the competition. De Bruyne will miss the first game against Russia due to facial injuries as will Eden Hazard likely who has been injury riddled this season. They also don’t have any “home” games but are still the heavy favourites to top the group.

Can Belgium live you to the hype and lift the European Championships trophy?

New manager Hjumland sets the Danish team in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Christensen, Kjaer and Vestegaard provide good options for centre back, holding midfielders Hojberg and Delaney provide security in the centre of the pitch whilst playmaker Christian Eriksen is crucial for the team as he often finds the net for his national side. The experienced Braithwaite and Poulsen are decent options upfront as are the younger pairing of Dolberg and Olsen giving Hjumland much to ponder. Denmark will play their three group games at home which definitely boosts their chances for qualification to further stages.

Stanislav Cherchesov is a flexible coach and won’t be afraid to switch his system based on the opposition, but the Russians are most likely to feature in a 4-2-3-1. Artem Dyuba had the best season of his career for Zenit and would be looking to carry that energy to the Euros. Roman Zobnin is the main man in terms of keeping things ticking from the midfield. There are however major doubts about the quality of defence and the lack of experience in goal with the three keepers selected for the squad only earning a combined 13 caps. The Russians will hope the home crowd in the first two games can drive them to good results before travelling to Denmark for their final test.

First time qualifiers, Finland change between a four man and a five man defence and are likely to use the latter given the pedigree of their opponents. They have reliable players in Rangers star Glen Kamara and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki, who has been in good goal scoring form for his country, as well as a good stopper in Lukas Hradecky. That said, they are rank outsiders to get out of the group and are therefore the are the underdogs and like Belgium won’t play any games at home so qualifying for the knockout stages will be difficult.

Group Prediction: It will be a close race for the second spot between Russia and Denmark that will be decided when they face each other on the third matchday.

1st- Belgium, 2nd- Denmark, 3rd- Russia, 4th- Finland

Group C ( Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia)

Netherlands mostly use a 4-3-3 but Frank de Boer prefers a five man back line against higher quality opponents. Despite missing Virgil Van Dijk, they still have top notch centre backs in Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij. Depay, who had a great season with Lyon is deployed as a no. 9 or out wide, and they also have an option of a target man in Luke de Jong. Quality midfielders Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong control the tempo of the game well whilst Wijnaldum provides an additional goal threat by playing in advanced positions. There are doubts over de Boer’s ability to get the best out of this star studded squad but their quality should be enough to see out the group stage with ease.

de Boer will have to manage technically if they are to win overall but many fear that he doesn’t have the experience of past tournaments

Like the Dutch, Ukraine also plays a 4-3-3 system and switches to five at the back against stronger opponents. They have a strong midfield with Taras Stepanenko doing the defensive work, Zinchenko providing the creativity and Ruslan Malivnoskyi, who had a sensational finish to his campaign at Atlanta, deployed in the box-to-box role. Their main attacking threat comes from Roman Yaremchuk who had a great season with Gent, scoring 23 goals. The Ukrainians are capable of pulling some impressive results like the draw against France in March and the win against Spain last year in Nations league so they might be on the serving end of an upset or two at Euro 2020.

Austria, who haven’t won a game in a major tournament since the 1990 World Cup, mostly line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike many international teams, Austria has a well oiled press. Similar to Zinchenko, versatile Alaba often features in midfield for Austria rather than in his natural defensive position. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilansker also provide composure and experience in midfield whilst the unpredictable Marcel Sabitzer gives the x factor in attack. They have an interesting striker in 6ft 7in, Sasa Kalajdzic who had an amazing campaign for Stuttgart and could be one to watch.

North Macedonia switches between a 4 man and 3 man defence and plays counter attacking football with 2 strikers up front. They are the weakest side in the competition but that win against Germany would give the North Macedonian players and fans much hope. Ilija Nestorovski’s absence will be a big miss meaning that the pressure is on Genoa striker Goran Pandev to be the star player in the no. 10 role. Leeds fullback Ezgjan Alioski at times features in the midfield giving them better coverage and they have an exciting player in Elif Elmas who showed glimpses of his talent this season with Napoli.

Group Prediction: 1st- Netherlands, 2nd- Ukraine, 3rd- Austria, 4th- North Macedonia

North Macedonia take part in their first ever international tournament

Group D ( Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland)

2018 World Cup finalists, Croatia play possession based football in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic they have a premium midfield, though Modric is well off his prime now. They also have excellent wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic, who regularly puts up impressive shifts for the national team whilst Mislav Orsic offers another option as a dangerous sub. Andrej Kramaric is likely to be the first choice striker while 6ft 3in Bruno Petkovic will provide a different and useful alternative. 32 year old Domagoj Vida will be anchoring the defence as always looking to add to his 88 caps so far. The Croatians are no longer seen as the dark horse and it would be a shock if they don’t progress through the group stage.

Czech Republic plays high energy counter attacking football mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to fill the attacking third with runners in Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek who grabbed 10 goals for the Hammers in an identical role. Up front, Patrick Schick is a dynamic centre forward who will be their main threat. The Czechs push their full backs high up in attack with Coufal in particular on the right capable of amazing deliveries. Ondrej Kudela’a suspension and Lukas Provod’s injury are big blows, with the centre back’s suspension more so as the Czechs are weak in the defence. They might not be the most skilled team but they will put up a great fight every time.

Southgate prefers a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfielders and switches to three centre backs against bigger opponents. England have luxurious options for full backs and attacking positions but the fitness of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson has raised concerns about whether they will be ready or not. Both of them are important parts of the team and would be starters if they are fit. Kane and Mount seem to be definite starters for Southgate and to build a lethal attack around them, he would be trying to find the optimum balance of pace and creativity from Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Rashford and Sancho all in contention to start. Declan Rice has also become vital, protecting the back line and anchoring the play from midfield. Stones would be looking to carry on from an impressive season with Manchester City. England has the star power to go all the way but it would come down to Southgate’s ability to match and outplay teams tactically, which he is not the best at.

Will Maguire and Henderson be fit enough to play in the group stages?

Scotland’s most preferred system is 3-5-2, which accommodates in deploying two brilliant left backs in Tierney and Roberston. Robertson plays higher up on the left whilst Tierney fits in as the left sided centre-back but they have the freedom to switch roles during the game. In midfield, McGregor and McTominay give solidarity whilst John McGinn provides attacking impetus through his runs. And they can also call upon youngster Billy Gilmour who has the ability to turn games on its head despite his lack of international experience. Armstrong takes the responsibility for creating opportunities from midfield and his Southampton teammate, Che Adams will likely be the main man up front although Dykes does offer another option. Steve Clarke’s highly rated tactical skills will be important for Scotland’s European campaign and it won’t be surprising if he shuffles his players and system from game to game.

Group prediction: England and Croatia should be able to progress with ease, albeit the Czechs and the Scots have the potential to pull shocking results.

1st- England, 2nd- Croatia- 3rd- Czech Republic 4th- Scotland

Group E (Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden)

Spain play their traditional possession football in a 4-3-3 shape. They are rich in options from the keeper to the striker. In the absence of their leader Ramos, Laporte has switched national allegiance to give Luis Enrique options for ball playing centre backs alongside Eric Garcia and Pau Torres. Marcus Llorente interestingly plays in the right back position. Rodri or captain Busquets will take the midfield anchor role with Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri offering creative outlets from midfield. Ferran Torres, one of the few definite starters, cuts into spaces behind and has been making the most of his great finishing ability. Morata and Moreno will compete for the striker position with the latter likely featuring more from the bench. This is a relatively new Spanish team which can play beautiful football like the previous ones but is also capable of playing direct and being threatening in transitions through pacy wingers.

Sweden play a solid 4-4-2 out possession. It was a surprise by manager Janne Andersson to call Zlatan back in the squad after a number of years but only for him to miss the tournament due to injury. Sweden will still have plenty of quality up front despite the absence of their most famous player. Zlatan-esque, Isak is an amazing talent who can run in behind as well as hold up the ball well. On the wing, Emil Forsberg can find spaces and create well while Dejan Kulusevski gives directness in attacks by running straight at defenders. Krasnodar trio of Viktor Claesson, Kristoffer Olsson, and Marcus Berg make up a well bonded midfield/attack combo. They are resolute and can be hard to break down for any team.

Will the lack of Zlatan be a hinderance to Sweden’s chances?

Poland use a flexible approach, with the ball they line up in a 3-4-1-2 and switch to four at the back without it. After sacking manager Jerzy Brzeczek due to complications with star player Lewandowski, Paulo Sousa is still in only his fifth month in charge and has yet to impress. Lewandowski is likely to be paired with Milik up front with Swiderski providing back up from the bench. Left-back Maceij Rybus is important to attacks making overlapping runs and Piotr Zielinski pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role. Lewandowski can win games on his own, especially if he can continue his record breaking season into the tournament. Sousa’s tactical decision will be crucial and that adds a sense of unknown to Poland.

Slovakia, who qualified for the Euros in a dramatic fashion, are a counter attacking side and would be sitting in deep low blocks every game. Skriniar is vital in the centre of defence and he also scored two goals for Slovakia in March. Top Scorer Marek Hamsik who moved to Sweden to gain fitness for the Euros can be deployed as a striker due to poor finishing record of Michal Duris. They are the second weakest side after North Macedonia and it will be some story if they progress through the group stage.

Group prediction: Spain are the clear favourites but it would be interesting to see how they break down the defensive teams. It would be tight between Sweden and Poland for the second spot. 1st- Spain, 2nd- Sweden, 3rd- Poland, 4th- Slovakia

Group E ( France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal)

France play in their well recognized 4-2-3-1 system with one winger cutting inside and the other being Kylian Mbappe. They are the strongest team in the competition with midfield duo of Kante and Pogba and a backline of Varane, Kimbepe and Bayern full backs, Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. National team superstar, Griezmann works in the no. 10 role and will have an eye for another individual award having won the Bronze Ball and Golden Boot separately in the last two major tournaments. Benzema’s return will add more flexibility to an already lethal front line. There will be no room for mistakes against the World Champions especially in the group of death.

Can World Champions France also win Euro 2020?

Joachim Low doesn’t have a defined system for his current German team but he mostly switches between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3.  Hummels, who has been called up after a break, will probably form the central defence with Rudiger. Quality of midfield options in Kroos, Gundogan and Goretzka allows Kimmich to feature in a right wing back or full back role with the impressive Robin Gosens on the other side. Their attacking options are as potent as anyone. There is a lot of pace and flair up front in Sane, Gnabry, Werner and Havertz. Muller adds the experience and awareness and often features in the striker role as Werner’s poor club form has transcended into his international form of late. Unlike past German teams, they lack clear identity and individual excellence might be needed to get through this dreadful group.

Defending champions Portugal are even stronger than the last euros and will line up either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In defence, Ruben Dias will be paired with a 38 years old Pepe who has aged like a fine wine. They have a prolific pair of attack minded full backs in Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro. In midfield, Danilo Perriera is the main holding midfielder and Fernandes makes runs into advanced positions. The wide areas are blessed with talents like Bernardo Silva and Jota making inward runs. The extraordinary Ronaldo features in the centre forward position but they also have the option of Andre Silva there who had a sensational season with Frankfurt. They can sometimes appear very cautious and rightly so but a better balance can make them back to back European champions.

Hungary play with a 3-5-2 system which shifts to a five man backline for large portions of the match. Their attacking approach is playing direct to Adam Szalai with Roland Sallai making runs off him. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulasci and Willi Orban will be core members of the backline. Dominik Szoboszlai, another Leipzig player, is out injured and will be hugely missed. His technical and creative abilities is what the Hungarian side lacks the most. It will be the biggest surprise of the tournament if Hungary progresses through this group. Though they will play their first two games home in a fully packed stadium and a possible German collapse could open the doors in the third game.

Who will survive the Group stage and who will be going home?

Knockout stages and winners prediction

The format of four out of six 3rd place teams progressing offers some room for mistakes in the group stages. And it will also lead to easy opponents for some in the round of 16. Importance of squad depth and tactical flexibility will grow through the stages. Teams’ fates will also depend on avoiding the big giants and unfavoured tactical opponents. 

Winners- Belgium: The squad is in their prime with the average age around 29 and also the most experienced with players averaging around 50 caps each. De Bruyne and Lukaku are entering the Euros on the back of phenomenal individual club campaign’s. This also might be the last chance for the golden generation to win a major trophy as they would need to revamp their defence soon. 

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Will Hans-Dieter Flick mastermind for the next evolution of the German National team?

July 2021 marks the end of era in history of the German National team with the charismatic manager, Joachim Löw taking his last bow for ‘die mannschaft’ after the Euro 2020. Löw took over as manager after the 2006 World Cup and transformed the team fortunes leading them to World Cup victory in Brazil in 2014. His 15-year tenure revolutionized Germany’s identity as a nation and a leader in global football.  

The 1990 World Cup signified a turning point in its history. A mere few months after West Germany’s win at that tournament, they reunified with their Eastern counterpart forming the now known unified Germany. Instead of building on that success, Germany struggled to find its footing on the international scene. They did managed to win the 1996 European Championships in England but with an aging squad. There were also promising signs at the 2006 World Cup as well which was on home turf. Despite a semi-final exit, they showed the world a fun summer World Cup (breaking the typical stern-faced German stereotypes) and bright young talents (Lukas Podolski, Per Mertesacker, Bastian Schweinsteiger) got to shine on the big stage.

Exit stage right – Low is set to depart from the German National job after Euro 2020

The German footballing authority looked to build on this momentum with a new manager (Löw) with fresh ideologies to foster the young and hungry talents that the country bore. The emergence of Pep Guardiola and the Tiki-Taka footballing philosophy along with Spain’s dominance at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 only strengthened the notion that change was needed. International success usually comes on the heel of domestic success at club level. But German football clubs at the time were struggling to compete with clubs in the more opulent European leagues.

So, the clubs in german pivoted towards a new approach focused on developing home grown players and investing in young and upcoming managers with new ideas for long term success. The move would turn out to be a watershed moment in german football. Case in point, Jurgen Klöpp who brought success to Borussia Dortmund through recruitment and development of young players by educating them on a new chic of counter pressing style of football labelled Gegenpressing. This put Dortmund back on to the big stage again after breaking the Bundesliga dominance held by Bayern Munich with successive domestic titles.

Jurgen Klopp is one of several managers who benefited from a change in mindset in german football

This period of time in the Bundesliga also clubs spend more on international talent recruitment. It coincided with Germany as a country opening its borders more to immigrants in the hope of creating a new national identity and providing an economic stimulus. Some of the then “unknown gems” to shine in the German league at this time included Shinji Kagawa, Heung-Min Son and Roberto Firmino to name a few. Dortmund also produced several young talented german players who would go on to make up the core of the German national team that won the World Cup in 2014. Even now, the approach is being replicated with several german clubs entrusting younger managers who can relate and understand the new generation of players like Thomas Tüchel and Julian Nagelsmann.

This thinking will likely also be applied to the selection of the new German national manager once Low departs. The German national team managerial job is a highly coveted position with a long line of history and pride so finding willing applicants should not be an issue. However selecting the right manager who can work with a new crop of exciting german players is the priority. Last year, four of the top five managers in European football were German coaches (Jurgen Klopp, Hans-Dieter Flick, Thomas Tüchel and Julian Nagelsmann); all of whom got their respective starts in management at a young age. Of them, Bayern Munich’s Hans-Dieter Flick seems to be the best fit for the national job. He was Joachim Löw’s assistant from 2006-2014 with the German National team before getting the nod for managerial career to begin in the Bundesliga on an interim basis taking over from Niko Kovac at Bayern. After getting the managerial job on full time basis, he guided the Bundesliga champions to a continental treble including the Champions League which he won against the Thomas Tuchel led Paris Saint Germain.

Flick waves goodbye to Bayern and hello to the German National managers job

Flick recently expressed his interest in taking over as the next manager of the national team after announcing his own desire to leave Bayern. After a long internal political struggle, Bayern Munich relinquished any chances to change Flick’s mind and hired Julian Nagelsmann from RB Leipzig for the 2021-2022 season. After successfully leading 1899 Hoffenheim to their first Champions League qualification, he then led RB Leipzig to their first Champions league semi-final spot in 2020. Despite his young age (he’s still only 33), Nagelsmann was touted by several big names in Europe to lead their club.  Bayern Munich moved quickly to secure their man and signed Nagelsmann for a hefty sum (€25 million) in order to break his contract with RB Leipzig in a move of utter dominance.

The German FA can now make a move for Flick, their first choice to take over after the Euro 2020. And rightly so. Flick mastermind the reemergence of Bayern Munich as a dominant player in Europe after a disastrous spell under Carlo Ancelotti and Niko Kovac. Part of his masterplan was to pinpoint the key players in the squad who he could work closely with to change the tide. The resurgence of Thomas Müller behind the striker and Joshua Kimmich’s deep runs from central midfield provided a new dynamic flow to Bayern Munich’s football. Given his relationship with Bayern Munich squad who make up the core of German national team and the vast number of talented players playing across Europe, come the summer 2021 and beyond it is hard to see Germany going anywhere but forward.  

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Could England Triumph at Euro 2020?

England moved top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group after registering 3 wins in a week. They beat the lowest ranked international team in San Marino 5-0, then Albania 2-0 before managing a 2-1 win over Poland on the final day of the March international break.

The wins against San Marino and Albania were as easy as they come and indeed they should have beaten Albania by a higher margin. With the next competitive games set to be at the Euros, these two games gave Southgate a chance to explore who would lead his attack with a plethora of talent at his disposal. However the match against Poland was a stark reminded for England fans of the possible mishaps at the back, the pragmatic back 3 is anything but convincing but it is certain to be used against oppositions of higher quality.

England lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system for the three qualifiers and only switched to a reminiscing 3-4-3 for the last five minutes against Poland. Looking into the 4-2-3-1 system, with the double pivot, one defensive midfielder is to stay back at all times and help to build from the back. The other was given the freedom to join attacks from the right side and help create overloads in the wide-area with the extra responsibility of getting back in shape when possession is lost. The attacking midfielder up front shifts to the left side to create overloads and is given the most positional freedom and also the responsibility to create openings.

Maguire celebrates after scoring against Poland

Creating overloads in wide areas is a big part of how they attack with the full-backs pushing up high and the midfielders drifting wide. They then link-up play with wingers to create openings, find space to cross in the box, or attract the opposition defence before switching up play quickly. It also allows them to press up high with high intensity after giving away possession.

Mason Mount shone in the no.10 role in the WC qualifiers and is one of the players who has probably booked his spot in the starting 11 for the Euros. Declan Rice was solid at the no.6 role and is looking a good fit for it, in the absence of Jordan Henderson and was accompanied by either Kalvin Phillips or James Ward Prowse. If Henderson can recover from his groin injury in time he would be taking the second defensive midfielder role as the skipper brings experience and leadership to the side.

The centre back partnership of John Stones and Harry Maguire is looking certain to feature in Euros. Meanwhile Nick Pope was given the chance to be in the net as Pickford missed all three games after sustaining an injury to his oblique abdominal muscle. The Burnley keeper’s vulnerability when playing out from the back was highly visible and that will make it harder for him to take the number 1 spot at the Euros from Pickford, who is more proficient with his feet and also preferred by Southgate.

The England manager’s controversial decision to leave out Trent Alexander-Arnold came as a shock to a lot of fans, but to bring it to context, the Liverpool right-back has not been at his best this season and England possesses top-quality talent at his position. Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James are all competing for that role and bring more diverse and suitable attributes to the table for England; Walker can also play in a back three allowing Southgate to switch systems easily mid-game, Trippier can play on either flank, and Reece James is a pacy upcoming talent himself, who plays with high intensity. It still feels unfair to leave someone of Trent’s quality out and as Southgate said, he could still make it to the Euros if his performances for Liverpool improve. Not to mention, Wan Bissaka has found it hard to get in the England squad due to the four men ahead of him.

Southgate’s decision to leave out Trent Alexander Arnold from the last squad raised a few eyebrows

Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw will be competing for the left-back position unless there is a surprise find in the last few months of the season. If Grealish can make it back to the squad, he will be competing with Rashford and Sterling to play in left-wing and Jadon Sancho could be seen fighting with Foden to play on the right flank. Keeping in mind, Foden, Sterling, and Rashford can play on either side but Southgate has figured out what flank he likes them to see in. Harry Kane in his hybrid of out and out striker and false 9 roles is likely to start every game at the Euros, with Calvert Lewin giving a superb option from the bench.

According to bookmakers England, alongside France are the favorites to win the Euros, but are they really? Well, they are a top-quality team on paper, and Southgate and his men now have valuable cup competition experience. But history tells England performs the best when expectations are low and disappoint when hopes are high. Looking at other big football nations in Europe, new generations of Spain and Germany are highly inconsistent, Netherland looks to have played the wrong card in appointing Frank De Boer as their manager. Italy is re-emerging and could still threaten whilst Belgium and Portugal have vary different points to prove. Not forgetting, Croatia and their new dark horse partner in Turkey who could all pose a significant risk to England’s chances at Euro’s success.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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What now for Euro 2020 as pandemic tightens its grip on Europe

As the months whittle down towards the start of arguably the biggest football tournament of this summer, Euro 2020, tournament plans remains unclear. With less than 100 days to go until kick off, the tournaments organizers, UEFA are scrambling together a feasible plan, with the help of several national governments, to host the cross-country tournament. The usually single or duo hosted event takes an unusual turn this time around with the games spread out over 12 different countries as a way of marking the 60th edition of the tournament and also to reduce the costs associated with hosting. That decision, made nine years ago has come back to haunt UEFA who now face a logistical nightmare during a never ending horrific global pandemic.

Having been postponed a year from its original start date in June 2020, it is almost certain that the tournament will happen this summer. With the resumption of most of the sporting leagues across Europe, UEFA have clarified that the tournament will take place this summer between June 11 – July 11, 2021 and it will be played in multiple cities spread across Europe.

Euros are set to be hosted across 12 host cities namely:

  • Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • Baku (Azerbaijan)
  • Bilbao (Spain)
  • Bucharest (Romania)
  • Budapest (Hungary)
  • Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • Dublin (Republic of Ireland)
  • Glasgow (Scotland)
  • London (England)
  • Munich (Germany)
  • Rome (Italy)
  • Saint Petersburg (Russia)

One of the key questions however is whether fans will be able to attend the games or not. With many of the sporting leagues playing with a very small faction of fans or behind closed doors, it’s likely that UEFA will permit some fans to be in the stadiums when the matches begin but to what level or capacity has still to be determined.

That caution is due to the continued pandemic that still has a tight strangle hold on most of Europe. The leagues have managed to operating successfully due to everyday testing and strict safety protocols to be followed by staff and players alike. But for an international tournament held in numerous cities and countries with high infection numbers, planning for the tournament has taken on a whole new level of complexity.

Current holders Portugal with the trophy in 2016.

With varying degrees of virus infection rates and restrictions, UEFA has had to coordinate with 12 different governments to organize this tournament. Whilst the vaccines are offering hope, the current progress of the vaccinations in the European Union in the first quarter of 2021 is still below the expected estimation primarily due to vaccine producers (AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech) in EU prioritizing export of vaccines under the COVAX initiative. The EU top officials are rallying to curb exports to prioritize the vaccination of the European citizens to stem the tide of the disease.

Over the last two weeks France, Italy, Germany, Poland and Netherlands have seen yet another increase in the Covid-19 cases. This was followed by tightening of the restrictions in these countries which included essential travel and mandatory negative test reports for cross-country travel. UEFA are trying their utmost to include fans in the stadiums at least to fill 50% of the stadium but, they may downsize the venues prioritizing the cities with lower infection rates. The worst-case scenario could mean the games are played behind closed doors, something that would not please UEFA who had grander plans for celebrating the tournaments 60th anniversary.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Euro 2016 – Ten Takeaways From The Group Stage

1. Let’s not get shirty

Generally one of the quietest men on the technical bench is the kit man but that wasn’t the case for the Swiss representative who was kept extra busy during the France vs Switzerland match. In a fairly heavy handed and tempestuous match the Swiss kit man was called upon not once, nor twice, but five times to replace ripped strips. It was a huge embarrassment for the shirt maker Puma who blamed it on a defective batch. But by then it was too late with the Internet exploding with a series of memes and jokes, the best of which came from Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri who remarked that he hoped the shirt manufacturers also didn’t make condoms.

2. Cheer up Ronaldo!

It’s proving increasingly difficult to like Cristiano Ronaldo. His narcissistic nature coupled with his constant need to hog the limelight (case in point: the Champions League final where he did nothing for 120 minutes then insisted on taking the decisive fifth penalty in the shoot out win) are lumping the Portuguese star recently in the same bracket of affection as Donald Trump. Arguably the world’s best player (ahead of Messi), this should have been Ronaldo’s chance to win over his haters. Instead, Ronaldo has come across as a whiny little b@tch. First, he complained that Iceland parked the bus against Portugal and didn’t really try. He then refused to acknowledge and shake their hands after the game, but did take a moment to pose with a pitch invader for a photo. Days later after missing a crucial penalty against Austria, Ronaldo was caught on camera grabbing a reporter’s microphone and tossing it into a nearby lake. Hardly the behaviour of a world class player. At least a brace in the final game against Hungary put a smile temporarily back on his face.

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It’s not been an easy group stage for Ronaldo (image from Tumblr)

3. Riots and flares

Unfortunately any positive memories generated from the group stage will be tainted with the ugly scenes of rioting in the stadiums and in the host cities. Gangs of imbeciles from a variety of nations (primarily Russia and England) have caused havoc and threatened to ruin what has been a good start to the tournament. Added to this, the throwing of flares at games by Russian, Turkish and Croat fans has led to UEFA handing down a stern warning or two to behave (like that will work). It has gotten so serious that the Croatian players had to plead with their fans (who bizarrely were fighting each other) to stop throwing flares after a steward almost suffered horrendous burns to his face when a flare blew up just as he was picking it up. When will these idiots learn? On a brighter note though, news is surfacing from France that one such idiot stuck a flare up his backside in order to hide it from the security searches only for it to explode leaving the yob with a burned bum and bruised ego.

4. The Underdog

When Platini expanded the tournament to 24, he did so in the hope of giving smaller nations the chance to qualify. But in doing so he created a new generation of underdogs – teams who many suggested had no chance of progressing. Sides like Albania, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Wales all reached new heights by not only qualifying but also recording victories in the group stages. What this demonstrates is that the gap between the traditionally more powerful nations in Europe (Germany, Italy, England, Spain) and the rest is narrowing. Part of this is down to the Bosman ruling which allowed players more freedom of movement across Europe, which in turn helped to develop them with the knock on benefit being that their national teams also improved. Whilst they may have exited at the group stage, Albania have shown that they are a team who are improving year over year  and could become a regular qualifier for international tournaments in the years ahead.

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They will be back – Albania (Image from tumblr)

5. Third place progress confusion

Nothing like taking a tried and tested formula and throwing that out the window in favour of a new approach. Expanding the Euros from a 16 team to 24 team tournament meant that some of the smaller nations had a better chance of qualifying and it worked. However the confusion surrounding who progresses to the knockout stages could have been avoided. The best four out of six third place teams progressed with the other 12 group winners and runners up leaving only eight packing their bags and heading home. However for some of the third place teams, like Albania, the wait to see was the killer. Having played and won dramatically on Sunday, Albania had to hang around until Wednesday to find out if they were continuing on in the tournament or heading home. In the end they were sent home along with Turkey, so the extra few days proved slightly pointless. Perhaps next time UEFA will change it again and have the eight third place teams play off to see which four progress. I’m sure the fans wouldn’t mind watching that.

6. Plucky Iceland

The smallest nation ever to have qualified for the Euros, Iceland were not expected to do much at the tournament. But two draws and a late 94th minute winner against Austria, Iceland qualified and in doing so showed that they should have been given more credit. After all, they did qualify ahead of the Dutch, including beating them twice en route. Frustrating Ronaldo in the opening match was a joy to behold as Iceland quickly became the neutrals go-to team. A mouthwatering knockout stage match against England now awaits. Their passionate fans showed how wonderful this tournament could have been if other nation’s fans had embraced the same attitude. The stat that seems to be on every commentator’s lips is that 8% of the Icelandic population is at the Euros, but on some occasions it feels like the entire nation had descended on France.

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Iceland scored their first ever goal of the Euro’s against Portugal (Image from Tumblr)

7. A new finalist

In any given tournament, the luck of the draw is very much a decisive factor in how far you progress within it. After an enthralling group stage that saw a few surprise upsets (Hungary topping their group, Croatia one upping Spain) the two sides of the knockout bracket look very different. On one side are the competition’s so-called heavy hitters: Spain, Italy, France, England and Germany, meaning that one by one they will be eliminated en route to the final. On the other side is Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Belgium, Portugal and Wales, meaning that there is a good chance that we will see a new team reach the final for the very first time (the only exceptions being Belgium and Portugal who reached the 1980 and 2008 finals respectively).

8. Late Goals

If the group stage has taught us anything, it’s to watch until the very end (or in Iceland’s case the very very end, deep into injury time). The group stage has given us its fair share of goals, but surprisingly a chunk of them have come within the closing minutes. From 69 goals in total over the 36 games, 27.5% came in the last ten minutes of games. The reason for this is uncertain, but you could speculate that it’s the reluctance of teams to press up the pitch, since more than half of the sides are content to absorb the pressure and hit on the break. It might be that Euro 2016 signals the return of the defensive approach or it could just be that every team is trying to replicate how Leicester City won the English Premier League this season.

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Iceland’s 94th minute winner against Austria was one of 19 goals scored by teams in the groups in the closing stages (Image from Tumblr)

9. French passion

If the sight of Dimitri Payet wiping the tears from his eyes after scoring a spectacular winner on match day 1 doesn’t get you, nothing will. The West Ham star has been the revelation of the French team and embodies the passion that is running through the country at present. Les Blues haven’t seen this amount of hope and good will towards them since the last time their country hosted a major tournament – the 1998 World Cup. Whilst this squad is arguably not as strong or as complete as that side was, there is optimism that perhaps they can go all the way just like they did 18 years ago. With Payet in form, Pogba pulling the strings in midfield and Greizmann still to shine, it would be foolish to bet against them.

10. Hidden gems

As always there are players who excel in the group stages and make a name for themselves. Beyond the more well known faces of Bale, Ronaldo and Pogba are a host of new faces – players almost unknown to the vast majority of fans before the tournament began. Players like Marek Hamsik of Slovenia who scored a peach against a very poor Austria side. Or Switzerland’s rock between the sticks Yann Sommer who has impressed with some fine saves as the Swiss progressed to the knockout stages. Finally, Turkey’s Emre Mor, the youngster who completed a move to Borussia Dortmund just before the start of the Euros. Mor didn’t start the first game but shone brightly enough when he came on, which forced his coach to start him in the next two games.  He is one to watch in the very near future.

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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 2 – Groups D, E and F

Group D – Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic + Turkey

Q: Who should top the group? – Spain

Q: Who are the dark horses – Turkey

Q: One to watch: Emre Mor (Turkey)

Having won back to back Euro’s in 2008 and 2012, Spain are looking to make history by completing the treble and lifting the trophy in Paris on July 10th. However a poor performance at the last World cup where they failed to progress out of the group stage has forced a dramatic rethink with Del Bosque tinkering his squad. The result is that several big name players like Diego Costa, Santi Carzola and Juan Mata miss out in favour of the likes of Hector Bellerin, Nolito and the uncapped Lucas Vazquez. The end product is the shortest squad in the tournament (averaging 5ft 9in) but that should matter little as technically they are one of the most gifted squads. Spain did qualify with ease, losing only once along the way to Slovakia but that was to a late goal and against the run of play. Few will bet against Spain at least reaching the final if not going all the way. Croatia however have little chance of making it to the final. They are very much a side in transition under Ante Cacic, a former TV repairman turn fairly unspectacular coach. His appointment was widely slammed at home in Croatia and will need an outstanding Euros to keep his job. he does have a talented squad that contains Real’s Luka Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic but Cacic lack of credbility or tactical knowledge means that Croatia often underwhelm. Only a win against Turkey in their opening game will give them a chance of progressing.

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Sergio Ramos of Spain arrives to defend their title (Image from Tumblr)

Turkey have no such problem under Faith Terim, the legendary three times national manager who also strangely holds a Italian Knighthood. Turkey enter as the lightweights literally with the lightest squad on average of all sides at 74kg. But that wont deter an experienced group who should progress at the expense of the Czech Republic. Led by Barcelona’s Arda Turan who was unable to play for the Catalan’s until January due to the club’s transfer ban, Turkey are a unique mix of youth and experience that almost didn’t click in qualifying. An 89th minute free kick in game ten against Iceland allowed Turkey to scrape through as the best third placed team. Winners of their group in qualifying were the Czech Republic so it will be the third time in a year and a half that the two sides have met in competitive competition. It’s one game a piece but the bookies will favour the Czech’s who topped the group that also contained Iceland and Holland. Despite free scoring hitting 19, the Czech’s failed to keep a clean sheet in ten attempts conceding 14 goals in the process, the most of any of the nations to qualify. Manager Pavel Vrba has a wealth of knowledge and is widely respected having won five consecutive Czech coach of the year awards from 2010-2015.That however may not be enough to progress especially if Spain and Croatia both beat them before they face Turkey on the last match day.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland + Sweden

Q: Who should top the group? – Belgium

Q: Who are the dark horses – Sweden

Q: One to Watch: Yannick Carrasco (Belgium)

In the so called group of death, the smallest of margins will likely determine who advances and who goes home. Speaking of small, Italy happens to have the tournaments shortest player in its ranks. However what Lorenzo Insigne (5ft 6in) lacks in stature he makes up for in raw talent with the Napoli striker key to Italy’s success. Manager Antonio Conte may have already sealed his exit from the national team (he joins Chelsea afterwards) but wants to go out on a high no matter what. Repeating their feat of four years ago when they reached the final is definitely on Italy’s agenda but suffering another 4-0 defeat (the worst defeat in a Euro or World Cup final) is not. Standing in his way is some lofty competition including Sweden who are the tallest squad at the Euros at an average of 1.86m, the most recognisable being their legendary striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To say they are dependant on Zlatan to ensure they have a good tournament is an understatement with the former PSG striker hitting 11 of the 19 goals they scored in qualifying. In truth it was a difficult campaign with Sweden only making it via the playoffs at the expense of Denmark. Since then 2 wins, 3 draws and a defeat to Turkey highlight their indifferent form going into the Euros.They will need Zlatan to be at his very best if they are to escape the group.

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Yannick Carrasco of Belgium could be one of the stars of the tournament (Image from Tumblr)

One team that is very much on form is Belgium who have assembled the most expensive squad of any of the qualified nations. A total of  $319m in transfers has been paid for Belgian players like Christian Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne both of whom secured big money moves last summer. Many point to attacking options of Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi  as the reason why Belgiam are considered dark horses for the tournament. However in qualifying, only four goals from 24 were scored by the strikers – with each one only scoring once. A worrying problem for manager Marc Wilmots to think about. Finally the Republic of Ireland are set to make their third appearance at the Euros having first qualified back in 1988. That year only eight teams took place with the Republic finishing third behind eventual finalists Holland and the Soviet Union but ahead of England after a Ray Houghton goal sealed a memorable victory. This time around, the Republic is unlikely to provide a shock having scraped through qualifying (they did beat Germany though). As one of the oldest squads (average age of almost 30), its likely that this tournament will be the last for several of their star players. Robbie Keane has been one of the most constant performers for the Irish but at 35 the LA Galaxy striker is nearing the end of the road.

Group F – Austria, Hungary, Iceland and Portugal

Q: Who should top the group? – Portugal

Q: Who are the dark horses – Austria

Q: Who to watch: Joao Mario (Portugal)

Cristiano Ronaldo enters the tournament with a hunger to rewrite history and finally forget about the horrors that fell upon him at Euro 2008. That year he helped Portugal reach the final on home soil only to fall at the last hurdle to Greece in a shock loss. Cristiano Ronaldo could become the first man to score at four Euro finals if he nets in France. He currently sits on six goals in his career, so is every chance to catch Michel Platini’s nine goals at the top of the tree if Portugal have a good tournament. This time around there will be no Luis Figo or Nuno Gomes to help him, with afresh batch of players being brought into the fold for this tournament. Several members of Portugal’s under 21 winning side from last summer have made the move up to the full team including the impressive midfield trio of William Carvalho, Joao Mario and Andres Gomes but surprisingly Bernardo Silva, the creative force of that team misses out. Another side with an impressive youthful squad is Austria.The former co-hosts of 2008 have improved year over year since that tournament and are one of the most improved sides in Europe rising over 95 places in the FIFA world rankings in less than 8 years. They blitzed group G in qualifying, topping the group with nine wins and a draw scoring 22 and conceding just 5. Bayern Munich’s David Alba has grown into their most important player but its the supporting cast of Stoke’ Marko Arnautovic, Stuttgart’s Martin Harnik and Mainz’s Julian Baumgartlinger that make Austria a tough team to play against. Much is expected of this side and talk of being a dark horse may not be too far from the truth.

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Portugal are pinning their hopes on Ronaldo once again (Image from Tumblr)

Iceland on the other hand are not expected to do much. The expansion of the Euros to 24 means we get the charming inclusion of a country like Iceland, in their first ever tournament. Their population is 330,000, making them the smallest country to ever qualify for a European Championship finals. Co-managed by Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson (a dentist by trade who will replace Lagerback at the end of the tournament), Iceland rely on team spirit to get them over the line. All time record goalscorer Eidur Gudjohnsen makes the squad despite being 37 years young. He wont however be the oldest player at the tournament with Hungary goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly set to take that honour at 40 years old. Known for his tatty grey jogging pants that he wears in every game instead of shorts (based on comfort), Kiraly is looking to add to his 103 caps at Euro 2016 but not much is expected of this Hungary side whose best years are behind them. Despite a troubled qualifying that saw them go through three different managers in the process, Hungary booked their passage to France with a convincing 3-1 aggregate win over Norway. Like the Irish, this will be the final roll of the dice for several of the Hungary players including Zoltan Gera and Kiraly.

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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 1 – Groups A, B and C

Watching the European Championships or any major international tournament with your friends is generally highly enjoyable. That is until your so-called friend starts spouting stats and facts about each team making you feel simply like you don’t know anything about football. But fear not, we are here to help. Below is your group by group cheat sheet which should help impress your friends and shut up Mr. Know it all. Each group contains who should win the group, who are the dark horses (a horse racing term for an unexpected winner that in football only seems to appear at major tournaments), one player to watch and some good old fashion generally knowledge about each team. Enjoy!

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Captain Lorik Cana will lead Albania out at their first ever tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Group A – Albania, France, Romania + Switzerland

Q: Who should top the group? – France

Q: Who are the dark horses – Switzerland

Q: Player to watch – Breel Embolo (Switzerland)

France host for a record-breaking third time. Its a record that France should hold onto going forward after UEFA announced its intentions to hold the next set of European Championships across multiple countries. Albania play their first ever major men’s tournament having qualified second in a group containing Portugal, former winners Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. More remarkable is that they only scored ten goals in 8 games, the lowest of all the qualifying teams. Goals will be a problem for them in France. Romania drew more games in qualifying than any other (five) but benefited for the collapse of Greece under the management Claudio Ranieri (who would be sacked only to re-emerge months later and lead Leicester to a surprise Premier League title) beating them in their first match. They also have in their squad the tournaments tallest player in goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (6ft 6in).  Finally the Swiss kick off their Euro 2016 with an interesting clash with Albania which will see brother face brother as midfielder Granit Xhaka faces up to his little brother Taulant. Both born in Switzerland to Kosovo Albanian parents, Granit opted for his country of birth whilst Taulant picked Albania. It will be the first time they have faced each other at international level and a first for the European Championships but not in major competitions with the Boateng brothers (Kevin Prince and Jerome) holding that honour when Ghana met Germany at the World Cup in 2014

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More than just Bale? (Image from Tumblr)

Group B – England, Russia, Slovakia + Wales

Q: Who should top the group? – England

Q: Who are the dark horses – Slovakia

Q: Player to watch – Deli Alli (England)

England embark on a record ninth Euro’s appearance (more than any other nation) but also sadly own the record for most appearances in the quarter finals without winning the trophy (eight times). This year the selection of Marcus Rashford means that England will have the youngest player at the tournament (18 years old). They face an aging Russia side that is the second oldest (behind Republic of Ireland) however the late inclusion of 26-year-old Zenit midfielder Artur Yusupov should lower it slightly. Interestingly Yusupov was not originally in the squad for the Euros but benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Yusupov lucked out when he happened to stay in the same hotel as the Russia national team in Monaco whilst on his holidays. After Igor Denisov pulled out, Yusupov was asked to cut his holiday short and make up the numbers. Much to his girlfriend’s annoyance, he accepted and immediately joined the squad despite not having his boots (he had to borrow a pair whilst his boots were flown in from Russia with love). Slovakia’s players may not be that well-recognized but could be one of the surprises of the tournament. Their key player is Napoli’s Marek Hamsik who will have the best haircut at the Euro’s – his signature mohawk. If Slovakia are to progress they will need him and fellow midfielder Vladimir Weiss to be on form, creating chances for their forwards. Weiss finished qualifying with the most assists which contributed to 33% of all of Slovakia’s goals. Wales found goals hard to come by in qualifying scoring only 11 times (7 of which were scored by Gareth Bale – 64%). They may be seen as a one man show but in fact have one of the best defences with only Spain, England and strangely Romania conceding less in qualifying. Manager Chris Coleman has the team playing as one and defending as such which shows in the qualifying stats with forward Hal Robson Kanu the third highest fouler with 26.

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Poland beat Germany in qualifying – can they do it again at Euro 2016? (Image from Tumblr)

Group C – Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland and Ukraine

Q: Who should top the group? – Germany

Q: Who are the dark horses – Poland

Q: Player to watch – Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine)

World champions Germany enter the Euro’s in indifferent form having struggled at times during qualifying. However history is on their side. Germany are the constant theme at the Euros having featured in every one since 1972. They have also reached the most finals (6), winning half of them – a record they share with Spain. At this Euro’s Germany will be heavyweight hitters (they are the heaviest squad on average at 80.3kg) as they look to become only the second side to win the Euros whilst current World Champions. Northern Ireland feature for the first time having never reached the finals before (they have qualified for two WC’s in the past). Michael O’Neill’s side enter the tournament as the inform side unbeaten in their last 12 games. They will rely on the goals of Kyle Lafferty to get them out of the group stage after his heroics in qualifying. Lafferty has found game time at club level hard this past season and in fact made more appearances for Northern Ireland since August 2015 than he did at his various clubs (9 for country versus 6 for club). That is in stark contract to Poland’s Robert Lewandowski who was a constant for Bayern and Poland last year and has been in devastating form. He finished the season in Germany with 42 goals in all competitions plus as top scorer in qualifying with 13. However Poland are far from being the Lewandowski show with several other members helping them to finish as the top scorers overall with 33 goals. Ukraine on the other hand could only muster 15 strikes (6 of which were against Luxembourg). Having only ever won a single game at the Euros (2-1 vs Sweden at Euro 2012 – surprisingly one more win than the Poles have achieved), they will be looking to build on this and hopefully progress with a win over Poland. To do so they will need Seville’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Dynamo Kiev’s Andiy Yarmolenko to be on form. Both players are looking to impress during the tournament to earn money spinning moves to the Premiership or Bundesliga. Captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is an avid collector of wines so will be looking to toast his sides progress if they can get beyond the group stage for the first time.

Look out for Part 2 – Groups D, E and F on Monday.

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Three Reasons France Will Win Euro 2016

Along side World Cup winners Germany, former winners Spain and Italy and outside bets England and Belgium, France enter Euro 2016 as one of the early favourites and rightly so. This will be the 15th time the European Championships have taken place and the third time France has hosted (1960 and 1984 the other two). In 1960, France reached the semi finals losing out to Yugoslavia in an enthralling match that ended 5-4 despite France being 4-2 up with 35 minutes left to play. In 1984 with Michel Platini leading the way France went one better by reaching the final beating Spain by 2-0 to lift the trophy for the first time. Since then, France have always been in contention but have failed to reach the latter stages apart from on one occasion in 2000 when a late David Trezeguet goal handed them victory over a battling Italy in the final to earn their second crown. Now back in France, the French know that this is their chance to add yet another trophy to their growing collection and we at BOTN blog believe that they will. Here are the three reasons why:

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The European Championship trophy is lifted up by France’s Didier Deschamps in 2000 (Image from Tumblr)

Form

If you take a look at the winners of Europe’s top five leagues (England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy) and count the number of players that feature for those teams with their respective national sides, France comes in fourth with 6 players behind Germany/Spain (seven) and Italy (eight). But when you factor in the top three sides of each league, those stats dramatically change with France way out in front. Man to man, France has the most in-form players across Europe out of any of the squads attending this years tournament. At the back, Hugo Lloris has had a superb season with Tottenham and narrowly missed out on a winner’s medal losing out to surprise winners Leicester City.  At left back, Patrice Evra continues to roll back the years with Juventus and has earned himself a new 2 year contract despite being 35. At centre back, the Premier League pairing of Arsenal’s Laurent Koscieniny and Eliaquim Mangala may not be everyone’s ideal pairing and to be fair aren’t France’s either but with injuries to Raphael Varane and Kurt Zouma, the duo looks likely to be first choice. The good news is that both are in good form, ending the season well and should be ready for the Euros. Supporting the defence is a midfield packed with talent. At the heart of it is Juventus Paul Pogba who has established himself as one of the first names on Deschamps team sheet. Alongside Pogba is likely to be N’Golo Konte, Leicester City’s breakthrough star whose rise to promenance has been nothing short of amazing. Over a year ago, Konte was playing for lowly Caen and was further from the national team thoughts than most but a move to Leicester City last summer followed by an outstanding debut season which saw Konte play a pivitol role in Leicester’s surprise run to the title has catipulated him into the French national team and a role at Euro 2016. His form during the season, alongside three stand out performances for Les Blues in recent friendlies has push him ahead of Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi for a starting spot. On the wings, France have talent in abundance with West Ham’s Dimitri Payet also benefiting from a move to the Premier League. His form for the Hammers this season as well as his natural talent at dead ball situations make him a contender for a starting place. Ahead of him however is Atletico’s Antonie Griezmann who is in the form of his life, helping Atletico push Barcelona all the way in the La Liga title race. He played a crucial role in Atletico reaching the Champions League final and will be looked to by Deschamps to provide the inspiration that powers France to glory this summer.

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Griezmann should play a pivotal role for France in the Euros. (Image from Tumblr)

Upfront Deschamps has options despite overlooking the obvious pair of Karim Benzema and Kevin Gamiero. The former finds himself excluded due to off field shenanigans with the Real Madrid striker under investigation for allegedly attempting to blackmail fellow international Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. Benzema would likely have been a starter given his form for Madrid but Deschamps has taken the bold move to remove him from the equation for the betterment of the entire squad. Sevilla’s Gamiero on the other hand just can’t seem to quite force his way back into the national team despite being in blistering form. The former PSG striker who scored in the 3-1 victory over Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final hasn’t featured for Les Blues since 2011 making him the forgotten man. Ahead of him however are three strong options, all of whom are playing well for their respective clubs. Like him or loathe him, Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud is a proven goalscorer with 14 goals for his country so far in just under 50 appearances. with Benzema now excluded, he is in contention for a starting spot but faces stiff competition from Andre-Pierre Gignac. Many feared that Gignac’s international career was over following his strange decision to leave Marseille for Mexican side Tigres but the move to North American has worked out well with the powerful striker rekindling his form and reestablishing his belief in his own abilities. Unlike Italian head coach Antonio Conte who has refused to call up the in-form Toronto forward Seb Giovinco due to his stance that the MLS is too weak a league, Deschamps has had no such hesitations and has given Gignac more game time than first expected. Finally the emergence of Anthony Martial at Manchester United has given Deschamps a new but nice headache with the electric teenager forcing his way into his plans. Whilst United stuttered this year under Louis Van Gaal, Martial has blossomed into one of their star players despite constant unfair pressure that came with his record-breaking monster transfer from Monaco. This trio, along with the exciting talents of Antonie Griezmann, Bayern’s Kingsley Coman and Dimitri Payet France have goals in them.

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Benzema misses out due to off field issues (Image from Tumblr)

Deschamps/Harmony

Heading into this tournament, the French are in an unfamiliar position – they actually all like each other. Historically the French national team has been splitting at the seams entering into major tournaments with in squad squabbles often derailing their challenge before it can begin. But heading into Euro 2016, the French are playing with a new-found sense of camaraderie which should bode well for the tournament. At the heart of this is manager Didier Deschamps who has built a squad that complements each other and more importantly has removed any potential bad apples that could ruin the pot. There is no place for the feuding Benzema and Valbuena for the reasons mentioned above nor is there a spot for Hatem Ben Arfa despite a stellar season with Nice. The former Newcastle winger has been on fire since returning to France scoring 17 goals this season but his colourful history as a disturptor has obviously been taken into consideration by Deschamps who has decided not to risk it. With a more balanced squad than ever before and a renewed focus, France look better prepared for this tournament than any other.

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Home support will be key for France at Euro 2016 (Image from Tumblr. Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Home turf/Passage

Never underestimate how important home field advantage can be. Playing the tournament in France in front of their own fans will benefit the national team much as it did at the World Cup in 1998. That year, France’s golden generation finally lived up to its potential and lifted the coveted trophy much to the delight of the thousands packed into the Parc des Princes. In that tournament, France benefitted from having an easier path to the final with their quarter-final clash with Italy proving to be their first real test. This year, France’s route to the final is arguably similarly easy having been placed in a very winnable group with Romania, Albania and Switzerland. Progression as the group winners should set up a clash with the Ukraine followed by a tie against either Austria/Iceland or Slovakia/Wales in the quarters. That leaves only a clash with Germany or Italy in the Semi’s and a potential final against Spain or England all being well. By the semi’s, France should have momentum behind them and with the home crowd in support, they should go on to lift the trophy to similar euphoric scenes as were seen in 1998.

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The Challenges Facing Scotland After Yet Another Failed Qualifying Campaign

In an expected result, Scotland finished off their dismal qualifying campaign in style with a 6-0 win over lowly Gibraltar matching their result in Glasgow. Not quite the end they were hoping for but all dreams of reaching France next summer died when they failed to see off Poland with only thirty seconds remaining. Dissecting what went wrong in this campaign has a strange familiarity to it. Like a path ventured down too many times, Scotland continues to present the same problems over and over. Plucky when the underdog, Scotland displays the passion for which they have become famous for. But passion hardly ever ends in points and for some bizarre reason that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s when we are supposed to be top dog that is the main concern, unable to cleanly dispatch the lesser nations of the Faroes Islands, Estonia and our new nemesis Georgia. But surely both are equally important. Qualification isn’t dependent on taking the scalp of a larger, more technical nation but it can’t hurt right?

Poland's last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention (Image from PA)

Poland’s last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention
(Image from PA)

In this campaign when Ireland snatched four out of six points from Germany and ran Poland close in both of their meetings, why could Scotland not match or better that? Arguably they are a better team than their North Sea neighbors, even if you only base that on our two meetings with Ireland when Scotland took home four from six in terms of points. Why do they have the belief  that they can get a result yet Scotland appears to not. There are a thousand excuses for why Scotland failed to beat Germany or Poland, everything from unfortunate deflections to better quality of players and the personal favourite – they simply lacked that wee bit of luck on the ball. Nonsense, all of it. In football anything can happen. Look at Greece who went from struggling to win a European Championship game to tournament winners in just a few matches. It’s eleven men vs eleven men, not David vs Goliath. Germany were strangely under par in qualifying and were there for the taking but Scotland lacked belief that they could actually do it. Even when they do score, blind panic sets in and Scotland fold like cheap deck chairs. They prefer to go behind and rally rather than take the lead and control. But time after time, taking the lead is a curse. This is what cost Scotland a qualification spot really, not dropping three points against Georgia.

Shane Long fires Ireland's winner against Germany so why couldn't Scotland do similar? (Image from Getty)

Shane Long fires Ireland’s winner against Germany so why couldn’t Scotland do similar?
(Image from Getty)

It doesn’t help that the entire team seems unconvinced by the defence. Once a staple of Scottish football, the defense looks less convincing by the day. Bremner, Greig, Hansen, Gough and Hendry have been replaced with middle of the road defenders, all of which are good but never great. Indeed Strachan only ever played the same back four twice in ten matches. Leaky is not the word as Scotland shipped 12 goals in qualifying including Gibraltar’s first ever international goal. In comparison Wales conceded only four times as they qualified highlighting the real issue Scotland faces- they cannot defend. Makeshift left backs, rotating centre half, limited right backs and goalkeeper loyalty conundrums all plagued this campaign and ultimately cost Scotland qualification. Being tight at the back can be the difference between winning and losing, stopping the opponents from scoring then nicking a goal at the other end to secure an unfavorable 1-0 win. Scotland did it in the past against France (twice), Holland and England despite being under a barrage of pressure for the entire ninety minutes. Both in Scotland and in Poland, the Scots had the lead before letting it slip. Six points instead of 2 may have been the difference between Scotland progressing to France 2016 and Poland staying at home to lick its wounds.

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland (Image from Getty)

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland
(Image from Getty)

So what is the solution? Perhaps following the NFL’s lead and appointing a defence coach who knows how to organize the back five  and make them solid once more. Scotland could employ a permanent defensive midfielder to sit and cover the back line but again without coordination this move would be limited. There is a nucleus of players there to work with but the need structure and guidance if they are to be successful. Fresh blood is often what is needed but the lack of talent coming through is a concern however this is hardly a new problem for Scotland or indeed most countries of our size like Northern Ireland or Wales. Good players can become great if deployed correctly and possess the belief needed to succeed. Scotland have just under a year now to regroup, refocus and go again before the World Cup qualifiers kick off. That should be enough time to sort of Scotland’s defensive frailties and reestablish the passion and belief needed to help them qualify.

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Zlatan the Great Fires Sweden Into The Euros

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is like marmite, you either love him or loathe him. But deny as much as you like, Zlatan is one of the best players the game has ever seen. The 34 year old, 6ft 5in striker was a Swedish legend well before he stepped up in the second half last night to curl the ball over the Danish wall to put Sweden 2-0 up of their playoff match. The winner of ten Swedish football of the year titles, Zlatan has been the figurehead of Swedish football for over a decade now so it seemed fitting that it would be his goals (one in the first leg and two in the return) that would send them through to Euro 2016. It is also fitting that the player who put Ligue 1 firmly back into the public eye after years away from it should be front and centre as France hosts the latest major international tournament. It wouldn’t be the same without Zlatan there, inspiring many on the field with his amazing abilities and as many off the field with his outrageous behaviour.

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Sweden celebrate after reaching Euro 2016 as Zlatan sinks to his knees (Image from BPI Matt West)

Ibrahimovic’s opportunities to entertain at the tournament may however be limited as Sweden changes of progressing past the group stage could be limited. Zlatan may be able to provide that moment of brilliance in front of goal but behind him is a host of problems. Sweden for all intents and purposes are an average side that is transformed by the inclusion of Ibrahimovic. Without him in their ranks, Sweden struggle to control games and lack the potency upfront to trouble sides. At the back, the once strong and resilient Swedish defence has been replaced with a nervous wreak who despite being 2-0 up and coasting in last nights game couldn’t prevent Denmark from leveling the tie and setting up a nervy final few minutes. Going ahead into Euro 2016, this will be a principle concern for manager Erik Hamren who needs to find a solution and quickly. The one shining light is the potential to draft in some of Sweden’s Under 21 European Championship winning side to freshen things up. Hamren has already bloodied a few of that team into the full national setup but will be looking to see if any of them can make the jump up in time for next summer.

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Hamren could call upon some of the Swedish Under 21 winning team for next summer tournament (Image from Getty)

Whilst the defence is a major concern, keeping Ibrahimovic fit and healthy is somewhat more crucial to Sweden’s chances next summer. Now in the latter stages of his career and lacking the pace and fitness that he once had in abundance, Ibrahimovic is winding down his stay in Paris and surveying his options. In the French capital, Ibrahimovic has become a god since his arrival in 2012 as part of the Qatari funded PSG revolution. He has helped the club to three titles in a row and has scored an incredible 115 goals in all competitions making him the club’s record goalscorer ahead of Pauleta. Ibrahimovic’s influence on the team, much like with the Swedish national side cannot be understated and is still a major component of Laurent Blanc’s plans. However age is against him and with that PSG have had to use him more sparingly this season as injuries have taken their toll. Zlatan’s confidence in his own abilities still outpace his age but he is now starting to consider where he should move to next if he is to leave Paris. England has already been ruled out due to its fast paced game but big money moves to the US or Qatar cannot at this stage. One thing is for sure that Zlatan has no intention of retiring from the game all together any time soon. He has hinted that Euro 2016 will be his swan song for his international career but believes that like a fine wine he is getting better with age. The nature of his performance in the win over Denmark backs up this claim as the player put in two stellar shows as he guided Sweden to the Euros.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring for Paris Saint Germain against St Etienne.

What next for Zlatan? (Image from AFP)

The defeat however did end the long standing managerial career of Morten Olsen who stepped down from managing Denmark after an incredible fifteen years in charge. Olsen took over as national boss after Euro 2000 and was instrumental in guiding Denmark to four major finals since then including the 2004 and 2012 European Championships and the 2002 and 2010 World Cups. The disappointment of missing out on France 2016 was clear to see when Olsen addressed the media after the defeat to Sweden. An emotional Olsen apologized to the Danish people stating that it hurt to end this way after more than 35 years as a player and coach and that he felt empty after the match. At 66, Olsen hasn’t confirmed what he will do next but retirement may not be out of the question. Whilst it will be disappointing not to see Olsen at the tournament, many will agree that it would be more disappointing if Zlatan wasn’t there to show the world one last time exactly how good he is.

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Down But Not Out – Scotland Now Prepare For Bare Knuckles Fight With Poland

If only points were awarded for effort in football, Scotland would surely have walked away with something last night against Germany. They put up a good fight twice coming back from going a goal behind but in the end left Hampden with nothing but a sore head and a bruised ego. It wasnt an unexpected result but stung nonetheless as Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016 took another blow. The sucker punch however was not against the Germans but instead last Friday night in Tbilisi when Scotland were TKO’d by an old foe in the form of Georgia. In a fight they had to win, Scotland looked sluggish failing to connect with any of their jabs at the home team before suffering a fatal blow to the abdomen which they were unable to come back from.

Georgia's suckerpunch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Georgia’s sucker punch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Much like a well-traveled fighter, Scotland has a checkered past. It has some famous shock wins against the heavyweights of world football including France and Holland in qualification but for each one there are several bouts they look back on and can’t believe they lost. It’s the same story year after year for Scotland and their supporters who turn out in their droves regardless of how bad the pummeling will be. They watch helplessly as lesser opponents push Scotland to the ropes time and time again, first jabbing then slamming Scotland with a hook and an uppercut. The fans see Scotland bleeding and want the referee to call time early to save their prize-fighter. But he can’t and he won’t. Scotland must defend itself but it can’t, unable to push their opponent back and stop the onslaught. Disbelief fills the stadium as the fans remember how Scotland managed to push better opponents, the so-called heavyweights all the way to the twelfth round. They think If only Scotland could be consistent then perhaps they would have a shot at something great.

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight (Image from PA)

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight
(Image from PA)

Unlike in Tbilisi, the effort was more apparent against the current world champions. Scotland battled hard, trying to stay in the fight they now most desperately needed to win.Their defence looks solid, if not totally convincing and held of the German onslaught of intricate passes and probing shots for a majority of the tussle. Against Georgia the midfield was lethargic and failed to create any really opportunities for the lone frontman Steven Fletcher to strike. But against Germany, Scotland where throwing wild punches, often missing the mark all together but still trying to push back. Germany had seen it before in their last fight but this time looked concerned as the pair exchanged blows in the first half. Twice Muller tried to knock Scotland out but twice they responded, first through Maloney and then by McArthur. The fight was evenly balanced going into the break. German trainer Joachim Low delivered a stern warning to Germany that they needed to win this fight to take a step closer towards the Euro’s. He told them to step up a gear and finish Scotland once and for all. They did just that with the fatal blow happening just moments after the restart, a blow that knocked the wind out of Scotland and left them dazed and confused. As the referee ended the fight, Scotland trudged off the park believing all was lost and it may be.

Up Next Another Heavyweight - Poland (Image from AFP)

Up Next Another Heavyweight – Poland
(Image from AFP)

To make matters worse, Scotland must watch as Wales and Northern Ireland edge closer towards the Euros. Once considered poorer versions of Scotland, the duo have now leap ahead of their northern rival and are challenging the heavyweights once more. The only chance Scotland has at redemption comes next month when they face up to another tough heavyweight in the form of Poland. They must win this fight and the following amateur bout against Gibraltar to stand any chance of reaching the play offs. Battered and bruised, Scotland must regroup and look deep inside themselves for the energy to go out in front of their home support once more and finally knock down a heavyweight. The gloves are officially off now as Scotland prepare to fight dirty in an effort to keep their dream of qualification alive.

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Wales On The Brink As Britain Prepares To Invade The Euros

“Three more points” is the message that Wales boss Chris Coleman will be telling his team as they stand on the edge of greatness. After a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cyrus in their seventh European Championship qualifying group match, Wales find themselves on top and within touching distance of next years tournament in France. It will be an amazing achievement for Wales who have failed to qualify for every tournament since 1958. Mathematically Coleman has it correct – three points from their last three games will be enough for Wales to reach the promise lands and rid themselves of the ghost of ’58. And with Israel up next on Sunday who they ironically beat back in ’57 to reach the 1958 World Cup, it’s surely a case of when not if for Wales. Rush, Giggs, Hughes and Saunders all tried in the past to propel Wales to a major finals without luck. But now this new generation looks set to do it and write their names into the record books.

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament (Image from Getty)

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament
(Image from Getty)

Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu have all played their part but Wales owe a huge debt to one man in particular who has been outstanding. With five goals and several assists so far, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale has played an instrumental role in putting Wales in with its best chance of qualifying in nearly sixty years. It was his goal that settled the tie with Cyprus much like his strikes against Belgium, Israel and Andorra before that. Bale appears to be unstoppable when he pulls on the red shirt of his home nation. Arguably a poorer side without their talisman in their starting eleven, Bale makes Wales tick but is far from the only reason why they find themselves in this position. Coleman has done a solid job since replacing Gary Speed under tragic circumstances, bringing his side together as one whilst instilling belief that qualification can and would be achieved. Standing in their way were some formidable foes but by playing as a group and more importantly for each other, they look set to do it. Stunning yet hard-fought wins over Belgium, Israel and Cyprus has Wales on a seven game unbeaten run that looks set to continue all the way until the Euros kick off next summer in France.

Bale does it again (Image from Reuters)

Bale does it again
(Image from Reuters)

Wales will likely be joined there by England who are unbeaten in their group and are within touching distance themselves. But if current form continues and some other results fall favourably for them, Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be joining Wales and England at the Euros making it a clean sweep for the home nations. Northern Ireland lie second in their group behind Romania but ahead of Hungary going into today’s crunch clash with the Faroes Islands. Three points today are essential before Micheal O’Neill’s side can even start to think about Monday’s defining match against Hungary. By that stage, Northern Ireland could have a five point cushion between themselves and Hungary, especially if Bernd Storck’s side fails to beat leaders Romania in their match today. With Greece and Finland still to come, qualification is hardly guaranteed but like Wales, the Northern Irish players have faith that they can make it happen. Unlike Wales though, Northern Ireland don’t have a Gareth Bale-esque figure in their ranks. Instead they have a team of grafters who give their all to the cause and to date have produced some fine results against Finland, Greece, Hungary and Romania. Kyle Lafferty, the gangly former Rangers frontman has been their unlikely hero, picking up the hero status from David Healy and running with it. Five goals in six games shows he is a man in form and if his country is going to qualify, they will need Lafferty to maintain that form and fire them towards France.

The Unlikely Hero - Kyle Lafferty (Image from Getty)

The Unlikely Hero – Kyle Lafferty
(Image from Getty)

Out of all of the home nations, Scotland has the toughest challenge after being placed in a group with the current World champions Germany and heavyweights Poland. But Gordon Strachan’s side has performed brilliantly so far and kept themselves in contention going into the home straight. Currently third in the group only two points behind Germany and three behind Poland, their remaining four games will have the Tartan Army on tenterhooks. Up first is a must win game against Georgia today, played at the same time as Poland visit Germany with the result of that game arguably more important than Scotland’s. After Poland’s surprise victory at home against Germany, the group has been left wide open and is anyone’s for the taking.

Poland's win over Germany has left the group wide open (Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Poland’s win over Germany has left the group wide open
(Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Strachan knows that to stay in contention he needs to win today and then prepare his side for two crunch home fixtures against the group leaders. He will look towards the more experienced members of his team – Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and Shaun Maloney to provide the motivation to the rest of the squad as they remind the others of the anguish they went through after several failed qualifying campaigns. Not that the Scotland squad needs to be motivated though, having lost only one of their last six qualifying games. There is a real belief in the group that if they play together they can get the results they need to reach France. Two wins from their last four games might not be enough but three wins especially one over Germany or Poland could be. It would be an amazing achievement for Strachan’s men to reach Euro 2016 and join the other home nations in doing so.

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How Euro 2004 Could Have Solved England’s Defensive Problems

Eric Dier completes move back to England (Image from Getty)

The European Championships held in Portugal in 2004 will be remembered as the year that Greece shocked the world by beating the home nation in the final to lift the trophy. The Greek team, led by German manager Otto Rehhagel and influential captain Theodoros Zagorakis demonstrated how teamwork and dedication can overcome raw talent and upset the odds. Angelos Charisteas 57th minute goal was enough to seal the win and cement Greece’s place in football folklore. But Euro 2004 may turn out to be a significant tournament for England too despite Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men crashing out in the round of 16. It was the tournament itself that led to a ten year old boy moving from England to Portugal in a switch that would change his life forever. Sporting Lisbon’s Eric Dier is not that well known to many England fans at present but he soon will be after sealing a £4million move back to England with Tottenham.

Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004  (Image from AFP)

Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004
(Image from AFP)

The 20 year old move to Portugal fourteen years ago when his mother accepted a job in the country during Euro 2004 and it wasn’t long before his footballing abilities started to catch the eye of his International school’s PE teacher, Miguel Silva. Realizing his potential, Silva recommended him to Sporting Lisbon who signed the player to their youth ranks. Over the next ten years, Dier progressed through the Sporting youth system eventually forcing his way into the Sporting Lisbon B team in 2012 and a year later earned his first team debut aged 19. He made a blistering star to that match by setting up the only goal of the game  against SC Braga in November 2012. Fifteen days later he opened his account for Sporting with a fine strike against Moreiense FC in a 2-2 draw and has not looked back since. Since his debut, Dier played 26 times for Sporting and became a permanent fixture on their team sheet.

Dier spent his formative years in Portugal  (Image from Getty)

Dier spent his formative years in Portugal
(Image from Getty)

But a move back to England was always on the cards and with interest from Newcastle and West Ham, Tottenham had to move quickly to secure the youngster in time for the start of the new season. Comfortable anywhere across the back line or as a defensive midfielder, Dier gives Spurs options and is the third signing of the Mauricio Pochettino era following Ben Davies and Michael Vorm’s arrivals at the club from Swansea. The move will allow Dier the chance to prove himself in one of the world’s biggest leagues for the second time, after spending a brief six month loan spell with Everton back in 2011. The switch is good news for England as well as it is likely to speed up Dier’s development and fast track him towards becoming a full international. Despite interest from Portugal, Dier has committed himself to England and has played at all levels except for Hodgson’s full first team. It would be foolish for Hodgson to ignore the player as he is unlikely any of the other options available to the England manager. Having spent his formative years in Portugal, where technique on the ball and winning with possession is focused on rather than traditional defending techniques like closing down and tight marking, Dier is unique as an England centre half and could offer a new dimension to a somewhat stale defence. Mature beyond his years, Dier has future England captain writing all over him but his soft spoken approach will need to adapt if he is to follow the likes of Butcher, Terry and Ferdinand into the role.

Future England Captain? Eric Dier  (Image from FA)

Future England Captain? Eric Dier
(Image from FA)

Before Dier can start to think about that, he will need to earn his spot in Tottenham’s first team against some tough competition in the form of Dawson, Kaboul and Vertonghen. However with Romanian flop Vlad Chiriches soon to depart and rumours swirling about Dawson’s future at the club, Dier will get his chance to impress sooner rather than later. It will be up to him to prove that the hype around this young talented English defender from Portugal is accurate and that he can go on to lead Tottenham and eventually England to glory.

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Scotland Take Aim For France And Euro 2016

Tom Hanks stars in Saving private Ryan (Image from Getty)In 1998, Tom Hanks starred in the hit movie Saving Private Ryan about a team of men on an almost impossible mission to rescue Matt Damon (Private Ryan) from deep within Germany. Their journey was long and treacherous with several heartbreaks along the way but eventually they made it to their goal and recued Ryan. 1998 was also the last year that Scotland qualified for a major international tournament – the World Cup in France. Like Saving Private Ryan, Scotland has been on a long journey that has seen eight heartbreaking attempts to qualify ending in failure. They have lost managers along the way (seven in total) but still they have persevered. After all Scotland’s goal is to finally end their 16 year hiatus from the international stage and make it to one of footballs premiere events. Now bossed by Gordon Strachan, optimism was high ahead of their new campaign – Euro 2016, with pride and belief firmly back in place. That was until the draw was made which has placed Scotland in one of the toughest groups, facing up to World Champions Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

Scotland's last appearance was at France 1998  (Image from DailyRecord)

Scotland’s last appearance was at France 1998
(Image from DailyRecord)

With the German’s favourite to claim top spot, all eyes are focused on the second automatic qualification spot (now in effect since UEFA changed the number of teams competing in the finals from 16 to 24). Qualification won’t be easy especially given the teams Scotland has to face. Poland, inspired by their captain Robert Lewandowski will be no push over’s as they showed against England in the last World Cup qualifying sections. Despite having an aging squad, Scotland will face a strong Polish side that are highly organized and like to attack on the break. The two teams are schedule to play each other in a friendly in March which will help them both to eye up potential weaknesses or hidden dangers. How much will be on show is unknown as both managers will be mindful to keep their cards close to their chests ahead of the qualifying games that actually matter.

Dangerman - Robert Lewandowski  (Image from Reuters)

Dangerman – Robert Lewandowski
(Image from Reuters)

The Republic of Ireland have been reborn with a new manager in Martin O’Neill, supported by the fiery Roy Keane, and will be looking to make Euro 2016 after failing to clinch a place at the World Cup this summer in Brazil. With a host of exciting youngsters like Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick coming into the team, O’Neill is building for the future. The need for freshness has never been greater with talisman Robbie Keane, Andy Reid, Richard Dunne and Shay Given reaching the twig light years of their careers. Keane in particular has yet to commit to another campaign which could come as some welcome news to Scotland. The Los Angeles Galaxy striker has lead the line for Ireland for well over a decade now and has been their biggest threat. But general wear and tear plus a desire to prolong his career in the USA could force the former Inter Milan and Spurs striker to call it a day. With or without Keane, Ireland still pose a realistic threat to Scotland’s chances of qualifying and Strachan is well aware of this.

O'Neill and Keane look to mastermind Ireland's qualification  (Image from Getty)

O’Neill and Keane look to mastermind Ireland’s qualification
(Image from Getty)

Whilst Georgia and Gibraltar are outsiders in the group to qualify, both are out to prove something which could spell trouble for Scotland. Georgia continues to build their reputation on the international stage and under former Newcastle and Georgia legend, Temuri Ketsbaia they are making significant strides. He has built a side for the future with Rostov’s Jano Ananidze and Fortuna Dusseldorf’s Levan Kenia notable stand outs. Their biggest problem has been upfront where they have failed to fill the boots of former Rangers striker Shota Arveladze but the so far uncapped Giorgi Iluridze, who plies his trade with Hakduk Spilt, may provide the answer. Gibraltar will embark on an historic campaign when they kick off against Poland in September. It will be only their fifth ever match and their very first qualification game after being granted UEFA membership early last year. The team is made up of mostly semi professionals but will be out to show that they are not just there to make up the numbers.  Like San Marino and Andorra before, they will likely defend in numbers in the hope of pulling off a draw, much like they did against Slovakia last November.

Replacement needed for Shota Arveladze  (Image from Reuters)

Replacement needed for Shota Arveladze
(Image from Reuters)

This may be Scotland’s best chance of qualifying for a while with two automatic spots up for grabs and a best placed third spot available too. They will need full points against Georgia and Gibraltar and a minimum of two wins from four against Poland and Ireland to stand a chance. They will also need Germany to do a clean sweep of the group to make it an even playing field and a three horse race. Strachan will not be expecting much from the two games against Germany but given recent history where Scotland have shocked the likes of France and Holland with victories, maybe snatching a point or three against Joachim Low’s team is not necessarily out of the question. If they can reach the twenty point mark, qualification to Euro 2016 could be within their grasps. The irony of a return to France has not been lost but there is still a long and treacherous journey ahead before they can achieve their goal.

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European Squad Announcements Shock Few – Part 2

Dzeko will lead the line for Bosnia (Image from PA)Fresh from helping Manchester City secure their second Premier League title in three years, Edin Dzeko’s will now turn his focus towards leading the line for Bosnia in their first ever World Cup appearance. Head Coach Safet Sušić has put his faith in the squad that got them to Brazil naming few changes to his provisional 30 man squad. Bosnia will look towards Roma’s Miralem Pjanic for inspiration from midfield whilst will relay on Dzeko and strike partner Vedad Ibisevic to score the goals needed to advance past the fellow Group F competitors Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. At the back, Stoke’s Asmir Begovic will play in goal whilst Emir Spahic and Sead Kolasinac, who both play in the Bundesliga, will be in place to protect him. The former Yugoslav Republic, who joined FIFA in 1996, qualified top of Group G in the European qualifying stages at the expense of Greece who were forced into the play off’s. They eventually did progress at the expense of Romania and will look to build upon the success they found ten years ago at Euro 2004, when they shocked the world by beating Portugal in the final. Manager Fernando Santos, who will step down after the tournament, has named a familiar looking squad as he finalized his 23 for Brazil. Fulham’s Konstantinos Mitroglou will compete with Celtic’s Giorgios Samaras, PAOK’s Dimitris Salpingidis and Greek legend Theofanis Gekas for the starting striker position after Santos axed three other competitors. Forwards Dimitris Papadopoulos, Nikos Karelis and Stefanos Athanasiadis all miss out as do Olympiacos defender Avraam Papadopoulos and more surprisingly PAOK midfielder Sotiris Ninis. The never aging Giorgos Karagounis will captain the team as part of a highly experienced squad.

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece  (Image from Getty)

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece
(Image from Getty)

Also favouring experience is Portugal coach Paulo Bento who sliced his provisional squad down to 23 on Monday much to the disappointment of Ricardo Quaresma and Inter’s Rolando who miss out. Cristiano Ronaldo unsurprisingly makes the cut despite struggling for fitness as does Monaco’s Joao Moutinho and Manchester United’s Nani. Only one Benfica player (Rúben Amorim) makes the cut despite a fantastic season that saw them regain the Portuguese title and end up as runner’s up in yet another Europa League final. Andre Gomes and Ruben Rafael in particular were worth spot in the team but both have time on their sides so playing for Portugal at a major international tournament is likely to happen for them in the future. The same can’t be said for Josip Šimunić who misses out on one last World Cup campaign for Croatia after making a neo Nazi salute after the conclusion of his country’s nail biting playoff victory over Iceland. He was suspended for 10 games by FIFA, meaning he misses out on his last chance of a final swansong. His international career is now surely over which will be a huge blow to the 36 year old. Also missing out in new Barcelona signing Alen Halilovic who was expected to be the wildcard selection in Niko Kovac’s squad. But the head coach has gone for experience over flair and selected the likes of Niko Kranjcar, Ognjen Vukojevic and Luka Modric instead. Whilst he hasn’t cut his provisional squad of 30 down yet, there were some interesting inclusions such as 19 year old Hajduk Splits midfielder Mario Pasalic and Fiorentina’s 20 year old striker Ante Rebic. Both youngsters are part of an exciting new breed of talent (including Halilovic) that is emerging from Croatia, partly due to most teams in the region having to downsize and focus more on youth players to survive the financial crisis. This tournament comes too soon for them but expect to see a more dominant Croatia side in forthcoming international events.

Disappointed to miss out - Alen Halilovic  (Image from Getty)

Disappointed to miss out – Alen Halilovic
(Image from Getty)

Also nurturing youth is Switzerland who have named an interesting team for the World Cup. Alongside the experienced figures of Valon Berhami and captain Gokhan Inler are fresh faces like Wolsbergs Ricardo Rodriguez, Basel’s Fabian Schar, Grasshopper’s Michael Lang and Numberg’s striking sensation Jospi Drmic who finished this season with 17 goals to his name. Speaking of Germany, manager Joachim Low has always been an advocate of developing young talent and Germany have that in abundance. Low named 27 players in his provisional squad including youngsters Julian Draxler, Matthias Ginter and Kevin Volland alongside now permanent fixtures like Mario Gotze and Mezut Ozil. Lazio striker Miroslav Klose is looking to play in his fourth world cup and will lead the line unless Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle can convince Low that he is the better option.

Germany's Young Gun - Julian Draxler  (Image from AFP)

Germany’s Young Gun – Julian Draxler
(Image from AFP)

Striking decisions are also affecting Cesare Prandelli in the Italy dressing room but for all the right reasons. He has a wealth of options to choose from in his provisional list including the experienced trio of Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. But a host of young pretenders like Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile are all competing for a final spot in the team. At the back, the shock exclusion of Domenico Criscito and Davide Astori still has many wondering why whilst Alberto Gilardino and Pablo Osvaldo’s exclusions are more to do with character rather than talent. New Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal has no such problems as he already knows that Robin Van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar will lead the line for Holland in his final tournament in charge. The disappointment of losing Kevin Strootman to long term injury has forced the Dutch coach into a change of tactics with him now preferring a 5-3-2 formation. That means that the likes of Jean-Paul Boëtius, Quincy Promes and Jonathan de Guzmán all run the risk of being cut from the squad as Van Gaal names his 23. Manchester City defender Karim Rekik, who has been on loan at PSV this season, was a surprise call up into the provisional squad but is likely to be axed as well as Holland gear up for the World Cup.

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Platini Revamps Euros, World Cup to Follow?

The Changemaster - Michel Platini (Image from Getty)UEFA president Michel Platini confirmed what most people had suspected would happen by announcing a radical overhaul of the European Championships format. No longer will one or in recent cases two countries host the four-week long, now 24 team tournament but instead thirteen countries will take on smaller hosting duties, in an effort to minimize costs. The first Championships that will be affected won’t be until 2020, with the announcement of the host cities not set to happen until September 2014. Twelve packages will be awarded to a stadium staging three group matches and one match in the knockout rounds. The remaining package will see the host of the final and one of the semi finals named. Platini’s plan is to encourage smaller nations ,who may only have one or two stadiums large enough to meet UEFA’s international competition hosting standards, to take part whereas they haven’t been able to do so in the fast. Whilst it doesn’t mean automatic qualification to the tournament (Platini’s plan has no one automatically qualifying), it is hoped to help generate extra revenue to smaller nations that have struggled in the past.

Spain Wins Euro 2012 (Image from CP)

Spain Wins Euro 2012 (Image from CP)

The financial arguments around this change have been strong – reduction in one country having to spend big on improved stadia, infrastructure and accommodation, reduced risk on UEFA having to bail out a country or find an expensive last-minute replacement, plus potential reduced costs for teams as games will be played in countries closer to their own, if not indeed their own. Fans will be relived to hear UEFA promise to ease the time and cost burdens on them as well by organising the group stages to within a two-hour flight radius. However what they haven’t considered is what , will happen after the group stages. Take for the example a Danish fan who follows his team at home in two of the three group stages whilst travelling to Germany for the third. Cost should be restrictive, unless Denmark qualify for the knockout stages. If they are played in Spain and England, Danish fans will be faced with a last-minute scramble to find flights and accommodation in those two cities. Added in to this, if Denmark manage to go all the way to the final, as they did in 1992, it could see Danish fans travelling across 4 countries in less than 2 weeks at a cost which most fans will be unable to afford. Platini’s belief is that by hosting the games in major cities, they will all be served by low-cost airlines which is true but unlikely to stop said airlines from hiking up their prices in the summer during the tournament. Added into this, with the inability to control hotel pricing in 13 countries, fans could be faced with a very hefty bill.

Flights could be a problem for fans (Image from Getty)

Flights could be a problem for fans
(Image from Getty)

The media will also lose out. Whilst logistical organization for a place like Ukraine and Poland (the last hosts) was a bit of a nightmare for most media outlets, trying to organise coverage over 13 countries may be slightly worse. It is unlikely that a company like the BBC will have studios in every one so they will pick one (probably England if they are chosen as one of the hosts) and operate field operations for the other 12. Coverage will likely rely on a multitude of media networks working together, sharing resources, feeds and equipment which poses its own problems.

TV companies face issues (Image for AP)

TV companies face issues
(Image for AP)

Each host city will need to have a stadium that can hold a minimum of 50,000 people, with the final to be played in a 70,000 seater stadium, however UEFA has confirmed that it will pick at least two cities that only have a 30,000 people stadium to make it fairer on the smaller nations. With 20 of the 53 nations in UEFA possessing a 50,000 seater stadium, it makes sense to lower the threshold to 30,000 to increase the options available. Turkey, who pitched to host the 2020 tournament outright before the decision was made, look favourite to be named as one of the 13 cities and indeed is Platini’s choice to host the Final and Semi-finals, as long as they are not hosting the Olympics in the same year. For the ambitious Turks, who wanted both tournaments, choosing between hosting two games in the European championships and the entire Olympic games, shouldn’t be a difficult decision. Turkey will likely pick the Olympics if they are rewarded it and forego the Euro’s, at least for 2020. The timing of UEFA’s announcement of the chosen hosts in September 2014, ties directly into the decision on the 2020 Olympics which is likely to be announced before then, with Istanbul joining Madrid and Tokyo in the running.

Istanbul 2020 Olympics bid (Image from Fansided.com)

Istanbul 2020 Olympics bid
(Image from Fansided.com)

Whoever the selection board decides to pick as host is irrelevant at this stage as Platini eyes the future of the UEFA’s prize international tournament. Change is happening, whether countries, fans or the media like it but it may not be the only tournament that changes in the next five years. With Sepp Blatter’s colourful tenure as FIFA president due to end in 2015, Platini will be looking at football’s top job and in turn its biggest event, the World Cup. Platini is likely to use the 2020 European Championship as an experiment to see if everything works before making the change permanent or reverting back to the previous one country model. If it is successful and he does secure the FIFA hot seat as expected then changes to the World Cup may take place, with Platini already showing his flexibility for his when talking about moving the Qatar 2022 World Cup to the winter to accommodate the countries extreme summer heat. What Platini has is time however to analyse and assess his next move. His focus until the announcement of the hosts in 2014 will be on the next European Championships in 2016, ironically to be held in Platini’s homeland, France. Fans too will be looking forward to the tournament as it could be the last of its kind for a very long time, especially if Platini gets his way.

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