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June 12, 2020, seems an absolute age away at this point, but before we know it, Euro 2020 will have kicked off and the footballing fraternity will have taken root at stadiums across the continent or in front of their TV.
The playoffs in March will determine the final four teams to qualify, but with the groups already drawn, some countries will really fancy their chances of progression. Others not so much.
Let’s take a look at how the 20 teams already qualified rank, given their form to this point.
It’s Finland’s first-ever appearance at a major championship, and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki will be doing his utmost to make their stay in the tournament as long as possible.
In fact, they’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, so whilst being gung-ho might be out of the question, they can still play with the freedom that not being under pressure brings.
That said, it’s a big ask to get out of a group that includes Belgium, Russia and Denmark.
19. Czech Republic
With one team left to complete Group D, the Czech Republic already know that the draw hasn’t been kind to them. They’ll find it tough against both Croatia and England, though a surprise isn’t beyond them.
Their weaknesses in defence were exposed time and again in qualifying, and that’s likely to be their downfall again here. Even setting up with an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 or similar formation is unlikely to help them because of the attacking prowess of their opponents.
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In players such as Marko Arnautovic, the Austrians do have players that, on a good day, can get them out of trouble, but against the likes of the Netherlands and Ukraine, they’ll have their work cut out.
Every player in the XI will have to be at their best in at least those two games, to give them any chance of making the knockout stages.
Gareth Bale… Daniel James… it can’t be said that Wales have poor players, at least in an attacking sense. However, they just don’t have enough squad wide to be able to cope with the likes of Italy. Group A isn’t exactly the group of death, but it’s not far off it for Ryan Giggs’ side.
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Like the Welsh, Sweden aren’t a bad team, but the draw hasn’t been kind to them. Poland and Spain are already confirmed opponents, with the strongest play off winners making up Group E.
Depending which Switzerland turn up, they could give Wales a run for their money, but Italy and Turkey are two mountains they’re unlikely to be able to climb. A change of personnel - which is ongoing - may be key to their aspirations, but it’s unlikely to benefit the Swiss to the degree they need.
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With Christian Eriksen on song, Denmark could be a bit of a dark horse, but he needs to impact things for Spurs first, before taking that form into the national team. Short elsewhere in the side, qualifying for the knockout stages via a best-third-placed route is a possibility.
Russia will play some of their Group B matches at home, which will certainly be to their advantage, but a repeat of their 2018 World Cup heroics is likely to be beyond them this time around. Aleksandr Golovin makes them tick and a lot will depend on how much time he’s given on the ball.
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When was the last time that Germany weren’t considered as genuine favourites for any football tournament?! Whilst you can never discount them, Joachim Low’s penchant for sticking with aging, out of form exponents will see them found wanting. Particularly against France and Portugal.
With Robert Lewandowski in the side, Poland should be odds-on to at least get out of the group, but the draw hasn’t been kind to them. They’ll need a lot more than the front man on song if they want to progress further.
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A great qualifying campaign which saw Turkey only concede three goals, has given manager Senol Gunes genuine hopes of taking his team into the latter stages of the tournament. Only Italy should provide stubborn opposition in the group stage, but question marks will remain as to their staying power against the stronger XIs in the competition.
No one expected them to top their qualifying group, but that showed the doubters that Ukraine will be a tough nut to crack. Getting out of Group C shouldn’t prove problematic, but will the stars align for them in the knockout stages?
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Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic - Croatia have incredible depth and quality at their disposal, but there are concerns over their ‘golden generation’ being the wrong side of 30, and not able to sustain a challenge throughout the tournament. They’ll give it a right go though.
With Luis Enrique back at the helm, Spain will be amongst the favourites. Lucho had them playing some sparkling stuff before taking a back seat for personal reasons. Clearly not the vintage of a decade or so ago, Spain do possess some of the finest exponents on the continent and, if nothing else, will be a joy to watch throughout. Issues in attack may prove their undoing.
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Roberto Mancini oversaw a perfect qualifying campaign, albeit their 10 wins weren’t against the highest quality opposition, with respect. It’s about time the Azzurri did well in a major tournament, and they’ll be coming into this one full of confidence.
With the likes of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne up front, Leonardo Bonucci at the back and Gianluigi Donnarumma between the sticks, Italy have the right blend to make a real dent this time around.
Playing two of their group games at Wembley will be of huge benefit to Gareth Southgate and Co., and the carrot of a semi and final there too, should focus their collective minds. Southgate’s great mix of outstanding youth and experienced campaigners gives the Three Lions more than a puncher’s chance, but England are the nearly-but-not-quite specialists aren’t they. It’s the hope that kills you.
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4. The Netherlands
Will Ronald Koeman already have his eye on the Barcelona job? He might just as well because we’re sure to see some classic Dutch total football in this tournament. The strength across their XI is unbelievable - De Ligt, de Jong, Van Dijk et al - but they have looked shaky at times, including against Northern Ireland. Definitely a contender.
Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard, Courtois… Belgium’s squad list is like a who’s who of the continents best players. Continuous improvement after their third place finish in the World Cup means the Red Devils can look ahead to the competition with a great deal of confidence.
Another side who have almost got over the line but never quite took the titles that their play deserves, this is probably the last chance for this current team to win something meaningful.
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In the toughest group, Portugal aren’t likely to be worried if they’ve a fit Cristiano Ronaldo at their disposal. Far from a one-man team, they do have the game-changer supreme in the Juventus front man, and he will be needed. Winning Euro 2016 and the UEFA Nations League proves their collective pedigree beyond doubt, even if they won’t be the most popular side at the tournament.
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There’s simply no one at their level at the moment. Didier Deschamps has continued to push the reigning World Cup holders on, ensuring none of their motivation has been lost. Defeat at the hands of Portugal in the 2016 final cuts deep. Revenge is very definitely on the cards, and Les Bleus have the players to succeed.