With the international break now (mercifully) over, let’s look back on each Euro 2020 contender and glean some early lessons from the opening qualifying matches.
If it ain’t broke…
In each of France’s two qualifiers, bench boss Didier Deschamps rolled out a nearly identical lineup to the one that romped to victory in the World Cup final less than a year ago. Only left-back Lucas Hernandez, currently out with injury, was replaced for the commanding wins over Moldova and Iceland.
The sheer talent at Deschamps’ disposal is staggering, as Alexandre Lacazette, Ousmane Dembele, and Kingsley Coman either didn’t make the squad or had to pull out with injury. But it’s difficult to argue with the manager’s decision to keep calling upon those who served him so well in Russia.
That includes target man Olivier Giroud.
An outlier on a team largely built around pace and trickery, the Chelsea forward continues to prove his worth at the international level. His strike against Iceland moved him into sole possession of third on Les Bleus’ all-time scoring chart with 35 tallies. While he likely won’t catch Thierry Henry for the top spot, Michel Platini – who’s sitting on 41 goals – is well within reach.
The Czech Republic and Montenegro aren’t exactly the toughest competition. Nonetheless, there was something impressive about the way England blew both teams out of the water. Raheem Sterling continues to cement himself as an otherworldly force, highlighting the abundance of star power Gareth Southgate can call upon.
More noteworthy, however, was the way Sterling, Southgate, and, in particular, Callum Hudson-Odoi responded to the vile racial abuse Danny Rose was allegedly subjected to from Montenegro fans. The Chelsea winger, still only 18, showed poise that belies his age during a post-match interview.
“I don’t think discrimination should be anywhere,” Hudson-Odoi said, via The Independent. “As I said, we’re equal, we have to play a fair game and enjoy the moment but when you’re hearing stuff like that from the fans it’s not right, it’s unacceptable and hopefully UEFA deal with it properly because when I went over there and heard it, they were saying monkey stuff.”
The Three Lions are in good hands.
Unlike the French and English, the goals didn’t flow for Spain. But the process was promising, at least.
The Spaniards fired a combined 49 shots during wins over Norway and Malta despite only finding the net four times (once from another Sergio Ramos Panenka).
Some of those scoring struggles can simply be attributed to using an experimental XI against Malta. With manager Luis Enrique away while tending to a family matter, La Furia Roja rolled out a team featuring six players aged 24 or younger. A difficulty finding fluency in the final third with that lineup wasn’t surprising.
Enrique and his staff have plenty of time to figure out their best lineup going forward.
As is often the case, Eden Hazard’s excellence has powered the top-ranked team in the world (seriously, take it up with FIFA).
The Chelsea magician scored three of Belgium’s combined five goals against Russia and Cyprus, marking his 100th international cap with an impressive strike against the latter. At 29 years old by the time next summer rolls around, Euro 2020 likely offers the final chance for Hazard to represent his country at a major tournament while still at his peak.
Time really flies.
The Red Devils field some promising youngsters, and Youri Tielemans is chief among them. But with the “golden generation” of Belgian football ending soon, it’s on Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne to carry their perennially underachieving side to the promised land.
It’s difficult to glean too much from Germany’s early returns considering, unlike each of the nations already mentioned, Jogi Low’s side only played one competitive fixture during the international window.
But what a game it was.
A five-goal thriller against the Netherlands saw Low rely on the next wave of German talent, with Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry scoring.
Low, the 2014 World Cup winner, has come under intense scrutiny – primarily from Bayern Munich – for his decision to axe stalwarts Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, and Jerome Boateng from the squad. But Die Mannschaft are more than equipped to transition into their next generation with ease. Now all Low has to do is replace Manuel Neuer, who seems to be falling apart before our eyes, with the impregnable Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
There are kinks to work out, but the disastrous showing at last summer’s World Cup will likely be nothing more than a blip.
The remaining hopefuls
Netherlands: The Dutch resurgence hit a slight road bump this week, as the Oranje followed up an all-too-easy win over Belarus with a wild, back-and-forth loss to a new-look German squad. After fighting back from 2-0 down to level the proceedings, Ronald Koeman will be stressed about how easily Nico Schulz rolled home a 90th-minute winner. And yet, despite the result, all signs point to the Netherlands qualifying for their first major international tournament since 2014 without an issue.
Italy: Almost out of nowhere, the future looks bright for the Azzurri. After missing out on the 2018 World Cup in humbling fashion, Italy secured a pair of comfortable wins to kick off Euro 2020 qualifying, doing so with a host of burgeoning young stars at the forefront. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Nicolo Barella, and Nicolo Zaniolo are all 22 or younger, while teenage phenom Moise Kean – who scored twice over the past week – looks set to be the focal point of the Italian attack for the next decade.
Portugal: Drawing against Ukraine and Serbia isn’t how the reigning European champion expected to open its qualifying campaign, and the disappointing results have many Portuguese fans asking questions about manager Fernando Santos. The Selecao rode a rigid defensive setup and sturdy backline to glory three years ago in France. But with the team now boasting a legitimate crop of exciting attackers, is the defensive-minded Santos the right coach to get the best out of this squad?
Croatia: Slotted into arguably the most well-balanced and intriguing qualifying group, the 2018 World Cup finalist is off to a checkered start after a narrow 2-1 win over Azerbaijan and a surprising defeat in Hungary. Zlatko Dalic’s men mustered just one shot on target after Ante Rebic’s early goal against Hungary, conceding twice en route to the loss. Can this aging side, led by chief orchestrator Luka Modric, get back on track?