UEFA Euro 2020 Draw: Reading Some Freshly-Cut Tea Leaves
With the conclusion of the UEFA European Championship tournament draw in Bucharest on Saturday, a highly opaque picture becomes somewhat clearer. Total translucence still eludes. Only two of the six groups have been completed, meaning that one can offer a full preliminary forecast for only a third of the field.
The lack of a more fully transparent picture leaves this writer in the mood for a fully transparent warm beverage. Ah yes. What I wouldn’t give to have some freshly cut tea leaves in front of me now. Tea aficionados know that they’re essential to a proper cup. The modern practice of drying out a bunch of stems, pressing them into a bag, and dipping it in semi-warm water is just plain sad.
In the absence of such a luxury, we’ll have to jump on the metaphorical plane instead. With no authentic leaves before me, we’ll just have to get a read on some instead.
Group A– Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Wales
Tentative Classification = “Azzuri Uncertainty”
The long wait is over for Azzuri faithful. Nearly four long years after the Germans eliminated Antonio Conte’s XI in that insane penalty shootout at the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, La Nazionale returns to the realm of international tournament football after failing to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. How strange it was to hold a World Cup without them.
The trademark blue tricot sure feels a great deal heavier for players donning it. Italia is under serious pressure to play well in three home group stage games at the Stadio Olympico in Rome. In addition to the 2018 debacle, the national team has not progressed beyond the World Cup group stages since winning the tournament in 2006. The Euro 2012 squad made the final, only to be humiliated by the Spaniards.
Under the stewardship of former Inter Milan and Manchester City head coach Roberto Mancini, the Italians cruised through qualifying with a perfect 10 victories from 10 matches. They face much stiffer competition here. A Swiss side that has attained the knockouts in the last two internationals behind offensive weapons Xherdan Shaqiri, Admir Mehmedi, and Josip Drmic gets even stronger. Brea Embolo, Denis Zakaria, and Djibril Sow enter their prime.
The latest Turkish incarnations have strung together some impressive results as well. The balance of veteran talents like Cenk Tosun, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Burak Yilmaz with promising phenoms like Ahmed Kutucu, Kaan Ayhan, and Ozak Kaban reminds one very much of the deep Euro 2008 team that clawed through to the semifinals despite numerous injuries and suspensions.
The Welsh Dragons cannot be written off easily either. Any team featuring Gareth Bale stands a chance. The Euro 2016 side that punched through to the semifinals adds young talents Rabbi Mantondo, Ethan Ampadu, Daniel James, and Tyler Roberts. The Italians face no genuine minnows here and, excepting Everton’s Moise Kean, bring no young dynamos of their own.
Fixture to Circle = Italy vs. Turkey–June 12th, 2020
The opening match of the tournament should be circled even if one has little more than passing interest in football. No one should miss out. From a football fanatic’s perspective, this one also has excellent upset potential. Should the Italians fail to play convincingly from the start, their own fans may turn of them and we could have our first implosion candidate.
The Italians do not have an especially potent striking corps. I also seriously question, as controversial as some may find it, whether Italian fans have the collective patience and class to uniformly stand behind their immigrant players. Let’s hope that they do. I’ll still tap Italy to win this group. If we can get through it without any contentious racial incidents, we’ll all be winners.
Vicey’s Initial Group Projection
Group B– Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Russia
Tentative Classification = “Roberto Martinez’s Last Stand”
This one possesses the latent markings of a highly unpredictable group. For starters, the clear favorites –Belgium– aren’t even one of the host countries. Denmark and Russia retain the privilege of playing in front of their own national supporters. With respect to the two host countries, it’s my judgment that Aga Hareide’s Danes are in the ascendency while Stanislav Cherchesov’s Russian Eagles look significantly less threatening than the overachieving side from two years ago.
This year’s version of the “Danish Dynamite,” round-of-16 participants in 2018, are further augmented by the development of youngsters Robert Skov and Kasper Dolberg. Keeper Kasper Schmeichel looks increasingly like his father. He may be the best keeper in the tournament. Russian Striker Artem Dzyuba continues to shine for his national side, but injuries and poor form thin the ranks out everywhere else. Unless the Miranchuk twins seriously turn things around, I don’t think there’s much of a chance for the Russian midfield.
To this speculative mix we must add international tournament debutants Finland, who seek to replicate the surprise performance of Iceland four years ago. The Huuhkajat have never qualified for a major international before. Much like Iceland, they rode the strength of a highly disciplined defensive corps, a well-known keeper, and a solitary star striker to a surprise place. In this case, the keeper is Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s Lukas Hradecky and the goal-machine is Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki.
One should expect the Finns to play above their talent level, especially against rivals Russia. We thus behold a bonafide X-factor. The Red Devils of Belgium –still the world’s top ranked national football team– should be able to top this group easily, but second place is anyone’s guess. Belgian dominance isn’t necessarily a forgone conclusion either given that Roberto Martinez’s cerebral, laissez fair coaching style always carries with it the risk of complacency.
I maintain enormous respect for the Spaniard Martinez, former manager of Swansea City, Wigan Athletic, and Everton. He remains one of the finer minds in the game. That being said, he did carry the best team in the world into the 2018 World Cup and fielded dreadfully sorry tactics against eventual winners France in the semifinals. His failure to deploy the clutch Cerberus attacking formation of Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, and Eden Hazard in that match remains inexplicable. He’s very lucky to still have the job.
For now, we’ll assume he gets it right. The Danes have a favorable enough schedule to snag second and the Finns sneak into third.
Fixture to Circle = Finland vs. Russia–June 17th, 2020
A quick geography/history refresher. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are the three Scandinavian countries. All too often people lump Finland into this group because there’s some Swedish spoken in the North. Aside from that sliver, the Finns are more appropriately classified as “Russo Nordic.” Their language and culture isn’t related to that of their one-time Scandinavian conquerors from eight centuries ago.
With all that in mind, who’s ready for a monster match with all manner of more recent historical connotations? This one should be great fun. I confess that, at this juncture, I know more about Finland’s women national football team than I do about the men. I’ll nevertheless tip upset unless further research suggests otherwise.
Vicey’s Initial Group Projection
Group C– Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, TBD
Tentative Classification = “The Wellspring of Life”
The first of our incomplete groups already has all the makings of a group of life. As difficult as it may be to fathom, the Dutch return to national tournament competition for the first time in six years. Largely the same “Brilliant Orange” who made it to the 2010 World Cup final and the semis four years later, failed to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.
The forgettable era of manager Danny Blind, sandwiched in between the second stint as coach for Gus Hiddink and the third stint for Dick Advocaat, constituted the darkest years of this proud footballing nation. Well-traveled former Ajax, Valencia, Southampton, and Everton boss Ronald Koeman brought them back all the way to the finals of the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
The current incarnation relies heavily upon the stellar play of Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum, Inter’s Stefan de Vrij, and Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt for defensive consistency. Resurgent veterans Memphis Depay, Ryan Babel, Quincy Promes, and Luuk de Jong handle most of the scoring. On paper, this should be enough to handle a Ukrainian side that struggles to demonstrate a cogent identity under former star Andriy Shevchenko. Austria I’m not so certain about.
Franco Foda’s “Burschen” certainly have their fair share of issues. Among these, budding young talents Xaver Schlager and Hannes Wolf were supposed to be gaining valuable experience in the German Bundesliga this season. The promising pair have been sidelined with injuries during what was supposed to be a crucial campaign for them. Marco Friedl has also been iffy for SV Werder Bremen.
None of this may ultimately matter as Marcel Sabitzer, Konrad Laimer, Alessandro Schöpf, and Florian Grillitsch have blossomed for their Bundesliga club teams. Outside of Germany’s domestic league, Valentino Lazaro also thrives in the Serie A. One can’t forecast where the Austrians stand in terms of the rest of this group’s competition as so much depends on whether the co-host Romanians qualify.
Group D– England, Croatia, Czech Republic, TBD
Tentative Classification = “All up to the Scots”
It’s an English cakewalk unless their northern UK brethren can fend off either Norway or Serbia in the second round of the path C playoffs. True, we stand less than two years removed from the Croatian defeat of the English in the World Cup semifinals. Also true, the blazing Vatrenti remain the #6 ranked footballing nation in the world. Why am I willing to discount the checkered Kockasti so easily?
In this instance, the completed portion of the schedule works to the advantage of the Three Lions. Gareth Southgate’s side obtains an immediate opportunity to exact revenge on the Croats at Wembley in the group’s opening fixture. Moreover, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic, and Ivan Perisic, now on the other side of 30, will be coming off grueling club campaigns. Though I’ve been proven wrong about this before, Luka Modric must show some signs of slowing down at some point.
While Croatia’s Golden Generation ages out, Southgate shows no hesitation in keeping his squad young and fresh by always selecting the in-form players. Youngsters Declan Rice, Mason Mount, Harry Winks, Tammy Abraham, and Jadon Sancho continue to rack up the caps. Rather than call up players like Eric Dier, Delle Ali, or Kyle Walker when they’re available but not fully fit, he’ll even go bold with late-bloomers like Callum Wilson or Tyrone Mings.
An early win for a faster and more dynamic England side should set the tone for this group. Very difficult to see the Czechs competing, but the co-hosts Scots could make some waves. Should Norway qualify, the group gets another doormat. The Serbs would tighten things up slightly.
Group E– Spain, Sweden, Poland, TBD
Tentative Classification = “Group-of-Death Contender #1”
Much like the group above, the fate of the co-hosts matters immensely in terms of this group’s prognosis. We’ll simply have to wait and see if the Republic of Ireland can best Slovakia in the semifinals of playoff path B, then defeat either Bosnia & Herzegovina or Northern Ireland in the final. The ultimate outcome notwithstanding, this group already boasts three legit contenders.
The Spanish La Roja show signs that they’re ready to shake off their recent torpor. Paco Alcacer and Alvaro Morata supplied the attack with enough menace even before Gerard Moreno came out of nowhere. Real Sociedad’s young Mikel Ugarte shows great promise too. Isco should be back in time to general the midfield while all the relevant veteran actors return in defense, joined by red-hot up-and-comer Dani Ceballos.
Constant underachievers Poland can’t keep screwing it up forever. Robert Lewandowski, otherwise known as the world’s most in-form footballer, obviously must make do with a less talented supporting cast. New manager Jerzy Brzeckzek at least makes evident that he’s prepared to tackle the challenge of building around Lewandowski head-on. He’s called up 20 different midfielders in the last 18 months. Sebastien Syzmanski and Kryzystof Piatek look poised to finally break through.
The Swedes once again field a pool of players who are either past their prime of have been woefully inconsistent for their clubs. The incessant problem with the stubborn Swedes is that old hats like Sebastian Larsson, Marcus Berg, Gustav Svensson, Mikael Lustig, and Albin Ekdal find another gear when playing for the nation. Mediocre talents like John Guidetti, Sebastien Andersson, and Robin Quaison suddenly play like superstars when clothed in the blue and yellow.
With the Spaniards on the rise, Poland sporting the world’s best, and the Swedes apparently motivated by a fully mutual team desire to make Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s retirement as miserable as possible, this one can get turned on its head easily. Throw the hosting Irish Republic in and this can get truly cumbersome.
Group F– Germany, France, Portugal, TBD
Tentative Classification = “Group of Death Contender #2”
Are you fucking kidding me? Both the reigning European and World Champions? And the German have to play them both BEFORE getting to the lowest-ranked team? Oh je. Welcome to Scheißkäse era 2.0. Before the calendar year is out, Germany will have lost two of its long-cherished regimes: Joachim Löw and Angela Merkel. Guess it’s time to start writing two new chapters.
The German Nationalmannschaft will at least have the honor of playing three games in front of a home crowd at the Allianz Arena in München. World Champions France is in this group by virtue of the fact that, thanks to Germany playing host, they were placed in the second seeding pot. As soon as us football pundits took note of this, we knew that the French group would turn out to be the strongest contender for the group of death.
The German national XI must first face France in a rematch of the Euro 2016 semifinals… with a considerably more suspect squad I might add. Working with some preliminary lineups, I fail to see how they can even consider reversing that result. Germany has fared well against the Portuguese Navigators in recent history. They actually eliminated them from the 2008 Euros and beat them up in the Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 group stages.
Add to those the German win over the Portuguese the 2006 World Cup third place playoff and the Germans have a four-match-winning streak in major internationals. Can a likely entirely new XI hope to achieve a fifth in what may be Cristiano Ronaldo’s final tournament? Eh… perhaps that’s enough long-range excogitation for now. Let’s move on to another purely hypothetical question.
Who are the early favorites to take the European crown?
Time to return to that much-desired cup of tea. I really like England’s chances this time. A big win over the Croats in the opening match at Wembley can kick start a confident tournament. Twenty-four years after the heartbreak in Euro ’96, football finally comes home again. This time they have the talent to make it count. They’ve also learned a thing or two about training for penalty shootouts.
First place in their group would likely pit them against a Swedish or Polish side that could easily be beatable in the opening knockout round. France or Portugal in the quarterfinals would count as a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. If Southgate’s side could get past them, the Lions are through to the semis at Wembley again against an overextended Belgium or Italy.
Wembley also hosts the final, where they would play whoever made it through the weaker side of the bracket. So it transpires that the English take Europe shortly after their messy divorce from it is completed… or they could just blow it and lose to a minnow country like Iceland again. Who knows? It’s very early.
All I can truly say for certain is that I would really appreciate that cup of tea right about now. Unfortunately, those of us living stateside only have access to mechanically pressed bags of granulated dust. Lovely. Suppose I’ll settle for another cup of coffee.