Euro 2020 kicks off

As I write this post, Euro 2020 is set to kick off. A year late.

Today’s opening match features Italy and Turkey. It’s not a matchup to send one’s heart racing — both countries normally play a “pragmatic” style of football. Yet, on paper this is an above-average group stage contest.

That’s because, with 24 teams, the tournament has been badly diluted. It was a great tourney when it featured only eight teams and a very good one when, until 2016, it featured 16.

However, there simply aren’t enough decent teams in Europe to fill up a 24 team tournament. Thus, Euro 2020 includes teams like Finland, North Macedonia (formerly Macedonia), Wales, Scotland (this isn’t the 1980s), Hungary, and Slovakia. One or two of these minnows might play well, as Wales and Iceland did in 2016. But as a group they will likely weigh the tournament down in mediocrity.

It’s true that, unlike the World Cup, the Euros sometimes produce improbable winners. Greece won a 16-team tourney in 2004. In 1992, when there were only eight teams, Denmark won. Its players had been enjoying some of Europe’s finest beaches until Denmark was called up at the last minute to replace Yugoslavia, which was banned for political reasons.

And in 2016, Portugal was an upset winner, benefitting from a knock-out stage bracket so weak that the Portuguese made it to the final without having beaten a good team or played a good match.

But Greece and Denmark were a level above of this year’s minnows, and Portugal, even at its worst, was two levels above.

At the top tier this year, France stands out. The French won the last World Cup and were runners-up at the last Euros.

This year’s team is the best of the three on paper. Karim (sex, lies, and video) Benzema returns to the national team after being kicked off of it years ago. The Real Madrid man was the Spanish league’s best forward this season outside of the other-worldly Lionel Messi.

The French squad is so deep that the second unit would likely make it to the semi-finals.

Belgium and Germany are probably next in line. If Belgium’s two biggest stars, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard are fit and in the mood, they will combine with Romulu Lukaku (ex-Everton) to form an awesome attack. There are questions at the back, however, where the long-serving partnership (both for Belgium and Tottenham Hotspur) of Jan Vertongen and Toby Alderweireld is past its prime.

Germany’s questions are up front, but the return of Thomas Muller may answer some of them. Even so, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner may have to find the form that eluded them this season at Chelsea if Germany is to go all the way.

Somehow, Portugal finds itself in the same first-round group as France and Germany. Fortunately, the tournament is such that three of the four teams in a group can advance.

This year’s Portuguese team is better than the one that triumphed at Euro 2016, at least on paper. Cristiano Ronaldo is still going strong (arguably he was the best player in Italy this season). And he has been joined by rising stars like Ruben Dias (Manchester City), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), and Diogo Jota (Liverpool).

This brings us to England. Its strong suit is the attack. Veteran stars Harry Kane (Tottenham) and Rahim Sterling (Manchester City) are joined by outstanding young talents like Phil Foden (Manchester City), Mason Mount (Chelsea), Jaden Sancho (Dortmund), and Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).

But to reach the semis, England will probably need a healthy Jordan Henderson (Liverpool) and Harry McGuire (Manchester United) in its spine. And advancing even further might require stellar performances from Jordan Pickford (Everton) in goal and John Stones (ex-Everton, now Manchester City) at center back alongside McGuire. Stones’ performance will be particularly important if England opts for only two center backs instead of three.

The other three highly-rated contenders are usual suspects — Italy, Spain, and maybe Holland. Of the three Spain interests me the most.

On paper, this seems like the weakest Spanish side in at least two decades. And the squad has been hit by covid problems that leave the availability of some players in doubt.

On the other hand, Spain recently routed Germany 6-0 in a “friendly.” It’s normally a mistake to put any stock in build-up matches. But you can’t be mugs and beat the Germans by six goals.

It’s almost certain that a few teams outside the above group of eight will crash the party. Which teams? Not having seen any of them in action for at least a year-and-a-half, I won’t venture a guess.

Denmark is the second-tier team I hear the most about. On paper it’s a respectable looking squad. And the Danes will have the advantage of playing their group stage matches at home (Euro 2020 is being played in eleven countries, instead of one or two as in the past).

I’ll be writing about Euro 2020 as it progresses — enough, I hope, to satisfy Power Line readers who are into soccer, but not enough to upset John.

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