The European Championship is almost here! Time for our top five contenders

Come this June, the 61st edition of the European Championship is set to kick off in Rome's Stadio Olimpico after a year long delay due to the pandemic.

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Summer is here, and if you love European football, it is customarily a rather dire period. None of your favourite teams or players takes to the field during this period. But the ongoing COVID pandemic meant the 2020 European Championship was postponed to a summer later.

Next month, at the end of another season of mid-COVID club football, the European Championship will take centre stage in the footballing world.

The Wait is Nearly Over

European Championship Groups
Group F consists of three former European Champions and Hungary, which makes up this edition’s group of death.

There isn’t going to be another postponement. We will have the best national teams in Europe trotting onto pitches around the continent. Marking the 60th (61st now) anniversary of the European Championship, UEFA chose a concept of no host nation/nations, and thus 12 cities from 12 different countries will play host to the 24 participating teams.

On 11 June 2021, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, a re-invented Italian team will play Turkey, who beat world champions France on their road to qualification. The footballing spectacle will last a month, with the final scheduled to be held on 11 July 2021, at the Wembley Stadium in London.

The fans will be hoping that their favourite players are healthy and ready to rumble. They will also be drooling at the chance of returning to stadiums to watch their teams live as Europe looks to establish an environment of normality among their citizens.

Recently, in England and Spain, restrictions have been slightly reduced, and supporters have attended games in diminished numbers. It should get better all across Europe by the time the tournament commences.

Betting Odds

For the first time in this century, England will go into a tournament as the betting favourite. World Cup winner France and semi-finalist Belgium make up the top 3 for the oddsmakers.

2014 World Cup winner Germany is fourth on the list. Despite a fall from grace in the past couple of international tournaments, Spain still has a squad that justifies an 8/1 odds. Defending Champions Portugal is only the seventh-best and will be adamant to prove the oddsmakers wrong.

Italy, Netherlands, Denmark and Croatia round off the other top 10 betting options. Denmark, along with Croatia, is the best of the rest as the top 8 teams are considered traditional European powerhouses.

Championship Contenders

For a moment, let’s forget the betting odds. Here’s a look at my top five contenders.

France

European Championship Winner 2000
Didier Deschamps was the last French captain to lift a European Championship back in 2000. Credits: Imago

One glance at the French team this decade, and you cannot help but be envious of the incredible talent that this nation has produced. England also boasts an equally imposing squad with a galore of young talent, but most members of the Les Blues also possess vast experience within this young age.

Barring hiccups against Turkey in qualifying, this team have shown the ability to beat all their continental counterparts. Remarkably, they may yet find themselves out of the tournament before the knockout stages. Defending Champions Portugal, the ever consistent Germans, Hungary, and France form the Group of Death in this tourney. Yet, it would be unreasonable to bet against this team making it to the knockout stages.

Team News

After seven long years of forced hiatus from the national team, Didier Deschamps has recalled controversial striker Karim Benzema. Benzema’s performances in a Real Madrid team sorely missing Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be warranting the attention he deserves. A forward line comprising Benzema, Mbappe and an in-form Antoine Griezmann may well bully a few defences in this competition.

As always, Olivier Giroud will also be an option when needed. In addition to these big names, Kingsley Coman, Ben Yedder, Marcus Thuram, Ousmane Dembele, and Thomas Lemar provide youthful attacking options when things might not be working according to plan. Despite his struggles in Spain, Dembele feels like a different player in a French shirt.

Pogba, Kante, Rabiot, Tollisso, and Sissoko are the midfield players in the squad. Kante established his dominion over a highly respected Real Madrid midfield in the Champions League. Whereas, Pogba has shown glimpses of what he can do in a resurgent season at United. Kante’s presence allows Pogba the freedom to roam freely in the centre of the park. The third man in midfield may well determine how well these two can perform their duties.

Rabiot and Tollisso are the more attacking options, while Sissoko prefers to sit back to do the dirty work. This midfield is a bit thin compared to the rest of the teams on this list.

The defensive ranks are also crowded. Varane, Umiti, Dubois, Digne, Lucas Hernandez, Lenglet, Kimpembe, Kounde and Pavard are the defenders in this squad. Absent any injury, Varane will start alongside Kounde. Kounde played a crucial role in Sevilla’s challenge for the La Liga title. His performances in the summer could earn him a move to one of Europe’s top clubs.

Hernandez and Pavard are incredibly consistent and know their job on the flanks. Kimpembe had a disastrous start to the Ligue 1 season but eventually settled into his role. He could very well replace Varane in his absence.

Final Thoughts

Lloris will continue to start for Deschamps as well as remain the leader of this team. Lloris has to support and guide the defensive line in front of him because all three of the centre backs are known to blow up in games. Progression to the second round is not guaranteed, but the expanded format of the competition presents opportunities for three teams from a group to qualify to the knockout stages.

Once through, this team will look to go all the way. A record only held by the Spaniards await if they find success in their mission. The loss to Portugal at home is a prickly thorn that will only disappear with a triumph. Also, Benzema must be itching to get his hands on an international trophy after missing out on the World Cup victory.

Belgium

Semi Finalist World Cup 2018
The Red Devils are sure to miss talismanic captain Vincent Kompany. Credits: allwhitebackground.com

Belgium, like France and England, was a semi-finalist in Russia. The qualifiers saw them top their group with ten victories in the ten games while scoring a whopping 40 goals. Their persistent counter-attacks can disorient any team on their path. Blessed with pacy wingers, playmakers who can thread the delicate ball and strong strikers, this team is indeed Belgium’s golden generation.

Roberto Martinez and his group of highly motivated athletes are one of Europe’s best footballing squads.

Team News

In defence, Roberto Martinez continues to put his faith in experienced stalwarts Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Jason Denayer provides much-needed energy in the backline. This defence is not the youngest or the quickest in Europe. But, three goals conceded in 10 games is a testimony of purpose every other team looking to win this tournament should remember (tied with Turkey).

Undeniably, Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers on the planet, and over the last two years, possibly the best in Europe. It requires significant effort from the other team to put the ball past him. Former gunner Thomas Vermaelen and Hertha Berlin’s Dedryck Boyata are the other central defensive options for Martinez.

Like most other teams on this list, Les Diables Rouges also boasts several attacking footballers that ooze sheer class. Premier League winner Kevin De Bruyne is the heart of this team. Eden Hazard’s shambolic period in Real Madrid has seen him decline as a player, but a successful European Championship could be the ideal cure for his dying career.

Younger Brother Thorgan Hazard has proven to be an adept team player. Over the past two years, Thorgan has been the better Hazard. Youri Tielemans, once regarded as the most talented youngster in Europe, is slowly growing out of his cocoon. The goal in the FA Cup final is the perfect demonstration of his abilities.

Thomas Meunier and Castagne both are full of running and strength. Roberto Martinez will hope that they will at the least reproduce their club performances for their country. The evolution of the wing-back role has forced players like Yannick Carrasco and Thorgan Hazard to adapt to this position when needed.

Axel Witsel is the midfield cog who operates as the box to box player while also providing sufficient support in defence.

With Romelu Lukaku heading the frontline, Roberto Martinez has a no-nonsense finisher for his viperous counter-attacking unit. Since his move to Inter, Lukaku has turned into a stingy poacher in the box. His much-criticised abilities on the ball have also extensively improved. The evergreen Dries Mertens can play alongside the Inter man and provide an alternative when things don’t seem to work.

Final Thoughts

The Red Devils are in a complicated group with Russia and Denmark. But, like France, their attacking prowess should see them comfortably through to the knockout stages. Additionally, this defence is yet to be dishevelled by any team they’ve faced. They look like a team that revels in the football they play. Maintaining that mentality will be significant to progress through the knockout stages.

Their best players, De Bruyne and Lukaku, are at their peak footballing abilities. A fit Eden Hazard looks unlikely, but the likes of Tielemans, Praet and Carrasco should provide adequate cover. This lot will be looking to bring Belgium their first international trophy sooner than later. A meagre sense of desperation can sometimes work to one’s advantage.

England

European Championship favourite
Trent Alexander-Arnold could miss out on the tournament as he has failed to impress Southgate this season. Credits: Getty Images

The Three Lions enter this edition of the competition as oddsmakers favourites. Gareth Southgate’s team indeed possesses a squad that warrants the tag. But, every time an England team approaches an International tournament, they have been left disappointed since their sole World Cup victory in 1966.

Having reached the semi-final stage in Russia, Football was supposed to be coming home. But, a loss to a Luka Modric lead Croatia meant football didn’t come home. This time around, expectations are higher than before with this squad.

Team News

Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden are among the best youngsters in Europe. Having this wide array of attacking options means Southgate is spoiled for choices.

Grealish is one of those once in a lifetime players. An exquisite physical specimen, a complete midfielder who can also play in the forward line. One of those who rarely disappoints. Foden, in the City team full of stars, stands out. His decisiveness on the ball and ability to finish is miles ahead of his age.

In addition to these youngsters, there is a degree of experience in this squad. Harry Kane, one of Europe’s most potent strikers in the past five years, will lead the line. Though Sterling hasn’t had his best season in a City shirt, I would be surprised if Southgate does not pick him in the squad.

Mason Mount has been another revelation. His pace, directness and sheer quality of judgement on the ball should ensure his place in the team. Marcus Rashford had a quiet season at United and would be happy to be included in this squad.

The absence of Jordan Henderson has not been noticeable. Declan Rice has been putting in performances that warrant a start ahead of Henderson if he does return. But, the experience he brings to the centre of the park might be what England need to usher the trophy home. Kyle Walker will start alongside Stones and Maguire in a back three or four.

The resurgence of Luke Shaw provides welcome options on the left flank, though Ben Chilwell seems to be ahead of Shaw in the pecking order. Kieran Trippier is likely to keep his place on the right of defence with the young Reece James as the backup.

Trent Alexander Arnold is one of Europe’s top attacking right-back, but questions remain regarding his defensive capabilities. Southgate still has big decisions ahead of him before announcing his final squad for the tournament.

Nick Pope has been a consistent face in goal, but there remain doubts about the solidity of his game. Dean Henderson has also not shown enough to warrant a sense of trust from the English fans. The defensive setup is workable at best, considering the goalkeeping concerns. A first European Championship trophy is attainable, but honestly, doubts still linger despite the overwhelming opinions of the oddsmakers.

The equation changes if Stones and Maguire can lead this defence. And, I may very well have to take back my words and agree with the oddsmakers. A stable defensive line behind the sheer youthful quality in midfield and attack can prove to be unstoppable. Both Stones and Maguire had notable seasons at club level this year. Only time will tell if they can collaborate at the international level.

Southgate will pick his final squad after the upcoming friendlies.

Final Thoughts

They are in a relatively unpredictable group alongside Croatia, Czech Republic, and Scotland. The Scottish are always looking to stick it to their neighbours at every single chance on a football field. On the other hand, the English will find devilish pleasure in putting a few through the Croatian defence, an act of timely revenge.

France and Belgium, as well as Spain, Italy and Portugal, can challenge this young bunch. I’m underplaying their immense squad strength due to their inexperience. Assuredly, these youngsters want to prove naysayers like me wrong. If they are to do so and reach the final in Wembley, they must provoke greatness within themselves. Success will etch their names into the vast history of English football. 

A first European Championship this year could mean football might indeed come home next year. 

Portugal

Defending European Champion
Fernando Santos has shown that he can develop a group of warriors with the drive to win. Credit: AP

Many might say that I’m over-extending Portuguese hopes. But, one gaze at their squad, and it is rather hard to look past the balance within this lot. This squad has seen a significant overhaul from the one that defended its way to European victory. This forward line is nothing short of mouthwatering. While on paper, their defence has grown in strength.

Team News

In all probability, Premier League player of the year Rúben Dias will line up alongside the evergreen Pepe. José Fonte could start ahead of Pepe, depending on what Santos prefers. His performances in the Ligue 1 winning Lille team has been nothing short of inspirational.

Another Premier League winner João Cancelo looks poised to start over Raphaël Guerreiro. It remains to be seen if Nuno Mendes’ breakout season at Sporting Lisbon changes Santos’ mind. Cancelo’s ability to play on both sides of the flank could see him shifted to the right as well. Rui Patrício will remain in goal for the Seleção.

Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva have risen to fame in their Manchester teams, but critics aren’t too far off when they talk about Bruno’s timid play during crucial occasions. After all, it is his first big international tournament. Moutinho’s experience will play a role in this midfield lineup.

Ruben Neves had a disappointing season at Wolves affecting his chances to start ahead of an ageing Moutinho.

William Carvalho and Danilo Periera provide the necessary depth in midfield with another defensive midfielder in young João Palhinha. Upfront, João Félix, Diego Jota, Andre Silva, Gonçalo Guedes and Pedro Gonçalves should provide sufficient assistance to Cristiano Ronaldo.

Despite Juventus’ disappointing Serie A, Ronaldo has been in fine form, finishing as the league’s top scorer with 29 goals. Seleção fans are undoubtedly itching to see the likes of Bruno and Bernardo link up with this tasty frontline. João Félix had a frustrating season at Atletico despite their league win. He will look to impress both Santos and Simeone this summer.

Andre Silva scored a goal every 60 minutes this Bundesliga season and has proven himself to be a top-class striker since he departed Milan. They are a different team from the one that beat France five years ago. No longer are they the highly defensive team that looked for Cristiano each time they attacked.

Final Thoughts

Being drawn in the Group of Death and the confusing performances in qualifying meant they dropped down to fourth in this list. But, a strong showing in the group stages will put the other contenders on high alert. In Russia, they were difficult to break down. Honestly, their defence is better this time around.

If Bruno Fernandes is indeed what United fans believe he is, if Bernardo Silva can prove effective in a team not governed by Pep Guardiola, Portugal can surely make it to the knockout stages. Ronaldo will always guarantee you goals. Rúben Dias provided the impact in defence for City. I’m assuming he can do so for Portugal as well. If all works, we could see another team defend their European crown.

Defending the European Championship is no easy task, but Cristiano and boys always mean business.

Spain

European Champion 2008
Two-time European Champion Sergio Ramos is the biggest name missing from the Spanish squad. Credit: shootoutnow.com

No European team can boast the laurels Spain have brought in this century. After successfully defending the European Championship in 2012, the La Rojas lost out to Italy in 2016. They had battered Italy on their way to their third European crown four years ago. Drawn in what looks like a relatively easy group with Sweden, Poland and Slovakia, Luis Enrique’s men will look to top their group and fix a meeting with one of the third-place qualifiers.

Like always, the La Furia Roja enter the tournament with a plethora of talent in their squad. Lots have changed since the 4-0 victory against Italy in Kyiv. Only Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets remain in this squad from the team that took to the field in 2012.

Team News

An injury-stricken season in club football means Sergio Ramos misses out on an international tournament for Spain for the first time since the 2006 World Cup. But there remain extensive options in defence for the former Barcelona coach.

Pau Torres, Diego Llorente and Eric Garcia are all capable centre-halves. Aymeric Laporte’s decision to switch his allegiance across the border couldn’t have come at a better time. Eric Garcia’s inclusion ahead of Real Madrid’s Nacho Hernandez raised a few eyebrows as they head into the tournament with no player from the capital club for the first-ever occasion.

Jordi Alba continues to be a menace on the flanks for the Blaugrana, and Enrique will hope he can continue to do so in Spanish colours. In Ramos’ absence, Azpilicueta’s tenacity and leadership will come in handy for this squad.

Unlike past years, this midfield does not possess many big names. Yet, there is a fine mix of balance and experience in these lines. Busquets shouldn’t be starting. He is no longer the player he was. Thiago did not have a good debut season in England, but his reputation possibly helps secure a starting spot.

Marcos Llorente moved to Real’s city rival Atletico this year. He was instrumental in their championship run, popping up with winning goals and numerous assists. His energy and knack for scoring important goals would be a welcome addition to this passive midfield. Rodri or Llorente should start ahead of Busquets if Enrique is indeed serious about winning this tournament.

Like Napoli, Ruiz had a disappointing 2020-21 season, but he is a sensational talent. Luis Enrique seems to trust him, and he could very well turn things around with the La Roja. Dani Olmo has proven to be another goal-scoring midfielder, very similar to the likes of Llorente but more versatile. He can perform in the centre of the park as well as on the flanks. An upcoming friendly against Portugal should outline Enrique’s midfield plans for the tournament.

Since the departure of David Villa and Fernando Torres, not many world-class goal scorers have donned the Red and Blue. But, another Torres has the La Roja fans excited again. Ferran Torres is a foxy striker. His pace and ability to beat his man, coupled with a developing finisher’s instinct, is an exciting prospect.

Gerard Moreno has proven to be a forward who can play alongside another striker. He scored 23 goals and assisted seven times in this La Liga season while leading Villareal to a Europa League final. As always, Morata is an alternative, and his experience can come in handy. The inclusion of Adama Traore ahead of Iago Aspas is bewildering. The only explanation being his versatility to play a wide range of positions.

Final Thoughts

I’m not too sure about Spain being on this list. Germany or Italy could have replaced them. Eventually, they are here because of their performances in the past two years. This Spain team has a delectable mixture of youthful talent and experienced showrunners that can go all the way if they hit it off.

The La Roja on their day can dismantle any team in the world. Their 6-0 demolition of Germany in the Nations League is evidence. If Ferran Torres and Gerard Moreno can form a lethal strike partnership, the Spanish midfield is sure to fess up the necessary goods to facilitate their needs. The absence of captain Ramos is massive but may be a necessity for the success of this squad. 

Spanish fans can surely hope for a record-equalling third European Championship.

The Dark Horse – Italy

Midfielder heading ball
Youngsters like Barella, Kean and Locatelli add a much-needed vigour to this Italian team. Credits: AP

Since the World Cup final in 2006, the trademark Azzuri tenacity has disappeared. The 4-0 beating at the hands of Spain in the 2012 European Championship did not help. Unpredictably, Roberto Mancini’s squad is unlike its historical counterparts.

A peek at their defence, and one sees a mixture of experience and youth. But, it is the promising attack that holds your imagination. Youngsters Barella, Locatelli, Pessina and Castrovilli are talented midfielders who could show up at the marquee tournament. Especially Barella, a master creator with loads of stamina to expend.

Chiellini and Bonucci might still have enough to help this team before a necessary transition in the defensive line. Along with Bastoni, this Italian defence can still lock out Europe’s best attacks. Immobile and Insigne are both documented goalscorers. Mancini has used Chiesa’s pace and ingenuity effectively. Ten wins from ten games in qualifying and a semi-final berth against Spain in the Nations League mean they are a force to be reckoned with come this June.

And it is very Italian to crash the party of their European foes. It would be delightful to witness it if it does happen.

Unquestionably, the month of June is bound to entertain.

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