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The Dark Horses of Euro 2020

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The Dark Horses of Euro 2020

After the dark year that forced a halt on all sporting events, excitement has arisen across the continent in anticipation of Euro 2020, uniquely being played in 2021. Whilst there has been a twelve-month wait for the competition, the likes of: France; Portugal; England and Belgium, all remain the front runners for European glory this summer.

The group stages are nearing their conclusion, with little surprise in the way of our tournament favourites; who have met the expectations of all early on, there are an exciting range of nations who will have caught the eye of the continent as they join the powerhouses of European football into the Round of 16. 

As the lineup for the latter stages of the tournament begins to unravel, many will hope to follow in the footsteps of Greece in 2004, who shocked the world as they went the distance to lift the prestigious trophy. 

 

Italy 

The 2006 World Cup Champions have hit the ground running after back-to-back 3-0 victories in their opening Euro 2020 fixtures against Turkey and Switzerland. Gli Azzurri are only a matter of games away from overtaking the all-time longest unbeaten streak (30) in international history, finding themselves just five games behind the Brazil side of 1993-1996 (35).

Roberto Mancini’s side are on a renaissance after missing out on the 2018 FIFA World Cup, after losing to Sweden in their Play-Off fixture. Building on that heartbreak, the Italians have come into this tournament with their hearts on their sleeve; leaving everything on the pitch, from the heartfelt rendition of the national anthem ‘Il Canto Degli Italiani’, to the passionate reactions to the last-ditched defensive tackles.

 

A Revolutionised Italy?

On the pitch, the Italians have flourished through the appreciable chemistry of the three-man midfield of: Nicolo Barella; Jorginho; and Manuel Locatelli. The three have been at the heart of everything good about Italy so far, providing energy, hunger, and desire, this dynamic operates with Jorginho sitting in the slightly deeper position, allowing both Barella and Locatelli to play in the advanced positions. A tactical approach in which Locatelli managed to secure a brace in the 3-0 victory over Switzerland. Additionally, the midfield set-up allows for a threatening approach, with Barella and Locatelli being able to connect with the chosen wingers of Lorenzo Insigne and Gaetano Berardi, who have both shown equally as remarkable displays in the group stage.

In attack, the Italians have reaped the rewards of playing the right-footed Leonardo Spinazzola at left-back. The Roma-man has received rave reviews in the early stages of Euro 2020, playing an instrumental role as an attacking outlet, being able to burst down the byline, with the attacking freedom to constantly terrorise defenders. The Italians will be highly optimistic of their chances in this tournament, with an exciting attacking display thus far, added confidence will be found in the shape of striker Ciro Immobile, who has been the commander-in-chief in the attack. The striker scored in both of the opening games at Euro 2020 and contributed to 20 goals for Lazio at a domestic level this season.

It is also noteworthy to consider that this tactical decision by Mancini has allowed Italy to press much higher up the pitch. Their high energy and press have forced opponents into making mistakes in their own half, meaning that they are unable to build any significant momentum. Whilst Italy has scored seven goals in their three games, it is important to note that they have kept three clean sheets without looking in danger of conceding at any point during the group stage.

 

Expectation before the tournament?

Before the tournament started on 12th June, Italy were given odds of 11/1 to win the tournament, after their lightning start, eyes have been opened, with their odds dropping to as low as 8/1. Many bookies considered Gli Azzurri as the seventh-best team at the tournament, but their stand-out performances have seen them suddenly rise much higher up that list.

After the disappointment in 2018, Italy showed during the group stages that they are genuine title contenders this time around, with dominating performances to begin, eyes will be raised as Mancini’s side aim to surprise the elite squads in Europe. 

 

Sweden 

An ever-present member of the last five European Championships, Sweden started the tournament in impressive style, having secured four points from their opening two games. 

Suecia | Swedish football team (1st row from L) Swedish midf… | Flickr

Who are the key players for Sweden at Euro 2020?

Managed by Janne Andersson, the Swedes have looked organised and compact in defense, with Victor Lindelof and Marcus Danielson at the heart of the back four. In a traditional 4-4-2, the side works in unison as they work up and down the pitch, allowing the likes of Forsberg and Larsson to work collaboratively to offer support to the strikers: Marcus Berg and rising star Alexander Isak. Isak (21), has become one of the stand-out players of the tournament, despite not scoring thus far, his dazzling feet and mixture of remarkable physicality and pace have caught the eye of all, showing that if Sweden can make it far, the young striker will be a major asset for the Scandinavian country. 

After missing much of the group stages, Sweden will see the return of winger Dejan Kulusevski, who had been absent due to testing positive for COVID-19. Now back in time for the knockout rounds, the Juventus man will only add to the attacking talents that the nation has to offer, providing exciting glimpses of his talents in the win over Poland.

 

A Tough Time at Europe’s Top Table?

Last time around, at Euro 2016, Sweden finished bottom of a group that involved: Italy; Belgium; and the Republic of Ireland. Such disappointment was expected of them again, given that they would be missing their all-time top goalscorer: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In addition to the absence of their main talisman, Sweden managed to be drawn in a group that would see them face Euro 2008 & 2012 winners Spain, a Robert Lewandowski-inspired Poland, and the quietly confident underdogs of Slovakia. However, their tactical approach saw the yellow and blue army record a well-deserved 0-0 draw against Spain and a narrow 1-0 victory over Slovakia, finished with a 3-2 victory over Poland to finish the round as group-winners.

On their way to the knockout rounds, four goals in three games remain an impressive return, highlighting that Sweden are more than just a strong, defensive outfit. Whilst Italy defend through their high-intensity pressing, Sweden have become a force by being difficult to break down, such organisation that may be accountable if they are to go far this time around, a feature that has been missing in previous tournaments.

In years gone by, the country have only made it out of the group just twice, having reached the semi-finals of the competition in 1992 before dramatically bowing out at the hands of Germany. Their only other venture out of the group stages came in 2004, due to a penalty shootout defeat. The culprits for the loss were Erik Mellberg and Ibrahimovic who were denied from the spot, as a result, sending the Netherlands to advance beyond the quarter-final.

A final game of the group stages that resulted in Sweden ultimately topping the table, after beating Poland, Andersson’s side will be hoping to build momentum from an impressive start to the tournament to cause major upsets further down the line.

 

Czech Republic 

A footballing nation that maintains a rich history when it comes to the European Championships, without ever winning the main prize the Czech’s finished as runners-up in 1996, before suffering defeat in extra time to Germany. Eight years later, the country recorded a semi-final finish after losing to eventual-winners Greece. Whilst the nation have been in-and-around the top table of European football, significantly less has been predicted for the nation heading into Euro 2020. Given their valued history in this tournament, they remain a surprise mention for this list. A side that deserves nothing short of praise so far as the Czech’s have hit the ground running so far. Despite being drawn against two of the 2018 World Cup semi-finalists, Jaroslav Silhany’s men have held their own, having reached the knockout phase for the tournament. 

 

Goal of the tournament?

Spearheaded by Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schick, the side comfortably overcame the challenge of Scotland, at Hampden Park. The Czech’s made a name for themselves from the word ‘go’, with the 2-0 win which will be remembered by all after the 25-year-old attacker managed to score from the halfway line, catching out the Scottish ‘keeper David Marshall.

Building on from their opening game three points, the Czech’s recorded a well-deserved 1-1 draw against World Cup finalists Croatia. After scoring four points from a possible six, The Locomotives qualified as one of the best third-place sides after a narrow 1-0 defeat to England, at Wembley.

A side that will be recognised for their physical strength, Czech Republic will pose a resilient challenge for any nation within this tournament. To Premier League fans, the side includes Player of the Season nominee Tomas Soucek and fellow West Ham right-back Vladimir Coufal, supported by the Sevilla goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik, who has shown that he is up for the occasion, looking to follow in the footsteps of former legendary ‘keeper Petr Cech, who wore the colours of Czech Republic 124 times. 

In addition to the well-known bright stars, Czech Republic offer an array of exciting prospects in the form of Adam Hlozek and Alex Kral. Both of which have made extraordinary impressions within their domestic campaigns this season, with Hlozek scoring 15 goals from his 19 appearances this season for Sparta Prague. The young striker provides an ideal substitute option who has shown his ability to find the back of the net, a trait that may be hugely important as the Czech’s push on further in the competition.

 

We hope you enjoyed the article ‘The Dark Horses of Euro 2020.’ Who do you think will win Euro 2020? Let us know!

 

If you enjoyed ‘The Dark Horses of Euro 2020’ then be sure to check out more coverage on the tournament below:

Sam is an International Relations Graduate from the University of East Anglia. Since graduating, he has gone on to write for the likes of: Sporting Feret; The 72; and The Sporting Blog. His experience writing for Sporting Feret has provided the opportunity to join the media team at Vanarama National League side King's Lynn Town FC. In the role, he conducts player interviews, writes match previews/report,s and is heavily involved in the club's match programmes. To contact him, his email is: samplummer98@gmail.com

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