Euro 2020 way-too-early preview: Assessing England, Portugal, VAR and more with 100 days to go
We're officially 100 days away from the opening game of Euro 2020 -- watch every game LIVE in the U.S. on ESPN networks from June 12 - July 12 -- and let's face it, it's never too early to look at the big teams and the big questions as they continue their preparations for what should be a superb summer of soccer.
There are still four spots up for grabs in the playoffs at the end of March (more on that later) but we've got your super-early look at the presumed favorites to win this summer as well as a first look at some other pressing matters ahead of the tournament's opening game in Rome on June 12.
PLAYING THE FIELD: Who are the real front-runners?
Let's take two steps to establish favorites for Euro 2020: Since rosters are impossibly fluid and uncertain three months from the tournament, let's simply look at which teams (1) were the most dominant in qualifying play. Then, (2) let's downgrade the odds of all the teams in this year's "hell group," more familiarly known as Group F (France, Germany, Portugal). So who leads the way?
1. England. Yes, the Three Lions have stepped on all sorts of rakes in major tournaments through the years and yes, Harry Kane's form will be questionable at best. But they were rampant in qualifying, boasting the best goal difference, third-best expected goal difference and a single, excusable blemish: a 2-1 loss at Czech Republic.
2. Belgium. Caesars lists the Red Devils as betting co-favorites with England, and it's not hard to see why. They were third in the last World Cup, their goal difference in qualifying was only behind England's, and they had the best expected goal difference to boot. They will need a healthy Eden Hazard though, and he's currently rehabbing a season-ending injury.
3. Spain. Granted, La Roja haven't made even the quarterfinals of their last three major tournaments, but the veteran-heavy squad brilliant in qualifying, posting the second-best expected goal margin and showing massive upside in a 3-0 win over Sweden and 5-0 win over Romania. -- Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC)
ENGLAND: Who will play up front?
There are two scenarios for England at Euro 2020. The first revolves around a fit Harry Kane leading the line for Gareth Southgate's team and ensuring they justify their status as one of the pre-tournament favourites. The second is that Kane fails to fully recover from the hamstring injury that has kept him on the sideline since December, and England go into the tournament without their talisman, captain and main source of goals.
To make matters worse, Marcus Rashford, the man most likely to fill any void left by Kane, is also facing his own fitness battle and is rated as doubtful to be fit in time for the finals given his back injury. If Kane and Rashford are fit, England possess the firepower to beat any team, but without them, Southgate will be struggling to find adequate replacements. Leicester's Jamie Vardy is not an option, having retired from international football in August 2018, leaving the likes of Chelsea's Tammy Abraham, Bournemouth's Callum Wilson and Southampton's Danny Ings as potential strikers if Kane and/or Rashford miss out.
FRANCE: They're the favorites, right?
Of course they are. Les Bleus are currently vice-European champions and World Cup champions. They have reached the final in the past two big tournaments and none of their peers have a better record over the past four years. This generation dreams of imitating (and surpassing) the 1998-2000 version that famously pulled off the World Cup/Euros double. Didier Deschamps was the captain then; leading the team this summer, he will know exactly how to motivate his players.
Equally, the style will not matter and France will be very pragmatic again in their tactics. Deschamps will certainly use the same ideas and mentality than in Russia. However, this will be a better, more mature and more experienced squad than won the World Cup back in 2018. You can expect 80% of the players who were in Russia to be there again two years later, while some possible newcomers (Kingsley Coman, Wissam Ben Yedder, Anthony Martial, Tanguy Ndombélé, Clément Lenglet for example) will bring a lot to the table and give Deschamps more talented options.
Kylian Mbappe, Hugo Lloris and Antoine Griezmann will still be the leaders. N'Golo Kante and Raphael Varane will be key factors, too, but the key for this team will be Paul Pogba. He needs to not only return to match fitness, but to regain his best form at Man United. But not to worry: he still has three months in which to do it. -- Julien Laurens (@LaurensJulien)
SPAIN: Are they back in Europe's top tier?
I spent time with Spain coach Luis Enrique for UEFA.com last week and walked away from our chat much more optimistic about La Roja's chances in Euro 2020 than I was going into it. One conclusion to take from the experience is that to be in this man's presence is to feel the pulse of his remarkable energy, confidence and conviction.
Tournaments are strange beasts and one thing is absolutely clear. A squad needs to be energised. It needs to "believe," needs to feel that it's being "hot-housed" as the key players and bit-part-players all coalesce into a fighting unit after a long, brutal season. Can "Lucho" add all that to his playing group? I imagine he can.
But what about the jigsaw pieces? The picture, for Spain, is confused. It's their coach's first experience in charge at a tournament. His choices are both interesting and testing.
Which goalkeepers join the squad? Right now his main two, Kepa Arrizabalaga and David De Gea, are having their troubles at Chelsea and Man United, respectively. Pau Lopez, at Roma, can step up but will Luis Enrique opt for Unai Simon, Athletic's promising kid? Is Sergio Busquets still playing sufficiently elite football? And regardless of the group Luis Enrique puts together, will they have sufficient killer mentality to emulate their 2008, 2010 and 2012 winning predecessors? The jury is out, but the jury remains slightly doubtful. -- Graham Hunter (@BumperGraham)
ITALY: Is this a tournament too soon for the Azzurri?
If you're of a superstitious bent and an Italy fan, you don't feel great about Euro 2020. Results have been uncharacteristically good in qualifying and the Azzurri have generally done best when they've had their backs against the wall and barely qualified for tournaments. Fear of failure has been a great motivator.
There's a quiet optimism around this group, and not just for the excellent performances in qualifying. There's a corps of young players -- goalkeeper Gigio Donnarumma, midfielders Nicolo Barella, Stefano Sensi and Sandro Tonali, forward Federico Chiesa -- who have generated tons of excitement, though the most gifted of them all, midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo, may miss out on the tournament because of a cruciate ligament injury suffered in January. And there are veterans like Leo Bonucci at the back, Jorginho and Marco Verratti in midfield and free-scoring striker Ciro Immobile up front that make Italy a tough out. The key will be whether manager Roberto Mancini can bring it all together.
A phenomenally gifted player, Mancini never quite hit the highs his talent warranted while playing for the national team. As a coach, he won silverware at Inter and Manchester City prior to taking the Italy job, mostly with experienced players and a relatively orthodox approach. But with Italy, he's putting his trust in youth and a high-energy, attack-minded ethos, a stark departure from Azzurri sides of yesteryear. -- Gab Marcotti (@Marcotti)
GERMANY: Are they past their crisis point and ready to contend?
Save for recurring public pleas to see Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels return to the squad, Germany have moved on from their 2018 World Cup woes. This is a team that is now in a different cycle to the one that saw them triumph in Brazil and then pay for their complacency in Russia.
While there's no denying some discomfort around World Cup-winning coach Joachim Low still being the man in charge, the 60-year-old deserves credit for starting another cycle. He has reshaped the squad with many young faces and has realised that his beloved heavy possession approach of previous years no long works in isolation and that speed is pivotal. It's a shift has allowed new quality to blossom and some familiar faces to rise higher. Kai Havertz is a player to build a team around and Serge Gnabry has emerged as an explosive attacking option, while Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Matthias Ginter are key figures in the leadership of this new Germany.
German FA (DFB) president Fritz Keller's unhelpful belief that Germany have to make the semifinals puts unnecessary pressure on a young group that should treat this tournament as a chance to grow rather than to challenge. -- Jonathan Harding (@JonBloggs66)
CORONAVIRUS: How will it affect the tournament?
The coronavirus, which was first detected in Chinese city of Wuhan, has been felt most by Italy within Europe. At the time of writing, there have been 79 recorded deaths from coronavirus in Italy, with the northern region of Lombardy the most affected. Several top-flight matches have been postponed -- including the top-of-the-table clash between Juventus and Inter -- with others, including Atalanta's Champions League last-16, second leg, against Valencia, played behind closed doors. The first match of the tournament will take place in Rome and is between Italy and Turkey and so far UEFA have made no plans to change the venue.
"Euro 2020 will kick off on June 12, 2020 in Rome," a UEFA statement read. "UEFA is in touch with the relevant international and local authorities regarding the Coronavirus and its development. For the moment, there is no need to change anything in the planned timetable. The issue will be kept under constant scrutiny."
Other European countries which have been affected by the coronavirus include Switzerland, where the top two tiers of football have been suspended until March 15. Italy has also seen other sports affected, with men's and women's rugby Six Nations matches cancelled. -- Andrew Cesare Richardson (@AndrewCesare)
VAR: Will it work properly at Euro 2020?
Forget about the extensive delays, infinitesimal measuring of offside decisions, frustrated goal celebrations and incandescent fury of fans and pundits around the Premier League and other domestic leagues this season: VAR at Euro 2020 should be much slicker and much quicker. After all, UEFA have figured out the right rhythm of VAR application when it comes to their competitions: for example, there were fewer VAR overturns in the Champions League group stage this season than there have been in club football. Ultimately, VAR is accepted in the UCL because the referees -- including those from the Premier League -- "sell" the decision with the use of the pitchside monitors. UEFA will ensure a similar process at the Euros in the interests of letting the referees play a bigger part than simply holding their ear and waiting for the final call.
Even more importantly, UEFA referees' chief Roberto Rosetti insists that VAR is "only for clear and obvious mistakes, and not for controversial situations" which has meant hardly any of those "armpit" offside decisions -- in short, seeing perfectly "good" goals disallowed due to a rogue arm or forehead behind the final defender -- that have plagued European club football. Expect a much smoother summer more in line with what we saw in both the men's 2018 World Cup and women's 2019 World Cup than in England's top flight this year. -- Dale Johnson (@DaleJohnsonESPN)
BELGIUM: Are their hopes dashed if Eden Hazard isn't fit?
Hazard is in a genuine race against time. He is desperate to play the Euros with Belgium and hopefully finally carry this golden generation to the summit. However, if his latest ankle injury was preventing him from making it, the Red Devils will still have enough talent to have a successful summer, starting with Kevin De Bruyne, of course.
Man City's best player is Hazard's natural heir in the leadership contest. He is having a wonderful season with Manchester City. In many ways, he is already the boss of this Belgian team in a playmaker role at the heart of Roberto Martinez's 3-4-3 formation. He could also move up to play alongside Dries Mertens on each side of Romelu Lukaku. Both of them will have a key role to play as well on the back of excellent domestic campaigns. Mertens became Napoli's all-time top goal scorer and Lukaku took over Serie A.
But maybe the best replacement for Eden will be his brother, Thorgan. Usually, he plays more as a wing-back with the national team, but Martinez has other options there (Timothy Castagne, Thomas Meunier, Yannick Carrasco, Arno Verschueren, Nacer Chadli) so he could definitely push him up, like at Dortmund, and let him try to fill his brother's (big) boots. -- Julien Laurens (@LaurensJulien)
PORTUGAL: Does Ronaldo have enough left in the tank to defend their title?
Evaluating Portugal's chances in 2020 are simple: if Cristiano Ronaldo is up for the challenge (and he often is on the pitch), they have every shot of retaining their Euro 2016 crown. It's not just that he thrives in the European Championships -- 40 of his 99 goals have come at the finals or in qualifying -- but that he played such an integral role in their first international title when they shocked France to win Euro 2016. And yet, famously, he hobbled off after just 25 minutes of that final, watching on crutches and giving the impression he was co-managing with Fernando Santos as Portugal outlasted Les Bleus in extra time, proof that this team is more than the sum of its parts.
Bettered only by Harry Kane (12 goals) in qualifying, Ronaldo will have plenty of help from the likes of Joao Felix, a trio of hungry Wolves (Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota are thriving in the Premier League) and Man City playmaker Bernardo Silva, but a tough group including France and Germany offer no margin for error. (Ronaldo has never scored against either of those giants, either.) In fact, their path in 2020 is a lot harder than it was on their road to glory last time around -- they finished third in a group with Hungary, Iceland and Austria, taking down Croatia, Poland and Wales en route to the final -- and Ronaldo has four more years in those legs. -- James Tyler (@JamesTylerESPN)
UNDERDOGS: Which of the smaller nations can cause some upsets this summer?
Two sides stand out for their shock potential, Denmark and Poland.
The 2020 version of Denmark might lack the personalities and the bohemian touch of the team that became surprise champions in neighbouring Sweden back in 1992 -- they were famously only included as a last-minute replacement for disqualified and dissolved Yugoslavia -- but coach Åge Hareide has built a defensively solid, physically capable and functional Denmark side. They have proved capable at both defending and attacking set-pieces, with Christian Eriksen providing the creative spark in his favoured number 10 position. New Barcelona recruit Martin Braithwaite and RB Leipzig's Yussuf Poulsen provide pace and goal threat from wide areas in their trademark 4-2-3-1 formation.
Not only did the draw treat the Danes favourably, with only Belgium ranking higher in their group, but they'll also enjoy the privilege of playing all three group matches on home soil at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen. Undefeated in their last 15 matches, they should be capable of beating their Nordic rivals Finland and Russia to book a place in the last 16. Who knows? They might even pick up the "spirit of '92" on the way.
As for Poland, Jerzy Breczek's team qualified as runaway winners of an evenly matched, relatively tricky group, conceding just five goals from 10 games along the way. After that impressive qualifying campaign, the Poles will be hoping to emulate the performance from four years ago -- Portugal proved a bridge too far in the quarterfinals -- or perhaps even go one better given that they're bringing a strong squad near its peak.
Solid goalkeepers are rarely a problem for Poland -- Juve's Wojciech Szczesny is the number one choice -- and the central defensive partnership of Kamil Glik and Jan Bednarek appeared sturdy in qualifying. It's further up the pitch where the real excitement starts, though. Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski provides the vision and playmaking abilities, while arguably the world's best centre-forward, Robert Lewandowski, is a guarantee for goals, with other quality options such as Arkadiusz Milik and Krzysztof Piatek waiting in the wings.
Apart from a daunting trip to face Spain in Bilbao, Poland will play in front of a large Polish following in Dublin, with Sweden and a fourth country coming through the playoffs their other opponents. With this Poland team possibly the best since the World Cup bronze-winning side of 1982, it would be no surprise to see them in the last 16, or even beyond. -- Tor-Kristian Karlsen (@tkkarlsen)
PLAYOFF QUALIFIERS: Which four teams have the best chance of reaching Euro 2020?
From Path A, Iceland should just edge past Romania on March 26 to tee up a trip to Hungary for the qualification showdown in Budapest on March 31. While Iceland have endured a turbulent post-2018 World Cup existence, they should just edge past the mid-20th century powerhouses to get through.
In Path B, there is the mouthwatering and historically charged prospect of Northern Ireland up against Republic of Ireland, but Bosnia and Herzegovina should have enough mettle to knock over Northern Ireland in their playoff, with the Republic of Ireland doing enough against Slovakia. Mick McCarthy's men should have enough to book their place overall, with any players owning a Labrador left behind.
In Path C, logic suggests Serbia are favourites, while Scotland boast the best left-back in the world in Andy Robertson, but then Norway have the Erling Haaland factor and Martin Odegaard, to boot. While Serbia are favourites to get through this Path, look for Haaland's Norway to get through.
And finally, in Path D, the group of independent nations, how wonderful it'd be to have Kosovo there, complete with the brilliant Vedat Muriqi. Flip a coin for this Path, but Kosovo have enough to see off Georgia, Belarus and North Macedonia.
So the four teams who should head to Euro 2020, a schedule and layout ideally suited to broke teenage travelers, are: Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Norway and Kosovo. -- Tom Hamilton (@TomHamiltonESPN)