Friday, June 14, 2024

Euro 2024 favourites analysed: Kylian Mbappe primed to shine for France, Bruno Fernandes more important than Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal

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As the countdown to Euro 2024 continues, we analyse each of the favourites to claim the trophy, including wildcard players to look out for and expert views on their prospects.

The tournament begins when hosts Germany take on Scotland at the Allianz Arena on Friday June 14, with kick-off at 8pm. England’s first game sees them take on Serbia on Sunday June 16.

So, how are England and Germany set for the tournament? And what about France, Portugal, Spain and reigning champions Italy?

ENGLAND (10/3 with Sky Bet)

Group C opponents: Serbia, Denmark, Slovenia

How are they shaping up?

England breezed through qualifying but a run of only one win from their last five games, combined with widespread fitness concerns and selection issues, has dampened the mood.

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Gareth Southgate applauds England fans after the defeat to Iceland

Gareth Southgate’s squad is replete with attacking talent but it only contains two players – Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka – who have scored more than four international goals. The group has a fresh, youthful feel but that means inexperience too.

There remains uncertainty over who will occupy the third midfield spot in Gareth Southgate’s team and his defence is the biggest worry of all, with Harry Maguire out through injury and Luke Shaw, who hasn’t played since February, the only natural left-back.

All the uncertainty leaves a feeling of uneasiness but Southgate will hope to strike upon a winning formula at the tournament. Their attacking unit, when everyone is fit, is arguably the most talented in Europe. Finalists at Euro 2020, they are out to go one better.

Who are the key players?

Much will be expected of Jude Bellingham. He was outstanding at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and continued to grow in stature during a stunning, 23-goal season with Real Madrid.

Southgate may need to manage his workload after an epic domestic campaign which only concluded with Madrid’s Champions League final triumph on June 1. But he will be vital in driving England forward and his potential to be one of the tournament’s stars is clear.

In defence, meanwhile, Maguire’s absence places more responsibility on the shoulders of John Stones. England desperately need him to stay fit and hold things together, especially given Marc Guehi’s lack of tournament experience and England’s issues at left-back.

Any wildcards to watch out for?

Given 12 of the players in this England squad have never featured at a major tournament, there are numerous candidates. Manchester United’s Kobbie Mainoo is probably the standout. The 19-year-old is a brilliant talent with the temperament to handle the big stage.

Kobbie Mainoo was given the full 90 minutes in midfield
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Kobbie Mainoo was given the full 90 minutes in midfield against Iceland

One of the players who will be vying with Mainoo for minutes in midfield is Crystal Palace’s Adam Wharton. The 20-year-old was playing for Blackburn in the Championship only six months ago but, like Mainoo, he has stepped up to the top level impressively.

Eberechi Eze, Wharton’s Palace team-mate, is even better-equipped for a breakout tournament and Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon deserves a mention too, with Jack Grealish’s axe from the provisional squad opening the door for him to feature on the left.

Inside view: ‘Still optimism despite issues’

Sky Sports News senior reporter Rob Dorsett:

“England only have five training sessions in Germany to prepare for the Serbia game and they come from a low base, with lots of recriminations about the 1-0 home defeat to Iceland.

“There are real concerns about some senior players. Harry Kane – is he fully fit after missing a month of football? Jude Bellingham is with the squad but hasn’t trained because he was given extra time to rest and recover after the Champions League final.

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Sky Sports News’ Rob Dorsett assesses the ‘concerns’ facing Gareth Southgate and England following their shock defeat to Iceland

“John Stones has concerns over an ankle inujry and has only started one Premier League game in the last six weeks or so for Manchester City. Bukayo Saka, only fit enough to play 25 minutes against Iceland. These are big players, key players.

“Southgate will hope he can wrap them in cotton wool and try and get them match fit for the opening game. But there is still optimism. The squad is still among the strongest at the tournament – if not the strongest.”

FRANCE (4/1 with Sky Bet)

Group D opponents: Austria, Netherlands, Poland

How are they shaping up?

Like England, France’s recent form has been patchy, with Didier Deschamps’ side winning only two of their last five games following a serene qualifying campaign.

There was a friendly defeat to Germany in March and, more recently, a goalless stalemate with Canada. But we know very well that France, World Cup winners in 2018 and finalists in three of their last four major tournaments, tend to turn it on when it matters.

Didier Deschamps will lead France again
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Didier Deschamps will lead France again

Hugo Lloris and Raphael Varane have retired from internationals but the squad has a familiar feel, summed up by the presence of a 37-year-old Olivier Giroud and a 33-year-old N’Golo Kante. Their experience could help when it comes to the crunch.

There is some uncertainty in defence. Deschamps hasn’t fully settled on a preferred central defensive pairing between Ibrahima Konate, Dayot Upamecano and William Saliba. Meanwhile, he will likely have to use Jules Kounde, a natural centre-back, at right-back.

But overall Deschamp’s options are enviable. Most importantly, Kylian Mbappe is fit and raring to go. He will be supported by the always-excellent Antoine Griezmann.

Who are the key players?

No need to think too hard about this one. It’s obviously Kylian Mbappe. The 25-year-old, scorer of 47 goals in 79 games for France, will captain his country for the first time at a tournament.

Having scored 44 times in 48 games for Paris Saint-Germain last season, he looks primed for another headline-grabbing contribution ahead of his blockbuster move to Real Madrid.

Kylian Mbappe will captain France at Euro 2024
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Kylian Mbappe will captain France at Euro 2024

His tournament pedigree is in absolutely no doubt.

He capped a stunning World Cup 2022 campaign with a hat-trick in France’s extraordinary defeat to Argentina in the final, finishing on eight goals. In 2018, meanwhile, his four-goal haul was vital in helping France claim the trophy. As always, he will take some stopping.

Any wildcards to watch out for?

It seemed Bradley Barcola’s chances of featuring at the tournament were over when he missed out on a place in Deschamps’ squad for their friendlies against Germany and Chile in March but a strong finish to the campaign with PSG changed the manager’s mind.

He marked his debut, against Luxembourg, with an assist for Mbappe. The pacy 20-year-old offers goal threat as well as creativity. His versatility – Barcola can play on either flank, at No 10 or even as a central striker – could be an asset at the tournament.

Expert view: ‘Questions over team selection’

European football expert Kevin Hatchard:

“What’s interesting is that Deschamps has options everywhere. We know Mike Maignon is the senior goalkeeper, so that’s locked down. Same for Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann as well. But there are questions.

“We think Marcus Thuram will get the nod ahead of Olivier Giroud at the top of the pitch, because of his greater mobility and having had a brilliant season with Inter Milan.

“The centre-back position is very interesting as well because he has been slow to trust William Saliba, even though we know how well he has done for Arsenal. He has gone more for guys like Dayot Upamecano, whose club form has been more up and down. So there are some uncertainties.”

GERMANY (9/2 with Sky Bet)

Group A opponents: Scotland, Hungary, Switzerland

How are they shaping up?

It is 40 years since there has been a home Euros winner, but optimism is growing that a resurgent Germany could make the advantage count under Julian Nagelsmann.

Julian Nagelsmann's Germany are resurgent with Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala expected to lead the way at Euro 2024
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Julian Nagelsmann’s Germany are resurgent with Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala expected to lead the way at Euro 2024

The former Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig boss has helped transform the mood since taking over from Hansi Flick in September with some encouraging results and performances.

Most notably, he masterminded back-to-back wins over France and Netherlands in March, hitting upon a formula that appears to work, featuring a flat back four, the return of Toni Kroos in central midfield, and Arsenal’s Kai Havertz as a roving striker.

Who are the key players?

Toni Kroos’ swansong continues. Can he add a European Championship to the Champions League trophy he won on his final appearance for Real Madrid?

It seems bizarre that he is retiring when he still has so much to offer, but he will be eager to go out on a high and his return to the international fold, announced in March as he reversed his 2021 retirement from internationals, makes a German success more likely.

The 34-year-old brings poise and control in the heart of Nagelsmann’s team. His all-round excellence and general cool-headedness is exactly what is required on this kind of stage.

Any wildcards to watch out for?

Nagelsmann has generally opted for experience over youth. Germany have the oldest squad at the tournament. There are, though, a few standout younger players to keep an eye on.

Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz is hardly an unknown, having won 18 caps for the national side but, given he is likely to start, he could well deliver a breakout tournament.

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John McGinn joins in with some Bavarian dancing as Scotland arrive in Germany ahead of Euro 2024

His Leverkusen team-mate Robert Andrich is the favourite to partner Kroos in midfield, but it will be interesting to see if Aleksandar Pavlovic can force his way in. The Bayern Munich youngster is a thrilling talent and won his first cap in the recent goalless draw with Ukraine.

Brighton fans might be surprised to see Deniz Undav, on loan at Stuttgart last season, among Germany’s striking options. Maximilian Beier, scorer of 16 Bundesliga goals for Hoffenheim in 2023/24, is another one who will aim to seize any chances he gets.

Inside view: ‘The team is totally focused’

Sky Germany reporter Florian Plettenberg:

“From the German point of view, it was very good to have that win against Greece a few days ago, in a tough match.

“I would say we are not the clear favourites at this tournament but let’s see how things develop. The team is totally focused, so let’s see how the first match against Scotland will be.

“I think Germany is the favourite in that match, but there is a big, big respect from all of us here in Germany for the Scottish national team.

“Leroy Sane has had a lot of problems with his back in the last couple of months. I expect him to sit on the bench in the first two matches. But there is a big, big hope that he will be at 100 per cent in the last group match, or the last-16.

“I expect that Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz will start on the wings and in the middle it will be the captain, Ilkay Gundogan and Kai Havertz, who is currently the No 1 striker.”

PORTUGAL (15/2 with Sky Bet)

Group F opponents: Czech Republic, Turkey, Georgia

How are they shaping up?

Underestimate Portugal at your peril. Roberto Martinez’s side won all 10 of their qualifying games, finishing as top scorers as they fired 36 goals while only conceding two.

Cristiano Ronaldo will feature at his sixth European Championship
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Cristiano Ronaldo will feature at his sixth European Championship

There have been friendly losses to Slovenia and Croatia since then, but they head into the tournament with arguably the deepest squad of any nation, boasting strength in depth in every position.

Cristiano Ronaldo, part of their triumphant Euro 2016 team, will be hungry to secure the trophy again in what may prove his final major tournament at 39. He will be supported by Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Rafael Leao, to name a few.

Who are the key players?

Cristiano Ronaldo remains key having top scored in qualifying with 10 goals, taking him to a staggering total of 128 in 206 games for his country. But this is no one-man team.

Bruno Fernandes is arguably even more important, given he is their main source of creativity as well as a formidable goal threat in his own right.

Bruno Fernandes is hugely influential for Roberto Martinez's side
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Bruno Fernandes is hugely influential for Roberto Martinez’s side

Then there is Bernardo Silva, who knits it all together, and of course Ruben Dias, the Manchester City centre-back who anchors the team in the heart of defence.

Any wildcards to watch out for?

Benfica’s Joao Neves, 19, stands out. The diminutive, ball-playing midfielder plays with rare maturity for someone so young and has a long list of admirers among Europe’s top clubs.

He has six senior caps for Portugal and made his first start in the recent 4-2 warm-up win over Finland, playing the full 90 minutes in a hint that he could feature at the tournament.

Expert view: ‘This is a Fernandes team, not a Ronaldo one’

European football expert Andy Brassell:

“I think one of the key points of Roberto Martinez’s tenure so far is that the Cristiano Ronaldo question is no longer suffocating everything else that Portugal do. It’s clear that he is still very nice to have. They will use him, but I don’t think he will start all the games.

“This team is no longer Ronaldo’s team, it’s probably Bruno Fernandes’ team. They have got quality all over the pitch. It was interesting to hear Martinez talk recently about needing Ronaldo and Pepe’s experience in the dressing room, but there are no guarantees for them in terms of being starters.”

SPAIN (8/1 with Sky Bet)

Group B opponents: Croatia, Italy, Albania

How are they shaping up?

Spain overcame an early loss to Scotland to ease through qualifying. They head into the tournament in good nick having put five goals past Andorra and Northern Ireland in their warm-up games.

Luis de la Fuente and Luis Enrique
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Luis de la Fuente took over from Luis Enrique after the Qatar World Cup

Their success in last year’s Nations Leagues finals, when they beat Italy and Croatia, two sides they will face in Group B, helped create a foundation for Luis de la Fuente, Luis Enrique’s successor after Spain’s early exit from the 2022 World Cup.

They are without the prodigiously talented Gavi due to an ACL injury, but his young Barcelona team-mate Pedri, scorer of two goals against Northern Ireland, looks to have found form at the right time. Spain, although younger and less experienced, look in a better state than after their early World Cup exit in 2022.

Who are the key players?

Rodri will be pivotal. The midfielder is as important to his country as he is to Manchester City. Luis Enrique used him as a centre-back at the 2022 World Cup but he is back in his natural role under De la Fuente. Both he and Spain look better for it.

Any wildcards to watch out for?

He is still a month away from his 17th birthday but it would be no surprise at all to see Lamine Yamal start their opening game. The winger can be erratic, but he is a special talent whose unpredictability has become a weapon for Spain, as it has for Barcelona.

Spain's Lamine Yama in action against Northern Ireland
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Spain’s Lamine Yamal in action against Northern Ireland

Who would have thought that former Stoke stiker Joselu and Ayoze Perez, his Newcastle team-mate between 2017 and 2019, would feature together in the Spain squad for a European Championships all these years later?

The 34-year-old Joselu, now of Real Madrid, has scored five goals in 11 games for the senior side since winning his first call-up aged 32 while Perez, who also played for Leicester and now represents Real Betis, marked his long-awaited debut, in the recent warm-up game against Andorra aged 30, with a goal and an assist.

Expert view: ‘Young players are fantastic’

European football expert Andy Brassell:

“I don’t really fancy Spain at this tournament. Luis de la Fuente, the former U21 coach, is not the same equality of coach as Luis Enrique.

“That said, we have seen that he has made Spain a little bit younger. I think if you look at Spain, you might think they are lacking experience and personality.

“But those young players are absolutely fantastic. Lamine Yamal, only 16 years old. There is no doubt that he is going to be starting. But I do wonder if they are a little bit unpredictable.”

ITALY (14/1 with Sky Bet)

Group B opponents: Albania, Spain, Croatia

How are they shaping up?

It’s strange to think the reigning champions are heading into the tournament with odds as long as 14/1 but the intervening years have been turbulent for the Azzurri.

Roberto Mancini was replaced by Luciano Spalletti in August having failed to secure a place at the Qatar World Cup a year earlier and Italy’s qualifying campaign for this tournament was far from spectacular, featuring two losses to England and a draw with North Macedonia.

They lack a potent No 9 – no player scored more than three goals for them in qualifying – but there has been recent evidence of defensive improvement, with four clean sheets in their last five games. That defensive stinginess gives them something to build on in Germany.

Who are the key players?

The squad is not nearly as star-studded as previous iterations but Inter Milan’s Alessandro Bastoni, one of the team’s new leaders, will be crucial in a much-changed defence. The same goes for captain Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal.

Italy's Nicolo Barella (right) is a key figure for the national team
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Italy’s Nicolo Barella (right) is a key figure for the national team

Further forward, Nicolo Barella, also of Inter, is hugely influential. It is a measure of the side’s goalscoring issues, though, that the central midfielder, who will likely be partnered by Arsenal’s Jorginho, is the top scorer in their 26-man squad with only nine goals.

Any wildcards to watch out for?

Italy will be hoping former West Ham striker Gianluca Scamacca can transfer his scoring feats with Atalanta to the national team but a record of only one goal in 16 Italy appearances does not inspire much confidence. Mateo Retegui might be a better bet.

The Argentine-born striker had a difficult first season in Europe with Genoa, scoring only seven times in 29 Serie A appearances, but he has a better strike rate at international level, having scored four times in eight games.

Expert view: ‘A lot of experience has left the building’

European football expert Kevin Hatchard:

“They are different from the team that won it in 2021. A lot of experience has gone out the building. No Leanardo Bonucci, no Giorgio Chiellini, so that’s different. Ciro Immobile is not selected.

“I wonder how much of it hangs on players like Federico Chiesa, who has never really recaptured the form he showed at the last Euros, partly due to injury.

“Luciano Spalletti has not been with the group for that long, so I do have my doubts about them, if I’m honest.”

BEST OF THE REST

The Netherlands (18/1 with Sky Bet) have not got past the quarter-final stage of this competition since 2004 and head into this year’s tournament having been rocked by the withdrawals of Frenkie De Jong and Teun Koopmeiners due to injury. They do, however, have a strong defensive unit, led by Virgil van Dijk and also including Nathan Ake and Micky van de Ven.

Netherlands' Frenkie de Jong plays the ball during the Euro 2024 group B qualifying soccer match between Netherlands and Greece at Philips stadium in Eindhoven, Netherlands, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
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Netherlands’ Frenkie de Jong has been ruled out of the tournament

Can Belgium’s (20/1 with Sky Bet) so-called golden generation finally claim a trophy? Doubts remain around their defence but they still have plenty of attacking talent, including Kevin De Bruyne, and, in Romelu Lukaku, the top scorer in qualifying with 14 goals.

Croatia (33/1 with Sky Bet) have made a habit of defying the odds, so they should not be overlooked. Luka Modric, like his Real Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos, is eyeing a trophy-winning end to his international career in what is likely to be his last tournament.

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