By James Reid
It’s been three years since Kieran Trippier’s free-kick sent the country into raptures before Mario Mandzukic broke English hearts with an extra-time winner. Finally, after an extra year’s delay, international tournament football is back. Knock out football, in the sun, post-exams; it doesn’t get any better than this. At Palatinate, we’ll be bringing you regular content throughout Euro 2020 in the form of both articles and podcasts starting with a look at Group A containing Italy, Turkey, Switzerland, and Wales.
Italy make their return to international tournaments after having missed out on the 2018 World Cup in somewhat un-Italian circumstances. Gone are the huge number of over 30s brimming with experience and in comes a new youthful exuberance under the management of Roberto Mancini.
The former Manchester City manager and Sampdoria legend has rejuvenated the Azzuri, qualifying with a 100% record for the first time.
Mancini has been blessed, somewhat, with the emergence of an exciting generation of players who were all in their teens when Simone Zaza blasted his penalty into orbit against Germany almost five years ago.
The likes of Nicolò Barella, Federico Chiesa, Alessandro Bastoni, and Gianluigi Donnarumma have emerged to give a fresh look to what was an aging Italy side.
This is aided by more experienced players such as stalwarts Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini as well as the supremely talented Marco Verratti and Jorginho in midfield.
Up front, Mancini will be hoping that one of Ciro Immobile or Andrea Belotti catch fire, as well as goals from the likes of Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne.
Perhaps the only glaring weakness is at full-back, with Emerson lacking minutes at Chelsea, though Leonardo Spinazzola provides an exciting alternative and Alessandro Florenzi is a good option at right-back.
The Italians, then, are somewhat of an unknown quantity. They naturally boast quality across the pitch but it has been relatively untested against top opposition in its current guise.
They’ll certainly be hoping to top this group, and a good start could provide a solid base for the rest of the tournament where they could certainly be outsiders to go all the way. Struggle here, though, and it may create a tricky route for the latter stages.
Key Man: Nicolò Barella. The 23-year-old midfielder may perhaps be slightly unknown to Premier League viewers, but he has been a key cog in Antonio Conte’s Inter side this season as they romped to their first Scudetto in 10 years. Barella plays in a somewhat unusual position on the right of a midfield three in Conte’s three at the back system, nominally a number eight but drifting wide and picking up half-spaces to great effect. If Mancini is able to get the best out of him, then we may have a star of the tournament on our hands, and he will be key to anything Italy do.
One to Watch: Alessandro Bastoni. The partnership of Bonucci and Chiellini may mean that the 22-year-old Inter centre-back may not see much game time this summer. However, should Mancini look beyond his two ageing defenders, now 34 and 36, Bastoni has the potential to take the tournament by storm. Excellent on the ball and a more than capable defender, he has been a key part of Inter’s first Scudetto in 10 years and will likely be a mainstay of the Azzuri’s backline for years to come.
The Swiss have become fairly regular qualifiers for international tournaments in recent years yet have often failed to really make any impression once there, exiting at the round of 16 stage in their last three major tournaments.
More recently, however, they qualified for the semi-finals of the Nations League in 2019, demonstrating that they can mix it with the very best on their day.
Like most sides, they have benefitted from the emergence of a new crop of players who are now beginning to hit their prime.
Midfielders Denis Zakaria and Djibril Sow, both 24, will play key roles this summer alongside older stalwarts such as Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. 29-year-old Remo Freuler has been a key cog in Atlanta’s thrilling transformation into one of Europe’s most exciting sides and will be key for Vladimir Petkovic’s men too.
The issue for the Swiss, as it so often has been in recent tournaments, has been finding a reliable goalscorer. Admir Mehmedi continues to lack goals, though Haris Seferović has found regular goals at Benfica while Gladbach’s Breel Embolo feels most likely to step up to the plate on the goalscoring front. They will need at least one to find a hot streak if they are to navigate a tricky group.
They will hope that the goalscoring burden will be eased by the strong, largely Bundesliga-based, defensive unit boasted by the Swiss. The likes of Manuel Akanji, Nico Elvedi, and Kevin Mbabu in front of Yann Sommer will likely make the Swiss difficult to beat at the very least.
The challenge, then, will to be more than just tricky opponents for those that come up against them, especially if they make it through to the latter stages.
Group A is fairly open and provides a chance for the Swiss, but they will need goals and invention that have largely been in short supply, to progress any further.
Key Player: Yann Sommer
The Borussia Mönchengladbach ‘keeper has slowly established himself as one of the very best in the Bundesliga since moving from Basel in 2014. Die Fohlen have endured a disappointing season, and Sommer’s stats reflect that, but Switzerland manager Vladimir Petković will be hoping Sommer can find his best form if the Swiss are to have any chance of progressing beyond their usual round of 16 exit.
One to Watch: Denis Zakaria
Remaining in North Rhine-Westphalia, Zakaria is a player who has been repeatedly linked to a host of top Premier League clubs. The 6ft 3in midfielder has been blighted by injury in recent seasons but has all the characteristics to make a big impression on this summer’s tournament. He is very much the all-round midfielder, posting impressive numbers for passing and dribbling as well as interceptions and clearances, and will be a crucial part of the Swiss midfield this summer.
Recent years have not been kind to the Turkish national team. Since their run to the semi-finals of the Euros in 2008, they had only qualified for one other major tournament, Euro 2016 in which they exited at the group stages.
Yet they approach Euro 2020 in much better fettle than in 2016 thanks to a new crop of exciting young players and the revival of some older heads.
Results have made it difficult to pin down the true threat that the Turks pose. They were impressive in qualification. Impressive victories against the Netherlands and France in recent years have been accompanied by defeat to Hungary and most recently a 3-3 draw with Latvia.
On their day, they appear a match for anyone but are vulnerable to slip-ups against weaker opposition too.
Defensively, the Turks have been strengthened by the emergence of Leicester’s Çaglar Söyüncü and Juventus’ Merih Demiral, while right-back Zeki Çelik has been a key figure in Lille’s first Ligue 1 title in a decade.
The Lille theme continues further forward, with midfielder Yusuf Yazici and forward Burak Yilmaz. Both will be key to Turkey’s chances of progressing from the group and perhaps being one of the dark horses in the tournament.
In particular, Yilmaz, who turns 36 at the end of the tournament, feels like a talismanic figure. Major tournaments often create unlikely stars who suddenly hit a rich vein of form, and Yilmaz, with 15 Ligue 1 goals this season, feels like a strong contender this time around.
Finally, all eyes will be on Milan’s Hakan Çalhanoglu to provide the creative spark. The free-kick specialist has been rejuvenated in Lombardy and is looking like the player we all thought he would be when he was smashing in free-kicks from the halfway line for Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen.
Key Player: Hakan Çalhanoglu
The 27-year-old will likely be the creative lynchpin of this Turkish side, with all that they do going forward likely to flow through Çalhanoglu in the number 10 role behind Yilmaz. His is possibly the most talented player in the squad and is one of the few with the ability to unlock defences. Much has been made of Yilmaz’s scoring exploits, but he will need reliable service and Çalhanoglu will be the focal point for this. Don’t underestimate his ability from set-pieces either, something which can be crucial in cagey tournament matches with few chances.
One to Watch: Burak Yilmaz
It feels odd to list a 35-year-old as “one to watch, and there is probably a large slice of romanticism in this choice, but it is impossible not to be drawn to Yilmaz, who has experienced somewhat of an Indian summer to his career. The 35-year-old had previously never played outside of Turkey, save for one season with Beijing Guoan, before moving to Lille last summer but has been an unexpectedly talismanic figure as Lillesecured their first league title in a decade, netting 16 goals in his first season in Europe’s top five leagues. Yilmaz, and Turkey, will be hoping that he can carry this fairy tale form into the summer and fire them to a repeat of 2008.
Wales return to the tournament that produced such incredible memories in 2016 as they reached the semi-final stage.
Many of the faces are the same, with key duo Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey leading the squad once again, but there has also been a host of younger players brought into the squad such as Neco Williams, Ben Cabango, and Ethan Ampadu.
There have been new faces on the bench, too, which has created a degree of uncertainty. Manager Ryan Giggs won’t be present this summer due to ongoing legal troubles, with Rob Page taking caretaker charge.
Recent results have been fairly positive for the Welsh, most recently posting an impressive 1-0 victory over Czech Republic and the only defeats coming against Belgium in World Cup qualifying and a friendly against England.
Goals have been hard to come by, having last scored more than one goal in a match in November 2019; solving that issue will be key to any hopes of progressing beyond the group stage.
Eyes will of course naturally look towards Bale to take up the goalscoring mantle alongside Cardiff’s Kieffer Moore who has five goals in 15 caps. Beyond that, the options are fairly
Defensively there is Premier League talent in the form of Spurs’ Ben Davies and Joe Rodon, while full-back Connor Roberts has been in good form for promotion-chasing Swansea in the Championship.
In the centre of the park, Giggs has consistently called up a number of young players such as Manchester City’s Matthew Smith, who spent the season on loan at Doncaster, and Manchester United’s Dylan Levitt.
However, the main reliance will be on Ramsey, stalwart Joe Allen, and the mercurial David Brooks centrally, alongside the likes of Daniel James and Harry Wilson out wide.
It feels unlikely that they will be able to repeat their 2016 feat and getting out of what is a fairly balanced group will be an achievement in itself. Any further advance will likely depend on who they draw in the knockout stages.
Key Player: Aaron Ramsey
Much of the focus is on Gareth Bale when it comes to Wales, but it is important not to look past the influence of the Juventus midfielder on this side. The former Arsenal player was instrumental to Wales’ run in 2016, and his work and ingenuity in midfield will be crucial if Wales are to have a good tournament. He is a talismanic figure in what is quite a young and inexperienced Wales squad, and will likely be as pivotal off the pitch as he is on it.
One to Watch: David Brooks
It is fair to say that Wales’ midfield in 2016 was pretty functional, with Ramsey often the most attacking player alongside the likes of Joe Ledley, Joe Allen, and Andy King. This year, however, they have something altogether quite different in the form of David Brooks. The Bournemouth midfielder represents a style of player that is found nowhere else in the Welsh squad, boasting intricate dribbling and incisive progressive passing usually in the number 10 role. Despite playing in the Championship this season he has already demonstrated his Premier League quality and may have that extra bit of quality needed to unlock a game and send Wales through.
Group A is perhaps one of the most balanced groups in the competition, with all sides realistically targeting the knockout stages. Italy will likely top the group, and will almost certainly qualify at the very least barring a complete disaster. The rest of the group feels very open, with Turkey perhaps the best shout for second place. It may mean that the game on 12th June between Switzerland and Wales is already a decider in terms of who has a chance to progress, though it would be impossible to count any of the four out at such an early stage. In Group A, it really is all to play for.
Image: Biser Todorov via Flickr