By Ben Fleming
This summer we at Palatinate Sport will be releasing regular content relating to Euro 2020. Here we preview Group C, which consists of Netherlands, Austria, Ukraine and debutants North Macedonia. For more detailed discussion and analysis, listen to Harvey Stevens, George Simms, Ollie Phillips and Ben Fleming on the podcast (below).
It has been a torrid five years for the Dutch national team, failing to qualify for the Euros in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018.
Despite this dismal recent record, however, Netherlands have managed to finally qualify for this major championship, albeit under the guidance of Ronald Koeman who has now left to manage Spanish giants, Barcelona. His replacement, Frank de Boer, comes in after unsuccessful stints with Crystal Palace and Atalanta but has at his disposable a squad with an exciting blend of youth and experience.
The most notable absence will be that of Virgil van Dijk, with the Liverpool centre-back not keen to rush back from an anterior cruciate ligament injury that has kept the commanding centre-back out for almost the entirety of the season. In de Ligt and de Vrij, there are suitable replacements however, and with Ake, Blind, and Veltman likely in reserve, it is not a position in which they are lacking depth.
In midfield and attack, Frenkie de Jong, Memphis Depay, and Gini Wijnaldum offer the experience and top-level quality whilst the likes of Ryan Gravenberch, Teon Koopmeiners, and Donyell Malen all come into the squad following exciting seasons in the Eredivisie.
The focus will undoubtedly fall on the manager. With only four wins in 10 games under him, it seems difficult to see anything monumental in this tournament should they get out of the group. But if the national team coach can recapture the tactical spark he had domestically with Ajax, then there is a squad here ready to cause an upset and go far.
Key Man: Memphis Depay
Fresh of his brace against Scotland in the warm-up friendlies, Depay has already staked his claim as the key man for this Dutch side. Playing off the left or up front, the Lyon forward’s experience and calm under the bright lights is what has attracted Barcelona’s attention and a potential summer move. If the Netherlands are to go far, it will be Depay, providing for Wout Weghorst and de Jong as well as scoring himself, who will need to be at the centre of it.
One to Watch: Donyell Malen
The 22-year-old forward has enjoyed a breakout season for PSV Eindhoven, scoring 27 goals playing up front or on the right-wing. Whilst he may not start up front ahead of the experienced Luuk de Jong or Weghorst, his pace, dribbling ability, and eye for a goal should see him become a crucial part of this Dutch side and catching the eye of every big European club looking to pry him away from his home country.
Austria’s recent record in European Champions has undoubtedly led to muted expectations heading into this tournament. They have failed to exit the group stage in the last two tournaments, only picking up one point in Euro 2016.
The experienced trio of David Alaba, Julian Baumgartlinger, and Marko Arnautovic will undoubtedly once more form the core of the Austrian side, with the Bayern Munich left-back likely to operate further forward in midfield.
The Leipzig duo Konrad Laimer and Marcel Sabitzer offer dynamism and creativity in the middle of the park with the latter scoring 8 and assisting 4 in another impressive season for the German outfit.
Martin Hinteregger and Aleksandar Dragović, playing for Frankfurt and Leverkusen respectively, offer a reliable partnership at centre-back with Watford breakout star Daniel Bachmann looking to usurp the older Alexander Schlager between the sticks.
Leading the line could well be the experienced and ever-mercurial former-West Ham man Marko Arnautovic although the form of 6ft 6in giant Sasa Kalajdzic, who scored 16 goals for Stuttgart this season, may offer coach Franco Foda a more direct and pragmatic option.
The key for Austria and Foda will be to inspire some more attacking football, especially in the wake of their particularly uninspiring performance against England on Wednesday. Yet, with a defensive coach and a tactical system that doesn’t encourage attacking football, it is evident to see why there is little optimism surrounding Austria’s chances of upsetting the odds this summer.
Key Player: Marcel Sabitzer
Marcel Sabitzer enters this tournament off the back of a fantastic set of campaigns with RB Leipzig which has seen the 27-year-old go from an often-ignored right midfielder to a crucial central attacking force in attacking midfield. Capable of creating from deep or further up and possessing a dangerous threat from range, Sabitzer will be crucial if Austria are going to get their creative juices flowing this summer.
One to Watch: Daniel Bachmann
His start in the first Euros warm-up friendly against England perhaps hints that Bachmann may have secured the starter spot in goal ahead of Alexander Schlager. The Watford goalkeeper has had a fantastic six months, replacing the injured Ben Foster and becoming a key cog in Watford’s immediate promotion back to the Premier League. Austria’s defensive setup will necessitate a great shot-stopper in goal and Bachmann represents that in abundance.
Ukraine qualified for the tournament impressively, remaining unbeaten in their group and finishing above former champions Portugal in the process.
Their form since though, under the management of national legend Andriy Shevchenko, has been erratic at best. A 1-0 win against Spain in the Nations League contrasts with recent 1-1 draws with Finland and Kazakhstan and a 7-1 humbling against World Cup holders, France.
The key to Ukraine’s hopes in this tournament lies in the middle of the park. The ever-dependable and experienced Taras Stepanenko will provide the protection at the base of midfield. Ahead of him, Oleksandr Zinchenko, fresh from his title-winning season with Manchester City, will aim to provide the creativity alongside Ruslan Malinovskyi, who has enjoyed a fruitful end to the season with the exciting Atalanta in Serie A.
Leading the line will for Ukraine be Roman Yaremchuk, whose 23 goals in all competitions for Belgium side Gent this season means he is in red-hot form heading into the competition. The experience of West Ham inverted winger Andriy Yarmolenko will also be vital to any hopes that Shevchenko’s men may have.
With such unpredictable and topsy-turvy form, it’s unclear to map a route for this Ukraine side. But if the midfield three show their class and Yaremchuk finds his shooting boots, they have the quality to outplay any of their Group C opponents.
Key Player: Ruslan Malinovskyi
The 28-year-old has had an enjoyable couple of seasons since moving to Italy to play in the exciting, fast-flowing attacking Atalanta team under Gian Piero Gasperini. The box-to-box midfielder normally operates on the right and midfield and is known for the trademark late runs in the penalty area. As well as his prowess with set pieces, the Ukrainian scored six goals and assisted eight more in his final 11 games for Atalanta this season and so enters these Euros in fine form.
One to Watch: Illia Zabarnyi
The 18-year-old Zaarnyi has managed to break his way into the Dynamo Kyiv’s team this season and played in all 10 of the club’s games in the Champions League and Europa League. He only made his debut in October 2020 but has played 6 times since and will most likely be a key cog at the heart of Shevchenko’s defence that has struggled previously against the best teams.
Finally, we come to European minnows, North Macedonia, who feature in the tournament for the first time having secured qualification via two playoff games as a result of finishing top of their Nations League group.
Expectations will undoubtedly not be high, but manager Igor Angelovski’s 5-man defence has made them difficult to beat and dangerous on the counterattack, most evident in their infamous 2-1 win against Germany three months ago.
Whilst not having the depth of other national sides, North Macedonia do have a crop of good players ready to etch their names into history. Elder statesmen and national her Goran Pandev, at 37 years young, will draw the most attention from the neutral observer and will most likely start behind the main striker.
Enis Bardhi possesses a huge threat from free-kicks and corners while Eljif Elmas has featured frequently for Napoli this season. Leeds left midfielder Ezgjan Alioski represents the final household name for this side and will most likely provide the width and experience on the left-hand side of Angelovski’s 5-3-2 formation.
Key Player: Goran Pandev
Unsurprisingly, Pandev will be carrying the hopes of the nation in the group stages. Still plying his trade for Genoa and with 7 goals this season in Serie A, Pandev is still capable of producing the moments needed for a heroic North Macedonian feat.
One to Watch: Eljif Elmas
The Napoli man played thirty-three times this season in Serie A and became a key cog in Gennaro Gattuso’s team that nearly piped Juventus to Champions League qualification this season. Expect him to line up in the centre of midfield in a no 8 role and provide the attacking impetus on the break as he did so well against Germany.
Given that this represents North Macedonia’s debut in the competition, Ukraine and Austria finished bottom of their groups at the last European Championship and Holland didn’t even qualify five years ago, this is not a quartet boasting great recent pedigree. Footballing wisdom would suggest that Holland will most likely make it out as winners with North Macedonia struggling at the bottom of the table. Ukraine and Austria have been inconsistent in recent form and historically at these tournaments, so it is difficult to predict between the two. Ukraine’s midfield dynamism may get them over the line but if neither get firing early, there may well be a chance for a fairy tale story that allows North Macedonia to upset the odds once more and get out of the group.
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