By James Reid
This summer we at Palatinate Sport will be releasing regular content relating to Euro 2020. Here we preview Group B, which consists of Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland. For more detailed discussion and analysis, listen to Seb Evans, Jonny Tiplady, Tommy Isakson and Joseph Knight on the podcast (below).
Despite coming into the tournament as beaten World Cup finalists, it is difficult to pin down this Croatia side.
Stalwarts Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, and Danijel Subašić have all retired since 2018 meaning manager Zlatko Dalić has had to tinker with the formula that worked so well in Russia.
Despite this, there remains a strong core to the squad led by 35-year-old Luka Modrić. The diminutive midfielder has shown little sign of ageing, continuing to float about the pitch for both club and country and operate at the very highest level.
Midfield is undoubtedly Croatia’s strongest area, with captain Modrić supported by the likes of Inter’s Marcelo Brozović and Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacić. The emergence of CSKA Moscow’s Nikola Vlasić since the World Cup offers a different, more attacking option too.
Offensively the loss of Mandžukić creates a large hole up front, but there is hope that Dinamo Zagreb forward Bruno Petković, who has six goals in 14 caps, can fill that void alongside Andrej Kramarić.
The 23-year-old will be ably supported by Ante Rebić and Ivan Perišić, both of whom come off strong seasons for AC and Inter Milan respectively.
The centre-back duo of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida are still around too, and have been joined by Marseille’s Duje Ćaleta-Car who has been linked to the likes of Liverpool in recent times, and RB Leipzig’s 19-year-old Joško Gvaridol.
It is in defence where there have been the most questions. Šime Vrsaljiko has struggled with injuries in recent seasons and there are few options beyond him at right-back, while the left back spot is up for grabs with Borna Sosa not committing to Croatia yet. Rangers’ Borna Barisić will be a strong contender.
Results since the World Cup have been mixed, qualifying with relative ease ahead of Wales, Slovakia, Hungary, and Azerbaijan but then struggling in the Nations League against Portugal, France, and Sweden, shipping 16 goals in six games.
They have made a stuttering start to World Cup qualifying, too, losing 1-0 to Slovenia before eking past Cyprus by just a single goal, making it difficult to really know what to make of Croatia coming into Euro 2020.
The Croats certainly have the talent to cause any side problems, particularly within their starting XI but there have been questions over consistency and squad depth. A slow start to the tournament against England could leave them needing a result against the resurgent Czechs, meaning qualification is far from assured though wins against both sides are more than possible too.
Key Player: Luka Modrić. It is impossible to look beyond the 35-year-old who continues to operate like someone 10 years younger. He is still one of the world’s best and will likely be key to everything Croatia do going forward.
One to Watch: Bruno Petković. The Dinamo Zagreb forward is relatively new to international football despite being 26, but could play a big role for Croatia this summer if he is able to fill the role left by Mandžukić. At 6ft 4in he certainly appears to have the attributes, but there are still questions over whether he can truly cut it at international level.
The Czech Republic have come a long way since kicking off their qualification campaign for this summer’s tournament with a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of England in March 2019.
Back then, you would have been pretty happy to have drawn the Czechs, who looked pretty woeful. However now, they pose a much trickier challenge to their Group D rivals as one of the most improved sides in Europe over the past few years.
This development is perhaps best embodied by the emergence of Tomas Souček and Vladimir Coufal at West Ham. Both have taken the Premier League by storm with hardworking and combative displays that have been a key part of West Ham’s sixth-place finish.
They will both be key parts of a Czech side that lacks any real superstar, but is instead underlined by impressive unity and team spirit, which can go a long way in tournament football.
Part of this stems from a strong Slavia Prague influence within the squad, with six of the squad currently plying their trade for the Czech champions and Europa League quarter-finalists while both Souček and Coufal, alongside the likes of Alex Král all having recently been at the club.
23-year-old Král will likely be another key figure for the Czechs this summer alongside Souček in midfield. Indeed, West Ham are reportedly interested in adding the Spartak Moscow midfielder to their ranks. Stalwart and captain Vladimír Darida will provide attacking impetus from midfield.
They are not just all blood, sweat and tears though. Promotion to Division A in the Nations League underlines the potential threat that they pose to more illustrious sides such as England and Croatia, the first of whom were beaten 2-1 in Prague in October 2019.
Up front, Patrik Schick is the main threat having played regularly in Serie A and the Bundesliga for the past five years. He has finally seemed to have found his feet at Bayer Leverkusen and his goals will be key to any progression beyond the group stage.
Behind Schick in the pecking order is a general dearth of reliable options – with Burnley’s Matej Vydra likely next in line. However, 18-year-old Adam Hložek could be a wildcard option; 15 goals in 19 games for Sparta Prague this season suggests some serious talent.
On paper the weakness would appear to be at the back but the Czechs have conceded relatively few goals, losing 1-0 to Germany and drawing 1-1 with Belgium. The challenge will likely be goals at the other end, with the Czechs scoring relatively few – including 1-0 losses to Wales and Scotland – save for a 6-2 win over Estonia.
Regardless, the Czechs will be difficult to beat and will be a real test for any side they come up against, though they are unlikely to repeat the semi-final run of 2004.
Key Player: Tomas Souček. Everyone’s favourite potato salad enthusiast comes into this summer’s tournament off the back of a mightily impressive season with West Ham. The combination of all-action midfield performances alongside Declan Rice and an uncanny ability to find the net has endeared him to the Hammers faithful. Such performances will be crucial, too, for the Czechs for whom he was top scorer in qualifying.
One to Watch: Adam Hložek. The Czechs might just have something special on their hands with this 18-year-old forward. Despite his age, Hložek has already made 72 first-team appearances for Sparta Prague, and finished this season with 15 goals in 19 league games. While he may not start ahead of the likes of Patrik Schick, this tournament may be the one where he announces himself on the international stage.
Say it quietly, but this is one of the best England squads for a very long time. Whether they are contenders for the title is another question, but what is beyond doubt is that the Three Lions have come a long way since suffering perhaps their lowest ever moment in Nice five years ago.
Gareth Southgate’s men qualified with ease, save for a 2-1 defeat to the Czech Republic in Prague, though were considerably blunter in the Nations League as Southgate experimented with a back three. Such tactical flexibility, with England now able to deploy both a back three and a back four, could be a key advantage this summer and the squad reflects a desire to use both, with a back three more likely to be used against stronger opponents.
It is this logic that explains the choice of taking four right-backs, Reece James, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, and Trent Alexander-Arnold alongside the fact that they are all excellent footballers in their own right.
James and Walker have played on the right of a back three, meaning Southgate is more able to play three centre-backs, a position that England are weakest in. While Harry Maguire and John Stones have both enjoyed strong seasons, there are question marks over understudies Tyrone Ming and Conor Coady. Defensive concerns have been eased somewhat by the emergence of Declan Rice as a top-class defensive midfielder.
Going forward, however, England are a different proposition, in large part thanks to a crop of players who have emerged since the 2018 World Cup, where they reached the semi-finals.
The likes of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, and Jude Bellingham have all made their debuts since then and give Gareth Southgate a plethora of attacking options that few England managers have been afforded in recent years.
Even in 2018, the only real alternatives to Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling were Marcus Rashford and the now-retired Jamie Vardy. In 2021, Southgate has numerous options at his disposal that can play a number of different systems. The test now for Southgate is choosing who should accompany Kane, one of the world’s best strikers.
It is a good problem to have, with the ability to rotate and vary the attack a key asset that could take England far. The question will be whether England can keep teams out at the other end.
Key Player: Harry Kane. Who else? It is simply impossible to look past this season’s Premier League top goal scorer and top assister, an achievement made all the more impressive by Spurs’ dismal finish. A clinical number nine often goes a long way in international football, and England will be hoping Kane will that for the Three Lions this summer. Don’t underestimate the strength of his build up play either – Kane really is now the complete striker.
One to Watch: Jack Grealish. Players like Grealish seldom appear in an England shirt. Fearless and cocky on the ball, with precocious dribbling ability, comparisons to the likes of Paul Gascoigne are not all that far away. The Aston Villa captain has the potential to be the joker in the pack for Southgate, with his ability to run at defences, draw fouls, and create chances at will.
It has been 23 years since Scotland were last at a major tournament, but one of the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Scottish football was finally closed as David Marshall saved Aleksandr Mitrović’s penalty.
For years after 1998, Scotland had not looked even remotely close to qualifying and it had looked the same old story again as they finished behind Belgium and Russia.
However, the Nations League offered a second chance to a side that has been rejuvenated under the stewardship of Steve Clarke and victories over Israel and Serbia, both on penalties, secured their place at Euro 2020.
Despite their unorthodox route, the Scots come into the tournament with a competent squad with the potential to be dangerous should Clarke get it right tactically and key players perform.
The 26-man squad boasts a host of Premier League players, particularly in midfield with John McGinn in fine form for club and country, while Scott McTominay has also impressed for Manchester United and Stuart Armstrong has been a regular for Southampton.
Scotland are bolstered up front by Armstrong’s Southampton teammate Che Adams recently declaring for Scotland recently, and eyes will likely be on the 24-year-old to provide the goals ahead of Lyndon Dykes and Kevin Nisbet.
Defensively, the stars are left-backs Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney. Clarke appears to have found a way to effectively deploy both, with Tierney operating as a centre-back in a back three alongside Leeds’ Liam Cooper and Robertson at wing-back.
The rest of the squad is drawn largely from the Scottish Premier League and the English Championship, featuring a number of hard working and industrious players which suits Clarke’s three at the back system well.
The absence of midfielders Ryan Jack and Kenny McLean is a blow in terms of depth, but it hands opportunities to youngsters Billy Gilmour and David Turnbull. If there are to be any surprises from Scotland, it is likely to come from these two.
Clarke will set up his side to be solid defensively, with the question being whether they can create and score enough at the other end to sneak out of the group. Newcastle’s Ryan Fraser struggled this season, but he is one of the few to possess a true creative spark and he could be the key.
The opening game against the Czechs will be a good barometer of just how competitive the Scots will be and may well be a decider as to both sides’ chances of qualifying.
Key Player: Kieran Tierney. Despite impressing at left-back for Arsenal, the presence of Andy Robertson, one of the few left-backs better than Tierney in the Premier League, has seen 24-year-old remodelled into a marauding left-sided centre-back for the national team, a role in which he has excelled. His distribution and ability to bring the ball out, along with his defending, will be key for Scotland this summer.
One to Watch: Ché Adams. The Southampton forward only declared for Scotland this year but all eyes will now be on him to provide the goals for Steve Clarke’s men this summer. He has looked more at home at Premier League this level, and he will need to be on top form to convert what may be relatively few chances this summer.
Image: Allan Slank via Creative Commons