By Luke Power
This summer we at Palatinate Sport will be releasing regular content relating to Euro 2020. Here we preview Group E, which consists of Spain, Poland, Sweden, and Slovakia. For more detailed discussion and analysis, listen to Ben Fleming, Matt Styles, James Reid, and Joseph Knight on the podcast (below).
Spain are the clear favourites in this group, but after three consecutive tournament failures for La Roja, Luis Enrique has opted for a relatively young side in a fresh approach, with some big-name omissions meaning this is Spain’s first tournament squad ever to have no Real Madrid players in it.
Spain are missing some European royalty at the back: Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Sergi Roberto, and Héctor Bellerin have all struggled with injuries recently and will not be playing for Spain this summer.
You can’t help but think that captain Ramos, who has amassed 180 caps for Spain, will be sorely missed, both for his leadership qualities and his habit of suspending all human decency when it comes to dealing with opposition strikers – a nastiness which has helped him win tournaments before.
And the whiff of a coronavirus scare hangs over this Spain squad. New captain Sergio Busquets tested positive for the virus on 6th June and the squad have had to pull out of the Lithuania friendly as a result, though the rest of the squad tested negative.
A host of new names step into the fray to give a re-energised Spain side a different look to previous tournaments.
Unai Simon has started the last six games between the sticks for Spain and looks set to get the nod over David de Gea. Simon won two Euros at youth level and has been a solid starter for Athletic Bilbao for the last two seasons, so has more experience up his sleeve than his 23 years would suggest.
Aymeric Laporte is a new addition after his ‘nationality transfer’ from France and should be able to dictate games under Enrique’s passing style.
A potential criticism of Spain is that there is no clear best partner for Laporte. Perhaps Pau Torres, who played a key role in Villarreal’s Europa League-winning campaign this season, might get the nod, and Laporte and Torres limited Portugal to few chances in their recent friendly, but then again, Eric Garcia has chemistry with Laporte from Manchester City and is a good player in his own right, so Enrique has something of a selection headache.
A host of talent including Fabián, Dani Olmo, Ferran Torres, and Gerard Moreno has gained Enrique’s trust in the last couple of years and will be chomping at the bit to score goals from midfield and attacking positions in their first tournament with their country.
With all their group games being played at home in Seville with some fans cheering them on, it’s hard to say Spain aren’t favourites to top the group.
Key player: Rodri. Rodri might not be the most spectacular name that springs to mind, and fellow midfielders such as Thiago and Koke certainly have more flair. But in Busquets’ absence Rodri will shoulder the burden of anchoring the midfield of a top-heavy team. In a side of attacking full-backs and ambitious football, Rodri’s metronomic calm is essential to balancing the equation.
One to watch: Gerard Moreno. With 50 goals to his name in the last two seasons, Europe has taken note of Moreno’s eye for goal. Aged 29, this will likely be his only tournament in his prime, and he displays a ruthlessness in front of goal that Álvaro Morata never has.
Poland have a gleaming diamond that nobody else owns: the most prolific out-and-out striker in Europe. Robert Lewandowski embodies the hopes of a nation and helped them to the quarter-finals at Euro 2016, a stage which is an unlikely, but not unrealistic, berth at the tournament this time around.
Poland dominated Group G in qualifying, winning eight and finishing ahead of Austria by six points.
They are, however, in slight turmoil.
In January, they sacked Jerzy Brzęczek, who had guided them through the group. In his place, they appointed Paulo Sousa. He’s a thoughtful manager with a wealth of experience around Europe, and he can adapt to any style. At Basel, he won plaudits for his counter-attacking play. The next season at Fiorentina, he led them to 5th in Serie A by dominating possession.
However, Sousa doesn’t speak Polish, and he has only had two international breaks to work with his team, so whether or not he can translate his ideas to his squad or even find his best eleven is another matter. In his five games to date, Poland have lined up with five different formations.
Since leaving Arsenal, Wojciech Szczęsny has become a truly world-class goalkeeper, winning three league titles with Juventus, and he is a dominating presence in the box, which should set the Poland backline at ease.
As the pick of the defenders, Kamil Glik is a stalwart of this Poland side, having been involved every year since 2010. On the back of relegation from Serie A with Benevento, and aged 33, there might be some doubts, but he should be able to guide less experienced heads in the form of Jan Bednarek and Michał Helik and what he lacks in mobility he makes up for in strength.
Grzegorz Krychowiak is another familiar name who, like Szczęsny, has changed in recent years. Known previously as a defensive midfielder, he is now a consistent goal scorer from open play, netting 18 in the last two seasons with Lokomotiv Moscow as the left-sided prong of a midfield diamond, boasting a powerful long shot and drawing lots of fouls.
With Napoli’s Piotr Zieliński also in that midfield, and Arkadiusz Milik supporting Lewandowski up front, expect to see a side with more creative potential than they are credited for.
Key player: Robert Lewandowski. Let’s not avoid the obvious answer. He can flip a game completely on its head and give Poland a chance of beating anybody. Did we mention he scored 48 in 40 games this season? The only cloud over him is that he’s never quite reached his potential at a major tournament.
One to watch: Kacper Kozlowski. This 17-year-old has attracted some hype in his breakout season in Poland, recovering from a car crash last year to end up dubbed by some as the Polish Paul Pogba. He probably won’t get lots of game time this tournament, but he is already a regular at Polish club Pogoń Szczecin, who came third in the league this year, so keep an eye out for him.
The media have had an apocalyptic outlook towards Sweden ever since Zlatan Ibrahimović was ruled out of the Euros with an injury, but we must not forget how they reached the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup without him, and how liberated they looked without their star man.
For sure, Ibrahimović is a big miss, but Janne Andersson has constructed a well-balanced unit out of this Sweden group and has won over half of his games in charge since arriving at the helm in 2016 – with Zlatan only featuring twice in that period.
The likely inheritor to Sweden’s talismanic striking role is Alexander Isak, who scored 17 this season in an exciting Real Sociedad side. Isak has got pace to burn, and Sweden will be dangerous taking defences by surprise when you combine his pace with that of Juventus winger Dejan Kulusevski (who would likely be a striker in Sweden’s 4-2-2).
Emil Forsberg is the creative firecracker in this team, gaining acclaim over the past few years for his eye for a pass which other players might not spot so quickly. In any match where Sweden are chasing the game and struggling to exploit their pace against a low block, Forsberg’s knack of engineering space in the tiniest of gaps is sure to come in handy. He has seen a drop-off since his memorable 2016/17 season when he recorded 19 assists, but all in all, Forsberg is still an ingenious player.
Much like Poland and Slovakia, Sweden’s defence doesn’t strike fear into opponents. Conceding 9 in qualification was not disastrous but placed them among the shakier defences to qualify.
Centre-back Victor Lindelöf and goalkeeper Robin Olsen have big-club pedigree but the former has never really justified his place at Europe’s top table for an extended period of time. Lindelöf has quality on the ball and is a good spatial marker, but there are plenty of questions about his aerial ability and physicality and against more combative players he and Sweden may well struggle to impose themselves.
Overall, this Sweden side have every chance of getting through the group, but their clash against Poland on 23rd June is likely to be critical, and it will be a contest between Sweden’s flashes of speed against Poland’s more deliberate, domineering approach.
Key player: Emil Forsberg. Somehow, Forsberg is suddenly 29. He isn’t as productive as he once was. But he is still Sweden’s most technically gifted player and can cause damage from the left side provided he isn’t marked out of the game.
One to watch: Jordan Larsson. If Isak and Kulusevski weren’t enough, Larsson is a dynamic striking option from the bench and was Spartak Moscow’s joint-top scorer this season with 15 goals. He’s the son of Celtic legend Henrik Larsson, was Russian Premier League Player of the Month in March, and has been linked with Borussia Dortmund. Sounds tasty.
On paper, Slovakia are the weak link in this group, but they reached the last 16 in the last Euros by finishing 3rd in a group of England, Wales, and Russia.
They didn’t qualify for the tournament through the group stages but were given a chance in the playoffs thanks to their performances in the 2018/19 Nations League, which is odd, because they finished bottom of League B Group 1.
Nevertheless, they squeezed past both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the play-offs and now they’re in the Euros, with Marek Hamšík’s mohawk still acting as a beacon of light in what is, as ever, a rather drab Slovakia outfit.
Since his record-breaking stint at Napoli, Hamšík has plied his trade in China and Sweden, taking himself off the beaten track but retaining the characteristics which he made a name with: his close control and vision. He was their joint-top scorer in qualifying but hasn’t featured for a few months.
The midfield is arguably neat without him. Ondrej Duda, Stanislav Lobotka, and Juraj Kucka, and Róbert Mak are all consistent faces in what is a midfield five deployed by Slovakia. They’re not household names here, but fans of European football will recognise them as having played for a variety of high-profile clubs, even if only as bit-part players. They typify the solid, dependable, but unspectacular nature of this Slovakia team.
Martin Dúbravka has won lots of plaudits for his acrobatics between the sticks for Newcastle United and has coped well with a high volume of shots at him. Hoping to shield him will be centre-back Milan Škriniar, who aptly plays an important role for Inter Milan. He is close to being a complete defender and will be a formidable opponent for Robert Lewandowski in a tightly-packed defensive unit.
The principal problem facing Slovakia is their lack of goals, and this cannot be understated. Slovakia usually opt for just one striker up top, and options are limited.
The only realistic option who was in-form this year is Jablonec’s Ivan Schranz, who netted 16 goals this season. But Slovakia manager Štefan Tarkovič likes to rotate between Schranz, Róbert Boženík, and Michal Ďuriš – the latter two netted three times between them this season. Three times. In 51 games.
Only North Macedonia and Hungary scored less than Slovakia in the qualifying group stages and made it into the tournament.
In instances of stand-out players, this Slovakia side can match Sweden and Poland, but their attacking deficiencies leave too much to be desired to make them anything more than the weakest team in the group on paper.
Key player: Milan Škriniar. He must have a strong tournament if Slovakia are to stand a chance of progressing. They cannot afford to leak goals. Also, his ability to link play with the midfield is notable, and so Škriniar might play a bigger role in constructing attacks than anticipated.
One to watch: Ondrej Duda. On his day, Duda can be a fine footballer. He has struggled with injuries in the past but has impressed in playmaking roles with Norwich and Köln in the last two seasons. Marek Hamšík still has quality but Duda may well be expected to be the creator-in-chief at this tournament.
Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Pol via Creative Commons