Italy have put in two extremely impressive performances so far at Euro 2020. So much so that they are starting to look like real contenders for the crown. But that might not be as surprising as some would think. While Italy faced a real crossroads after shocking the football world by failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, they have turned 180 degrees under Roberto Mancini. They hadn’t actually lost for nearly 30 games before the tournament kicked off last Friday, and though the two sides they have faced so far have not been the toughest opposition, their performances have been very good to watch. They’ve never been too hurried; they’ve not looked to explode out of the gates and blow teams away within the first half-an-hour. They’ve just kept with their game plan, have kept the ball well and have taken the chances they create. Both games were won 3-0. Both performances were full of great passing, attacking intent and a cutting edge to put their chances away. This is a side that is settled, happy and confident in the system the coach has put in place. If they can produce similar performances against better opposition, they really could go all the way.
England’s first game was a case of simply getting the job done. They were well in control against a Croatia side that looked a shadow of the one that reached the World Cup final three years ago, beating England on the way. There was only one goal in it, but England were never in danger of losing this one. A win against Scotland today and their qualification for the knockout rounds will be confirmed. Gareth Southgate is not the greatest manager in the world but he seems to be the right man to be in charge of the national side. He is able to put a team together that doesn’t compromise the strengths of the star players but keeps players in the fold who can be the leaders and the positive influences on the rest of the squad. They may not be the greatest players, but their characters are of huge help to everyone. There is a video on the Sky Sports Cricket YouTube channel where Michael Atherton, Shane Warne and Nasser Hussein discuss what makes a good cricket captain. And ones of the things Nasser Hussein brought up was about how he and then coach Duncan Fletcher looked to change what he called the ‘critical mass’ of the team. Bringing players in that may not be the best, but who will have a really positive influence and change the characteristics of the other players around them. Southgate has been able to do that. He has also been able to instil a pride in representing their country in the squad.
He has also backed his players in being more politically active. He has thrown his full support behind the squad in their continuing to take the knee. Having a manager that players know they can trust to fully support them will only help the squad’s unity. His open letter before the tournament was a tour de force in demonstrating that this is an England squad that is representative of the modern country. They are going to be exercised about racial justice because they are either teammates and friends with black players or are black themselves. It also helps that this is the most talented England squad probably since 2004. There is at least one world class player in nearly every position. England can put out a seriously competitive team. While the performance against Croatia was not one for the ages, it gave England a very solid start to their campaign. It’s far too soon to even be thinking of anything further than the knockout rounds and their focus must remain on doing their job tonight of securing qualification. But this is the first time in a while watching England where I can see them winning the whole thing.
For me, the team most likely to win the Euros is France. I thought before the tournament started and I still think that now. They are reigning world champions, and like England, have several world-class players in their squads. Karim Benzema is back in the fold after a long exile and will only add to an extremely talented squad. Paul Pogba always seems to lift his game for France over what we see in the Premier League for Manchester United. Again, this is a side that is settled tactically, and with the man in charge. They know exactly what they want to do and they execute it. While they may have only beaten Germany thanks to a solitary own goal from Mats Hummels, they were far better and will be looking to go far in this tournament. This is a squad that plays for each other and for the pride of their country. I see France as the eventual winners of this tournament.