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Marko Arnautovic beim EM-Quali-Spiel gegen Nordmazedonien im November 2019


Euro2020: Three Highlights for the Opening Weekend

The long wait is over, the delayed tournament is beginning and there are three tasty clashes this weekend.

By Chris Cummins

Turkey vs Italy, Rome, Friday 9pm.

I’m very excited to watch the opening match in Rome, not just because curtain-raisers are inherently absorbing but because this a fascinating Italian squad. The Azzurri, usually solid and stolid, could be genuinely fun to watch this year. Under their suave and experienced coach Roberto Mancini, they won every game in qualifying, are unbeaten in almost 30 matches and play attractive football.

There are very familiar faces in the squad. Giorgio Chiellini seems to have been around forever and looked like an old man even when he was a very young player. Now his centre-back partnership with Leonardo Bonucci brings a combined age of 70 into the penalty box.

But that partnership is the anomaly and maybe even the weak point in the starting eleven. The style of the team is unusual for Italian teams; with attacking full-backs, lots of options in midfield and the goals coming from all sides of the park; Manuel Locatelli in particular is a candidate for a long-distance screamer. So, this is not the sort of team that is looking to go 1-0 up and then shutting down the game. Up front Ciro Immobile is anything but immobile and has been in form for club and country and this should be an Italian team more accomplished in attack then defence.

Montage aus Jubelbildern von Lorenzo Insigne und Burak Yilmaz


Lorenzo Insigne und Burak Yilmaz

Turkish fans meanwhile are very confident ahead of the tournament. They have Senol Gunes back in charge. He’s the coach who led them to an unexpected third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup campaign. Gunes is talking up their chances of playing Italy twice: he says he expects a Turkey vs Italy final at the end of the month. At his disposal he has some quality players in very good form including Zeki Celik and Burak Yilmaz who enjoyed stunning seasons playing for Lille in France this year.

England vs Croatia, Sunday 3pm, Wembley Stadium.

It’s a replay of the World Cup semi-final and yet the Three Lions have good reason to hope they will fare better this time against their Angstgegner, who also broke my heart by eliminating England in qualifying for Euro08 in Austria.

England are spoiled for choice in midfield, in particular the young dynamic duo of Phil Foden and Jack Grealish probably competing for one place in the starting eleven and Chelsea’s Champion’s League winner Mason Mount showing remarkable consistency. Up front, Harry Kane already has one tournament Golden Boot to his name and might feel happy to be in an England shirt as chaos consumes his club Spurs.

However, we are by now familiar with the script of England at a major tournament. A team of dynamic English players who have performed well on the big stage for their clubs then somehow manage to underperform in an England shirt. It’s frustrating, mystifying and it has happened for several generations so I will be watching with trepidation. Gareth Southgate might be the nicest guy in football, a snappy dresser and increasingly an elegantly spoken statesman, but there are questions about whether he has the tactical nous for the big games.

Gareth Southgate blickt in die Luft


Gareth Southgate

Southgate has needed that statesmanship because of an ugly row that has overshadowed recent England matches. The England players have made it a policy to „take the knee“ as a statement against racism and some „fans“ have been booing their own players. Although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has backed the players, his Tory party colleague and Education minister Gillian Keegan has said Black Lives Matter „is really about defunding the police and the overthrow of capitalism“.

Gareth Southgate wrote a letter to the nation defending his players rights to the gesture writing: „I have never believed that we should just stick to football. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players... It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.“

I agree with Southgate wholeheartedly and respect him for this stance.

You can see I have fallen into the Englishman’s trap of focusing on England and forgetting another team is playing; namely the World Cup runners up who love tormenting England on the big stage. The names in the Croatian team-sheet are familiar. Luka Modric may not be the force he once was, but he can still dictate a game and the high-intensity and impressive work-rate of Ivan Perisic will haunt the English.

Here’s a statistic: England have never won their opening game at a European Championship tournament, having drawn 5 and lost 4. Croatia, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their five Euro openers with 4 wins and a draw.

Austria vs North Macedonia, Sunday 6pm, Bucharest

This is a fascinating but nerve-wracking match-up. It seems to be a must-win match for the Austrians if the team is to progress to the knockout stages.

Had the tournament not been delayed by a year, you’d be confident of Austria taking all 3 points. North Macedonia, which is the lowest ranked team in the tournament, were in Austria’s Euro2020 qualifying group and Austria dominated both games, including a 4-1 away victory.

But the two squads come into this crunch-match of different trajectories.

You don’t need me to tell you much about Austria. They are goalless and winless in their last 3 matches, the best player David Alaba plays out of position and there are grumbles about the selections and imagination of coach Franco Foda.

Stefan Lainer wird beim Einwurf von Franco Foda beobachtet


Meanwhile, North Macedonia are a high after shocking Germany with a 2-1 World Cup qualifying match recently in Duisburg. They were the first team to beat Germany in Germany in a qualifying match for two decades.
Aleksandar Zlateski, who tweets about Macedonian Football as @MacedonianFooty, says they will play a solid defensive game, aim to frustrate their opponents and then try and hit on the counter.

Austria’s talisman Marko Arnautovic, after many homesick Covid-restricted months in China seems to me to be eminently likely to get frustrated. Perhaps Austria’s 2 metres tall centre forward Sasa Kalajdzic, the tallest man in the tournament, can break the deadlock in what promises to be a nail-biting match.