UEFA Euro 2020: After the group stage draw, what are England's chances?
The draw for UEFA’s Euro 2020 tournament was made this weekend, and while the news flew under the radar somewhat after some exciting fixtures in the various domestic leagues around Europe, we now know exactly who will be playing who once next summer’s tournament comes around. Well, we kind of know. We won’t find out exactly who the final entrants will be until next March’s playoffs are done, but for the most part, the tournament is set.
And of course, the major news coming out of the draw – outside of various gripes over the convoluted nature of the tournament, due to its multiple host countries – was that Group F is the very definition of a ‘Group of Death’, with World Cup 2018 winners France, Euro 2016 and Nations League 2019 champions Portugal, and World Cup 2014 winners Germany all drawn against one another.
One must feel sorry for the winners of “Playoff Path A”, who will make up the fourth team in Group F; Bulgaria, Hungary or Iceland will be the unlucky winners. But for fans of England, the draw seemed to be far kinder. Gareth Southgate’s side will face Croatia, the Czech Republic and one of the playoff winners – Norway, Serbia, Scotland or Israel - and all of the matches will take place at Wembley.
It’s true that no international side, particularly one who’ve qualified for a tournament like Euro 2020, can be overlooked. But when you consider that England could easily have been in Germany’s position – drawn against both France and Portugal – their group seems to be a much simpler path.
Croatia unforgettably defeated the Three Lions in the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup, which will make the meeting between the two sides on June 14th somewhat of a grudge match. But even in 2018 Croatia’s team was considered to be an ageing one, with stars like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic all heading towards the twilight of their careers.
More to the point, England have played Croatia twice since that night in Russia, and it could be argued that Southgate’s team dominated both matches, despite drawing the first 0-0 in Rijeka and falling behind at Wembley before coming back to win 2-1. Croatia will definitely represent a tough challenge for England, but especially at Wembley, they won’t provide much of a fear factor.
The Czech Republic meanwhile were crushed 5-0 at Wembley during qualification for Euro 2020, and while Jaroslav Silhavy’s side did defeat the Three Lions 2-1 in a return qualifier in Prague, the match was a rare misfire from Southgate’s team and was hardly an indication of his team’s abilities.
A match with Scotland would be intriguing simply due to the huge rivalry between the two sides, but realistically, the Scots – nor Israel – can expect to make it through past Norway or Serbia. And the latter two sides won’t scare England either, despite the presence of a pair of dangerous strikers in Joshua King (Norway) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (Serbia).
So does that mean all is perfect for England? Well, on the surface, they should be confident of making the knockout stages comfortably, at worst in second place behind Croatia. Assuming they manage that, however, things suddenly become interesting.
The winner of England’s group – Group D – will face their next opponents in the Round of 16 on June 30th in Dublin, but those opponents will be none other than the runners-up from Group F – that ‘Group of Death’ containing France, Germany and Portugal. Should England finish second in their group, meanwhile, they’d play on June 29th in Copenhagen against the runners-up of Group E – which contains Spain, Sweden, Poland and one of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and the Republic of Ireland.
On the surface at least then, does that mean England would face a more favourable draw should they not win their group? Well, theoretically, yes. For fans of the Three Lions, the 2018 World Cup will be fresh in the memory, and of course, England finished second in their group in that tournament, avoiding a quarter-final showdown with Brazil by doing so.
With this in mind, then, would it be tempting for England to attempt to engineer their way into second place in the group, thus avoiding one of the three most dangerous sides in the tournament? To some fans, it’d probably be tempting. However, the order of the matches doesn’t suit such plans.
Firstly, England face their most dangerous opponents – Croatia – in their opening game. Win that match and they’d instantly become favourites to win the group, but if they were to lose, the pressure on them for the next game – against the playoff winner – would be huge. That’s very different from the scenario in the 2018 World Cup.
Southgate’s side didn’t exactly engineer their second-place finish in the group stage of that tournament; nobody could’ve known that sides such as Germany would struggle in Russia, and England had already qualified for the knockouts by beating Tunisia and Panama by the time they sent a weakened side into a defeat to Belgium, meaning the result was largely meaningless even if a loss would mean a favourable draw.
At Euro 2020 on the other hand, the risk of attempting to perhaps not win the Croatia game would be ridiculous, and if they were to win their first two games, even a weakened England team would be expected to defeat the Czechs in the final match of the group.
And that’s not even considering England’s record at previous European Championships – a record Southgate recently described as “appalling”; the Three Lions made it to the semi-finals of Euro 1996, but have only got as far as the Quarter-Finals since and have suffered some humiliating defeats along the way, most notably to Iceland in 2016.
Which brings me to the final point; England – and their fans – simply cannot afford to become complacent, or overlook any opponents in this tournament. They might have one of the most feared strike forces in Europe in the form of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, but as we’ve seen so many times in the past, international tournaments are almost impossible to predict.
After this weekend’s draw, then, England fans should remain hopeful going into Euro 2020 – they avoided the ‘Group of Death’ at least – but they should also proceed with caution; none of them want to see history repeat itself, after all.