The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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France beatable, Germany resurgent, Italy seeking redemption: The state of play ahead of Euro 2024

Associated Press Wednesday, 27 March 2024, 14:28 Last update: about 22 days ago

The 24-team lineup for the European Championship is complete after Poland, Ukraine and Georgia became the final teams to qualify for the tournament in Germany.

Here's a look at the how the favorites, title outsiders and underdogs stack up with less than 80 days to go until the opening game:

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THE FAVOURITES

France will likely go into the tournament as the favourite, given its status as the leading European team in the FIFA ranking — at No. 2 — and having been the champion or runner-up at three of its last four major international tournaments. Fronted by Kylian Mbappé, the French squad remains deep and will be motivated by its loss in the World Cup final in Qatar. Similarly, No. 3-ranked England has regrets after losing the title match against Italy at the last Euros in 2021 and has its strongest pool of players for 20 years, with Jude Bellingham now a star at Real Madrid. Over the recent international break, France lost soundly to Germany and England was defeated by Brazil, underlining their vulnerability and showing that perhaps there's no overwhelming favorite at the Euros. Belgium has lost some of its luster and will be concerned by the absence of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and the persistent injury issues of Kevin De Bruyne. Portugal, meanwhile, has so much talent in his squad and was the only team to qualify with a flawless record, albeit from a weak group. At 39, can Cristiano Ronaldo win the Euros for a second time?

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THE HOST NATION

Never write off Germany. After a miserable 2023 ended with friendly losses to Turkey and Austria, the Euro 2024 host kicked off this year by beating France and the Netherlands over the last week. Former Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann seems to have Germany ticking again with help from Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos, who was back in the German lineup for the first time since the last Euros in 2021. Bayer Leverkusen's 20-year-old attacking midfielder Florian Wirtz set a record with his goal just seven seconds into the win over France. Germany will have something to prove as host. Group-stage exits at the last two World Cups and a round-of-16 loss to England at the last Euros mean Germany has won just three of its last 10 games at major tournaments. Facing Scotland, Hungary and Switzerland in the group stage at Euro 2024 seems a relatively kind draw.

THE DEFENDING CHAMPS

There is a familiar feel to Italy seeking redemption at the European Championship after failing to qualify for the previous World Cup. However, the defending European champion has faced more upheaval over the past year with coach Roberto Mancini quitting and key player Sandro Tonali banned for gambling. While there is no doubting new coach Luciano Spalletti’s credentials after he led Napoli to its first league title in more than three decades last season, there are some question marks about the talent he has at his disposal. There have been positive signs as Spalletti appears to have Italy playing the type of entertaining soccer he delivered at Napoli, but the Azzurri still have problems in attack. Lazio forward Ciro Immobile was dropped by Spalletti after struggling with form, as was Atalanta’s Gianluca Scamacca. That means an Argentina-born player could be leading the way for Italy in Germany. Mateo Retegui spent his entire playing career in the South American country before moving to Genoa this season. He has Italian citizenship through his maternal grandmother.

THE TITLE OUTSIDERS

The European Championship has produced previous surprise winners in a way the World Cup has not. Denmark won in 1992 after the players came back from vacation when the team was put into the tournament as a late replacement for Yugoslavia. Greece stunned the soccer world by taking the title in 2004. With 16 of 24 teams advancing to the knockout rounds in the current format, the chance to go on a hot streak is always there. In recent Euros, Austria and Turkey were fashionable dark horse picks, although they both flopped. Austria’s 6-1 win over Turkey in a friendly on Tuesday suggests coach Ralf Rangnick has created a team of substance. Austria also caught the eye by scoring the fastest-ever international goal last week — through Christoph Baumgartner after six seconds at Euros-bound Slovakia. However, Austria is in a tough group with France, the Netherlands and Poland. The Dutch have a solid foundation for a title shot with a defense led by Virgil van Dijk. But that would require winning a Euros knockout game for the first time in 20 years. Switzerland also has the talent for a deep run and is in what looks like a relatively weak group aside from top-seeded Germany.

UKRAINE QUALIFIES

When war-torn Ukraine beat Iceland 2-1 to qualify through the playoffs Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was quick to issue a statement of congratulations on social media to highlight the significance of the achievement.

“Whenever Ukrainians face difficulties but do not give up and continue to fight, Ukrainians certainly win,” Zelenskyy wrote.

Mykhailo Mudryk's 84th-minute goal secured a comeback win for Ukraine, its second dramatic victory in the space of a week after beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-1 in the semifinals on Thursday thanks to an 88th-minute goal from Girona striker Artem Dovbyk.

The war has meant Ukraine has not been able to play national-team games at home for more than two years. All 18 games of Chelsea forward Mudryk's burgeoning international career have been played either away or at neutral venues. That doesn't mean Ukraine lacks fans. The war means many Ukrainians are living both in Poland — where Mudryk scored the winning goal against Iceland — and in Euro 2024 host nation Germany. The team can probably count on plenty of support from neutral fans at its games, too.

THE UNDERDOGS

Who else might the neutrals be rooting for at Euro 2024? How about Georgia, which will be the biggest underdog when the country making its debut at a major tournament after qualifying through the playoffs. It gives star forward Khvicha Kvaratskhelia — one of the best players in Europe over the past two seasons — an even bigger stage to shine. Georgia has been an independent nation since 1991 but has only recently started to emerge on the soccer scene. It now became the latest country to benefit from UEFA's decision to expand the Euros to 24 teams since 2016 and opening a path for a low-ranked team to rise to the big stage through results in the Nations League. Other underdogs to watch out for are Albania, appearing in only its second major tournament, and Scotland, whose tartan-wearing fans will be noticeable and whose team’s run of impressive results under Steve Clarke has included a win over Spain.

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