It’s here! Get that Mario Balotelli six-pack celebration meme out, dust off that old CD single of ‘It’s coming home’ and start practicing that iconic Marco Van Basten volley in your garden, the delayed European Championships of 2020 (why is it not 2021, it’s confusing the life out of me) has come around and Euro fever is hitting the continent once again.
As Europe slowly frees itself of the COVID-19 shackles with more and more people being vaccinated we have a sweet summer of football to look forward to with Europe’s galaxy of stars on show. The Kylian Mbappés, Cristiano Ronaldos, Romelu Lukakus and even the Karim Benzemas of this world will be at the grand show.
France are bonafide favorites, oozing quality all over the pitch as reigning world champions, Portugal have an embarrassingly rich plethora of attacking options which will be intriguing to see how Fernando Santos handles the holders who actually have a better team than when they won it in 2016. England whilst lacking depth at center-back, boast an exciting, youthful setup whilst Belgium likewise have problems in defence but still retain much of their ‘golden generation’ to call upon.
Instead, I would like to focus on the two stalwart dark horses that have emerged before the tournament and collide in the first game on Friday in front of a crowd (yes a crowd!) at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy and Turkey.
The excruciating pain left by Italy’s exclusion in World Cup 2018 has been replaced with renowned optimism as Roberto Mancini has rejuvenated Italy since the play-off defeat to Sweden. As Mancini said himself, the country was left in mourning when the unthinkable happened. Confounded by the iconic image of Gianluigi Buffon sobbing on live TV as Italy limped out for only the second time in their history under the now much-maligned era of ‘substitute teacher not knowing what he’s doing’ Gian Piero Ventura. As Gazzetta dello Sport headlined it was an ‘apocalypse’.
Perhaps because of the tragedy of 2018 and Italy’s form under Mancini, there is a feeling of redemption or at least putting things right when Italy got it horribly wrong in the last attempt at a major tournament. Mancini guided Italy to an impressive ten wins out of ten in qualifying conceding only four goals, with the defence traditionally living up to Italy’s previous reputation of being miserly.
However, the key changes have been in midfield where Italy have a youthful midfield three of real pedigree. Bar France, one could say Italy possesses the best midfield in the tournament with Jorginho holding in front of the back four, whilst Nicolò Barella has been one of the best midfielders in the world this year under Antonio Conte.
Versatile and extremely knowledgeable in the middle of the park, Barella can dictate play from deep, press and tackle opponents, drift wide to cause overloads and has a brilliant passing range. He was an integral part of Inter’s scudetto winning side racking up nine assists showing brilliant intelligence as a box-to-box midfielder, exhibited in his MOTM performance vs Juventus which jump-started the title capture for the Nerazzuri. I call him the Italian Kevin de Bruyne.
Marco Veratti has had a fabulous return to form at PSG this year, but is still touch and go with a knee injury, Italy need not worry as Mancini has Manuel Locatelli at his disposal. A creative spark under mini-Guardiola manager Roberto De Zerbi, able to keep the ball religiously and play direct passes with purpose, Locatelli is high on the priority list for the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus.
The three in midfield offer dynamism, versatility and energy that suit the possession-based approach under Mancini, he can also call upon depth in Stefano Sensi (though supposedly struggling with injuries) and Lorenzo Pellegrini, options to unlock oppositions when Italy are likely to play low block defences vs Wales, Switzerland and Turkey in the groups whereas Bryan Cristante can offer a more assured approach if needed.
As for the attack the marauding magician Lorenzo Insigne has had a fabulous season for Napoli somehow flying under the radar he has been an ever-present and constantly reliable for Partenopei with 26 goal contributions in the league. Famously in the ‘apocalypse’ when Italy were dumped out by Sweden, legendary midfielder Daniele De Rossi was seen furiously mouthing to Ventura ‘why the fuck are you putting me on? We need to win’ as De Rossi was confused at him being sent on and pointed at Insigne as the man who could possibly save Italy.
Insigne will look to drift in from the left and link up with Ciro Immobile who Italy will hope can replicate his stunning Lazio form which lead to him winning the European golden boot ahead of Ronaldo and Messi in 2020. His form is getting there for Italy but with the skilled players Italy have, you feel Immobile will get enough chances for the tournament it is a case of whether he can put them away.
On the right, Mancini can choose from Domenico Berardi or Juventus’s best player this year, Federico Chiesa. Both have had stalwart seasons as Berardi has thrived in an enthralling Sassuolo team and Chiesa has punched well above expectations being a shining light in the gloom of Andrea Pirlo’s maiden season, it highlights the choices Mancini has in his arsenal.
For the second season in a row Berardi has scored more than 14 in the league and can lead the press efficiently, then there is Chiesa, direct, quick, tricky might we see him emulate his father Enrico as another player who scored at the Euros? Other players such as Giacomo Raspadori, Andrea Belotti and Federico Bernadeschi will be looking to provide the Azzurri with a spark off the bench.
Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini as a dynamic duo will likely make up the centre-back pairing, although Bonucci has looked shaky at times this year and there maybe question marks as to whether 2/3 of the famed ‘Inglorious Bastards’ have still got it, the veterans will provide experience, guile and leadership for the young guns of the team, whilst it is also intriguing to ponder how many minutes young Alessandro Bastoni will get who has emerged as another Conte soldier shining in the scudetto season.
Alessandro Florenzi and one of my favourite names in football, Leonardo Spinazzola, are set to take up the full-back positions where they have been mainstays, this is where Italy lack a set of options compared to the rest of the starting XI. Emerson has been starved of game-time at Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel and will likely be lacking match rhythm, whilst Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s inclusion has been scrutinized due to Davide Calabria’s excellent form at Milan, which has failed to earn the 24-year-old a recall to the national team.
Catenaccio doesn’t define this Italy team, possession-based, high press and winning the ball in transition high up the pitch with energy to set fast attackers free is the soul of Italy in 2021. The manner in which the squad was announced was meme-able and hilarious, on an X factor-esque show in Italy with the entire team wearing Armani suits, singing together as we saw Mancini and Daniele De Rossi play padel with frying pans (yes you read that right).
Mancini is aiming to keep the team in a light, jovial mood looking to restore happiness after the debacle of 2018. I predict Italy going far and possibly winning the tournament because the players in this Italy team will remember the agony of three years ago but they’ll also benefit from the fact that it will be hard to be that bad again. Pain, pride and a yearning to restore respect to the great footballing nation of Italy are on the line, just as you will see Italy roar their own national anthem, we may see them roar back to life in Euro 2020.
Unsung Hero: Nicolò Barella
One to Watch: Lorenzo Insigne
He might be the most underrated player in the world, certainly the most underrated left-winger, Il Capitano and the new King of Napoli has season after season produced what is expected of him at a high level and somehow falls under the radar, maybe because his brilliance is just a normality now but also a rarity, a club like Napoli does well to romanticise it’s players making them one club men.
Insigne’s 19 goals and 7 assists in 2021/22 were his best yet since arriving in Naples and his tricky movement quintessential to this. Insigne doesn’t find space, space finds him, he picks up the ball from deep or up the pitch, hovering like a bee, left or right his license to roam is where he can hurt opponents from every angle. It is odd to put such a seasoned professional as the ‘one to watch’ but this Euros might finally be the platform for the Italian to get the world recognition he deserves.
Why have Turkey emerged as such dark horses before the tournament? They are quickly turning into the ‘that’s my 2nd team to support if we lose’ pick. The reason for their frequent label as dark horses is some of the quality of the players at their disposal with many playing for renowned teams in the top five leagues.
This may be the strongest Turkey side since 2002 but as opposed to Italy’s possible achilles heel being at the back, Turkey’s strength is in their defence. Tarzan look- a-like and stand out Harry Maguire replacement Çağlar Söyüncü of Leicester, loves defending and is a tower of a man but can also play with the ball as you need to in a Brendan Rodgers team. His presence has been intimidating at the back for the Foxes in their impressive 5th place and FA Cup triumph season.
Partnering Söyüncü will either be Ozan Kabak of Liverpool loan fame or Merih Demiral who has impressed for Juventus this season at times, showing he could perhaps be next in line to Bonucci who he will play on Friday. Picturing a Söyüncü-Demiral central pairing is one of the most meanest sights possible seen in the tournament but I feel as though manager Şenol Güneş will pick Kabak for his pace.
Filling in at right-back will be Lille Ligue 1 title winner Zeki Çelik who held down the position for most of the season, rotating with the exciting Mert Müldür who frequently buccaneered down the right channel for Sassuolo. Umut Meras and the younger Ridvan Yilmaz are likely to compete for places on the left.
Turkey’s defence will be crucial for them to go far, as shape and organisation marshalled by Söyüncü will define how well they do in the groups against dangerous attacks like Italy and Wales, also considering Turkey will drop deep and play a defensive 4-1-4-1 out of possession, not pressing and waiting for opponents to enter their own half before making challenges.
The yin and yang of Okay Yokuşlu and Ozan Tufan in the middle of the park are the perfect balance between two midfielders offering robust steel and stability, with Tufan the more box-to-box midfielder pushing further ahead, passing through lines and being the starter of the move, whilst Yokuşlu’s extremely impressive West Bromwich Albion loanee (my god Big Sam knows a player) showcased a brilliant ability in putting out fires and is criminally underrated in stopping the opposition.
The crown jewel of Turkey though, is AC Milan’s trequartista Hakan Çalhanoğlu who shone in a season where he garnered nine assists, even if he dropped off towards the end, Hakan is one of the best CAM’s around and plays with a willingness to constantly want the ball and make things happen. Another Turkish Lille pairing Turkey possess are Yusuf Yazıcı and veteran Burak Yılmaz who fired Lille to the title. Yazıcı offered 11 respectable goal contributions for Lille in the season and can play on the wing or as a second striker looking to make runs in the channel or in behind.
Yazıcı knows ‘kral’ (King) or Yılmaz inside out from their previous time at Trabzonspor, Yılmaz came to Lille at 35 years of age but has brought an ‘Edinson Cavani to Man Unitetd’ narrative about his transfer which like Cavani’s at first raised eyebrows but you can see the fruits of the labour for all parties involved, the veteran who has taught Lille’s players how to be a champion in a seasoned career, now wouldn’t we just love to see a grandmaster swansong from Kral at the Euros?
Yılmaz though not offering to play on the shoulder of defenders or run in behind with his age and ailing pace, instead drops deep to link the play up and receive directly from Söyüncü, allowing full-backs and wingers like Yazıcı to push up and Hakan to find spaces to dictate and possibly cross using Yılmaz’s heading ability. Although Leicester’s quick Cengiz Ünder is a great option, we are more likely to see Kenan Karaman of Fortuna Düsseldorf partner Yılmaz up top.
Şenol Güneş was the manager who led Turkey from nowhere to third in the 2002 World Cup where you are likely to remember the brave-hearted face paint of iconic goalkeeper Rüştü Reçber in goal. Perhaps Güneş, who is highly esteemed in Turkey can draw on some of the heroics of the tournament or the comeback kings of Euro 2008 led by Nihat Kahveci in those rainy nights in Austria-Switzerland where Turkey never said die and were only denied a final place after a 3-2 semi-final loss vs Germany with many players injured.
There was a certain spirit evoked in those two tournaments which embody an extremely passionate footballing country, so much so fixtures between rivals can become dangerous like Galatasaray vs Fenerbahçe and for a long time the national team couldn’t play in the capital city.
Turkey can go far because we have seen in this tournament that it isn’t always about the flashiest or skillfulc players, it may be about heart, grit and heroic defending with a few players that can grab goals and hurt teams which Turkey certainly possess. What we are likely to see in the game vs Italy is Turkey defending deep and picking their moments, inviting pressure on before attempting to take advantage of Italy’s defensive lapses.
Unsung Hero: Okay Yokuşlu
One to Watch: Burak Yılmaz
I mean, come on who else was I going to pick, these days who doesn’t love to see a Benjamin button striker roll back the years especially with the game getting more technical and tactical. Aging like fine wine, Yılmaz led Lille to an unlikely Ligue 1 title vs the riches of PSG which is still an underrated achievement not getting the coverage it deserved. While there are flashes of needed flair in this team, Yılmaz represents everything brilliant about it, burley, tough to beat and determined, he may ensure we see some Turkish delight this summer.
By: Dharnish Iqbal
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Lukas Schulze – UEFA / Guido De Bortoli – UEFA