This lot have dazzled for their clubs in a mad 2020/21; now could they end it as the stars of Euro 2020? Their expectant countries will certainly be hoping so...
Kylian Mbappe, France
Mbappe has already achieved more by the age of 22 than many footballers do in their whole careers. But the Paris Saint-Germain forward isn’t satisfied yet, and neither are his French team-mates. Les Bleus will be desperate to emulate the superb side that followed World Cup glory with continental conquest in 2000.
Mbappe didn’t dominate the 2018 World Cup from start to finish, but he did cover moments of it in glitter. Supreme discipline and diligence defined Didier Deschamps’ champions in Russia, but Mbappe was given sufficient freedom to wreak havoc in the final third. He did so to particularly devastating effect against Argentina in the last 16, outshining Lionel Messi and setting France on the path to success.
Mbappe was already a household name in 2018, but three years on he’s now every inch an established superstar. He’s become a better player, too, with a superior scoring record and more reliable decision-making. Most worryingly for France’s opponents this summer, however, is that the young ace has lost none of the raw speed and no little skill that defined his terrifying Road Runner performances in Russia.
The cautious Deschamps may yet revert to type, but France have experimented with an attack-minded 4-3-1-2 system in recent months, tucking Antoine Griezmann in behind split strikers. The world champions now have an array of attacking talent to call upon, but Mbappe is a shoo-in for one of those roles should the manager stick with his new formation.
The starlet is widely regarded as a future Ballon d’Or winner. If he inspires France to victory this summer, he might not have too long to wait...
Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
Euro 2016 quarter-finalists and then third-place finishers at the World Cup three years ago, Belgium are finally packing punch with their promise and have silverware in sight this summer. Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard are potential match-winners in attack, but De Bruyne is the man who makes this deadly Red Devils team tick.
The cherubic Manchester City midfielder is arguably the most complete footballer at the tournament, boasting both technical and physical gifts in abundance. De Bruyne is full of craft and creativity, pace and power, but also scores a fair amount of goals and sets up even more – in 2019-20, he equalled Thierry Henry’s all-time haul for assists in a Premier League season (20). “He can do absolutely everything,” beamed proud (and grateful) boss Pep Guardiola.
Roberto Martinez is a flexible coach who could switch between different formations at the Euros. With De Bruyne able to play as a No.10, a No.8, a wide forward or even a false nine, his versatility, intelligence and all-round quality make him Belgium’s most important asset since... Tintin?
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Cristiano has long been a dominant on-field presence for both club and country – but in the Euro 2016 Final, he took on a new role as a touchline conductor. Forced off with injury in the 25th minute, Ronaldo spent the remainder of the game in his gaffer’s technical area, cajoling his Portugal team-mates as they beat France 1-0 after extra time to win the first major trophy in Selecao history.
CR7’s visceral delight when the final whistle shrilled discredited the idea that individual glory is all that matters to the Juventus maestro. Sure, he knew where the cameras were at full-time, but the totemic forward had played a huge part in Portugal’s progression to the final and was justifiably elated when their triumph was confirmed.
This summer’s edition is likely to be Ronaldo’s last appearance at a European Championship finals. This most enduring of superstars will turn 39 in 2024 and, although his off-field conditioning sets the bar, there are limits to what a nearly 40-year-old body would be able to do.
If Portugal are to retain their title, they will have to do it the hard way: CR7 & Co are in the latest Group of Death with Germany, France and Hungary. While a third-place finish will probably prove enough for Fernando Santos’ team to qualify for the knockout phase, a loss or two in Group F could land them another tough draw in the last 16.
Ronaldo, as ever, will be essential to his country’s chances of success. The Juve star is very much a centre-forward these days – relentless in his stunning pursuit of Ali Daei’s all-time 109-goal international scoring record – and Portugal will look to feed him inside the penalty area as often as possible. With two of Joao Felix, Diogo Jota, Pedro Neto and Bernardo Silva deployed either side of him up top, and Bruno Fernandes just behind, his supply line should remain healthily stocked.
Ronaldo has had an extraordinary career, but leading Portugal to European glory for the second tournament in a row would be right up there with his greatest ever honours. He couldn’t… could he?
Robert Lewandowski, Poland
Thomas Muller may not have a future as a comedian, but nor was the noted horse impressionist in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act when he called his Bayern Munich team-mate Robert ‘Lewangoalski’. Geddit?
Lewy’s scoring record is exceptional, and he’s showing no signs of slowing as he approaches his 33rd birthday. Not since the great days of Gerd Muller have Bayern fans witnessed a player with such an insatiable appetite for introducing ball to net – and that’s saying something.
Lewandowski is a prolific goal-getter at international level, too, averaging a goal every other game for his country. If Poland are to match their quarter-final appearance at Euro 2016, their captain will no doubt have played a huge part.
Drawn alongside Spain, Sweden and Slovakia, Poland arguably have Group E’s best individual player in their ranks. That was also the case at the 2018 World Cup, though, where Lewandowski’s lot finished bottom of a group containing Colombia, Japan and Senegal with just one win from three games.
There are lessons to be learned from that showing in Russia, where Lewy drew a blank thanks to service so poor it would make your local takeaway wince.
The striker is good enough to conjure moments of magic from thin air on odd occasions, but it’s not a game plan to be relied upon. Under the fresh management of Paulo Sousa, however, the No.9 should not fear more of the same.
The draw has been reasonably kind to Poland: finishing second in their group would land them a last-16 tie against another group runner-up. If an improved supporting cast is in place this time around, Lewandowski’s firepower could make them dark horses.
Jack Grealish, England
Calls for Gareth Southgate to build his team around Grealish will probably go unheeded, but there’s no question the superb Aston Villa captain has the talent, and impeccable calf game, to lead England to glory at Euro 2020.
With his dazzling footwork, carefree abandon and socks around his ankles, Grealish is something of a throwback. His capacity to draw fouls is second only to his ability to create chances.
Grealish has crushed the doubts over his end product during the past couple of seasons, and there’s a chance that England’s opponents will be taken aback by just how good the 25-year-old is, given that he’s still yet to feature in European competition at club level.
Southgate was slow to introduce Villa’s talisman to his national team setup, and there are still some question marks over exactly where Grealish fits into the side. But when it comes to the crunch, expect the Three Lions’ leader to make room for one of England’s difference-makers.
Memphis Depay, Netherlands
On the face of it, it might not sound particularly noteworthy that a nation of 17 million people failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. But when you learn that the nation in question was the Netherlands, and that the three-time World Cup finalists also failed to reach an expanded Euros two years earlier, it becomes instantly clear how baffling those absences were.
But the Oranje are back. They finished as runners-up in the inaugural 2018-19 Nations League, and advanced to Euro 2020 with six wins from eight games in one of the trickier qualifying groups. And while Frank de Boer has yet to shake off persistent doubts about his managerial acumen, the Dutch don’t intend to merely make up the numbers this summer.
As a nominee for the Best Young Player award at the 2014 World Cup, Memphis Depay will be champing at the bit for another chance to strut his stuff at an international finals. His development stalled after the Netherlands’ finished third in Brazil, with an underwhelming spell at Manchester United checking his progress thereafter.
Depay has since got his career back on track at Lyon, though, and he arrives at Euro 2020 as a mature, well-rounded forward. Primarily deployed through the middle these days, the 27-year-old will be his country’s main goal threat even if he shifts to the left wing to make space for Luuk de Jong, a more traditional No.9.
Adept at both dropping deep to link play and running in behind, Depay will keep defenders guessing as the Dutch seek a repeat of their triumph at Euro 88. The tournament is considerably better for having them around.
Gareth Bale, Wales
Bale’s return to Tottenham wasn’t quite the fairy tale he was hoping for, but the forward is just as crucial to his country as ever before.
At Real Madrid, Bale did little to refute suggestions that Wales was his principal focus (along with golf). A repeat of their thrilling run to the semis of Euro 2016 will be a tall order, but he relishes his role as Wales’ talisman and will no doubt rise to the occasion once more.
Andy Robertson, Scotland
Even the world’s most innovative coaches have yet to come up with a system featuring two left-backs.
That’s a shame for Scotland, whose two best players operate in the same area of the pitch. Kieran Tierney tends to play as a left-sided centre-back for his country, leaving Robertson free to patrol the flank as a wing-back. The all-action Liverpool man has endless stamina and an outstanding left foot.
Lorenzo Insigne, Italy
Italy didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup – their first such failure in 60 years.
The Azzurri have responded well to that setback, however, and Roberto Mancini’s Euro 2020 squad has a much younger, fresher feel to it. Insigne, who turns 30 at the start of June, will be one of the more experienced members of Mancini’s team. The diminutive winger’s speed off the mark and nimble footwork will pose many a problem for opposing right-backs.
Tomas Soucek, Czech Republic
The West Ham midfielder was one of the surprise stars of the Premier League season in 2020-21.
A defensive midfielder with an eye for goal, Soucek will be looking to replicate his club form when he represents the Czech Republic this summer – the 6ft 4in man-mountain is a threat at set-pieces, but he’s also accomplished in possession and a prolific ball-winner. England, who take on the Czechs in their third group game, know exactly what he’s capable of.
Dominik Szoboszlai, Hungary
Szoboszlai became the most expensive Hungarian player of all time when he swapped Red Bull Salzburg for – you guessed it – RB Leipzig in January.
The €20m attacker doesn’t turn 21 until October, but he carries a nation’s hopes on his young shoulders going into Euro 2020. The inventive winger provided nine goals and 14 assists in 27 league games in his final full season at Salzburg, and Hungary will hope for more of the same.
Cengiz Under, Turkey
Turkey have qualified for consecutive European Championships for only the second time in their history, but they’ll be hungrier than ever to improve on a dire showing in France five years ago.
Under is one of several squad members who earned their first caps straight after Euro 2016. The winger, who should feel pretty fresh after spending the domestic campaign as a bit-part player on loan at Leicester, has explosive acceleration and can turn defence into attack in an instant.
Leroy Sane, Germany
Sané is among the players to benefit from the Euros being pushed back to 2021 – injury issues and near-constant speculation over his future restricted the forward to just two appearances for Manchester City last term.
With a full season at Bayern Munich under his belt, though, the wideman is raring to go for Germany this summer. The 25-year-old has pace to burn and can play on either wing.
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