Friday evening will mark the launch of the 16th UEFA European Championship and experts are already debating their favourites to lift the trophy on 11 July. But there is something about this tournament that historically suggests an outsider, a dark horse of the likes of Greece in 2004 or, in more recent memory, Portugal’s shock triumph over France in the 2016 Final after their three consecutive Group Stage draws. Will there be such a shock on this occasion? The following four teams are more than equipped to pose the European big boys a problem and their progress this summer will be worth tracking.
If there is one nation who look to be at their strongest in recent memory, it must surely be Senol Gunes’ side. The Crescent Stars have arguably their best side since the 2002 World Cup, where they finished third under Gunes in a previous spell in charge.
Recent tournament history suggests their style has inclined toward passion, a degree of flair and a somewhat negligible attitude towards defending, but they appear a far more balanced outfit this time around.
Their defensive options should be the envy of their competitors going into the tournament; Leicester City’s Caglar Soyuncu and Juventus’s 6 ft 2 in Merih Demiral are their most experienced and feared centre-backs, while Ozan Kabak had made an impression on the national scene before his injury on loan at Liverpool.
Ozan Tufan and Okay Yokuslu – who played in the Premier League on loan at West Brom last season – will offer both defensive stability and a box-to-box presence respectively in midfield, while the Lille trio of right-back Mehmet Zeki Celik, Yusuf Yazici and the 35-year-old in-form Burak Yilmaz are on a high after their glorious title win in Ligue 1.
Competition in attacking midfield will be provided by Hakan Calhanoglu, Cengiz Under and Kenan Karaman.
Expectation is that they will at least qualify from a group made up of Italy, Wales and Switzerland.
The co-hosts of Euro 2012 came through their qualification games relatively comfortably by topping their group six points clear of Austria. However, they did so despite an unconvincing playing style and at the start of 2021 the Polish FA chose to replace Jerzy Brzeczek with the more continental name in Paulo Sousa.
While Sousa’s early results obtained from World Cup qualifiers have remained mixed, the Portuguese is instilling a more tactically flexible side that can shift from three defenders with the ball to four or five when they lose possession.
The majority of attention will be focused on Robert Lewandowski – arguably the most talented centre-forward in the tournament – who will most likely be partnered with Krzysztof Piatek of Hertha Berlin to make a physically dominant forward pairing, and will be supplemented by the creative impetus of Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski.
Drawn in Group E alongside Spain, Sweden and Slovakia, Sousa’s realistic aim will be second place in the group ahead of the latter two countries.
It may seem outlandish to refer to the five-times World Champions as dark horses for the Euros, but this is an Italy side coming into the tournament with a new, unproven generation of younger talent.
The country were at their lowest footballing ebb at the time of their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, viewed as a disgrace back home that unsurprisingly saw then-manager Gian Piero Ventura replaced by Roberto Mancini.
The former Man City manager has overseen 21 wins out of 30 in his time in charge hitherto, a record that included a perfect 10 out of 10 victories from Euro qualifiers.
The upcoming tournament will be the ultimate platform that Mancini is judged on, with many understandably reserving praise until the summer after Italy breezed through a qualification group that included Finland, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia and Liechtenstein.
Marco Verratti and Jorginho will dictate the tempo in the centre of their 4-3-3 formation that will in turn give the platform for Nicola Barella to maraud forward. In attack, they are likely to morph into a 3-2-5 that will make full use of their wing-backs in Emerson Palmieri (left) and Federico Chiesa (right) to provide width in offensive situations.
The Azzurri are due to play their home games in Rome and are naturally the favourites the progress from their group containing Wales, Switzerland and Turkey. It will be during the knockout stages that many of their younger players’ lack of senior tournament experience that may prove their biggest hurdle.
This is the first time that Ukraine arrive at the European Championships with any tangible sense of expectation, having set the tone by winning their qualification group above reigning tournament champions Portugal.
Their history in the tournament is remarkably modest. Only twice before have they participated at the Euros and in 2012 it was by virtue of being co-hosts.
Head coach – and former player with over 100 caps – Andriy Shevchenko has impressed with his the general success of his 4-3-3 tactical setup, despite criticism back home for his inability to speak Ukrainian (the former Dynamo Kyiv and AC Milan forward lives in London, is married to an American and speaks fluent Russian, Italian and English): “The minimum aim is to get out of the group…We have a good, young team and if the players are well-prepared and injury-free we can do it”.
Ukraine’s creative impetus very much relies on Oleksandr Zinchenko – who is usually played by Pep Guardiola at Man City at left-back and is very much the national team’s shining light – and Atalanta’s set-piece specialist Ruslan Malinovskyi, a reported Chelsea target who arrives at the tournament on the back of a fine run of 10 games in which he either registered a goal or assist, or both.
There is doubt around Shevchenko’s future post-tournament, but drawn in a group with the Netherlands, Austria and Euro debutants North Macedonia, there is a feeling that this is their chance to make history.