Euro 2020(1): Group A – Italy, Turkey, Wales, Switzerland
With form on their side, it is difficult to see past Italy winning this group. Since Roberto Mancini took control of the team in May 2018, Italy have won 21 out of 30 games, while five of the nine matches that they failed to win came in his first six in charge. In qualifying for these finals, Mancini’s team scored a 100% record from ten qualifying matches; an impressive feat, considering where they’ve come from. Under Gian Piero Ventura, their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals was described as a “national shame”. It was their first failure to do so since 1958, and only their second ever.
It may be, however, that we haven’t quite seen what might be required to actually win this trophy, though. It isn’t that they haven’t had some decent results in those first 30 matches. They won away to the Netherlands and have picked up a couple of wins against Poland, and one against the USA. But that’s about it, and it’s tempting to think that this is a team that needed to be nursed back to some degree of confidence after the disaster of losing to Sweden in 2017. But those ten wins were all matches that they were expected to win in an easy qualifying group. But they will be expected to pick win this group at a canter, especially with them playing all three of their group matches in Rome. The flight distance between Rome and Baku, the other host city for this group, is 1,930 miles, or 3,160 kilometres.
Turkey qualified for these finals behind France, and this team might just be their strongest since the 2002 World Cup finals, when they reached the semi-finals. They were curiously slow to bounce back after all football ceased last year. They failed to win any of their first six matches after football resumed for this season, but since then have recovered and won four and drawn two. It is notable that these results included a 3-3 draw in Germany and putting four goals past the Netherlands.
Eleven of their players play in the Turkish Süper Lig, and there are few celebrity names elsewhere. They are led by captain Burak Yilmaz, who’s had… quite a season. Apart from one year in China, Yilmaz had spent the whole of his almost twenty year career in Turkey, playing more than 100 games for Galatasaray, as well as Besiktas (twice), Fenerbahce, Trabzonspor and others, but last summer he went to Lille on loan for a season, where he has been a revelation, scoring 16 goals in 28 games as his team pipped Paris St Germain to the Ligue Un title. He was ably assisted with this by Yusuf Yaziki and and Zeki Celik, who both also also feature in the Turkish squad.
For the other two teams in this group, this strength and confidence of these two team presents a considerable challenge. Wales go into this tournament in good condition, considering everything. The departure of Ryan Giggs (and the reason for it) should not be allowed to cloud the team’s achievement in reaching a second successive European Championships finals. Now there, though, all eyes turn to Gareth Bale. Now 31, Bale had a curate’s egg of a season at a malfunctioning Tottenham Hotspur, but his return was marked by 16 goals in 34 matches in all competitions; not a bad return, considering the circumstances.
Bale is a relative outlier, though. Only eight of this squad were in the team that made the semi-finals in France five years ago, though this should be weighed against the value of that experience for everybody, amongst both playing and non-playing staff, who did go last time round. On the pitch, though, much will come down to the result of their first match. Italy start the tournament off on Friday in Rome against Turkey, and the following day Wales play Switzerland in Baku. Should they fail to win that match, it really is difficult to see a way through the group stage for them, but a win puts them in the driving seat and perhaps needing as little as a single point from their other matches to squeeze through.
But again, this is a team in exceptional form. Since they lost two games in four days at the start of the qualifying campaign, the only teams to have beaten Wales have been England, Belgium and France. During this period, they comfortably won their group in the Nations League, winning five of their six matches and drawing the other, against the Republic of Ireland, Finland and Bulgaria. Winning their group lifted them into the top tier of UEFA’s byzantine league-cum-tournament.
There may be a question mark over the replacement manager. No-one knows exactly how long Robert Page might be in temporary charge of this team and, while he has experience through the under-21s, his record as a club manager was hardly stellar. Well, he’s won four of his seven matches in charge so far, which is a decent record in its own right, especially considering the incident that ended in Hal Robson-Kanu, Tyler Roberts and Rabbi Matondo being sent home prior to their World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in March. They won that match by a goal to nil.
Switzerland find themselves in the same position as Wales. A win in their opening match would open up the possibility of qualification, quite possibly a winner-takes-all final match against Turkey. A win against Wales, for Switzerland, allows the luxury of losing to Italy in their second match and still having a strong chance of qualifying for the next round.
They are another team who had a horrible time of things when football returned last autumn, failing to win any of their first seven matches, and when results did start go their way, they did so without the team having to even kick a ball when they were awarded a 3-0 win against Ukraine after several of their opponents tested positive for Covid-SARS-19 and the entire team was able to play. Since then, Switzerland have won all five of their matches, though their opponents were not particularly testing, and included Lithuania and Liechtenstein.
They have one of the most underrated goalkeepers in Europe in Borussia Dortmund’s Yann Sommer and Xherdan Shaqiri remains the cult hero’s cult hero, but the top level talent seems stretched a little too thinly and, on paper at least, they start as underdogs. The order of matches does, however, seem to be in their favour. Should Wales need to win their final match in order to get through to the next round, they’ll need to do so against Italy, in Rome, which sounds like a tall order, with the best will in the world.
There are always clauses and qualifiers, of course. Italy are in great form but against mostly moderate opposition. Wales are in good form despite considerable distraction. Turkey are as good as they have been for years. Switzerland have the most appealing order of fixtures. The matter of being hosts may ultimately prove decisive for Italy. At least they don’t have a 6,000 kilometre round trip to Baku to have to make. With qualifying places also available to the best four third placed teams, there’s nothing for the other three teams to worry about. Any of these four are capable of earning a place in the next round.