Euro 2020(1): Group C – The Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, North Macedonia
Perhaps, then, it was serendipity that brought De Boer into the manager’s job with the national team when the Netherlands are co-hosting the tournament again. All three of their group matches are to be played at the stadium which hosted their 2000 defeat, but the modesty of opposition on offer should ensure that any particular ghosts of the past can quickly be laid to rest. None of this is to say that it hasn’t been a difficult year for the Dutch team. Virgil Van Dyke, for example, is a huge loss, both as a player and and influence upon the team. His injury-enforced absence is a hole in the team that cannot easily be filled.
Qualification was relatively straightforward. Although recent disappointments had resulted in them being placed into a group with Germany, the two qualification places on offer meant that their place in the finals would be assured providing there were no disasters. Losing at home to Germany in their second match offered a glimmer of hope to Northern Ireland, who did snap at their ankles throughout, but a 4-2 win against them in Belfast which was quickly followed by Northern Ireland losing at home to Germany ended any reasonable hopes of an upset in the group. It seems fair to say that Frank De Boer hasn’t quite fully persuaded the Dutch people that he is the right person to be managing this team. He should get through the group stages this time, but it’s difficult to see them getting close to winning it.
In the past, it has often felt as though the inherent contradiction in the Ukraine national team has been that a group of talented, attacking and fluid players have too frequently been crowbarred into playing attritional football. Remember their World Cup match against Switzerland in 2006? No, me neither, but it is often called to mind as one of the worst matches in the history of the tournament, and not without good reason. Andriy Shevchenko remains the coach, as he has been since 2016, and while his inability to speak Ukrainian – he speaks English, Italian and Russian fluently – has annoyed some at home, but he did see them through a potentially tricky qualifying group which also contained Portugal and Serbia as group winners.
They start against the Dutch, but considering their other opposition in the group, this feels like a bit of a free swing of a match. Having got that out of the way, they’ll be playing Austria and North Macedonia for a place in the next round, and that should be achievable for a team of this quality. The draw would likely put them against Italy in the second round should they get through, though, and that would likely be a step too far for this team. Ukraine are a relatively young team, but Vitaliy Mykolenko and Mykola Matviyenko make for a fairly solid defensive pairing, while Oleksandr Zinchenko has been continuing the upward trajectory of this career by moving to Manchester City; the biggest concern about him is whether Shevchenko is over-reliant on his lavish talent.
It’s not that there isn’t quality in the Austria squad. It contains, after all, David Alaba, Marko Arnautovic, Julian Baumgartlinger, Aleksandar Dragovic and Andreas Ulmer, Marcel Sabitzer, Stefan Lainer, Martin Hinteregger and Valentino Lazaro. And it isn’t as though expectations in Austria would be unreasonably high either. This is only the third time they’ve played in the finals of the European Championships and, having co-hosted it once, they’ve only actually qualified for it twice before. But then again, in those three previous attempts they’ve never got past the group stage, and on top of that results have been mixed as well. They sailed to the top of their Nations League group with four wins from six, but recent results have included labouring to a 3-1 friendly win against the Faroe Islands and losing 4-0 at home to Denmark in a World Cup qualifier.
We saw a hint as to why this might be from their recent friendly match against England. Gritty and obstinate but with little to speak of as as end result, Austria start against North Macedonia, and a failure to win that match might well cauterise their hopes of getting through to the next round before they’ve even really had the chance to get going. For all of that, though, the nature of their group gives them a chance of getting through to the next round, even if only as a third placed qualifier, but they need a strong start. Whether a coach like France Foda, who may charitably be described as “results orientated”, is the best man for that very singular job is open to question.
In Duisburg at the very end of March came the biggest surprise result of the UEFA World Cup qualifiers, so far, when goals from Goran Pandev and Elif Elmas gave North Macedonia a 2-1 win against Germany. It’s results such as this which have neutered the idea that North Macedonia (who renamed themselves from FYR Macedonia after the Prespa agreement came into force on 12 February 2019) should be no more than ‘just happy to be there’ during this summer’s tournament. None of this is to say that there aren’t concerns. They were in the same group as Austria in qualifying for this tournament, and Austria won 4-1 in Skopje and 2-1 in Vienna, leaving North Macedonia in the play-offs where they edged past Kosovo and Georgia in order to get through.
But if football is a confidence game, what benefits might they have been awarded from that win in Germany? The team may be shy of international experience – this is their first qualification – but in just about every other area they’re packed with solid professionals. Goran Pandev, for example, is still going strong at 37 years of age, while Ezgjan Alioski has just completed an excellent season in the Premier League for Leeds United. Much, however, will come down to their first two games. If they can pick up points from Austria and Ukraine, they could go into their final match against Netherlands with the bulk of their work already done, and considering the recent boost to their confidence and the less than sanguine nature of both Austria and Ukraine going into this tournament, writing them off easily would seem to be a fool’s errand.