Nick Bidwell cast his eyes over the players to watch out for at Euro 2020 for World Soccer
Tremendously combative Juventus centre-back, who has bounced back well after tearing cruciate ligaments early in 2020. Turkey coach Senol Gunes puts a premium on a granite defence, one which does not make unenforced errors. Demiral, 23, fits that bill. His Champions League experience should be a boon for the Turks too.
Apart from his silky technique, the 21-year-old Napoli midfielder owes much of his good standing in the game to his great versatility. He has the capacity to deliver in any number of roles: as a “false nine”, playmaker, box-to-box operative or on the left side of midfield. Can cause damage a plenty with his dribbling raids.
After a bit-part brief in his country’s march to the 2018 World Cup final, the Marseille defender has a considerably more active role for the Croats these days. The 24-year-old centre-back is by far the team’s most accomplished defender. With him in the line-up, the men in the famous red-and-white checks have a much more balanced look. In a team awash with attacking-third brilliance, he is the guarantor of the side’s rear-guard solidity.
He was bought by Marseille from leading Austrian side RB Salzburg in the summer of 2018. He initially struggled to fit in at the Provencal outfit. Many Marseille supporters were quick to brand him a €19 million waste of money. However, showing great character, he dug in and proved them wrong. He forced himself back into the starting line-up and made himself undroppable.
Caleta-Car recently came close to moving to Merseyside. Desperate for central defensive reinforcements, Liverpool tried to sign him in the January transfer window only for Marseille to nix the deal.
Fast-improving Monchengladbach central defender who has reportedly caught the eye of Bayern Munich. Quick over the ground, resilient and precise in his distribution. With Gladbach since 2015, joining them from FC Zurich.
The Genk defensive midfielder arguably is the most underrated player in the Slovak side. He effectively is the glue which holds the unit together. He is tactically very aware, industrious, good technically and able to turn his hand to multiple briefs. A real leader of men, he played for Viktoria Plzen in his homeland before moving to Belgium in 2019.
Forced to the sidelines for six months after tearing his ACL late in 2019, the maverick Dutch striker would have been, in normal circumstances, a European Championship write-off. But with the COVID-19 pandemic rearing its ugly head and UEFA compelled to postpone the continental finals for 12 months, the 27-year-old Lyon striker now has a second bite at the cherry.
The Netherlands powers-that-be can only be relieved that the Euro 2020 finals were put back. Take the marauding and bullish Depay out of the team and you remove the vast bulk of the “Oranje” firepower. With all respect to his fellow national team front-men, they are not remotely of the same line-leading calibre. Prior to his injury, Depay was an irresistible XXL figure for Netherlands. He scored six goals in qualification as well as providing eight assists. If Depay is on song, invariably the Dutch hit the right notes.
Apart from the collective mission of restoring Oranje pride after a few barren years, Memphis will be thinking along personal lines too. His contract with Lyon is drawing to a close. He has made no secret of his desire to move on. He will be spoilt for choice, with Barcelona, Juventus and a number of leading Premier League clubs thought to be keen.
After playing a preponderant role in Rangers’ recent conquest of the Scottish Premiership, the cultured and athletic Finland midfield holder will be looking to keep up the good work on national team duty. A metronomic passer of the ball, he does the fine job of linking the play and setting a rhythm. Once at the Arsenal academy.
Czech defensive midfielder who apparently has a number of English scouts running the rule over him. Currently featuring for Spartak Moscow in Russia, his stock in trade is his dynamism, drive, boundless energy and tough tackling. His country’s most impressive performer at the 2017 European Under-19 finals.
Still only 21 – though he seems to have been around for an age – the prolific Real Sociedad striker has come a long way since a much-publicised switch from AIK Solna to Dortmund in 2017 turned out to be a two-year mistake. In January 2017 he became the youngest ever goalscorer in the history of the national team (17 years, 113 days).
Since quitting Benfica for Atletico Madrid in the 2019 off-season for a whopping €126 million, the golden boy frontrunner has had his ups and downs at the Wanda Metropolitano. Sometimes sublime and decisive, at other moments unconvincing and petulant. But there can be no denying that the 21-year-old is a rare talent and has the skills and vision to change a game at any given moment. With his vivid imagination, wonderful array of skills, and clever mobility, he makes it all look so effortless. Why wouldn’t he rise to the occasion? This is a stage made to measure for someone of his gifts.
The good news for the starlet is that for all Fernando Santos’ innate caution, the Portugal boss has made a point of sticking by him in recent times. He started six of Portugal’s eight fixtures in 2020. He scored three goals and set up another. Whether used as a false nine or on the left side, he generally has looked the part. Fernando Santos clearly recognises what Felix has to offer as a difference-maker. Cristiano Ronaldo may no longer have the mobility, but he does have the creative impulses of Felix to feed off. Given the freedom to roam laterally and vertically, Felix’s magic touch could be Portugal’s trump card.
Happy to play full-back on either flank, the 23-year-old Atalanta new recruit combines athleticism, pace and lashings of attacking adventure. Previously with Genk in Belgium, he was instrumental to their domestic league title success of 2018-19. He racked up no fewer than ten assists and four goals. Cost Atalanta €10 million in January.
Will England boss Gareth Southgate be bold and make use of the exciting young Manchester City midfielder at Euro 2020? Foden’s experience with the Three Lions may be extremely limited, but there’s a growing body of opinion on the Premier League circuit that the Stockport-born whizz kid would give a vital extra dimension to England’s engine room. Whether used centrally, on the left or as floating centre-forward, 21-year-old Foden clearly is an outstanding prospect, one whose natural habitat is the highest level of the game.
More often than not this season, he has been a class apart for runaway Premier League leaders City, recording innumerable goals and assists across all competitions. He appears to have it all: brilliant technique in tight areas, that rare ability to glide past opponents, an eye for a killer pass, craft and cunning when working between the lines, energy, application and shooting power. An increasingly influential cog in a club side bang in form, he certainly is not short of confidence and there’s every possibility the left-footer would bring that self-assurance and winning mentality to the national team.
Not so long ago, many pundits were screaming that he needed to leave the Etihad Stadium for more regular game-time, that City manager Pep Guardiola was holding him back. So much for that assessment. All in all, Pep has handled Foden’s evolution with great care. He’s brought him along slowly and English football should thank him for it.
You could say without fear of contradiction that the Valencia skipper and left-back has become a lucky charm for “La Roja”. In his opening 12 games for the Spanish national team – a period spanning his debut in September 2018 to November last year – Gaya has not once ended up on the losing side. Incredible how symmetrically this sequence of his has turned out, starting with a 6-0 Nations League win over Croatia on his debut and culminating in an identical margin of victory in the same competition against Germany.
It’s not hard to see why Spain coach Luis Enrique sees him as such a key component in the reconstruction of the Reds, regarding him as a much better option at left-back than long-serving national team stalwart Jordi Alba of Barcelona. While Alba clearly is past his prime, Gaya, 25, still has plenty of untapped potential and when that process does come to fruition, what a player he will be.
Anyone needing any further proof of Gaya’s quality ability should check out his recent displays in the Nations League against Germany. He was quite superb in both games, tenacious in the tackle, forever shuttling backwards and forwards and supplying final ball quality galore. In the first encounter with the Germans, a 1-1 draw in Stuttgart, he was on hand to bundle home an injury-time equaliser. In the return in Seville, he was again to the fore, bagging two assists.
25-year-old holding midfielder who has proved a revelation this term for Portuguese league pacesetters Sporting. Deservedly earned his first call-up to the national squad in March. At a time when William Carvalho and Danilo are not playing regularly for Betis and PSG respectively, Palhinha could soon overtake them both.
Indefatigable Swansea City full-back or wing-back with obvious hyperactive tendencies and a happy knack of scoring goals at vital times. Little wonder he is so popular at the Liberty Stadium; he is a local lad, a lifelong Swans supporter and plays with a smile on his face. Relaxes off the pitch in his carpentry workshop.
At his German club Wolfsburg, they call the 23-year-old “The Pressing Machine” and it’s an apt description. One of the most fearsome ball-winners in the Bundesliga, the central midfielder puts his heart and soul into every game, never concerned about putting his body on the line. Joined Wolfsburg from RB Salzburg in the summer of 2019.
As long as he manages to control his weight – an issue which the media have flagged – Sule will have a crucial part to play for the Nationalmannschaft at the Euros. The Germans do have a soft centre at the back and they have to be pleased that Bayern man-mountain Sule is now available again after missing much of last season with an ACL injury.
Reported to be on the watch-list of several European clubs, the 19-year-old Shakhtar Donetsk goalkeeper has been enjoying a season to remember, supplanting veteran Andriy Pyatov as Shakhtar’s No.1, earning rave reviews in the Champions League and threatening to snatch Pyatov’s long-held position as national team custodian.
Article by Nick Bidwell
Euro 2020: Players to Watch first appeared in the May Edition of World Soccer. You can purchase old issues of the magazine by clicking here.
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