The March international break was the start of World Cup qualification in Europe, with many surprises – Luxembourg against Ireland, North Macedonia against Germany – and many good performances. Belgium’s 8-0 win over Belarus and Denmark’s 8-0 win over Moldova, or Burak Yilmaz’s hat-trick for Turkey in their impressive 4-2 win over the Netherlands. But the most important thing about the break is the chance to get a good look at the contenders for the European Championships this summer, now that teams have no time to prepare for the hectic 2020-21 club season.
Our editors summarize the main findings of the international break and give Europe’s top players their last chance to train for this summer’s European Championship reshuffle. European Championship (Follow the entire tournament LIVE, plus replays and highlights, on ESPN+ from June 11 to July 11, US only).
Jump to: France | Germany | Spain | Belgium | Italy | Netherlands | Portugal
ENGLAND : Goalkeeper decision will determine England’s success
England boss Gareth Southgate said during the international break that he already knows which XI will face Croatia at Euro 2020, but whatever he chooses will determine how he expects his team to play this summer.
Everton FC’s Jordan Pickford had been Southgate’s first choice since leading England to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, but a series of erratic performances by Carlo Ancelotti’s side this season raised doubts about the 27-year-old’s commitment to international football, before an injury ruled him out of the World Cup qualifiers.
Burnley’s Nick Pope has played in three games and made his seventh appearance in the 58th minute against Poland on Wednesday. He set a record by not conceding a goal against England in the second minute.
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But while Pope is probably a more reliable goalkeeper than Pickford in the traditional sense – good shot stopping, aerial ball control and commanding presence – the 28-year-old has had problems with the ball at his feet and his poor distribution was evident in all three games, including the pass that led to John Stones’ error in front of the Poland goal at Wembley.
Pickford’s lack of concentration and costly errors at Everton have caused problems, but Southgate highlights his clearing skills and his ability to turn defence into attack with his long passing game.
So Southgate’s selection is flawed: Either he chooses Pope and loses one of Pickford’s strongest points, or he chooses Pickford and runs the risk of his club form overtaking him in an English shirt. — Mark Ogden
Janusz Michalik wonders if France could consider a controversial recall of Karim Benzema to help their struggling attack.
FRANCE : Dembele justifies the potential of the
For Didier Deschamps, the three games France played during this inter-county break were less about qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and more about what France will definitely achieve in their group with Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kazakhstan. It was more to give some players a chance before the summer.
Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele had been out for two and a half years before this window, and he should have delivered. He has done just that, with positive performances, a great attitude and ability, even in a different position to where he was in La Liga this season, something the Blues really need with his speed. He will be fighting for a place in the starting eleven when he travels to European leagues this summer. Depending on whether Deschamps wants to be conservative and play Adrian Rabiot on the left, or more attacking, Dembele and/or Kingsley Coman could start. In any case, it is very positive that Dembele is in this form.
Anthony Martian had to wait a year and a half for the recall, and he took advantage of it. He started against Kazakhstan and assisted on Dembele’s goal. However, his inclusion in the final 23-man squad was unlikely. He really needs to step up a gear between now and the end of the season if Manchester United are to have any real chance of assisting Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe or Antoine Griezmann.
While the return of both Dembele’s was great news for France, Griezmann’s incredible resilience at the break was most extraordinary. The Barcelona striker broke Patrick Vieira’s record of 44 consecutive appearances against Kazakhstan on Sunday and became France’s undisputed first choice. — Julien Lawrence
Jurgen Klinsmann tries to understand what went wrong with Germany against North Macedonia.
GERMANY : The old guard to the rescue?
Alarm bells went off after Germany suffered its heaviest defeat, a 6-0 defeat against Spain in the Nations League in November. But last week’s victories over Iceland (3-0) and Romania (1-0) have made coach Joachim Low, who is leaving after Euro 2020, react as he seems to have stabilised the squad.
Real midfielder Toni Kroos, 31, left camp for the match with Iceland, but the trio of Ilkay Gündogan, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka did not take a single shot, while in attack Serge Gnabry, Kaj Havertz and Leroy Sane also created chances.
However, Germany suffered a 2-1 defeat against lowly North Macedonia. A deep and unnecessary formation – they played asymmetrically in a 4-3-3 and moved left back Robin Gosens higher up the pitch – created instability in the defence. The team continued to fail in attack, with Chelsea striker Timo Werner missing a golden opportunity to show why he deserves a bigger role for his country.
Even without playing, Kroos’ share has risen and the pressure has increased on Bayern striker Thomas Muller and Dortmund defender Mats Hummels to retire abroad. It now looks like they’ll be back in the lineup for Lowe’s final dance at the Euros, but the question is whether the old band can make one last appearance without ruining it.
France, Portugal and Hungary are Germany’s opponents in the group stage in June, and all hopes are now pinned on the old guard. They are under pressure and Lowe will have to fight for his legacy. — Stefan Wersfeld.
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti explains why Spain are underrated in European competitions.
SPAIN : Lateral arrival Luis Enrique on a confused high note
Luis Enrique was stuck in a lift for more than an hour and almost didn’t make it to the team’s dressing room to start Spain’s game against Kosovo in Seville on Wednesday. Given how things have gone in the previous two games, he might have preferred to sit on the sidelines rather than watch his team do what they did – he admitted in his pre-match presentation to the media that he hadn’t expected the game to be as good as it was – but it proved to be an improvement. Spain played out a 1-1 draw against Greece in the first game of the international break, and then needed a very late and rather fortunate goal from Dani Olmo to beat Georgia in the second game. The third game, a 3-1 win over Kosovo, closed the break on a high note.
I’m concerned, the coach admitted. His team dominated a very defensive opponent, but struggled to create chances and seemed vulnerable in defense throughout the game. This was a team with a lot of talent, but little personality and little experience at the top level – old familiar mistakes. At least now there was something to hold on to. Spanish scores vary, but what the coach said amounts to a low 7/10 against Greece and Kosovo and a 6/10 against Georgia. I’m happy with what I saw on the field.
The ten days together haven’t done him much good, except perhaps that Barcelona striker Pedri deserves a starting place despite his young age and inexperience, and that Jordi Alba and Alvaro Morata have strong arguments for the same. No offense to Olmo, but I felt like I was taking a step backwards. The starting XI against Greece was almost the same as in November, when they beat Germany 6-0; that victory finally marked the beginning of a final XI, but by the end of the game against Greece the doubts had returned. It is already hard to say which way the summer will go.
The team for the Euros will arrive with 24 men…. and 10 others who have a chance, says Enrique, not really in their favour. — Sid Lowe
Steve Nicol believes Belgium should be satisfied with a point at home against a strong Czech team in World Cup qualifying.
BELGIUM : Headaches for Martinez
Roberto Martinez is the lucky manager. His Belgian team beat Wales (3-1) and Belarus (8-0), who both drew 0-0 in the Czech Republic. The Spaniard can now start thinking and planning for the Euros, the Nations League semi-final against France in October and even the 2022 World Cup, although that will be a difficult task.
Martinez invited 32 players to the international break for a final look at all those who could play this summer. While there are questions about the fitness of Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel and Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard, two key players who may or may not make the squad, Martinez must make decisions to complete his squad. The starting eleven is a kind of triage, injuries aside, but in a league like the Euros you don’t win with just 11 players, which means the rest of your squad will be vital.
On the other hand, the balance of the team is excellent. There is a lot of experience, especially from the golden generation (Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens), but also a lot of youngsters, both past and present (Jeremy Doku, Jari Verscheren, Alexis Selemakers, Charles de Ketelaer, Hans Vanaken, Leandro Trossard, Timothy Castagne, Dennis Prat, Leander Dendonker and Thomas Foke).
But not everyone of the new generation will be on the plane, and Martinez has two months to make sure he gets it right. Regardless of who they choose, there will be a lot of disappointed players at the end of May when the selection is announced. — Julien Lawrence
Alessandro Del Piero believes Italy are on the right track under Roberto Mancini.
ITALY : Is power enough to win the euro?
Since taking office in 2018, coach Roberto Mancini has assembled a young and sharp team that continues to impress, extending their unbeaten run at the March break to 25 games. At the back they have one of Milan’s best goalkeepers in Gianluigi Donnarumma, and in front of him Juve stars Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci : The Azzurri have yet to concede a goal in four games.
In midfield, with Paris Saint-Germain wizard Marco Verratti, they are getting better and better. Manuel Locatelli scored in a stunning 2-0 win over Bulgaria and confirmed his impressive form on the international stage with Sassuolo. In attack, Ciro Immobile, winner of the Euro 2020 Golden Boot and often the scapegoat for Italy’s failure, scored his first international goal since 2019.
Mancini used seven different players in attack in the games against Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania and still managed to win 2-0, underlining the depth of the team. But is the performance good enough? The possibilities are numerous, but few players have played the biggest games or won the biggest prizes. Only five players – Salvatore Sirigu, Verratti, Chiellini, Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi – have played a significant role in winning teams, and there are no Champions League winners.
Great tournaments are not just about talent, which Italy has in abundance. But unlike the great teams of the past, the Italians lack the players with the experience to win the biggest trophies. — Andrew Cesare Richardson
Milan Van Dongen of ESPN assesses the shortcomings of Frank de Boer after he took charge of the Dutch national team.
NETHERLANDS: De Boer will have a hard time matching Koeman’sresults.
Ronald Koeman led the Netherlands to the Nations League final and qualification for the European Championships before taking over as Barcelona coach, but his successor Frank de Boer is struggling to build on that success. The 4-2 defeat in Turkey recalled De Boer’s brief contracts as manager at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace.
A missed penalty from Memphis Depay in injury time was typical of the defeat. Orange need Depay’s form to succeed: The Lyon striker was involved in 23 of the 43 goals the Dutch team scored under Koeman. Koeman has started to use Memphis as a centre striker, a position he prefers too. But in the last two games, De Boer moved Memphis to the left wing and used Sevilla striker Luke de Jong. De Jong has scored in every game, but the Netherlands only faced two of their 35 shots on goal in the 2-0 win over Latvia.
This difficult start to World Cup qualification is reminiscent of their disappointing effort in 2018, when the Oranje missed out on the tournament on goal difference, despite a 7-0 win in Gibraltar and a draw against group leader Latvia. — Jorn von Glinski, ESPN Netherlands.
Frank Leboeuf has issued a stark warning in light of Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal’s recent form.
PORTUGUESE: Jota sentRonaldo in goal.
Since winning Euro 2016, Portugal have tried to rely less on Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals. Ironically, they won that tournament despite the fact that the Juventus striker had to watch much of the victory over France from the bench due to an injury he sustained early in the final. With the 36-year-old only six international goals away from former Iranian striker Ali Daei’s world record of 109, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ronaldo tops Portugal’s recent goalscoring list, with 18 of them scored since the start of 2019.
But with Portugal facing Azerbaijan, Serbia and Luxembourg in the early stages of World Cup qualifying, Ronaldo has been outplayed by Liverpool’s Diogo Juta in three games.
Ronaldo has scored just one goal in three games (in a 3-1 win over Luxembourg), but he will argue that he was denied a second goal due to the lack of VAR in Serbia, which cost him a win at half-time after officials failed to see that his shot had clearly crossed the goal line. But even if that goal had been allowed, Ronaldo could have scored three more goals from Jota during the international break.
Two wins against Serbia and one against Luxembourg may not have made the headlines, but if Portugal is to defend its European title this summer, it will need to spread its forces to avoid pinning its hopes on an aging 36-year-old Ronaldo. If Jota, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Feliz, Andre Silva and Pedro Neto manage to score this summer, Portugal will be a serious contender for Euro 2020. — Mark Ogden
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