Soccer

N'Golo Kante & Karim Benzema make it hard to look past France for Euro 2020

There is nothing normal about Euro 2020. For a start, it’s 2021.

We all know why, but even before global pandemic turned the world upside-down, this was always a tournament like no other.

It originally boasted more ‘homes’ than Donald Trump, and even after scaling back there are still nine teams with differing levels of home advantage due to this Europe-wide gallivanting.

Alas, any predictions as to who is going to be crowned champions on July 11 has to take into account the reality of Covid-19.

Spain, at this very moment, is Exhibit A. This week, captain Sergio Busquets tested positive, followed by Diego Llorente, which leaves the whole squad in isolation and unable to train. The only goals Alvaro Morata is scoring right now are in his hotel room on his PlayStation.

Furthermore, the entire team is being vaccinated just days ahead of their opening game against Sweden on Monday. Analyse that! Over to you Roy Keane and Professor Chris Whitty.

Keeping this in mind, if I was France manager Didier Deschamps, I’d have N’Golo Kante in a hazmat suit 24/7.

To be fair, he’d be best advised to buy in bulk considering their unparalleled quality and depth. And that’s why, even in these unprecedented times, I see Les Bleus as clear favourites.

Plumping for world champions France is hardly a bold prediction and being in the ‘Group Of Death’ with Portugal and Germany is probably why they are not shorter odds, coupled with the fact they will always be ‘away from home’.

Regardless, there is not a section of their squad that tests negative and the part that might have, just welcomed back one Karim Benzema. He is in from the cold, with gold in his boots.

While one can reel off names like Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, it is their unmatched strength in depth after arduous back-to-back domestic seasons that further sets them apart.

Also, while Group F looks killer, Germany arrive at Euro 2020 in the last throes of their 16-year relationship with Joachim Low, and for parts of the past two years, they have been sleeping in separate rooms. A strong squad, especially across midfield, but we’ve seen a return to experience while many fans seem already focused on the future.

Portugal beat France in the final to win Euro 2016, and while Cristiano Ronaldo is now 36, there are bags of legs and talent in the team, none less so than Bruno Fernandes if he can find top form at the perfect time. So, what’s Low got to do with it? Quite possibly less than many expect.

I fancy France and Portugal to progress first and second. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong but if I’m right, then it gets interesting from an England standpoint!

Win Group D and the Three Lions will play the runner-up in Group F. Finish second and they’ll likely meet the winner of Group F in the last eight, if they make it.

Whatever happens, I’m backing France to prevail when all is said and done, and every PCR test has been completed. Yes, Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ could very well seize their last chance at glory, and, possibly, England’s new wave could come of age in their own backyard, but if I was pushed to make a second choice I would actually take Italy.

Like France, the Azzurri very much reflect their manager, Roberto Mancini, which makes them much easier to watch now than when he took over in 2018. Playing 4-3-3, a perfectly poised midfield of Jorginho, Verratti and Barella, and a side blended with youth and experience.

All their group matches are in Rome, they have not lost in 27 games and, while there are several stronger squads on paper, Italy go in with less expectation and just as much swagger. My dictionary definition of ‘dark horse’.

Still, if this was Million Pound Drop, I’d be pushing 800 grand on France, then nervously spreading the rest over only a few other teams. So, pass the Chateauneuf-du-Pape and let it ride.

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