Culture

Euro 2020: What chances of a winner from Central and Eastern Europe?

Euro 2020 kicks off on June 11, after a year-long delay. We take a look at the seven teams from Central and Eastern Europe that have qualified, and assess their chances.

After a year-long delay, Euro 2020 is finally here. For the first time, the competition is being held across Europe, with 11 venues in 11 different countries hosting matches (including Budapest in Hungary, Bucharest in Romania and Baku in Azerbaijan).

In at least nine of these venues, fans will finally be allowed in, although Budapest is currently the only UEFA 2020 host city aiming to fill its stadium, the Puskás Arena, to capacity, subject to spectators fulfilling strict entry requirements.

Baku has confirmed a capacity of 50 per cent, with the travelling fans of participating teams required to present a negative Covid-19 test result to enter Azerbaijan, while Bucharest has confirmed a capacity of 25-33 per cent.

Euro 2020 will also mark the debut of VAR in the competition, guaranteeing another source of drama and controversy. 

Seven nations from emerging Europe qualified for the competition and another four are hosting matches. North Macedonian fans will be thrilled about their country making its first appearance in a major tournament as an independent nation, while sides such as Croatia and Ukraine will be quietly fancying their chances to win the whole tournament.

And for ageing stars from the region, such as Robert Lewandowski, Goran Pandev and Luka Modric, this may represent the last chance for international glory. 


Ukraine

Group C. Matches against Netherlands (June 13), North Macedonia (June 17), Austria (June 21).

Perennially considered to be one of the “dark horses” of any tournament in they appear, Ukraine will be quietly optimistic about their chances this summer.

Coached by the iconic Andriy Shevchenko, who is adored by his players, Ukraine has assembled a relatively balanced squad full of young ambitious players and some stalwarts of the last decade. Of the domestic-based players, only one plays outside Ukraine’s “big two” of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, giving the squad an additional layer of cohesion often missing in international teams. 

Dynamo Kyiv’s young defenders Ilya Zabarnyi, Vitaliy Mykolenko and Denys Popov will all be looking to make their mark on the international stage this summer, although the midfield is undoubtedly Ukraine’s strongest asset.

Ruslan Malinovskiy and Oleksandr Zinchenko have been putting in excellent performances for Atalanta and Manchester City respectively, with Malinovskiy bagging 20 goals and assists in Serie A, while the latter has been keeping Joao Cancelo out of Pep Guardiola’s side and played a major role in City’s run to the Champions League final.

Beyond these two stars, the likes of Taras Stepanenko, Serhiy Sydorchuk and Mykola Shaparenko all add quality and different skillsets to Ukraine’s midfield. 

Up front, Ukraine’s depth wavers slightly. Artem Besedin has never convinced at club or international level, while it remains to be seen what Artem Dovbyk of Dnipro-1 can do on the bigger stage. Roman Yaremchuk is coming off a 20-goal season for Belgian side Gent, and has a solid goalscoring record for Ukraine, albeit against weak opposition.

However, Ukraine has failed to score more than a single goal in a game since last September, a run spanning 12 matches.

Nevertheless, in recent months Ukraine has shown that it is more than capable of going toe to toe with some of Europe’s strongest sides. A 1-0 win against Spain and a draw against France demonstrate this. With a highly-respected and tactically versatile manager, and a balanced squad, Ukraine will be hoping to at least reach the quarter finals this summer. 


North Macedonia

Group C. Matches against Austria (June 13), Ukraine (June 17), Netherlands (June 21).

One of just two nations making their debuts at this tournament, and the smallest nation to participate this year, North Macedonia is already punching above its weight. The Nations League format proved to be a godsend for the Balkan side, which recorded very strong results against nations of a similar level, and eventually qualified via a play-off against Georgia.

With manager Igor Angelovski entering his sixth year at the helm of North Macedonia, the squad also has the advantage of cohesion and continuity. 

Euro 2020 will likely be the swansong for North Macedonia’s legendary forward Goran Pandev. The 37-year-old was part of Jose Mourinho’s treble winning Inter Milan side a decade ago and scored the decisive goal against Georgia that qualified North Macedonia for its first ever Euros. 

Like other former Yugoslav nations, North Macedonia consistently manages to produce talent despite its small size. Leeds United’s Ezgjan Alioski and Levante’s Enis Bardhi are both solid players that would start for many larger nations. The 21-year-old Napoli midfielder Elif Elmas is one to watch from the younger generation – he already has 26 caps and seven goals for the national team. 

North Macedonia have been in good form for the past year. In March, they stunned the world by winning 2-1 in Germany against the former world champions, with Elif Elmas and Goran Pandev on the scoresheet.

This will give them some confidence in their ability to take on Europe’s heavyweights, despite being – on paper at least – the weakest team in the group. 


Croatia 

Group D. Matches against England (June 13), Czechia (June 18), Scotland (June 22).

Arguably the strongest side from emerging Europe, Croatian fans will be feeling that they could contend for the trophy. Although the golden generation which helped the country reach the 2018 World Cup final is ageing or entirely gone – Ivan Rakitić has retired from international football – the squad is still dotted with high-quality players throughout. 

Luka Modrić is the obvious standout player. Despite being 35, the Croatia captain shows little signs of slowing down and this tournament will likely be his last chance to win something for his country. With Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović alongside him, Croatia have excellent options in central midfield. However, they do lack a more defensive-minded player, which could unbalance their midfield.

In attack, Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić provide energy, directness and goal threats. 

The 23-year-old Nikola Vlašić has impressed for CSKA Moscow this past year, and could be set for a career rebirth of sorts after a move to Premier League Everton didn’t quite work out. RB Leipzig’s Josko Gvardiol is another youngster to keep an eye on – although the 19-year-old defender is yet to win a cap for Croatia, he is highly-regarded by RB Leipzig manager Ralph Hassenhuttl. 

On paper, Croatia has a quality, balanced squad that could again take them far in this tournament. Although their form has been poor over the last nine months – they lost six games of nine played between September and March – Croatia will still be feared by any side they come up against.

With the team bristling with game-changing players, Croatia should certainly be considered one of the main contenders for the Euros. 

Croatia fans in 2018
Croatia fans celebrate reaching the World Cup final in 2018

Czechia

Group D. Matches against Scotland (June 14), Croatia (June 18), England (June 22).

Euro 2020 will be the sixth consecutive European football championships the Czechia has qualified for. And although they lack the pedigree of yesteryear, when the likes of Petr Cech, Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller graced their ranks, Czech football fans will be hoping that they can at least win a match this year and potentially qualify for the knockout stages. 

Two of the key players Czechia will be relying on this summer are West Ham duo Vladimir Coufal and Tomáš Souček, both of whom have been playing well since making the step up to English Premier League. However, beyond these two, the Czechs lacks high-profile players, with a substantial proportion of the squad domestically-based.

Patrick Schick of Bayer Leverkusen will be relied on to provide goals and 18-year-old Sparta Prague forward Adam Hložek has been tipped to make his breakthrough this summer. 

The Czechs have been in inconsistent form recently. World Cup qualification began with a 6-2 win in Estonia, with Souček bagging a hat-trick from midfield. This was followed by a creditable draw against Belgium, before a disappointing defeat in Wales.

Crucially, Czechia lost twice to Scotland in Nations League games last autumn, who they will play again in Euro 2020. With Scotland being Czechia’s weakest (on paper) opponent in Group D, the odds look to be against Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side. 


Poland 

Group E. Matches against Slovakia (June 14), Spain (June 19), Sweden (June 23).

A side which has consistently underperformed on the international stage in recent decades, Poland will be hoping to break its duck in Euro 2020. However, circumstances may be stacked against Poland this summer: for their three group stage games, the team will have to travel a total of 9,000 kilometres, exposing poor planning from UEFA.

Furthermore, their Portuguese manager Paulo Sousa has only been in the job since January after former coach Jerzy Brzęczek was unexpectedly sacked. Consequently, the team has only played four games under the new manager, with one more friendly to be played on June 8 against Iceland. 

Without doubt, Poland’s talisman this summer will be Robert Lewandowski. Approaching the age of 33, this Euros might be the last international tournament in which Lewandowski takes part. With Poland having squandered the prime years of some of their best ever players, this Euros may be the last chance for the country to salvage some footballing pride. However, with many Polish heavyweights like Piotr Zieliński (and even Lewandowski himself) regularly going missing in important moments for their country, Polish fans are not particularly optimistic about their team’s chances. 

In goal, Juventus keeper Wojciech Szczęsny is as solid as ever, while in midfield, Mateusz Klich is coming off an excellent season with Leeds United.

One surprise addition to the squad is 17-year-old midfielder Kacper Koslowski, the youngest player to in the tournament. While it remains to be seen how much he will actually play, the teenager has already won two caps for Poland’s senior side. Poland will be hoping to at least get positive results against Slovakia and Sweden, and to reach the knockout stages – however, with past disappointments in World Cups and Euros, few will be holding their breath.


Slovakia

Group E. Matches against Poland (June 14), Sweden (June 18), Spain (June 23).

This is Slovakia’s second consecutive outing in the Euros, following on from their qualification for the 2016 tournament – their first Euros as an independent country. That year, they reached the round of 16. This year, they will be hoping to at least match that achievement. 

Off the bat, there aren’t many recognisable names in the Slovakian squad. Martin Dúbravka has put in many impressive performances in goal for relegation-threatened Newcastle in the past two seasons and will be used to facing a barrage of shots.

Milan Škriniar is a highly-rated centre back at Inter Milan, who for years has been touted for a move to the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City – this summer could be pivotal for his future, particularly if he impresses in the tournament for Slovakia. The 33-year-old Marek Hamšík is still captain, having faded into relative obscurity since leaving Napoli. 

However, the Slovakian side lacks goals and their forward options are either inexperienced or not exactly known for their goalscoring records. Because of this, manager Štefan Tarkovič relies on a defence-first approach, capitalising on the talent Slovakia has at the back and in goal. 

Although Slovakia are on paper the weakest team in the group, they will fancy their chances against Sweden and perennial underperformers Poland. 


Hungary

Group F. Matches against Portugal (June 15), France (June 19), Germany (June 23).

The team with perhaps the dimmest prospects in the entire competition. Hungary has the misfortune of being placed in what is undoubtedly the tournament’s group of death, consisting of defending champions of Portugal, world champions France and 2014 World Cup winners Germany.

Furthermore, Hungary’s star player Dominik Szoboszlai this week withdrew from the squad due to adductor problems which have plagued him all year. 

All of these factors make pretty grim reading for Hungary’s prospects this summer. The squad is hardly filled with notable players, with almost still based in Hungary. Perhaps their highest profile players are RB Leipzig duo Péter Gulácsi and Willi Orbán – both will have to be on top of their game if Hungary is to spring any surprises this summer.

In midfield, their most important player (now that Szoboszlai is out) is Adam Nagy, who plays for Bristol City in the second tier of English football. Up front, the once highly-rated Ádám Szalai will lead the team – however, now approaching 34 and having scored just two goals in the last two years at club level, Hungary may find themselves struggling to find the net.

However, there are still some bright spots. The 20-year-old Szabolcs Schön has only recently completed a move to FC Dallas in the United States and is a highly technical dribbler who can provide something different to the rather static Hungarian attack. Although he is yet to make his debut for his national team, he can be an important part of Hungary’s attack this summer. 

Hungary are undefeated in their last nine games, something which will definitely encourage them ahead of their tough fixtures against some of Europe’s heavyweights. But without Szoboszlai, they lose most of their spark and will have to rely on their defensive abilities and counter attacking for their matches.

Most Hungarian fans would consider just one win to be exceeding expectations. 


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