Tactically Naive: Euro 2020 qualifying is really upping the weirdness
Everything you need to know about this delightful mess of a tournament. Hello, and welcome back to Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. In this week’s slightly delayed edition, we look back at the grand sprawling mess of Euro 2020 qualifying, which came to an end — almost, sort of — this week. And after 18 months hard qualifying, it’s time to say goodbye to ... San Marino Well, not quite. But there are 24 teams going to Euro 2020: that’s going on half of Europe’s 55 footballing nations. 20 are through, with four spots left to fill. And UEFA have jazzed up the playoffs. Once upon a time, two teams would have played home and away for each place. Now, four teams will play for each spot: semi-finals, then a final. More football! Glorious football! So that’s 20 teams already qualified, and 16 more playing off for the last four places. Which means that after a couple years of qualifying, and a Nations League tournament as well, we’ve managed to eliminate ... yep, just 19 teams from contention. Have to imagine those 19 are feeling pretty silly right now. Of course, it’s kind of nice to keep so many teams involved for so long. And we certainly haven’t missed the friendlies. But it’s hard not to feel like UEFA saw people say, “Eh, this Europa League’s a bit weird, isn’t it?” and thought, “Weird? You wait. We’ll show you weird.” Groups! Get your groups! The weirdness doesn’t stop there. Because Euro 2020: Michel Platini’s Grand Tour will be held across most of Europe (and just a smidge of Eurasia), the draw for the groups is being finessed. If a host team qualifies, they get to play at home. Makes sense. Cuts down on air miles. They’ll know the good restaurants already. So we already know, for example, that Italy are in Group A, because three of Group A’s games take place at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. And we know that Germany are in Group F, to be held in part at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena. And Russia and Denmark both have to go into Group B, because that’s where Group B will happen. But wait! Ukraine can’t go into the same group as Russia, for reasons of ongoing geopolitical unpleasantness. So they have to go into Group C, leaving only Belgium able to occupy the top spot in Group B. In summary, before the draw has even taken place, Group B is three-quarters full: Belgium, Russia, Denmark. And just to lessen the tension even further, there are only two teams that can fit into the fourth spot: Due to the host requirements, Wales and Finland can only be drawn into Group A or B. France are guaranteed to draw one of Spain, Italy, England or Germany.Portugal have 80% chance of drawing one of Spain, Italy, England or Germany (Ukraine other poss).— Dale Johnson (@DaleJohnsonESPN) November 20, 2019 World Cup champions in danger?! France’s qualification was ... well, it was basically fine. They topped Group H by a clear six points and only lost once in ten games. Job done. But! When it comes to drawing the groups, the teams are allocated into pots according to their qualifying performances, and France ended up performing comparatively worse than six other teams, most notably and surprisingly Ukraine. That puts them in pot 2, which creates the situation in the tweet above when combined with the requirement that hosts play at home. So that’s one of Spain, Italy, England, or Germany, all set to have their house party ruined by the arrival of the World Cup champions. There’s also the possibility, albeit remote, that Portugal end up in the same group as France and Another Big Team. Cross your lucky rabbit fingers, and we might just get a Group of Death worthy of the name. Finland, Finland, Finland We don’t have the final list of qualifiers yet, so there’s every chance this could change, but as it stands Finland are the only team that will be making their European Championships debut in Russia, or Denmark, or wherever the hell they end up. This came as a shock to Tactically Naive. First, we were surprised that Jari Litmanen had never masterminded something beautiful to get Finland to a major tournament; and then we were outraged that Jari Litmanen had never graced a major tournament. Come on, football. Do better. But who needs Litmanen, when you’ve got Teemu Pukki and Tim Sparv? Where Iceland went four years ago, Finland go this time around, and the whole world will be waiting to see if they can deliver the same glorious outcome: making England look ridiculous in front of the whole continent. One day, when things settle down, I’ll try and describe what it means to us. Today though, I just wanna say thanks. Thank you for being there during the hard times. Thank you for believing. Thank you for helping us make history. We’ll be forever grateful. ( :Jussi Eskola SPL) pic.twitter.com/GGxbhcksCB— Tim Sparv (@TimSparv) November 17, 2019 Cymru am byth Let’s check in with Gareth Bale, who is still — despite Real Madrid’s best efforts over the summer — being paid sackloads of cash on a weekly basis. The extent to which Bale no longer gives a single solitary shit really is very enjoyable. pic.twitter.com/eflCjhq7Pi— Nick Miller (@NickMiller79) November 20, 2019 Back to Spurs in January, then. The Red Misery There can’t be many managers who have capped off a successful, unbeaten qualifying campaign with a 5-0 win, then immediately left the stadium in a flood of tears and lost their job shortly afterwards. So pour one out for Robert Moreno — the former assistant manager to Luis Enrique at Roma, Celta, Barcelona, and then Spain — who took over as the Spanish national team coach in March after Enrique stepped down to spend time with his sick daughter. Nine games, seven wins, 29 goals and one “permanent” contract later, he’s been sacked. Enrique is coming back. We’re guessing Moreno won’t be alongside him. This should have been a heartwarming story: one friend keeps the ship steady for another, who then returns from personal tragedy to lead his country again. Instead, per Sid Lowe, it seems Moreno was given assurances that were then undermined behind his back. And so, tears. It wasn’t so two years ago, when Julen Lopetegui was sacked two days before the World Cup started for his heavy flirting with Real Madrid. Since then, Spain have been coached by Fernando Hierro, Enrique, Moreno, and now Enrique again. Given that Spain might be the most extravagantly talented footballing nation in the world, it’s a good job that they are constantly wracked with chaos. Otherwise nobody else would stand a chance. To absent hosts For the first time in Euros history, the hosts will be missing the tournament. Well, at least two of the 12 (twelve!) hosts: Azerbaijan are out, and two from Hungary, Romania, and Scotland will end up in the same playoff group. The general consensus is that home advantage is helpful in football, and that this is exacerbated in tournaments. It seems that a national party can enhance a team’s performances far beyond expectations. Think of Russia storming through their World Cup to everybody’s great surprise, including possibly their own. So will all these home teams have a kind of double advantage? And will this skew the tournament against the other 12 teams that are playing but not hosting? England will play three games at Wembley, a stadium in which they last lost in 2016, in front of what we can assume will be a predominantly England-supporting crowd. It might make an English group stage actually fun. But alternatively, perhaps the disparate nature of the tournament will work against the usual tournament bounce. It’s hard to roar “It’s our time!” when you need a footnote. It’s coming home, Wembley will sing, and maybe it is. But it’s going to Rome, and Budapest, and Munich, and doing a whole mess of interrailing first.
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