Euro 2020 will be held next year in 12 different countries, including Ireland, England, Russia and Azerbaijan. Before we embark on the world’s most complicated car-pool, let’s make some mediocre Brexit jokes and try to make heads or tails of this mess.
Haven’t We Been Here Before?
In these uncertain times, it’s understandable to wonder what Britain’s position in Europe will be next year. If we have learned anything useful as a nation from recent political tensions, it’s how to say the phrase ‘piss off’ in at least 27 different available languages. That particular idiom could come in handy for our match-weary footballers, who are faced with a frankly bamboozling new European Championship format.
All those high-pressure stand-offs against Spain and Croatia last autumn may have looked like group games, may have felt like group games, they may even have been group games; but they weren’t qualifying group games.
To further muddy the waters, the game at Wembley tonight is England’s first real Euro 2020 qualifier, despite already qualifying for the semi-finals of the Nations League.
Just to clarify, if you win the Nations League you can qualify for Euro 2020, but there’s a qualifier: they are not qualifiers. That clear? Quality.
Who’s Reppin’ The Czechs?
And so the Czech Republic come to Wembley to contest their most taxing fixture in Group A, which also contains fellow minnows Bulgaria and Montenegro and whatever minnows eat, Kosovo. There’s a chance all four teams in the group could end up at the Euros, but we’ll have to wait till November to see if Micky Platini’s thought the new rules through properly.
Currently ranked 44th in the world, the Czechs have pulled off the international version of ‘a Portsmouth’ since their record high of 2nd in 2006. In those glory days your boys Cech, Nedved and Koller looked like genuine world-beaters on the regular. Nowadays they count on the lesser talents of Bristol City’s Tomas Kalas, Burnley’s Matej Vydra and multi-million Roma flop Patrik Schick.
If ITV are reading this, please do everything you can to get Carra, Macca or Murph on commentary because, by some wonderful sonic coincidence, every Czech name sounds better in a scouse accent.
Staring Down Both Barrels
The big decision for Gareth is whether to use that zany back three that worked best against weaker opposition at the World Cup or to stick to the 4-3-3 that’s beaten Spain and Croatia this season. As usual, Southgate has called up a youthful squad whose potential outweighs its experience by about 10 billion tons.
There’s an aristocratic air to this month’s crop of recruits, with Lord Ward Prowse and the Duke of Hudson-Odoi making the shirt-name team at St George’s Park work overtime.
Big Dec Energy
Also making the cut is Declan Rice, and it would be a shame for the 20-year-old not to play some part after months of negotiations over his dual nationality.
The youngster has been the most consistent performer this season in a shambolic West Ham squad and deserves a chance at defensive midfield, where it’s not easy to stand out. When your game is all about positioning and timing, you rarely get noticed until you get it wrong…
…Speaking of which, Vydra has been in the headlines this week, mugging off poor Harry Maguire for last weekend’s early bath. “He doesn’t know what’s happening behind him” – claimed the cheeky Czech.
We get it Matej, Harry’s got a wide face, looking around corners is never going to be a strength of his but giving him the bunny-ears behind his back is picking on the disadvantaged. It’s time to call out this vile bullying for what it is.
That said, I'm a huge fan of your man Matej giving it the big one in the presser whilst very much being part of the Burnley side that lost, despite having a man advantage for 87 minutes, and personally missing a sitter to level things in added time. Fair f*cks pal.
Wembley Salutes A Legend
This Friday’s game is the first since the death of legendary World Cup goalie, Gordon Banks.
While it’s harsh to be compared to one of the all-time greats, extra focus will be on the man in nets. Jordan Pickford is having a stinker of a season at Everton, but seems to wear the England jersey like a superhero’s cape.
Nevertheless, rumour has it that Jack Butland might be given his chance, which would be a sentimental move, even for Sweet Gareth, as the keeper plays for Banks’ former club, Stoke.
Under new manager Jaroslav Silhavy all four of the Czechs’ matches have been decided by a single goal, so any clangers dropped are likely to have consequences. Don’t be that guy.
A Right Winger The Entire Nation Get Behind
Marcus Rashford’s ankle knack all but guarantees a first competitive start for Jadon Sancho on the right of England’s three-pronged attack. A reminder – this is hugely exciting news.
This weekend saw him chalk up 2 assists for Dortmund in a thrilling 2-3 win over Hertha Berlin, something that moves him to joint top of the charts for Europe’s top five leagues with 12 lay ons for the season. Who’s he sharing top spot with? Some dosser called Lionel Messi, apparently.
Chuck in 8 league goals, the fact that his dribbling stats are on a par with Eden Hazard’s this term and that he’s literally 7 years old, England fans have a huge amount to look forward to from this freakishly talented whippersnapper.
Barely. England beat Czechoslovakia at World Cups in 1970 and 1990, but in the 26 years since the delightfully named Velvet Divorce from Slovakia, the Three Lions have had just two friendlies against the Bohemians.
There was a rank 2-2 draw in 2008 under Don Fabio, whilst their meeting ten years earlier is worth a nosey.
A pretty rogue England attack - 35-year-old Ian Wright and Dion Dublin – being fed by Lee Hendrie and Paul Merson was enough to see off the Czechs 2-0.
Merse celebrated his England swansong with the winner - or ‘giving it to the net’ if you will. Check it out, complete with commentary from America’s Alan Partridge: