It may be six months away, but last weekend’s draw for Euro 2024 has already started the conversation on who will win European football’s biggest international tournament, which will kick off in Germany next June.
For England fans in particular, the clock is already ticking on whether their men’s national side can replicate their female counterparts in lifting a major trophy, and finally end their long wait for silverware.
Having come so close in Euro 2020 – losing on penalties (again) to Italy in the final at Wembley – Gareth Southgate’s men will be desperate to go one step further in Germany.
A kind draw for the joint favourites?
The English will be relatively happy with their opening draw, having been paired with Serbia, Denmark and Slovenia in Group C.
The Danes are the highest ranked of the Three Lions’ group opponents, currently standing 19th in FIFA’s world rankings. Given the other two aren’t even in the top thirty and England are rated the third best team in the world at present, most pundits will have Southgate’s men qualifying top of their group.
While getting out of the group shouldn’t present too many problems (although this is England, so nothing is straight forward), it’s the knockout stages where the Three Lions will encounter their biggest challenges.
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After reaching the latter stages of the last 3 major tournaments, England are listed as 4-1 joint favourites with France at most bookmakers, with hosts Germany at 7-1 and the classy Spanish also in the mix.
Other nations worth considering as potential winners are Portugal, the only side to win every game of their qualifying campaign, and Belgium, who were also undefeated in theirs.
Holders Italy scraped though their qualifying group (losing and drawing to England) but will surely be a different proposition come finals time.
So how does the draw for the big nations pan out in the knockout stages?
Assuming all the favoured nations win their groups – although past experience says this is unlikely – there are some intriguing battles awaiting the big guns as they progress through the tournament.
For England, if they can navigate a potential last 16 match up with one of the third placed teams in groups D, E of F, their quarter final opponents are likely to be Italy (who on form should finish second to Spain in Group B). Revenge for that Wembley defeat will be on the menu no doubt, although another cagey affair is likely.
Get through that and a mouth-watering semi-final showdown with Kylian Mbappe’s France seems the most likely outcome (although the dangerous Belgians are also in this side of the draw).
The French are the one side capable of giving Southgate and his coaching staff nightmares, with the pace of Mbappe and Dembele sure to trouble England’s pedestrian back line. It will be some night in Dortmund’s famous Westfalen Stadium if it transpires.
The other side of the draw is likely to contain hosts Germany – sure to be competitive on home soil – Spain and a Ronaldo inspired Portugal. With CR7 surely close to hanging up his international boots at the end of the tournament, his Portuguese side may well be dark horses for a final berth.
Southgate’s last hurrah?
Talking of hanging it up, it could also be the final campaign for England manager Southgate. The affable 53-year-old has led his country’s national team since 2016, achieving considerable success along the way, but without a trophy to show for his efforts.
With his contract due to expire at the end of the Euro finals, speculation is rife in the English press that it could be time for a change before the 2026 World Cup, especially if he fails to deliver the trophy England demands from its highly talented current crop of superstars.
Captain Harry Kane is showing no sign of slowing down his goalscoring exploits despite moving to Bayern Munich in August, in fact his knowledge of German football may even be a bonus for his team’s chances.
And in Jude Bellingham the Three Lions boast arguably the best young player in European football at present, with his free scoring form for new club Real Madrid winning him plaudits across the globe.
Add in Arsenal’s Bakary Saka and Declan Rice, and it’s not difficult to see why many English fans are even more expectant than usual.
Whether Southgate can live up to those expectations is another matter, and the pressure will no doubt be intense. You could almost forgive him for walking away from the role after the tournament even if they win it, going out on the ultimate high.
There will be many column inches written in the coming six months as to if, how and why England might finally break their major tournament hoodoo.
We suspect the potential semi-final with France may be the critical moment, so keep Wednesday 10 July free in your diary if the Three Lions are your team.
It could well be the moment we start believing that football really is coming home, and to win it all in the German capital Berlin four days later really would be the ultimate reward for England’s long suffering supporters.