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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

EURO 2020 Group C: Shevchenko returns as Ukraine coach, Dutch disappointment again?

For several key players in the Netherlands squad, Euro 2020 is an opportunity to rebound after a disappointing season.

By: AP |
June 1, 2021 7:30:18 pm
euro 2020To see what talent and hard work can achieve, Ukraine's players need only to look at their coach. (AP)

Shevchenko aims to break through as Ukraine coach

To see what talent and hard work can achieve, Ukraine’s players need only to look at their coach.

AC Milan great Andriy Shevchenko is heading into his first major tournament as head coach after five years in charge. The aim is to reach the knockout stages of the European Championship for the first time after group-stage exits in 2012 and 2016. Shevchenko was an assistant coach in France five years ago and made the step up after the tournament.

The core of his team is made up of established players like Manchester City fullback Oleksandr Zinchenko, West Ham winger Andriy Yarmolenko and Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Yevhen Konoplyanka.

Being drawn with the Netherlands, Austria and North Macedonia in Group C gives Ukraine a solid chance of advancement.

Ukraine’s most exciting young player, 18-year-old central defender Illya Zabarnyi’s international debut came in October as the team, diminished by coronavirus cases, was routed by France 7-1 in a friendly. He has played five more times since then and helped to stabilize the team ahead of Euro 2020.

The high point of Shevchenko’s time in charge was a 2-1 win over Portugal in October 2019. Goals from Yarmolenko and striker Roman Yaremchuk put Ukraine on course to qualify for Euro 2020.

A 1-0 victory over Spain in last year’s Nations League further highlighted the team’s potential.

Newcomer North Macedonia has record of upsets

Shortly after getting a new name, North Macedonia qualified for a major soccer tournament for the first time.

The former Yugoslav republic became an independent member of FIFA and UEFA in 1994, took the name North Macedonia in 2019 and reached this year’s European Championship via a new qualifying format in November.

UEFA has a guaranteed tournament place for a lower-ranked country that wins a group in the bottom tier of the Nations League. The four Nations League tiers fed into four playoff brackets, giving second chances to teams which did not advance through traditional qualifying groups.

North Macedonia won its group in League D, the lowest division, to secure promotion to League C and qualify for the playoffs. It then eliminated Kosovo 2-1 before overcoming Georgia 1-0 on Nov. 12.

North Macedonia’s biggest victory so far came on March 31 when it shocked Germany 2-1 in Duisburg, the host country’s first loss in World Cup qualifying in 20 years.

Dutch players look to forget the disappointing season

For several key players in the Netherlands squad, this year’s European Championship is an opportunity to rebound after a disappointing season.

Virgil van Dijk won’t get that chance, however. The captain ruled himself out of the tournament to recover from a knee injury.

With the exception of defender Stefan de Vrij at Inter Milan and the contingent of Ajax players who won the Dutch league and cup double, many of the Netherlands’ players are heading into the tournament after seasons marked by failures to meet expectations.

Georginio Wijnaldum was part of the Liverpool team that badly missed Van Dijk as it failed to defend its Premier League title, Frenkie de Jong had a strong season with Barcelona but also came up short in Spain, while defender Matthijs de Ligt saw Juventus’ run of nine straight Serie A titles end when Inter won the Italian league title.

Nathan Aké did win the English title with Manchester City, but the defender’s season was curtailed by injury.

Then there is Donny van de Beek, who will likely just be glad to get some playing time.

Austria’s track record needs some polishing

In six matches at past European Championships, Austria has zero wins, two draws, and only one goal scored from regular play.

The country’s record at the continental tournament certainly could do with some polishing when it plays North Macedonia, the Netherlands and Ukraine in Group C at Euro 2020.

The team is still centred around David Alaba, though the Bayern Munich defender doesn’t always carry his club form to the national team, where he is mainly used as an attacking midfielder.

Austria’s strongest weapon is arguably its front line with two strikers of Serbian descent.

With 26 goals, winger Marko Arnautovic is the team’s top scorer since Janko’s retirement. He has been joined lately in Austria’s attack by Saša Kalajdžic, who netted three times in his first five matches for the national team.

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