It’s been ages since Chelsea fans have anticipated a major international competition with such a meagre representation from their club’s players. Two years ago in Brazil our squad featured key players for a number of the tournament favourites; now, arguably, only three Chelsea players could be considered key members of their respective squads, and of those only Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard feature in a side with a realistic chance of winning. This is a look in turn at the four sides heading into Euro 2016, which should be of interest to Chelsea…
Ever since 2010, as the world began to realise that Belgium were actually quite good (and potentially very good) this is the tournament that was earmarked as their greatest ever chance to compete seriously at a major tournament. While they were only ‘dark horses’ at the World Cup in Brazil two years ago, they should now be seen as serious contenders. With their best players all older (and more experienced of top level competition) and with the emergence of the likes of Radja Nainggolan and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, the side looks as strong and as balanced as it ever has. The loss of first choice centre-halves Vincent Kompany and Nico Lombaerts may not be a huge problem either, allowing as it does Marc Wilmots to select Aldeweireld and Vertonghen (the best partnership in the Premier League) instead.
The decision to make Hazard captain of the side was an interesting one – with many suspicious of it being a strategy used to try and inspire the Chelsea player into improving his performances, rather than being an appointment made with the entire squad in mind. His performances for Chelsea this season certainly couldn’t be described as that of a great leader. It’s hard to argue with the logic though, that any tactic which might help Hazard to play somewhere near his best, is one worth employing. Elsewhere, Courtois might also be coming off the worst season of his career; but he is still easily one of the four best keepers in the competition.
Readers of the Spanish sports paper, Marca, apparently weren’t very pleased at the inclusion of Chelsea players Pedro and Cesc Fabregas, the pair somewhat surprisingly keeping Saul Niguez and Isco out of the final squad. I think it’s been surprising how little Spain have changed over the past two years. After their disastrous early exit in the World Cup, and following the retirement of Xavi and Xabi Alonso, it seemed there was a clear opportunity to change their style and begin integrating new players. Instead, Del Bosque seems to be persisting the same possession based style which was exposed so badly by Chile and the Netherlands two years ago.
Regardless, they remain one of the three clear favourites. Alonso and Xavi are fairly irreplaceable players, but a likely front six of Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta, Koke, David Silva and Morata doesn’t look too shabby. Diego Costa wasn’t selected, predictably, having never looked particularly impressive for his country. Cesar Azpilicueta was included but looks to be behind Juanfran, Jordi Alba and Hector Bellerin in the full back pecking order.
These days Chelsea seem to be supplying a lot more talent to the junior England sides than they do to the senior team. Both Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were outstanding in the Toulon tournament, the latter being named the competition’s best player. Meanwhile Gary Cahill is the only Chelsea player in Roy Hodgson’s squad, as he looks set to form a rather uninspiring looking partnership with Chris Smalling at centre half.
For once confidence levels in the English media heading into a competition seem to be about right, with no one over excited, nor too pessimistic about the team’s chances. Clearly only the fifth best squad at the tournament, but with two hugely in-form forwards in Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, they know they have the striking talent to defeat anyone if they play well.
The obvious second (f not first) team for most Chelsea fans. The competition in one respect represents a huge inconvenience, reducing, as it does, the amount of time Antonio Conte has to prepare such a crucial pre-season. The chance to watch and assess the Italian as he leads his country this summer is one, however, I think most fans are really looking forward to.
It’s interesting that he has been heavily criticised for his selection and accused widely of ignoring some of the more talented players as his disposal in favour of less gifted, harder working grafters and foot soldiers. I may be a bit biased already but I think these criticisms are unfair. Clearly Italy’s best chance of progressing to the latter stages is by defending well, and focusing on being difficult to beat. It isn’t as if the players he has left out (Sebastian Giovinco, Jorginho, Giacomo Bonaventura) are of the quality to help Italy to outplay the likes of Spain or France or Germany.
With both of his best midfield players (Claudio Marchisio and Marco Veratti) ruled out with injury, and with a complete dearth of striking talent, a defensive 3-5-2 shape looks the best use of his remaining options. The clear strength of the side being the Juventus back four he coached for three seasons, in particular Leonardo Bonucci (arguably the best defender in the world), the only other top class player he has in the side is Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, who will probably play as a second striker behind Graziano Pelle. (Not exactly Totti and Del Piero)
It’s a shame Conte doesn’t have more to work with; as it stands very few expect Italy to go beyond the quarter finals, but you could argue that such relatively low expectations could work in his favour. Their first game on Monday against Belgium is arguably the most interesting game of the group stages. A good start against one of the favourites could set them up nicely for a good run. And for Conte, a man who has succeeded in virtually every role he’s had, it’d be nice for that run to continue before he takes on the biggest (and most important – of course) challenge of his career next month.