World Cup qualifying began in earnest across Europe during the March international break, with plenty of shocks — Luxembourg over Ireland, North Macedonia over Germany — and plenty of powerful performances, too. Take the pair of 8-0 wins for Belgium (vs. Belarus) and Denmark (vs. Moldova) respectively, or Burak Yilmaz’ hat trick for Turkey against the Netherlands in an impressive 4-2 win. But the bigger thing about the break was the chance to take a good look at the contenders for this summer’s European Championships, with time running out for teams to prepare amid a hectic 2020-21 club season.
Our writers break down the main takeaways from a busy International break and the final opportunity for Europe’s best to fine-tune and try things ahead of this summer’s rescheduled European Championships (Watch the entire tournament LIVE, plus replays and highlights, on ESPN+ from June 11-July 11, U.S. only).
Jump to: France | Germany | Spain | Belgium | Italy | Netherlands | Portugal
ENGLAND: Goalkeeper decision will define England’s success
England manager Gareth Southgate said during the international break that he already knows his starting XI for the Euro 2020 opener against Croatia, but whoever he selects in goal will define how he expects his team to play this summer.
Everton’s Jordan Pickford has been Southgate’s first choice since helping England to the 2018 World Cup semifinals, but a series of erratic performances for Carlo Ancelotti’s team this season had raised doubts over the 27-year-old’s international place before injury ruled him out of the World Cup qualifiers.
Burnley’s Nick Pope stepped in for the three games and only lost his record of not having conceded a goal for England 58 minutes into his seventh appearance, against Poland on Wednesday.
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But while Pope is arguably a more reliable goalkeeper than Pickford in the traditional sense — good shot stopper, commanding with aerial balls and an imposing presence — the 28-year-old struggles with the ball at his feet and his poor distribution was evident throughout the three games, including the pass which led to John Stones’ mistake for the Poland goal at Wembley.
Pickford’s lapses of concentration and costly mistakes for Everton have raised concern, but Southgate places a high value on his “sweeper-keeper” attributes and ability to turn defence into attack with his long passing.
So Southgate’s choice is an imperfect one: He either selects Pope for solidity and loses one of Pickford’s biggest strengths, or goes with Pickford and risks his club form catching up with him in an England shirt. — Mark Ogden
Janusz Michallik wonders if France may consider a controversial recall for Karim Benzema to help their faltering attack.
FRANCE: Dembele makes case for Euro spot
For Didier Deschamps, the three games France played during this international break were not so much about trying to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, something France will surely do from a group containing Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kazakhstan. It was more about giving the opportunity to some players before the summer.
Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele had not been called up for two-and-a-half years before this window, and he had to deliver. He did, too, with positive performances, great attitude and a skillset, even in a different position than the one he’s made his own in La Liga this season, that Les Bleus really need with his pace. He will fight for a place in the starting XI come the Euros this summer. Depending if Deschamps wants to be conservative and play Adrien Rabiot wide on the left, or more attacking, then Dembele or/and Kingsley Coman could start. Regardless, having Dembele in this kind of form is very positive.
Anthony Martial had to wait a year and a half for a recall and he also made the most of it. He started against Kazakhstan and gave the assist on the Dembele goal. However, his presence in the final 23-man squad is more of a long shot. He will have to really step up with Manchester United until the end of the season to have a realistic chance to be a back up for Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe or Antoine Griezmann.
While the returns of both Dembele is great news for France, Griezmann’s incredible resilience has been the most exceptional thing over the break. The Barcelona forward beat Patrick Vieira’s record of 44 caps in a row against Kazakhstan on Sunday, making him France’s undisputed iron man. — Julien Laurens
Jurgen Klinsmann tries to wrap his head around what went wrong for Germany vs. North Macedonia.
GERMANY: Old guard to the rescue?
The warning signs were there after Germany suffered their heaviest-ever loss, 6-0 to Spain in the Nations League in November. But wins in the last week over Iceland (3-0) and Romania (1-0) allowed coach Joachim Low — who will quit after Euro 2020 — to come up for air as it looked like he had stabilized the team.
Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos, 31, had left the camp before the Iceland match but the trio of Ilkay Gundogan, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka didn’t miss a beat and, up front, Serge Gnabry, Kai Havertz and Leroy Sane created chances too.
However, in a shocking 2-1 defeat against lowly North Macedonia, Germany collapsed. Low, without any need, tinkered with the formation — playing an asymmetric 4-3-3 by moving left-back Robin Gosens higher up the pitch — and it caused instability at the back. In attack, the team remained wasteful and Chelsea striker Timo Werner missed a golden opportunity to show why he deserves a bigger role for his country.
Without even playing, Kroos’ stock has risen and the push for Bayern forward Thomas Muller and Dortmund defender Mats Hummels to come out of international retirement grew stronger. Now it seems they will likely return to the squad for Low’s last dance at the Euros, but the question is whether the old band can perform one last time without making a mess of things?
France, Portugal and Hungary are Germany’s group-stage opponents in June and all hopes now rest on the old guard. They are under pressure and Low will need to fight for his legacy. — Stephan Uersfeld.
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti explains why Spain are underrated heading into European competition.
SPAIN: Luis Enrique’s side end on a confusing high note
Luis Enrique was stuck in a lift for over an hour and almost didn’t make it to the dugout for kick-off of Spain’s meeting with Kosovo in Seville on Wednesday. Given how things had gone in the previous two games, he might have preferred to stay stuck instead of watching what his side was doing — he admitted in his prematch media appearance that he didn’t expect the game to be that good — but as it turned out, it was an improvement. Spain had drawn their first game of this international break, 1-1 with Greece, and then needed a very late and rather fortunate goal from Dani Olmo to beat Georgia in the second. The third, a 3-1 win over Kosovo, ended the break on a high note.
“I am worried,” the coach conceded. His team had dominated possession against extremely defensive opponents, but had also struggled to make chances and looked vulnerable at the back throughout. Here was a team with plenty of talent, but not a huge amount of personality and little cutting edge — old, familiar flaws. Now at least there was something to hold on to. Spanish grades are different, but what the coach said basically translates as “against Greece and Kosovo, it’s a low 7/10 and against Georgia a 6/10. I’m happy with what I saw on the pitch.”
Not that these 10 days together would have clarified that much for him, except perhaps that Barcelona forward Pedri is worthy of a starting place despite his young age and inexperience, and that Jordi Alba and Alvaro Morata have a strong case for the same thing. Olmo did his chances no harm; that, though, felt like a backwards step. The starting XI against Greece had been almost the same as it had been when they hammered Germany 6-0 in November; that victory suggested the beginning of a defined XI at last, but by the end of the Greece game, the doubts were back. It’s hard to know what the side will be in the summer, even now.
“The squad at the Euros will come from the 24 men here… and 10 others who have a chance,” said Enrique, not entirely helpfully. — Sid Lowe
Steve Nicol says Belgium should be happy to come away with a point vs. a tough Czech Republic side in WCQ.
BELGIUM: Headaches ahead for Martinez
Roberto Martinez is a happy manager. His Belgium side beat Wales (3-1) and Belarus (8-0), either side of a hard-fought 1-1 draw in the Czech Republic. Now the Spaniard can start thinking and planning for the Euros, the Nations League semifinal against France in October and even the 2022 World Cup, though he has a hard task on his hands.
Martinez called up 32 players for this international break so he could have one final look at all those who could feature this summer. While there are question marks over the fitness of Dortmund midfielder Axel Witsel and Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard, two key players who may or may not make it, Martinez will have choices to make as he rounds out his squad. The starting XI is pretty much sorted, bar injuries, but you don’t win a competition like the Euros with just 11 players, meaning the rest of his group will be key.
On the plus side, the balance of the squad is great. There is a lot of experience mainly from the “golden generation” (Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens) and also plenty of youth, either in age or in caps (Jeremy Doku, Yari Verschaeren, Alexis Saelemaekers, Charles De Ketelaere, Hans Vanaken, Leandro Trossard, Timothy Castagne, Dennis Praet, Leander Dendoncker and Thomas Foket).
Yet not all of the new generation will be on the plane, and Martinez has two months to make sure he gets it right. Whoever he selects, there will be quite a few disappointed players comes the end of May when the squad is announced. — Julien Laurens
Alessandro Del Piero believes Italy is headed in the right direction under Roberto Mancini.
ITALY: Is there enough strength in depth to win the Euros?
Since taking the job in 2018, manager Roberto Mancini has assembled a slick, young side that continue to impress as they extended their unbeaten run to 25 games over the March break. At the back, they have one of the best goalkeepers around in Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, with Juve stalwarts Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in front of him: the Azzurri have not conceded a goal for four matches.
In midfield, alongside Paris Saint-Germain magician Marco Verratti, they have ever-improving Manuel Locatelli, who scored a delightful goal in the 2-0 win over Bulgaria and has managed to take his impressive form with Sassuolo onto the international stage. Meanwhile in attack, Ciro Immobile, winner of the 2020 European Golden Shoe and so often the scapegoat for Italian failures, scored his first international goal since 2019.
Mancini started with seven different players in attack for games against Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania but still achieved 2-0 wins in each, emphasizing the squad depth. But is there enough strength? There are plenty of options, but few players who have played in the biggest games or won the biggest prizes. Only five players — Salvatore Sirigu, Verratti, Chiellini, Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi — have played meaningful roles in title-winning sides, and there are no Champions League winners.
Major tournaments are about more than just talent, which Italy have in abundance, but unlike great sides of their past, they lack players with experience of winning the biggest trophies. — Andrew Cesare Richardson
ESPN’s Milan van Dongen assesses Frank de Boer’s shortcomings since taking over the Netherlands squad.
NETHERLANDS: De Boer might struggle to match Koeman’s results
Ronald Koeman led Netherlands to the Nations League final and European Championships qualification before taking the Barcelona job, but his successor, Frank de Boer, is having a hard time matching that success. In fact, their 4-2 defeat in Turkey brought back memories of the short managerial stints of De Boer at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace.
One telling sign in that defeat was the penalty miss by Memphis Depay in injury time. The Dutch need an in-form Depay to have success: the Lyon forward was involved in 23 of the 43 goals scored by Netherlands in the Koeman era. Koeman started using Memphis as a centre-forward, the position he also favours. But in the last two matches, De Boer moved Memphis to the left wing and put Sevilla’s Luuk de Jong up front. De Jong scored in every match, but Netherlands converted just two of 35 shots on goal in the 2-0 win over Latvia.
The tough start to World Cup qualification is reminiscent of the failed 2018 attempt that saw the Oranje miss out on the tournament due to goal difference, though things ended on a high note with a 7-0 win in Gibraltar and group leaders’ Turkey draw against Latvia. — Jorn von Glinski, ESPN Netherlands
Frank Leboeuf issues a stern warning to Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal given their current form.
PORTUGAL: Jota easing the scoring burden on Ronaldo
Portugal have been attempting to become less reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals ever since winning Euro 2016. Ironically, they won that tournament with the Juventus forward forced to watch the majority of the victory over France on the sidelines due to an injury sustained in the early stages of that final. With the 36-year-old now within just six international goals from equaling former Iran striker Ali Daei’s world record of 109, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ronaldo has been at the forefront of Portugal’s recent goal output, with 18 coming since the start of 2019.
But with Portugal facing Azerbaijan, Serbia and Luxembourg to kick off their World Cup qualifying campaign, Ronaldo was outscored over the three games by Liverpool’s Diogo Jota.
Ronaldo scored once (in the 3-1 win against Luxembourg) in the three matches, although he will argue that he was denied a second by the absence of VAR in Serbia, which cost him a stoppage-time winner as the officials were unable to see his shot clearly cross the goalline. But even if that “goal” had been allowed, Ronaldo would still have trailed Jota’s haul of three goals during this international break.
Jota’s two against Serbia and one against Luxembourg may not have created too many headlines, but if Portugal are to retain their European crown this summer, they need to spread the load in order to avoid their hopes resting on the 36-year-old Ronaldo’s ageing shoulders. If Jota, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Andre Silva and Pedro Neto are all able to score this summer, Portugal will be a formidable contender to win Euro 2020. — Mark Ogden