This weekend saw the unusual event of England partaking in two tournament draws. First came the European Championship qualifying draw and then on Monday the Nations League semi-final draw, so who did England get and how good are they?
Dutch Date in Portugal
England drew The Netherlands in the Nations League semi-finals whilst hosts Portugal face Switzerland in the other semi. Holland manager Ronald Koeman declared he was looking for revenge after losing to England in his first game as national team manager back in March.
Since that loss in Amsterdam Koeman has revived The Netherlands, achieving home wins over both Germany and France in the Nations League. They booked their place in the semi finals on the back of their stunning 2 goal fight back away to Germany, culminating in Virgil Van Dijk’s injury time equalizer.
Koeman has built around Van Dijk, creating a strong defensive unit, shielded by midfield duo Frenkie De Jong of Ajax and Atalanta’s Marten de Roon. This may not be total football but it’s proving effective. Going forward Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum drives from midfield but the star man is Memphis Depay. After a disastrous spell at Old Trafford, Depay has rehabilitated his career at Lyon. This team lacks a prolific striker in the mould of Van Basten or Van Persie. Justin Kluivert (son of Ajax legend Patrick) hasn’t quite broken through yet, whilst former Liverpool flop Ryan Babel still gets a game and the promising Quincy Promes has just 6 international goal.
England and Holland share a rich history, in which both Koeman and Gareth Southgate as players were a significant part. They played each other in 5 competitive matches between Van Basten’s hat trick at Euro ’88 and the Shearer/ Sheringham onslaught at Euro ’96. But that famous day at Wembley remains the last competitive game between the two, until next June that is.
Kind qualifying draw
England’s route to Euro 2020 is as good as they could realistically hope for. England succesfully avoided Germany in pot 2 and dangerous third seeds Serbia. Instead the second seed in England’s group are the unfancied Czech Republic. The Czech’s have a great history in the European Championships, from the orignial Panenka in 1976, to Karol Poborksy’s heroics in 1996. More recently they had a great side in the early 2000s featuring the likes of Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros, Tomas Rosicky and Jan Koller- they made yet another semi final at Euro 2004.
The current Czech Republic team however is short on stars, having lost record caps holder Petr Cech in retirment in 2016. This is a young side for whom finishing second in the group and qualifying for Euro 2020 would be a major achievement, but one player to watch is 22-year-old Roma striker Patrik Schick who grabbed the goals in their Nations League campaign. The Czech’s made it to Euro 2016 but went out in the group, failed to qualify for the World Cup and finished runners-up to Ukraine in their League B group of the Nations League.
The third seeds are another Eastern European side with a fabled history: Bulgaria. Their finest hour came at USA ’94. First Emil Kostandinov scored the late winner to stun France and send Cantona, Desailly, Deschamps and Ginola tumbling out. Then at the finals Barcelona’s Hristo Stoichkov inspired them to a shock win over holders Germany and eventually a fourth place finish. Dimitar Berbatov was their last true star, scoring 48 goals between 1999-2010. The current squad is short on stars, with none of their squad playing in Europe’s top 5 leagues. They haven’t qualified for a major tournament since Euro 2004 and finished a close second to Norway in their Nations League C group.
The fourth seeds are familiar foes Montenegro. England drew Montenegro in Euro 2012 qualifying and forced a dour 0-0 at Wembley. They stayed close to England throughout the group and grabbed a 2-2 draw in the final game to book a playoff spot- the game of Rooney’s second England red card. England drew them again in World Cup qualifying for Brazil, again England were held away before finally beating the Montenegrans at Wembley. As ever former Manchester City striker Steven Jovetic is their cheif threat whilst skipper Steven Savic holds together a solid defence. They finished third behind Serbia and Romania in their League C Nations League group.
Finally England drew the wildcard of pot 5, Kosovo. This is Kosov’s first time in a qualifying tournament and they are guaranteed a playoff place for Euro 2020 after winning their Nations League group, albeit in League D. They do have some talented players notably midfielders Arber Zeneli of Heerenveen and Lazio’s Valon Berisha. Naturally this will be England’s first two meetings with the new nation.
ultimately this group is England’s to lose, none of these teams should challenge them and there will be no excuse for failure and having to fall back on our guaranteed playoff spot via the Nations League group win. That said I remember Sven-Goran Eriksson attending Euro 2008 qualifying and declaring his successor would be very happy with that draw, look how that turned out! England have lost just 1 of their last 50 qualifiers and even that was a dead rubber, if they approach this campaign professionally they should extend that run.