For football fans, 2024 provides another golden year, with the 17th edition of the European Championships set to kick off at the Allianz Arena in Munich on the 14th of June. You can’t beat a summertime feast of international football and, with the Qualifying Group phase complete, the final cast of competing nations is almost confirmed. Hosts Germany will join the top two finishers from the 10 Qualifying Groups, with the final three of 24 positions to be decided via the playoffs in March 2024 – with Rob Page’s Wales outfit amongst those sides still in the mix.
Here, we look back at the Group phase, pick out those sides riding into the tournament on a wave of momentum, those arriving at a more sedate pace, and the potential surprise packages to emerge over the past year.
Of the 20 sides to escape the Groups, only Portugal emerged with a perfect record, having run riot in Group J. Pitched into a section containing Slovakia, Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Liechtenstein, Cristiano Ronaldo and co were fully expected to come out on top. Even so, it was hard not to be impressed with the manner in which they dispatched their rivals.
Bosnia & Herzegovina (Home)
Bosnia & Herzegovina (Away)
With 36 goals across their 10 games, they scored seven more than any other team during qualifying, whilst, with only 2 conceded, they also boasted the best defensive record in qualifying. CR7 will be 39 years old by the time the tournament rolls around, but he hasn’t forgotten where the goal is – averaging a goal a game in the group. Winners in 2016, Portugal are playing a more expansive style under Roberto Martinez and deserve to be amongst the favourites for the tournament on their current form.
Co-Favourites Rock Solid
It is, however, England and France who dominate the betting in most lists. England could hardly have come closer in 2020 when losing out to Italy on penalties in the final, whilst France will be itching to exercise the demon of that penalty shoot-out defeat to Argentina in an epic World Cup final. Those who believe the Three Lions or Les Bleus can win it all next summer will likely be enthused by ultra-professional qualifying displays.
England and France are currently sharing favouritism in the Euro 2024 Outright market
Gareth Southgate’s England side passed their toughest Group C challenge with relative ease, beating defending European Champions Italy home and away to effectively ensure top spot – only dropping points in away draws at Ukraine and Macedonia. Those results and a pedestrian home win over Malta were underwhelming, but England have long been pragmatic rather than scintillating and will head to Germany with high hopes. Invariably well organised and with two genuine global superstars in Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham, perhaps 2024 could finally be their year.
Didier Deschamps’ French side were almost perfect in qualifying, only dropping points in their final match when held to a draw in Greece with the top spot already long sewn up. France hit an impressive 29 goals across 7 games, but almost half of those came in a 14-0 annihilation of poor old Gibraltar – a scoreline which represented the biggest win in the history of European qualifying. Only conceding 3 times, their defence looked as solid as ever, and given the talent at their disposal, they rate a major threat to all.
Whilst Portugal have benefitted from the arrival of Roberto Martinez, Belgium are thriving in his absence. With former RB Leipzig boss Domenico Tedesco now calling the shots, the Red Devils made short work of a potentially tricky section containing Sweden and Austria to book their flight to Germany with something to spare.
Eight games yielded six wins and two draws, with 22 goals scored and only four conceded. Leading the charge was a once-again impressive Romelu Lukaku, who, with 14 goals, was four clear of Cristiano Ronaldo as the top scorer during qualifying. The famed golden generation may now be in decline, but in the likes of Jeremy Doku and Charles de Ketelaere, new stars are emerging, and Belgium will head into the tournament in confident mood.
Eagles Soar in Group E
One of the biggest surprises in qualifying came in Group E. Poland were widely expected to top this section but had to make do with a place in the playoffs. The race for top spot came down to a battle between Czechia and Albania, with the Albanians just edging it on goal difference.
Beaten 1-0 at Poland in their opener, the Eagles rebounded with a seven-match unbeaten run to reach the finals of a major tournament for only the second time in their history.
Turkey Heating Up
Since a semi-final showing at this competition in 2008, Turkish football has seemingly been in decline, with the side failing to qualify for the World Cup since finishing third in 2002 and making it no further than the Group Stage in the past two editions of this competition. However, the Crescent Stars once again have reason for hope, having topped a competitive Group D, which included Wales and Croatia, who qualified in typically solid but unspectacular fashion in second.
Turkey boast few out-and-out stars but possesses a nice mix of youth and experience, with 16 members of their most recent squad being 25 or younger. Well organised under Italian tactician Vincenzo Montella, this famously passionate nation will be a tough match-up for anyone at the finals.
Scotland Back in the Big Time
Of the other home nations, Ireland and Northern Ireland endured near-disastrous campaigns. Wales may yet qualify via the playoffs, but one side already making their preparations for a summer in Germany is Steve Clarke’s Scotland. Flying out of the traps with five successive wins in Group A – including a famous 2-0 victory over Spain at Hampden Park – Scotland stuttered slightly in the closing stages with a loss in Spain and draws with Georgia and Norway, but still finished comfortably ahead of the Norwegians to grab second and reach only their second major tournament finals since 1998.
In a similar mould to Turkey, Scotland are a side that appears far greater than the sum of its parts. Their main strength lies in wide areas, thanks to marauding full-backs Aaron Hickey, Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, whilst the midfield combo of a bang-in-form John McGinn and the newly prolific Scott McTominay has provided the foundation for much of their success. They will start amongst the big outsiders, but their passion and organization will stand them in good stead. However it turns out, the bars in Germany will certainly know about the arrival of the Tartan Army.
No-Show from Sweden
With Italy and the Netherlands sneaking through their groups in second spot, the two biggest names set to miss out in 2024 are Russia and Sweden. Given the continuing events in Ukraine, it has been known for some time that Russia would play no part in the competition, but the absence of Sweden is more surprising.
Rarely threatening to win a tournament, Sweden can nevertheless usually be relied upon to at least qualify. Not so this year, as the Swedes managed only three wins in a section containing Belgium, Austria, Azerbaijan and Estonia. Of the other Scandinavian nations, Denmark topped Group H, Finland and Iceland qualified for the playoffs, but even Erling Haaland’s threat wasn’t enough to save Norway, who join Sweden on the sidelines.
Host Nation Stuttering
The Euro 2024 Final will be held at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on Sunday 14th July
So far, and still no mention of Germany. You can never discount the Germans, or so the old saying goes, but, on recent form, Julian Nagelsmann’s Die Mannschaft outfit don’t look like likely tournament winners. As hosts, Germany qualifies automatically, and, the way they have been playing, that is probably just as well.
Friendly results and those in the Nations League do need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but a run of just five wins in their past 20 international fixtures doesn’t make for inspiring reading. Low points include defeats to Austria and Turkey and a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Japan. On the other side of the coin, Germany did show that they remain a capable side on their day when beating France back in September. With fervent home support behind them and a squad containing the likes of Leroy Sané, Ilkay Gundogan, Julian Brand, and the excellent Jamal Musiala, perhaps the Germans shouldn’t be discounted so quickly after all.