At long last, it’s nearly here – after a year-long delay, Euro 2020 is now just two days away from getting started.
With parts of Europe beginning to open up as vaccinations start to slow the coronavirus pandemic, in some parts of the continent it promises to be a particularly memorable event, especially for the lucky few able to attend the matches.
As we look ahead to the tournament, it’s only natural to ponder who might be the key men, the difference-makers, the decisive talents who can secure immortality, and etch their name in the record books with a winning goal in the final at Wembley on July 11.
While some names are perhaps obvious, others may not be. With that in mind, these are some of the individuals Stats Perform expect to have a telling impact on the tournament.
1. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
A Scudetto winner with Inter, Lukaku has just completed the finest club season of his career, scoring 30 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions and claiming the prize for the best player in Serie A.
The striker took his all-time record tally of Belgium goals to 60 in 93 appearances in the 1-0 friendly win over Croatia, having also scored in each of his seven outings in Euro 2020 qualifying matches. He will take some stopping.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Juventus may have lost the title to Inter, but Ronaldo still claimed the Capocannoniere prize in Serie A in 2020-21, finishing on 29 goals – five more than Lukaku, his nearest rival. No other player in history has topped the scoring charts in each of the top leagues in Italy, Spain and England.
Ronaldo needs one goal to become the European Championship’s all-time top scorer on 10 and Ali Daei’s world record of 109 international goals is in his sights (Ronaldo is on 103). Hit those milestones and help Portugal defend their crown, that GOAT debate might just swing his way.
3. Thomas Muller (Germany)
Back in the Germany fold for the first time since November 2018, Muller scored in the 7-1 friendly win over Latvia, proving his international recall was far from a sentimental act for Joachim Low’s farewell tournament. Not that his form in the past year has been in much doubt: the Bayern Munich star was the only Bundesliga player to reach double figures for goals (11) and assists (18) in 2020-21.
Muller has never scored in 11 previous European Championship matches – a statistic at odds with his record of 10 goals in 16 World Cup games. The man has a point to prove.
4. Burak Yilmaz (Turkey)
At the age of 35, Yilmaz’s first season in Ligue 1 – indeed, first campaign in Europe’s top-five leagues – was unforgettable. The striker scored 16 goals at a rate of one every 128 minutes (second only to top scorer Kylian Mbappe among the division’s regular starters) as Lille won a first title in a decade and ended Paris Saint-Germain’s dominance.
Turkey are in a tricky group but the presence of Yilmaz could be decisive, particularly against similar standards of opposition in Switzerland and Wales. He has form on the international scene, too, having become the first player since Klaus Allofs in 1980 to score a hat-trick against the Netherlands back in March.
5. Owen Wijndal (Netherlands)
Having only really earned his chance for the senior side due to a defensive reshuffle enforced by Virgil van Dijk’s injury, Wijndal could be a surprising name ready to take the Euros by storm.
The AZ left-back led the Eredivisie among defenders for assists (six) and chances created (46) in 2020-21. Having confidently proclaimed “I am the best left-back in the Netherlands” to Voetbal International last month, this is his chance to prove his worth on the global stage.
6. Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Life for Lewandowski at club level is rather different to what he experiences with Poland. Disappointment on the international stage routinely ends with the finger being pointed at him – after all, he has scored just one goal in his previous 10 games at major competitions with his country.
He goes into Euro 2020 having broken Gerd Muller’s long-standing record of 40 Bundesliga goals in a single season, but to make the most of that prowess Poland may need to tweak their setup. In the Bundesliga this term, 20.1 per cent of his touches were in the box compared to 11.6 per cent for Poland in qualifying – whether they can truly harness Lewandowski’s greatness and elevate his legacy to a new level will be key for Paulo Sousa’s men.
7. Phil Foden (England)
The most-exciting English talent since Paul Gascoigne? Well, he’s truly embracing such comparisons considering his choice of a ‘Gazza at Euro 96’ haircut, and honestly, who can blame him? The 21-year-old’s early years at Manchester City have been exhilarating to watch at times, never more so than in 2020-21.
Foden truly established himself as a key man for the Premier League champions and was the youngest player to hit double figures for goal involvements (14 – nine goals, five assists) in the top flight. Blessed with effortless ability on the ball and the kind of technical brilliance that can make him decisive in front of goal or when creating, Foden is surely among the favourites to be crowned the Young Player of the Tournament.
8. Pedri (Spain)
Had Euro 2020 started 12 months ago as planned, Pedri wouldn’t have got a look-in, regardless of how promising his debut season with Las Palmas in Spain’s Segunda had been. Yet, here we are a few days out from the tournament, and there’s every chance the Barcelona prospect could be key for Luis Enrique’s team.
You have to dig a little deeper than his straight goal involvements output (three goals, three assists) to truly understand what makes him – and Barcelona by extension – tick. On average, he was involved in 5.8 open-play sequences that ended in a shot every game this season, with Toni Kroos the only midfielder with a better record among those with at least 900 minutes played. This means he acts as the ideal midfield conduit, his passing and technical skills helping him sustain pressure on opponents. Euro 2020 should see his talents appreciated on the international scene.
9. Kylian Mbappe (France)
Mbappe is now so established at the forefront of the sport that it is easy to forget this will be just his second major tournament. Of course, the first was a roaring success, as the forward scored four goals from only eight shots en route to 2018 World Cup glory.
Since then, Mbappe has scored 78 Ligue 1 goals, doubling the 39 of Memphis Depay, who is second in that time. It is no surprise then that the 22-year-old has been the top scorer in three straight seasons, becoming the first player to achieve that feat since Jean-Pierre Papin’s five in a row between 1987-88 and 1991-92.
Now with Karim Benzema – who knows a thing or two about accommodating superstar wide forwards – also back in the France fold, expect Mbappe to score and score again.
10. Alexander Isak (Sweden)
Sweden hoped to have a different striker leading the line at the finals, but an untimely injury for returning veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic means 21-year-old Isak must instead fill the void. His career to date suggests he might be up to that considerable task, though.
Isak failed to make the grade at Borussia Dortmund but has blossomed in Spain with Real Sociedad. His 17 goals in 2020-21 surpassed Ibrahimovic’s record of 16 for the most by a Swedish player in a LaLiga season.
Ibrahimovic has scored six Euros goals but never more than two in a campaign – a very achievable mark for a man of Isak’s talents.