After what felt like the longest domestic season in the history of football, the Euro Championship takes centre stage, albeit a year later than planned. This year’s competition is being contested among 24 countries across 11 nations over the next month in a bid to be crowned the continent’s finest.
Like every international tournament – be it the Euros or the World Cup – often a handful of players emerge or take centre stage, whether their county reigns supreme or crashes out at the first hurdle. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the players who we believe will be the standout performers at this year’s Euros.
Denis Zakaria (Switzerland)
The Swiss International has been subject to lots of praise and speculation in the build-up to Euro 2020 with teams like Manchester City keeping tabs on the young 24-year-old’s development. A strong showing in the Euros can skyrocket his market valuation in the coming weeks.
Zakaria had a subpar season with Mönchengladbach, starting 15 games and coming off the bench ten times, with a solitary goal and an assist to his name. But the 24-year-old will be key to Switzerland’s chances of going deep into the tournament alongside captain Granit Xhaka in the middle of the pitch.
Zakaria’s Mönchengladbach and Switzerland teammate Yann Sommer describes him as a mix of “Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane,” while German legend Lothar Matthaüs says he is like a young Toni Kroos.
Ruslan Malinovskiy (Ukraine)
Along with Russia’s Aleksei Miranchuk, Ruslan Malinovskiy was a key cog in Atlanta’s goal scoring machine last season. The Ukrainian scored 8 goals and set up another 10 assists for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side, as La Dea finished the season at third for the third consecutive season.
The 28-year-old is one of the most creative outlets in Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukrainian side. Malinovskiy also specializes in dead-ball situations which adds another dimension to his game. A great dribbler of the ball, Ruslan draws a lot of fouls in tight situations, while his long-range shooting poses a constant threat to opposition backlines.
Malinovskiy’s ability to retain possession, create space, thread passes that no one would attempt, and his great crossing will be crucial for Ukraine this summer.
Phil Foden (England)
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Club: Manchester City
England has a plethora of talented attacking midfielders at their disposal, with Phil Foden being the cream of the crop. The 21-year-old is a gifted footballer who has a great first touch, a wonderful vision, and plays with a freedom and tenacity so much ahead of his age.
In a Manchester City side filled to the brim with talent in every position, Foden made 50 appearances last season across all competitions, of which 14 were off the bench. He scored 16 goals and provided 8 assists for Pep Guardiola’s side, and will play a key role in Gareth Southgate’s England setup.
Foden has been so good in the past 12-18 months that Pep Guardiola once described the Englishman as the most talented 19-year-old he had ever seen – high praise from a man who managed Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
João Félix (Portugal)
Position: Second Striker
Club: Atlético Madrid
Highly skillful, great with both feet, and boasting elite vision, the 21-year-old has only shown glimpses of his talent during his first two seasons with Atlético. In their title-winning campaign last season, João had 7 goals and 6 assists in his 31 La Liga appearances. Signed from SL Benfica for a whopping US$162 million in 2019, the best is yet to come from the young Portuguese.
Since winning the 2016 Euros, Fernando Santos has added some big names to his Portuguese roster, including Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo, Rúben Dias, and André Silva. And with talismanic figures like Cristiano Ronaldo, José Fonte and João Mourinho, Portugal have a better chance of winning the tournament this time around than their last triumph.
The Euro 2020 promises to be the stage for Félix to show the world exactly what he is capable of.
Piotr Zieliński (Poland)
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Club: SSC Napoli
Piotr Zieliński is someone who always divides opinions. While his performances for his club have been exceptional over the years, the same cannot be said about his performances for the Polish national team. Former Polish manager Jerzy Brzęczek said during his reign that if Zieliński got up one day and something switched over in his head, Poland would have a player whom everyone in the world would envy.
And how right he was, for since signing his new contract with Napoli, Zieliński has produced his best numbers. Last season, in 36 Serie A matches, the Pole scored 8 goals and provided 11 assists as Napoli finished fifth, one point behind fourth-placed Juventus.
One of the rarest abilities in football is knowing when to change the tempo of the game, and Piotr has that. He has an amazing sense of timing and pitch geometry that allows him to slow down or speed up a game with one single pass.
Ryan Gravenberch (Netherlands)
Position: Central Midfielder
Club: AFC Ajax
Another player coming through Ajax’s youth production line, Ryan Gravenberch was named the Eredivisie’s Talent of the Year for the 2020-21 season as Erik ten Hag’s men won the league for the third successive season. Still 19, Gravenberch played 45 matches last season, scoring 5 goals and providing 6 assists for his side across all competitions.
The young midfielder has a great passing range with a knack for taking long shots, while his tall stature makes him an ideal candidate for aerial duels inside the box. Dutch manager Frank de Boer has been slowly integrating the Ryan into his midfield, which boasts of players like Georginio Wijnaldum, Frenkie de Jong, Marten de Roon among many.
With the fixtures loaded up, and most of the senior players running on empty, Gravenberch will have his chance after a gruelling domestic season, but it is upon him to grab it with both hands.
Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Club: Bayern Munich
There is no doubt Kimmich is one of the best midfielders in the world at the moment. Though he is part of a team consisting of superstars, it’s him who has been making the team tick under Hansi Flick, whether orchestrating from his own defensive half or pulling the strings from the heart of the opponent’s midfield.
Kimmich was a key cog in Bayern Munich’s treble-winning 2019-20 season, playing exceptionally well and earning many accolades along the way, including a spot on the FIFAPro World Team of the year. Last year, the 26-year-old contributed with 4 goals and 10 assists as Bayern won their ninth successive Bundesliga title.
Joachim Löw will count on his star midfielder to turn up at Europe’s biggest tournament to avenge Germany’s 2018 World Cup humiliation.
Alexander Isak (Sweden)
Position: Centre Forward
Club: Real Sociedad
When Borussia Dortmund signed him in 2017, Alexander Isak was considered one of the hottest properties in Europe. But after two seasons with Dortmund where he failed to live up to the hype, Isak signed for Spanish outfit Real Sociedad in a five-year deal in 2019. In his first two seasons for Los Txuri-Urdin, the Swedish International has netted 33 goals, attracting interest from the likes of Real Madrid and Arsenal this summer.
But the 21-year-old has been tasked with filling the shoes of Swedish legend Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sweden’s highest goal-scorer, who was forced to withdraw from the Euros in May following his injury while playing for AC Milan, just months after making sensational international comeback after a hiatus of five years.
Replacing Ibrahimović might be a herculean task for the 21-year-old, but with the added motivation of Europe’s elite clubs circling around, one would be wise not to put it past him.
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Marcel Sabitzer (Austria)
Position: Central Midfielder
Club: RB Leipzig
Marcel Sabitzer was one of the standout performers in the Bundesliga last season, with the midfielder scoring 8 goals and providing 4 assists as RB Leipzig finished the season in second – their best league campaign.
Sabitzer is a central midfielder who possesses great technical skills. Anchor of the Austrian as well as the RB Leipzig setup, Sabitzer is entrusted with securing any loose ends in the middle of the pitch. A robust and dynamic baller, his range of passing is one the best among the modern hybrid midfielders.
With a meagre £15m price tag to his name, and teams like Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax circling like vultures for his signature, a stellar performance in the Euros can potentially start a bidding war for the 27-year-old.
Manuel Locatelli (Italy)
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Manuel Locatelli had a stellar campaign last season despite I Neroverdi missing out on the final European qualification places. Locatelli contributed with 4 goals and 3 assists in Serie A, playing a key role in shoring up the backline and driving with the ball from the middle of the pitch.
He is a technically gifted player who can keep possession in tight spaces, and his dribbling ability helps him to break lines and look for progressive balls in the final third of the pitch. The 23-year-old Italian has a knack for shooting from distance, having scored a few goals from outside the box last season. With two pivots in Jorginho and Marco Verratti, Roberto Mancini will likely be giving Locatelli more freedom up the pitch.