2019 For England: The Opponents

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Lady Luck: Holland got Germany and Spain got Sweden. England should be pleased their biggest qualification threat comes from the Czech Republic

Over the past two days, UEFA the Euro 2020 and 2019 Nations League Finals draws have taken place in Dublin. With Germany not a top seed and Gibraltar not a bottom seed, the pots made for interesting viewing. It would be fun to just get out the crystal ball now and predict what fruits 2019 will bear for England. However, we must do our research first. Here is an overview of England’s opponents over the next 12 months.

UEFA Nations League Semi-Finals – The Netherlands

As Gareth Southgate cosied up next to Ronald Koeman at the Nations League draw, there was a sense that neither of them would find facing the other come June. Indeed, that’s what will happen. When Republic of Ireland legend Robbie Keane read out that England were to face the Netherlands on the 6th of June, Southgate will have been fearing a tough tie. Holland are no longer the pushovers they have been in the last few years. Their run of embarrassing defeats and failure to qualify for the last two major tournaments looks set to finally end. Comprehensive victories over Germany and world champions France secured their place at the Nations League finals in June.

The former Southampton and Everton manager took over as Holland boss in 2018, where his first match was a 1-0 defeat against England. Since then though, the Netherlands have improved tremendously, with defensive presence from the likes of Virgil van Dijk and young Matthijs de Ligt mixed with intelligent playmaking by Memphis Depay and boy-wonder Frenkie de Jong. Many of Koeman’s impressive young Dutch team star, or have previously tried to star, in the Premier League. You can be sure Gareth Southgate will do his research on them, but only on June 6th will we truly know which is the better of Europe’s two most resurgent sides.

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Ryan Reborn: Former Liverpool striker Ryan Babel is scoring for the Netherlands again, more than a decade on from when his international career began

Euro 2020 Qualifying Group A – Czech Republic

The most testing of England’s four opponents for Euro 2020 qualifying are the Czech Republic. Their manager is former Czechoslovakia international Jaroslav Šilhavý. The 57-year-old is a household name in the Czech Republic for his reputation as a club manager, where he has taken charge of Slavia Prague, amongst many others. 2018 really has been a dreadful year for the Czech Republic, however. Prior to this year, the side had never lost by more than three goals. By September they had done so twice – to Australia, 4-0, before a 5-1 defeat to Russia. With two one-goal wins and two one-goal defeats, they stayed put in their Nations League group with Ukraine and Slovakia.

The Czech Republic are ranked 42nd in the world and look a long way off the side that denied Holland a place at Euro 2016 with a famous 3-2 victory. It’s hard to pick an outright best player, but their brightest star is Roma forward Patrik Schick. He has five goals in fourteen caps at just twenty-two years of age. Daniel Pudil and Matěj Vydra will ring a bell to avid English club fans. The two have both been regulars in the Championship over the past half-a-decade. When England host the Czechs in their first qualifier in March, the group’s other sides will be watching keenly. Nothing is ever certain in football, but the odds are firmly with these two to progress to the Euros with first- and second-placed finishes from Qualifying Group A.

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England Journeyman: Burnley’s Matěj Vydra tackles Slovakia’s Martin Škrtel as the Czech Republic see of the Slovaks 2-1 in the Nations League

Euro 2020 Qualifying Group A – Bulgaria

A side England haven’t played since Euro 2012 qualification, Bulgaria have improved greatly since then. 3-0 and 4-0 victories under Fabio Capello helped The Three Lions to a place in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, but Bulgaria, like the Czechs, have beaten the Netherlands since and will offer sticky competition if England are complacent. They’re coached by Petar Hubchev. He played 35 times for Bulgaria in the 1980s and ‘90s and continues a common theme in the managers so-far mentioned. Koeman, Šilhavý and Hubchev all gained experience as assistant-managers of their country, before returning to club football and then becoming national manager. It seems a common path – a path that Gareth Southgate never followed.

Former World Cup semi-finalists Bulgaria earned an impressive 11 points and a second-place finish in their Nations League Group. They stalled a little as the tournament progressed, but earned wins over Slovenia, Norway and Cyprus in the earlier matchdays. They’re captained by Spartak Moscow talisman Ivelin Popov and their goalkeeper, Georgi Petkov, is 42 years of age. Ranked only four places below the Czech Republic in the November FIFA World Rankings, Bulgaria will be testing, but thoroughly beatable, opposition for England.

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Top Treble: Prior to Harry Kane’s World Cup hat-trick against Panama, Jermain Defoe had been the last England player to hit three − against Bulgaria in 2010

Euro 2020 Qualifying Group A – Montenegro

England’s qualifying group really is just a bunch of similarly capable sides, plus Kosovo. The Czechs are ranked 42nd, the Bulgarians are in 46th, Montenegro are slap-bang between the two, in 44th. England’s record with this relatively new country is rather poor – just one victory and three draws from four past fixtures. This is the team that Wayne Rooney earned his Euro 2012 ban against and that Andros Townsend scored that memorable debut goal against in 2013.

Managed by journeyman coach Ljubiša Tumbaković, Montenegro’s best days are maybe behind them. Former Manchester City livewire Stevan Jovetić is still their captain and talisman, alongside fellow ex-City man Stefan Savić, but their remaining players are of a much lesser status. Hence, their year has been similarly subpar. Defeats to Romania and Slovenia will give Gareth Southgate’s men courage, but Montenegro have a good reputation to England fans – The Three Lions have struggled against them before. Only time will tell whether Montenegro still offer the bite that some feel they’ve lost.

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Tough Opposition: Kyle Walker battles with Vladimir Volkov as England finally beat Montenegro in 2013 − at the fourth time of asking

Euro 2020 Qualifying Group A – Kosovo

Kosovo are supposed to be England’s whipping boys, except they aren’t really. A virgin of the European Championships, as they only became FIFA-affiliated in 2016, Kosovo made headlines as one of the outstanding sides from Nations League D. Here, they were head and shoulders above opponents Azerbaijan, Malta and the Faroe Islands. This tiny Eastern European country had their best players nabbed by other nations, before they joined FIFA. Their team could have included the likes of Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Adnan Januzaj. Instead, their star men are Swansea youngster Bersant Celina and Heerenveen midfielder Arbër Zeneli.

The Kosovo team is largely untested against serious opposition, although their most sizeable ties – 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Croatia – both ended in defeat. Kosovo are a rapidly improving side, managed by Swiss coach Bernard Challandes, and will likely provide England with their two easiest fixtures of the year. Gareth Southgate will be wary though that this tiny country has long been a never-ending conveyor belt of young talent. England won’t mind at all that many of these talented players instead represent Switzerland, Albania, Finland and Belgium, amongst others.

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Dream Lives On: Kosovo celebrate their emphatic 5-0 win in Malta. They go on to thrash Azerbaijan 4-0 and seal a coveted Euro 2020 play-off place

Hopefully you know a little more about England’s future opponents. Of course, the second of The Three Lions’ matches in June will be against one of Switzerland and Portugal as the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League comes to a close. What matters is not which team it is, but whether victory in the match would mean silverware or not….

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