Joe Anthony takes a look at some of the major sporting events to take place this summer. Could it be the biggest and best yet?
For many of us, the cycle of lockdowns, tiers and restrictions has been made bearable by the continuation of professional sport. Now, with the hope that fans can soon return en masse to watch live fixtures and perhaps the greatest summer of sport ever ahead of us, life for the sports enthusiast is about to get even better. All things being well the European Football Championship final will be held at Wembley and the highly anticipated Lions tour to South Africa will go ahead in some form.
After being postponed for a year, Euro 2020 is set to be one of the most exciting international tournaments of the summer, primarily because England, Scotland and Wales all feature. The group stage will be a tense affair, seeing England facing Scotland in Group D and Germany, France and Portugal clashing in Group F. Wembley will play host to the semi-finals and finals and therefore some of the greatest players in the world. With sports grounds hopefully opening up, tickets will be like gold dust to fans.
Which nations could go all the way?
Having been finalists in 2016 and winners of the 2018 World Cup, it’ll be odds on for France to take the Euros home. Kylian Mbappe is again positioned to take the tournament by storm as Ligue 1’s top scorer. The core of the World Cup winning team is bolstered by the emergence of players such as Houssem Aouar, Jules Koundé and Dayot Upamecano. However, there’s some doubt as to whether Antoine Griezmann and Benjamin Pavard can reach similar levels of form in time for June.
Since their third-place finish in the 2018 World Cup, Belgium have qualified for the Euros flawlessly by winning every game. Placed first in the Fifa World Rankings, the team will be motivated to go that one step further this year. For some of the squad this is their last chance at winning a major tournament with quality players such as Toby Alderweireld, Dries Mertens and Jan Vertonghen all breaching 30 this year. However, the rise of Youri Tielemans at Leicester City, Alexis Saelemaekers at AC Milan and Jérémy Doku at club Rennes still provide hope for the future.
England have arguably benefited the most from the rescheduling of the Euros as both Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford were struggling to get fit in time. The extra year has also allowed talents like Jadon Sancho and Declan Rice to gain more experience and prepare themselves for their first major tournaments. Forwards, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, are in great form and youngsters such as Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden are hoping to win a spot in the squad. England also have the advantage of playing parts of the tournament on home turf. Nevertheless, many still wonder if this year is too early for Southgate’s youthful squad.
The 2016 winners of the tournament will be looking to retain the trophy. Cristiano Ronaldo will hope to secure another major trophy and earn himself a mention in the tournament history books as the top scorer in its history as this will be his fifth European Championships. Premier League Portuguese talents are playing especially well, with Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota proving invaluable for their respective clubs. However, poor performances in qualification could potentially signal a rocky ride this year.
Potential Stars to Watch Out For:
Eduardo Camavinga – France
The French youngster in the sights of huge European clubs over the past year, including Juventus and Real Madrid. An energetic player, he has controlled the midfield and proved skilful on the ball for Stade Rennais. His performances in the Champions League prove that he is good enough to perform at the highest level but will Didier Deschamps find a place for him in the French midfield?
Mitchel Bakker – Netherlands
The Dutchman has overtaken Juan Bernat as Paris Saint-Germain’s first-choice left-back. With his crossing ability and the physical attributes of a centre-back, many have questioned why he hasn’t featured for his national side. His stock is set to rise even further with the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, who is well known for his ability to develop full-backs. Current choices Patrick van Aanholt and Owen Wijndal may face fierce competition from Bakker as the season progresses.
Dejan Kulusevki – Sweden
Kulusevki could be one of the greatest Swedish talents since Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as evidenced by his strong performances for Juventus. The 20-year-old winger has made 15 appearances for the Old Lady this season and has often been brought off the bench by Andrea Pirlo in times of need. In a Swedish team with some of the most promising players in years, Kulusevki could be central in their efforts to escape Group E.
The 2021 British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa
The eight-match tour is set to be one of the greatest in recent memory as the Lions look for revenge after their loss in 2009. Many of the English players in the squad will also be looking to level the score with much of the Springbok squad who defeated them in the 2019 World Cup Final. This Lions series will see some of the worlds’ greatest rugby players facing each other at their prime.
Who to Watch Out For?
Maro Itoje – England/ Lions
Many pundits have backed the 26-year-old to be the Lions’ captain despite his inexperience in leading Saracens and England. His man of the match performance against Ireland in the Autumn Nations has shown his quality as a defensive mastermind, something that will be essential against a physical Springbok side. Sir Ian McGeechan has voiced support for Itoje based on his intelligence in the role and he has also been compared to Martin Johnson. There is a chance that Warren Gatland may choose Alun Wyn Jones or Owen Farrell, however it is undoubtable that Itoje will play a central role in the series.
Finn Russell – Scotland/ Lions
Russell may be the most creative players in the world as shown in countless quality performances for Racing and Scotland. After a brief appearance in the 2017 Lions tour as part of the now infamous ‘geography six,’ Russell has progressed further as shown through his nomination for European Player of the` Year in 2020. Warren Gatland may attempt to match the Springboks on physicality, but Russell could add a totally different dimension to the team with his skill and pace.
Liam Williams – Wales/ Lions
Despite Wales’ poor performances during the Autumn Nations, Williams stood out against England and Georgia. As one of the most reliable players in the Northern Hemisphere and is blessed with the running ability to spark counterattacks from full-back or the wing. However, Williams faces stiff competition with Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg for starting positions and there are concerns about his level of discipline but Warren Gatland may see Williams’ past experience as a Lion as a bonus.
Makazole Mapimpi – South Africa
As arguably one of the best wingers in World Rugby, Mapimpi will pose one of the greatest threats to the Lions’ backline. After a breakthrough World Cup where he scored five tries, just shy of Brian Habana’s 2007 record for South Africa, Mapimpi is ready to show his quality once again. Mapimpi will hope to gain form prior to the tour as he has made the move to Japan to play for the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
Pieter-Steph Du Toit – South Africa
The World Rugby Player of the Year has set new standards for blindside flankers across the globe with this ability at the breakdown and sheer athleticism. After experiencing a rocky start to his career and being plagued by injury, Du Toit shined at second-row in the lineout alongside Eben Etzebeth prior to moving into the backrow. For many, Du Toit embodies the physicality of this Springboks side, something England struggled with in the World Cup final and the Lions will have to learn to counter.
Cheslin Kolbe – South Africa
Whilst much of the South African squad has been unable to play this year as a result of strict national lockdowns, Kolbe has dominated on the wing for Toulouse. Despite only making his debut in 2018, Kolbe has become internationally respected for his incredible skill and pace that allow him to dictate matches despite his size. In order to dominate against the Lions he will once again need be in top form as part of the back three alongside Willie Le Roux and Makazole Mapimpi.