At long last, after a 12-month delay and then so much uncertainty over the past few weeks, Copa America will start this weekend.

While the fact it is going ahead remains a bone of contention, with even Brazil players suggesting they are reluctantly playing it, Copa America is a tournament that rarely disappoints in terms of entertainment.

A bevvy of world-renowned stars such as Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi will be hoping to make the difference.

There will also be some less-familiar faces hoping to either establish themselves or introduce their names to a wider audience.

Stats Perform has identified seven players worth keeping an eye on over the next month.

Rodrigo de Paul, 27, central midfielder - Argentina

Perhaps the odd one out here given his age, but De Paul is certainly one to keep tabs on. Having just enjoyed a wonderful individual campaign with Udinese, the creative midfielder is eager on a move and will surely be keen to impress.

He had a hand in 18 Serie A goals this term (nine goals, nine assists), while his xA value (expected assists) of 10.3 was the best in the division, the 1.3 differential suggesting De Paul was occasionally let down by poor finishing.

Further to that, he also attempted (191) and completed (122) more dribbles than anyone else, so Argentina will look to him to drive them forward from midfield.

Moises Caicedo, 19, central midfielder - Ecuador

Caicedo joined Brighton and Hove Albion in January to much fanfare from South American experts, who assured Seagulls fans they were getting a future superstar.

He's yet to make a senior appearance in England, with Graham Potter patient regarding his adaptation, but the Copa America could give fans a chance to see him in action.

A well-rounded, all-action midfielder, Caicedo was the teenager with the most goals (four), shots attempted (24), chances created (19), successful passes (748) and dribbles completed (23) in Ecuador's top flight in 2020, while his passing accuracy of 90.1 per cent was the highest among players to attempt 500 or more.

Emerson Royal, 22, right-back - Brazil

An impressive two-year spell at Real Betis has persuaded Barcelona to bring Emerson back to Camp Nou after a complicated three-way transfer in 2019.

He has proven himself to be both a dependable defender and a capable attacking outlet, his 10 assists over the past two seasons bettered by only one LaLiga defender (Jesus Navas, 13), while his 853 duels over the past two years is nearly 200 more than any other defender.

This paints a picture of an all-action defender who will work tirelessly up and down the right flank, and on the evidence of the past couple of years, it shouldn't take him too long to usurp Danilo as Brazil's primary option.

Yangel Herrera, 23, central midfielder - Venezuela

A long-term future for Herrera and parent club Manchester City looks unlikely, but he enjoyed a promising season with Granada in LaLiga – that coupled with a breakout tournament in Brazil could lead to promising suitors making their feelings known.

Herrera's a hard-working midfielder who made more tackle attempts (59) than any other Granada player this term, while it was a similar story with regards to duels (509) and duels won (261). Don't expect him to create much, but he's not shy about getting stuck in.

Jaminton Campaz, 21, left-winger - Colombia

Arguably the next big hope of the Colombian national team, Campaz only received his first call-up this month for the recent World Cup qualifiers. Although he did not get on the pitch, his inclusion in the squad was well-received among fans.

Colombia great Carlos Valderrama was among them as he urged the 21-year-old to grasp the opportunity in a post on his official Twitter account.

A livewire on the left flank, Colombia may look to his explosiveness and trickery should games remain tight in the latter stages.

Julio Enciso, 17, attacking midfielder - Paraguay

The youngest player at the 2021 Copa America, Enciso has already played 24 top-flight matches back home for Libertad and was briefly the youngest player to score in the Copa Libertadores this century with his goal against Jorge Wilstermann last year when still 16.

A good dribbler and not shy to take a shot, Enciso has been used almost everywhere across the front for Libertad and could be an interesting wildcard option for Paraguay.

Carlos Palacios, 20, right-winger - Chile

Earlier this year, Palacios made the jump to Brazil when he joined Internacional on loan from Union Espanola, where he had developed into one of Chile's most-promising young players as a lively winger.

While he's yet to score for his new club, he proved in Chile that he has a penchant for a spectacular goal one or two, while his regular appearances for Internacional have exposed him to a far greater standard of football.

Aston Villa have confirmed the signing of Emiliano Buendia from Norwich City in a club-record transfer.

The Midlands club saw off competition from Arsenal to sign the 24-year-old for a fee believed to be in the region of £35million with a further £5m of add-ons also included in the deal.

Reacting to the news, Villa manager Dean Smith told the club's official website: "Emiliano has just completed an outstanding season in a Championship-winning Norwich side with 31 combined goals and assists and was named Player of the Season across the league.

"He is equally capable as a wide attacker or as a number 10 and is a great addition to our attacking options. We are delighted to have made such an exciting signing so early in the summer and look forward to Emi joining up with us for a full pre-season."

As Smith alludes to, Buendia was named Championship Player of the Year for his part in Norwich's successful promotion a year after dropping down from the top flight.

And, while £35m may sound like a significant fee for a player whose most recent campaign was in the second tier, it is easy to see why Buendia has commanded such an outlay.

Impressive despite relegation

When Norwich were relegated last year, it was a widely held belief that they had several players who were likely to stay in the Premier League by joining other teams.

While Ben Godfrey was sold for approximately £25m to Everton and Jamal Lewis moved to Newcastle United, Norwich managed to keep hold of their other major assets: Todd Cantwell, Max Aarons and, perhaps crucially, Buendia.

That they were able to resist the sale of Buendia was arguably the most surprising of all, considering he had enjoyed a promising debut campaign in the Premier League.

His ability to find and exploit pockets of space made him a real creative nuisance and something of an anomaly as well, given he – a player in a relegated team – was up there with the league's best in key creative metrics

 

Buendia created 55 shooting opportunities in open play in 2019-20, a figure that only Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Sadio Mane could better. He was level with Mohamed Salah and ahead of Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, among others.

His seven assists, only one of which came from a set-piece situation, was another notable feat, and his 6.2 expected assists (xA) figure suggests he was not benefiting from astonishing luck throughout the season either. He was simply a very effective creator.

Learning on the job

It would have been easy to write Buendia's Premier League season off as a fluke. There must have been those expecting him to endure a disappointing 2020-21 back in the Championship, perhaps a consequence of not getting a move away.

After all, he did have a spell out of the Norwich team in 2019-20, with Norwich boss Daniel Farke suggesting there were concerns over his work rate and lack of goals.

"Believe me there is probably no-one here in this room who knows [better] how good Emi is and how big his potential is," Farke said in February 2020. "If he is just there with 95 per cent [effort] then it was definitely possible to bring him back [into the team] at Championship level and he could still make the difference.

"But at this [Premier League] level, let's be honest when he is not 100 prepared — you could realise it at Newcastle when we brought him in. Not to accuse him but our game looked poorer when we brought him in.

 

"When I think about his ability to assist, he is already there with seven. It is perhaps not world class on this level for a winger, but for our level it is top class and it is the best of all our players in these terms. Let's be honest, we've had the 26th game day and he is there with no goals. There are several losses of the ball and also sometimes he lacks running in behind."

But Buendia stuck around, seemingly accepting he still had plenty to learn, and his improvement in front of goal has been notable.

In the Premier League he averaged just 1.46 shots per game, but he has more than doubled that frequency to three every 90 minutes in the Championship, likely a consequence of the fact he has spent more time in the central areas of the pitch and closer to the penalty area.

 

As a result, his goals haul shot up from one to 15 and his xG of 11.8 shows that, while he may have been lucky on occasions, he would still have expected to reach double figures. Even if you take into consideration the drop in quality from the Premier League to the Championship, that is still a commendable improvement and highlights his willingness to take on criticism and use it to better himself.

Creating his own luck?

Buendia's even greater tendency to work centrally seemed to benefit his creative talents as well. As shown in his xA map, many of his 16 assists came from the middle vertical of the attacking half.

 

Granted, he has outperformed his 9.3 xA (open play) by approximately seven, which is significant and suggests some of those assists have benefited from particularly good finishing or a slice of fortune, yet his overall xA of 12.4 is still at least four more than any other player in the Championship this term.

Similarly, his 93 key passes in open play was – remarkably – 31 more than anyone else in the division.

 

It will be intriguing to see what role Buendia is deployed in at Villa and whether both he and Grealish are compatible in the same side. Even if they line up on opposite flanks, they will want to do much of their work in similar areas as they drift inside.

But regardless of any potential teething issues, Buendia looks set to be another smart acquisition by Villa – and potentially the one who got away for Arsenal.

In theory, the Milwaukee Bucks appeared to be the biggest obstacle on the Brooklyn Nets' path to an NBA championship.

To stand a chance of winning a seven-game series against the NBA’s premier trio of team-mates – Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving – you've got to be able to score points, and a whole lot of them.

Despite a recurring run of injuries that often rendered their Big Three to a Big Two – or many times a lonely One – the Nets were a remarkable 27-2 when allowing 112 or fewer points in a game during a regular season which they finished as a de facto 1A to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

The true magic number when it comes to facing Brooklyn, however, is 120, as the Nets were a pedestrian 8-13 when opponents scored above that mark. So, how many teams averaged 120 points per game this season?

Just one, as a matter of fact. That would be the Bucks.

And what team had the most games this season totalling 120 or more points? Again, the answer is Milwaukee, whose 39 games hitting the mark was six more than the next closest competitor – which, you guessed it, would be the Nets.

Well, after two games of the most anticipated series of this year's conference semifinals, Brooklyn's perceived greatest threat had offered no challenge whatsoever.

After comfortably winning Game 1, even with Harden playing a mere 43 seconds after aggravating a previous hamstring injury, the Nets unequivocally justified their status as the favourites to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy with a 125-86 Game 2 thrashing that came with Harden cheering on his fellow well-paid team-mates in street clothes.

In hindsight, those results were ones we maybe could have seen coming. Sure, the Bucks effortlessly disposed of the reigning East champion Miami Heat with a first-round sweep, but it came without their offense performing at its usually potent level.

Milwaukee shot just 32.7 per cent from three-point range for the series, well below their 38.9 per cent success rate for the season, and they had at least 15 turnovers in three of the wins. The Bucks advanced mostly on good defense, coupled with an unquestionably abysmal shooting performance from the Heat over the four games.

In the Brooklyn series, the Bucks haven't been able to hit water from a boat, going into Game 3, having shot a paltry 24.6 per cent from beyond the arc over the first two clashes.

The early stages of the series also exposed Milwaukee's greatest weakness during what was otherwise another splendid regular season under Mike Budenholzer – an inability to adequately defend the three. The Bucks permitted opponents to make 38.4 per cent of their trey attempts over the 72-game schedule, with only the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves yielding a higher percentage.

Against a locked-in team like the Nets, that can be – and has been – a recipe for disaster. The first team in league history to make 15 or more three-pointers in six straight games during a single postseason, Brooklyn have connected at an incredible 43 per cent rate from long distance so far in these playoffs, going into Thursday evening's third clash with the Bucks.

If the Nets could even come close to keeping that pace the rest of the way, that likely spells doom for the rest of the NBA. The three-point shot has been a strong indicator of success in this postseason, as teams have won at a 70 per cent clip (35-15) when recording a higher three-point percentage than their opponents and are 25-7 when hitting 15 or more triples in a game.

Moreover, teams that have shot better than 40 per cent from three-point range are 24-5 this postseason, and the five teams that lost each faced an opponent that also eclipsed the 40 per cent mark in that game.

So, assuming the Nets don't do the unthinkable and somehow lose this series, is it a fait accompli they'll represent the East in the Finals?

They did lose two of their three match-ups with the 76ers during the regular season, though it's hard to put much stock in those outcomes considering Brooklyn were without at least two of Durant, Harden and Irving in all of those games.

Philadelphia getting past the upstart Atlanta Hawks cannot be considered an absolute given either, but the Sixers will provide an interesting test provided they do get past their pesky second-round foes.

They have the lowest ratio of three-point attempts to total field-goal attempts of any of the eight remaining teams, not too surprising for an offense centred around MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and the perimeter-averse Ben Simmons. But while the Sixers generally aren't bombing away with the same frequency as those still left standing, it could be argued that outside shooting may be the single biggest factor in determining how far they ultimately go this summer.

Next to Embiid's ever-present fitness concerns, Seth Curry might just be the X-factor when it comes to determining whether the 76ers can end a 20-year Finals absence. When Curry is going well and Embiid is healthy, Philadelphia are awfully difficult to beat. And Steph's little brother is certainly doing just that right now, having averaged 24 points while shooting 61.9 per cent (13 of 19) from three-point range over his last three games.

The 76ers went 20-3 during the regular season when Curry made three or more three-pointers in a game, and they've hit the all-important 120-point mark in five of their seven playoff games thus far. If it comes to fruition, a Philly-Brooklyn match-up in the East Finals would surely be a treat.

As for the West, the Clippers could represent the most imposing roadblock to the Nets' first NBA title in franchise history – on paper, at least. No team shot above the coveted 40 per cent standard from three-point range more times during the regular season than Tyronn Lue's group, whose 42 such games were seven more than the team second on that list (again, the Nets). The Clippers also led the league in three-point percentage at 41.1 per cent.

There's no questioning the Clippers' talent and depth. Trust, however, is another matter. This is largely the same cast that famously blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in last year’s West semifinals, and they couldn't hold on to a 13-point half-time advantage in losing Tuesday's series opener to a Utah team playing without starting point guard Mike Conley.

History isn't on the Clippers' side either, as they've never advanced past the conference semis in eight previous tries.

And what about the Jazz, for that matter? Utah may not possess the Nets' overall star power and haven't displayed the same level of recent dominance as their potential Finals foes, but they did lead the league in wins this season, are capable of shooting their way out of any deficit and haven't lost a game when Donovan Mitchell has taken the court since April.

That is only a seven-game winning streak since Mitchell missed over a month with a sprained ankle, but has there been a better postseason performer than Utah's All-Star guard over the last two years?

In 12 playoff games over that period, Mitchell has averaged 34.4 points on 50.6 per cent shooting, and a 45-point masterpiece against the Clippers on Tuesday was his fourth outing with at least 44 points during that stretch.

Of course, superlative individual efforts don't always coincide with championship glory. Just ask Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

Predicting the winner of a major international tournament is a natural part of being a football fan, even if it can sometimes be something of a fool's errand – as proven by Greece and Denmark.

But considering how integral statistics are to football these days, using data could potentially give you the edge, and that's where Stats Perform comes in.

Our Artificial Intelligence team have used Opta's extensive data reserves to quantify each team's chances of winning the entire tournament.

Every match has been run through the Stats Perform Euros Prediction model to calculate the estimated probability of the outcome (win, draw or loss). This uses odds from betting markets and Stats Perform team rankings, which are based on historical and recent performances.

It takes into consideration the strength of each team's opponents as well as the difficulty of their respective paths to the final, plus the make-up of the groups and any relevant seedings heading into the knockouts.

Then, the rest of the tournament is simulated 40,000 times and analysed, providing the AI team with a percentage for each nation, showing the probability of them ultimately lifting the trophy at Wembley on July 11.

Without any further ado, let's check out the results, some of which may come as something of a surprise…

MOST-LIKELY WINNERS: France (20.5 per cent)

Well, this one probably isn't much of a shock. Anyone who has looked through the squad at Didier Deschamps' disposal has likely come to the conclusion that Les Bleus will have to implode a la the 2010 World Cup if they're to be beaten.

Most of the key players from their 2018 World Cup-winning squad are present, and now they can call upon the services of Karim Benzema again, which is no small thing.

 

Our model also gives France a 46.8 per cent chance of finish top of the so-called 'Group of Death', which also includes defending champions Portugal and a Germany side desperate for redemption after World Cup humiliation in Russia.

If France are successful, Deschamps will become the first man in history to win the World Cup and Euros as both a player and manager.

2. Belgium (15.7 per cent)

Could this be the last-chance saloon for Belgium's 'Golden Generation'? Our predictor model certainly suggests they're still in with a great chance of winning the title, with their 15.7 per cent the second highest.

They have the joint-oldest squad at the tournament (29.2 years) along with Sweden, so while they're certainly not a young team, several of their best players are right at the peak of their powers, with Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku coming into the tournament arguably in the form of their lives.

 

They looked sharp in qualifying – for what it's worth – with a 100 per cent win record and a 40-goal haul that wasn't matched by any other team, while they will be strong favourites to win their group ahead of Russia, Denmark and Finland.

3. Spain (11.3 per cent)

Now, one thing our model cannot take into consideration is a coronavirus outbreak. La Roja had to field their Under-21s for the senior side's final pre-Euros warm-up game against Lithuania – while it means nothing for their chances at the tournament, they did ease to a 4-0 win.

It remains to be seen if there are any further consequences of Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente testing positive for COVID-19, but if we assume Luis Enrique is able to rely on a squad that's more or less the selection he initially picked, they will at least be strong options to reach the latter stages.

Although perhaps not blessed with the kind of 'superstar' talent they've had at other tournaments over the past 15 years or so, they do have a highly regarded coach and beat Germany 6-0 as recently as November. Nevertheless, their disrupted build-up to the tournament could be telling when their campaign starts.

4. Germany (9.8 per cent)

Joachim Low's going to have to upset the odds if he is to enjoy one last hurrah with Die Mannschaft. The World Cup-winner coach is stepping down a year early after the Euros, with Hansi Flick set to take over.

Having the likes of Thomas Muller back in the squad after a stunning couple of seasons with Bayern Munich will surely improve their chances – though our model doesn't take player data into account.

 

The predictor will see that Germany have failed to beat Denmark and North Macedonia in two of their three most recent games, while they also have a particularly hard group.

5. Portugal (9.6 per cent)

The other major footballing power from the 'Group of Death' – our predictor suggests Portugal are the least likely of themselves, France and Germany to win Euro 2020.

Nevertheless, La Selecao will surely feel good about themselves heading into the competition. Their squad is arguably significantly better than the one that won Euro 2016, while coach Fernando Santos is a shrewd operator.

They also have this chap up front called Cristiano Ronaldo, who is one away from setting a new record for the most goals (10) in European Championship history.

THE REST OF THE FIELD

According to our predictor, a resurgent Italy and Netherlands are the next most likely to win the tournament, which would represent a rather good turnaround from missing out on the 2018 World Cup – in fact, the Oranje weren't at Euro 2016 either.

At this point there are probably many of you pondering – assuming you've not just scrolled straight down to the list – about England's chances.

Well, the Three Lions' ranking here is a prime example of how a good draw can really pay. While they should – in theory, at least – have more than enough firepower to get out of a group that also contains Croatia, neighbours Scotland and Czech Republic, their route to the final would almost certainly see them come up against one – or more – of Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. They're also probably not helped by the fact they've played more Euros games (31) without reaching the final than any other team.

England's 5.2 per cent chance of success sees them behind Denmark (5.4 per cent), whose path to the final would likely be a little kinder, though the caveat is that the Three Lions could potentially play the vast majority of their matches on home soil at Wembley.

Tournament debutants North Macedonia are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the least likely to win Euro 2020, with their chances rated at 0.02 per cent.

 

6. Italy (7.6 per cent)

7. Netherlands (5.9 per cent)

8. Denmark (5.4 per cent)

9. England (5.2 per cent)

10. Switzerland (2.3 per cent)

11. Sweden (1.5 per cent)

12. Croatia (1.0 per cent)

13. Russia (1.0 per cent)

14. Poland (0.8 per cent)

15. Ukraine (0.8 per cent)

16. Wales (0.6 per cent)

17. Turkey (0.4 per cent)

18. Czech Republic (0.2 per cent)

19. Austria (0.2 per cent)

20. Finland (0.1 per cent)

21. Hungary (0.1 per cent)

22. Scotland (0.1 per cent)

23. Slovakia (0.04 per cent)

24. North Macedonia (0.02 per cent)

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

The 12-month delay to Euro 2020 has provided an easy angle for debate ahead of the finals this week.

Which teams might have benefited from the postponement? Italy are back in the groove, Spain were surely buoyed by a 6-0 win over Germany, and England continue to develop exciting young talents.

It works both ways, though, as Germany might have preferred the tournament to go ahead in 2020, prior to their heaviest competitive defeat and before Joachim Low confirmed his exit plans.

Meanwhile, neither situation necessarily suits the Netherlands.

The Oranje have a youthful, talented, newly settled side, but there is the suspicion they have already peaked.

Ronald Koeman, appointed in February 2018, had the Netherlands playing some thrilling, effective football in his first 18 months in charge, narrowly losing the showpiece match at the Nations League Finals while easing to Euros qualification.

Since then, the coach has departed, a number of his young charges have seen their careers stall somewhat and Virgil van Dijk, the team's standout star, has been ruled out by injury.

It means there is plenty of scepticism as Frank de Boer leads the Dutch into their first major tournament in seven years.

 

COACH ACCUSTOMED TO CRITICISM

Koeman left the national team to be appointed by Barcelona. It is highly unlikely De Boer could walk into such a role regardless of his success with the Netherlands.

Since leaving Ajax as a four-time Eredivisie champion in 2016, the coach has endured short, miserable stints with Inter, Crystal Palace and Atlanta United.

De Boer won just 36.4 per cent of his Serie A games, the second-worst rate of an Inter boss this century.

Only Gian Piero Gasperini was less impressive as he went winless, an unfortunate feat De Boer would repeat at Palace as the Eagles did not even score or earn a point in his four Premier League outings.

Atlanta faded from MLS Cup champions to also-rans under De Boer, too, before he was handed an unlikely Oranje opportunity, only to go four without a win at the start of his tenure.

The Netherlands' fortunes have since improved, winning five of seven – albeit while losing a key World Cup qualifier in Turkey and scraping to a friendly draw against Scotland.

Off-field faux pas have also persisted, including media conference mix-ups involving Queensy Menig and Donny van de Beek while Jasper Cillessen was controversially cut from the Euros squad following a positive COVID-19 test.

"It seems clear that things need to get better," De Boer acknowledged after the Scotland game, although he was more optimistic in the aftermath of a subsequent 3-0 win against Georgia.

Having made only two changes to his 5-3-2 line-up – one in goal, the other enforced by injury – De Boer declared: "We're ready."

 

YOUNG STARS' STUNTED PROGRESS

Six players who started the Nations League Finals matches should make De Boer's XI for the Ukraine game, but these stars are not necessarily in the same shape as they were in 2019.

Matthijs de Ligt, Daley Blind and Frenkie de Jong were all coming off an outstanding campaign with Ajax in which they reached the Champions League last four, swatting aside Real Madrid and Juventus on their way before coming within seconds of the final.

Van de Beek, called from the bench against England, was also part of that superb club side.

While Blind remains in Amsterdam and will surely now only start if De Ligt is injured – as he was against Georgia – the other three, who should fit well within De Boer's fluid formation, moved on with mixed success.

De Ligt's first season with Juve was tough, including two errors that led to shots (including one to a goal) and three penalties conceded, before he improved in 2020-21.

De Jong followed a similar path of slow progress at Barca, the highlight of his Camp Nou career so far – now under Koeman – a goal and two assists in April's Copa del Rey final.

That single-game contribution matched Van de Beek's meagre haul for his entire debut season at Manchester United, concerningly. A year behind his two younger international team-mates, the midfielder joined United in 2020 and his three goal involvements came across 36 games but just 15 starts.

Van de Beek's season has ended in miserable fashion, forced to withdraw from the Euros squad this week. Far from a regular at international level, too, this might be a bigger setback for the player than for the Netherlands.

 

DETERMINED TO MAKE THEIR MARK

The absence of Van Dijk means the other Ajax graduates unquestionably maintain key roles in the defensive third, but the Netherlands are relying on older heads in attack, even if they are without the sort of superstar Dutch forward of years past.

This country once had Patrick Kluivert and Ruud van Nistelrooy born on the same day; now they rely on a midfielder and a converted winger for their goals.

It was effective in qualifying, though. Georginio Wijnaldum, 30, was their leading marksman with eight, while Memphis Depay, 27, either scored or assisted every 38 minutes – six goals and seven assists in 495 minutes the best rate among the 54 players to have five or more goal involvements.

Depay netted twice against Scotland and once against Georgia, along with an assist, and will be eager to establish himself on the European stage.

The Barca-linked Lyon forward was an under-19 international when the Netherlands last appeared at the European Championship in 2012, while he made only a single start at the World Cup two years later.

Wijnaldum was at least a regular at Brazil 2014, scoring in the third-place play-off, but both he and Depay have been robbed of a huge chunk of their major tournament careers by the team's failings.

Even with a kind group-stage draw, as they chase a first Euros win since the first round in 2008, the Oranje will need Wijnaldum and Depay to deliver. Neither should be lacking motivation.

When Roberto Mancini was appointed in May 2018, the only way was up for Italy.

For the first time since 1958, the Azzurri were going to miss out on a World Cup. A play-off defeat to Sweden left the four-time winners looking on from afar when the 2018 edition was staged in Russia.

Mancini himself said the country was still in mourning six months later upon his arrival. There had been tears of sadness from the great Gianluigi Buffon in the immediate aftermath following a failure to score at San Siro, as a 0-0 draw on home soil followed on from a 1-0 defeat in the first leg in Stockholm.

Just over three years later, however, and Italy's outlook ahead of a major tournament could not be more contrasting. The only tears they are hoping to see this time around are the joyous kind.

Having lacked a clear and obvious gameplan under Gian Piero Ventura, the current crop have developed a sharpness and style to match their manager's dress sense.

At the very beginning of his reign, Mancini had made clear what needed to happen to get Italy off the canvas and back with a fighting chance of competing at the highest level. In hindsight, he has proven to be the ideal man for a crisis.

"It's a difficult time and there's a lot to do"

Mancini was not lying with his assessment of the situation at his first press conference after taking the job. Italy had finished second behind Spain in Group G of World Cup qualifying, though their only defeat in the round-robin stage had come away to La Roja.

However, the play-off round that followed was a disaster in football terms. Beaten by a goal from Jakob Johansson in the first meeting, Ventura's side dominated possession and attempted plenty of shots second time around, only to draw a blank. Sweden stood firm, dealing with cross after cross to keep a clean sheet and punch their ticket.

As Italy strived without success to find a breakthrough, Lorenzo Insigne sat on the bench. The Napoli forward was not called into action at a time when his team desperately needed to score, despite Daniele De Rossi's best attempts to get his compatriot involved.

This time around, Insigne is no longer a peripheral figure. Mancini's preference has been to play a 4-3-3 system, one that allows the 30-year-old to prosper.

There remains a focus on being defensively solid – this is still Italy – but not at the expense of capitalising on opportunities to attack. In qualifying, Italy managed 37 goals, a tally only Belgium (40) bettered, as they won 10 from 10, conceding just four in the process.

Andrea Belotti finished as their leading scorer (four goals), but Ciro Immobile may end up being the chosen one to occupy the central role up top. Both showed they can create too, providing a pair of assists in Group J.

"Our task will be to make Italy close to the fans again through our play and results"

September 10, 2018. That is the last time Italy lost an international game, going down 1-0 to Portugal in a Nations League contest to an Andre Silva goal.

Since that result, Mancini has overseen a 27-match unbeaten run. While the opposition has not always been of the highest standard – the qualification group draw was certainly kind – they have repeatedly churned out results.

A 4-0 thrashing of the Czech Republic in their final warm-up game before the European Championship saw history made, Italy winning eight consecutive games in all competitions without conceding a goal for the first time.

Mancini has overseen such a streak even while heavily rotating, using 40 different players during qualifying, more than any other nation.

Still, some have been regulars under the former Inter and Manchester City boss. Centre-back Leonardo Bonucci played all 10 group fixtures, while Jorginho featured in nine games, the deep-lying midfielder a key figure in helping build patiently from the back by controlling possession, with his 1,019 touches in qualifying comfortably the most by any Italian and only behind Belgium centre-back Toby Alderweireld and Germany midfielder Joshua Kimmich among all teams. Second on the list for Italy was another midfielder in Marco Verratti, who had 917 touches in just seven outings.

With those two charged with dictating proceedings, the third midfielder is afforded the opportunity to work in more advanced positions. Nicolo Barella did so against the Czechs, while there are options aplenty in the 26-man party to fill the wide positions.

The televised show to reveal Italy's final list of players certainly provided plenty of entertainment, but so too has the team on the pitch. This is a squad that Italy fans should enjoy watching in the coming weeks.

"I want to be the head coach who brings Italy back to where we belong in Europe and in the world"

Mancini was defiant when he first met the media in terms of his long-term aim, but can his Italy keep on winning?

The plans put in place have worked so far. Euro 2020, however, will be the key test as to whether such a streak has been built on solid enough foundations to achieve success against the best on the continent. Home advantage will help in the group – they play Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in Rome – as Mancini prepares for his first major tournament in charge.

A delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could have easily cost them momentum, but in the additional year they have won 10 and drawn three times. A hat-trick of 2-0 victories in March gave them an ideal start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, putting them on course to reach Qatar.

Mancini's performance led to a contract extension through to 2026, a long-term commitment that shows all is rosy in the garden. The Italian Football Federation had done the same with Ventura too, only to sack him not long after, but this feels different. There is a togetherness among the squad, aided by results on the pitch.

"Mancini has created a great group, a great spirit and has put everyone in a position to express themselves at their best and have fun. We are playing great football," Insigne told Rai Sport after the Czech Republic friendly, having scored one himself and set up a goal for Domenico Berardi.

That spirit – not to mention the streak – will come under pressure in the coming weeks, particularly as Mancini has raised hopes that this Italy can go far.

Still, for a coach who had to pick up the pieces after that miserable night in Milan, creating a situation where such lofty expectations even exist is an impressive achievement in itself.

Aston Villa have reached an agreement to sign Emiliano Buendia from Norwich City.

Reports over the weekend suggested Villa had a £33million offer, which could reach a total value of £40m, accepted by promoted side Norwich.

Arsenal had also pursued Buendia, but it is Villa who have confirmed they are poised to sign the Championship's Player of the Year in a deal that is a club-record signing for them and the highest ever sale for Norwich.

Villa's statement on Monday read: "Aston Villa and Norwich City have reached an agreement for the transfer of Emiliano Buendia.

"As Emiliano is currently in the Argentina national team's biosecure bubble, preparing for a World Cup qualifying match with Colombia on Tuesday evening, he will undergo a medical and complete the transfer after the game."

Playmaker Buendia, 24, played a major role in Norwich's return to the Premier League, racking up 15 goals and 16 assists in the Championship and recently earned his first Argentina call-up.

He provided seven assists the year before in a productive top-flight season, even though Norwich were ultimately relegated.

Norwich have also confirmed the transfer will go through pending a successful medical for Buendia.

Their statement read: "Norwich City can confirm that a club-record deal has been agreed with Aston Villa for the transfer of Emi Buendia.

"Buendia will complete his final medical checks following the conclusion of Argentina's World Cup qualifying fixture against Colombia on Tuesday evening.

"Final confirmation of the transfer will follow upon completion of the player's medical."

Fantastic figures

Buendia created 55 shooting opportunities in open play in the 2019-20 Premier League season, a figure that only Kevin De Bruyne, potential new team-mate Jack Grealish and Sadio Mane could better.

He was level with Mohamed Salah and ahead of Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, among others.

His seven assists, only one of which came from a set-piece situation, was another notable feat, and his 6.2 expected assists (xA) figure suggests he wasn't benefiting from astonishing luck throughout the season either. 

 

Buendia added to his game in the Championship. In the Premier League he averaged just 1.46 shots per game, but he more than doubled that frequency to three every 90 minutes in the second tier, likely a consequence of the fact he has spent more time in the central areas of the pitch and closer to the penalty area.

As a result, his goals haul shot up from one to 15 and his xG (expected goals) of 11.8 shows that, while he may have scored more than the quality of his chances warranted, he would still have expected to reach double figures. 

Buendia had 16 assists, above his overall xA of 12.4, which was still at least four more than any other player in the Championship in 2020-21. 

Similarly, his 93 key passes in open play was – remarkably – 31 more than anyone else in the division.

 

It may be a year late, but Euro 2020 is almost upon us and the opportunity for glory is just around the corner.

The usual suspects will be undoubtedly favoured by many, with France's squad seemingly stronger than ever, Portugal possessing a seriously talented group and England looking good as they bid to end their long wait for international success.

Similarly, Italy and the Netherlands are back on the scene after missing out on tournament qualification in recent times, while Germany will be hoping to bounce back from their World Cup humiliation.

Die Mannschaft were eliminated from the group stage of a World Cup for the first time ever by South Korea three years ago, and Joachim Low will be eager to restore some dignity in what will be his final tournament in charge.

But could the trophy actually end up being lifted by one of the unfancied teams? We all remember Greece's remarkable triumph in 2004, for example.

With that in mind, Stats Perform has identified some potential dark horses ahead of the tournament.

Turkey – Group A

Key man: Burak Yilmaz
One to watch: Abdulkadir Omur

It's fair to say Turkey are a curious team in international football. They have reached the semi-finals in two – and come third on both occasions – of their past three major tournaments, which is impressive, but the caveat is that trio of qualifications spanned 2002-2018.

Euro 2020 will be only their fourth major tournament appearance out of a possible 11 this century across the European Championship and World Cup, and they disappointed at Euro 2016 as they were eliminated at the group stage.

But there are reasons for optimism this time, particularly given the encouraging amount of talent in a youthful squad – their average age of 25 years exactly is the lowest at the tournament, and it would be even lower were it not for the presence of 35-year-old Burak Yilmaz, who certainly isn't there as some kind of token 'Golden Oldie'.

 

The burly centre-forward proved plenty of doubters wrong in his debut Ligue 1 season with Lille, his 16 goals and five assists helping them to an unlikely title triumph. Those 21 direct goal involvements put him six ahead of any other Lille player, and his experience helped a Les Dogues team that was also on the young side.

Yilmaz became the first player to score at least 15 goals in his first season with Lille in Ligue 1 since Moussa Sow in 2010-11 (25), while his penalty at Angers on the final day saw him beat the record for the most goals netted by a Turkish player in a single campaign in the competition, set by Mevlut Erdinc in 2009-10.

 

Yilmaz's Lille team-mates Zeki Celik and Yusuf Yazici – the latter scored 14 club goals across all 2020-21 competitions from midfield – are also present, while Hakan Calhanoglu offers guaranteed creativity. The Milan playmaker created the most chances in Serie A (98) in 2020-21, while his nine assists came from an xA (expected assists) value of 8.5, suggesting that haul came from a place of consistency rather than luck.

But then Turkey also looked solid at the back in qualifying, their three goals conceded in 10 games was the joint-best record alongside Belgium, and Kaan Ayhan's three headed goals en route to the Euros wasn't bettered by anyone, meaning Calhanoglu's set-piece deliveries could be a real asset.

 

Senol Gunes is back at the helm having guided them to third place at the 2002 World Cup, and he may just fancy another upset 19 years on.

Ukraine – Group C

Key man: Ruslan Malinovskiy
One to watch: Illya Zabarnyi

Ukraine are long-term underachievers at this level. They've failed to score in their last five games at the European Championship, the longest goalless run in the history of the tournament.

In fact, none of Ukraine's last 67 shots have ended in the back of the net. This, coupled with the fact their coach Andrey Shevchenko is the only player to find the net for them at the Euros (a brace against Sweden in 2012) highlights their biggest issue over the past nine years: scoring goals.

While the likes of Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka – the latter of whom isn't in the squad due to injury – have good records, Ukraine have lacked a reliable goal threat in the central striker berth practically ever since Shevchenko retired.

 

However, in Gent forward Roman Yaremchuk they may have finally founded a suitable answer, with the 25-year-old heading into the tournament on the back of his best-ever season for goals, having netted 20 times in the Belgian top flight.

Those 20 strikes came from an xG (expected goals) value of 18.2 as well, so although he may have been fortunate once or twice, he would still have expected to get a good haul, which speaks to his reliability in front of goal.

 

Ruslan Malinovskiy of Atalanta is another interesting player. Something of a late bloomer, the talented central midfielder has been an important part of a wonderful Nerazzurri side this season.

While his Serie A-high 12 assists was considerably higher than his 6.7 xA, suggesting his passes benefited from particularly impressive finishing, that xA figure was still only bettered by only six players.

Similarly, his 57 key passes in open play was second only to Luis Alberto (59), yet it's worth bearing in mind Malinovskiy only actually started 22 matches. 

 

Czech Republic – Group D

Key man: Tomas Soucek
One to watch: Adam Hlozek

At Euro 2016, the Czech Republic only managed one point as they failed to get past the group stage, and there will be plenty of people expecting them to crash out in a similar manner again.

Nevertheless, they're a country with a strong history in the competition given this is their seventh successive appearance at the Euros, a streak only Germany (13) and France (eight) can better.

Group D should provide them with opportunities as well. While England will be strongly fancied to finish top, Croatia aren't generally seen as quite the same force they were at the last World Cup, and Scotland, though possessing some talented players, are inexperienced at such competitions.

An area that could prove particularly useful for the Czech Republic in what could prove to be a tight group is their set-piece prowess. Seven of their 13 goals in qualifying were scored at set-plays – that's 54 per cent, the joint-highest ratio of any side to qualify.

That's not their only weapon, however. They do have talented individuals in the squad such as Jakub Jankto and Patrik Schick, the hard-working Tomas Soucek – who won more duels and aerials than any other Premier League player in 2020-21 – and a solid goalkeeper in Tomas Vaclik.

They also have something of a wildcard in their midst: Adam Hlozek.

Despite missing a chunk of the season through injury, Sparta Prague's Hlozek still managed to plunder 15 Liga goals in just 19 matches, and in April he became the competition's youngest hat-trick scorer with his treble against Opava.

He then finished the season with an astonishing four-goal haul against Zbrojovka Brno to finish as the league's joint-top scorer, though he also had six assists to his name. The 18-year-old is a complete striker if there ever was one, and he could be a potential breakout star for Czech Republic if he overcomes a pre-tournament injury.

Poland – Group E

Key man: Robert Lewandowski
One to watch: Kacper Kozlowski

Poland's situation in terms of grouping is quite similar to the Czech Republic. Spain will be expected to top Group E, otherwise it looks difficult to call between the Polish, Sweden and Slovakia.

Further to that, the runner-up spot will secure a second-round clash with the team that finishes second in Group D, which could potentially be the Czech Republic. It's entirely plausible that either of them could get as far as the quarter-finals thanks to a relatively kind draw.

Of course, there are lots of variables to consider before than and along the way, but Poland have the advantage of boasting arguably the world's best striker in their squad.

Sure, Robert Lewandowski has scored only one goal in his last 10 games in major competitions (World Cup and Euros), netting against Portugal in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, but he heads into this tournament on the back of a remarkable season.

The Bayern Munich star's 41 Bundesliga goals broke Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 in a single season. The next-best tally in Europe's top five leagues in 2020-21 saw Lionel Messi trailing well behind on 30.

 

Lewandowski unsurprisingly also led Europe in expected goals – with his chances worth 32.2 xG – and expected goals on target, producing shots with a value of 35.8 xGOT.

He and Poland were arguably unfortunate to not reach the semi-finals five years ago as they were the only team never to trail at any point in Euro 2016, with their elimination by eventual winners Portugal coming via a penalty shootout.

If Lewandowski manages to carry over his Bayern form a little better this time around, who's to say they can't go beyond the last eight in 2020.

Euro 2020 is just days away, and that means the rumour mill is about to go into overdrive.

International tournaments always represent something of a showcase for clubs seeking reinforcements and this year will be no different, even if the impact of the pandemic means spending may not quite reach levels of old.

There will be several players eager to impress at these finals: some will be long-term targets out to justify the hype, while others will be seeking a new challenge as contracts begin to wind down.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform has compiled a list of some of the candidates vying to be front and centre of this particular shop window...

 

Belgium: Jeremy Doku

One of Belgium's less-known attacking stars, Jeremy Doku was directly involved in 10 goals in the Jupiler League by the time he was 18 years and 115 days old, a record bettered only by Romelu Lukaku.

Previously wanted by Liverpool, the Rennes forward could become a target for Jurgen Klopp – thought to be exploring new attacking options – should he be given the chance to impress by Roberto Martinez.

Croatia: Bruno Petkovic

"Bruno Petkovic has to be at Euro 2020 what [Mario] Mandzukic was in Russia," said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic last month. No pressure, then.

Still, the Dinamo Zagreb forward impressed in last season's Europa League with four goals in nine starts and could represent a relatively low-cost option in the market.

England: Jadon Sancho

The star performer as Borussia Dortmund won the DFB-Pokal final, Jadon Sancho was the first English player since David Beckham 20 years ago to register at least 10 assists for three seasons in a row in Europe's top-five leagues.

Manchester United continue to be mooted as the winger's most likely destination should he leave Dortmund, but a star turn at the Euros could trigger a bidding war among some of the biggest clubs.

France: Jules Kounde

Getting into the France starting line-up is no easy task these days, but Jules Kounde could well force Didier Deschamps' hand given the qualities he brings to centre-back.

An accomplished stopper, the Sevilla man is also impeccable on the ball: he made 887 forward passes in LaLiga last season, the most of any outfield player. Little wonder that Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all been linked.

Germany: Florian Neuhaus

Given he has been linked with Bayern Munich for months now, Florian Neuhaus must be doing something right.

The 108th Germany debutant under Joachim Low, the Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder could well find himself in high demand in the transfer window should he earn a regular spot at the Euros.

Italy: Manuel Locatelli

The heartbeat of a vibrant Sassuolo side, Manuel Locatelli in January became the first Italian player born after January 1, 1998 to record 10 Serie A assists.

Juventus are considered his likely next destination, but there are reports of interest from the Premier League, which would likely only increase in number should he shine at the Euros.

Netherlands: Memphis Depay

It appears likely Memphis Depay will leave Lyon for Barcelona on a free transfer, but, as long as that deal is not concluded, other clubs may sense the chance to snap up the forward.

Depay just became the first Lyon player to register at least 20 goals and 10 assists in a single Ligue 1 season since at least 2006-07 and looks like one of the Oranje's form players.

Poland: Kacper Kozlowski

At just 17, Kacper Kozlowski has established himself in the Pogon Szczecin first team, something made all-the-more remarkable given he was badly injured in a car crash in January 2020.

Although a name not well known outside Poland, the midfielder has been scouted by Manchester United and interest across the continent could well pick up after this tournament.

 

Portugal: Nuno Mendes

Considered one of Portugal's brightest prospects, Nuno Mendes has already been linked with the Manchester clubs after shining for Sporting CP.

Interest in the 18-year-old is only likely to increase should he perform well at the Euros, especially if he ousts Raphael Guerreiro from the side, and Sporting would surely be prepared to sell for a handsome fee.

 

Russia: Denis Cheryshev

Zero goas in 21 games for Valencia in LaLiga last season underlined a frustrating spell for Denis Cheryshev at club level.

The 30-year-old was Russia's star performer at the World Cup three years ago, though, and the Euros offer a good chance to tempt any possible suitors as he considers his future.

Spain: Pau Torres

Pau Torres was at the heart of Villarreal's Europa League triumph. In fact, he made nine appearances without being dribbled past, a single-season tally only bettered twice in the competition's history.

The centre-back has made it clear he is happy at the club, but strong performances for Spain could tempt suitors including Manchester United to test Villarreal's resolve to keep him.

Sweden: Alexander Isak

Linked with Barcelona during the season, Real Sociedad's Alexander Isak broke Zlatan Ibrahimovic's record for most goals by a Swede in a single LaLiga campaign by scoring 17 in 2020-21.

With Ibrahimovic missing these finals due to injury, 21-year-old Isak has a good opportunity to impress on the international stage.

Switzerland: Denis Zakaria

With his contract expiring next year, Denis Zakaria could be a more affordable midfield signing for any clubs willing to tempt Borussia Monchengladbach into a sale.

The 24-year-old offers great variety to the Switzerland midfield and English sides are expected to be watching him closely at these finals.

Ukraine: Ruslan Malinovskiy

Ruslan Malinovskiy is another Atalanta player to catch the eye under Gian Piero Gasperini. He was directly involved in a goal every 94 minutes in Serie A in 2020-21, the most of any midfielder to play at least 15 times.

Now 28, this could be his best chance to secure a significant transfer should he decide to leave Bergamo, and there have been rumblings of interest from Chelsea.

Wales: Gareth Bale

With 11 goals in 10 Premier League starts in 2020-21, Gareth Bale registered the best minutes-per-goal ratio (84) of any of the competition's top goalscorers.

He is returning to Real Madrid following his loan at Tottenham and Carlo Ancelotti appears keen to keep him, but heroics for Wales could encourage suitors to bid.

Long gone are the days when Arsenal attracted the world's best talents, it seems, as the Gunners are reportedly set to miss out on one of their primary targets to Aston Villa.

Emi Buendia is, according to widespread reports, about to join Aston Villa from Norwich City in a deal worth in the region of £35million, a club-record purchase and sale for the two teams.

Arsenal have been linked with numerous players to fill a creative void, with Martin Odegaard and Dani Ceballos returning to Real Madrid after their respective loan spells.

Buendia had seemingly emerged as an attainable option for the Gunners, with the Argentinian – who recently received his first senior international call-up – always likely to leave Carrow Road after playing a major role in their return to the Premier League.

A creative talent capable of opening up defences with his passing and dribbling abilities, Buendia was named Championship Player of the Year for his part in Norwich's successful promotion a year after dropping down from the top flight.

While £35m may sound like a significant fee for a player whose most recent campaign was in the second tier, it is easy to see why Buendia is set to command such an outlay for Villa.

Impressive despite relegation

When Norwich were relegated last year, it was a widely held belief that they had several players who were likely to stay in the Premier League by joining other teams.

While Ben Godfrey was sold for approximately £25m to Everton and Jamal Lewis moved to Newcastle United, Norwich managed to keep hold of their other major assets: Todd Cantwell, Max Aarons and, perhaps crucially, Buendia.

That they were able to resist the sale of Buendia was arguably the most surprising of all, considering he had enjoyed a promising debut campaign in the Premier League.

His ability to find and exploit pockets of space made him a real creative nuisance and something of an anomaly as well, given he – a player in a relegated team – was up there with the league's best in key creative metrics

Buendia created 55 shooting opportunities in open play in 2019-20, a figure that only Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Sadio Mane could better. He was level with Mohamed Salah and ahead of Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, among others.

His seven assists, only one of which came from a set-piece situation, was another notable feat, and his 6.2 expected assists (xA) figure suggests he wasn't benefiting from astonishing luck throughout the season either. He was simply a very effective creator.

Learning on the job

It would have been easy to write Buendia's Premier League season off as a fluke. There must have been those expecting him to endure a disappointing 2020-21 back in the Championship, perhaps a consequence of not getting a move away.

After all, he did have a spell out of the Norwich team in 2019-20, with Norwich boss Daniel Farke suggesting there were concerns over his work rate and lack of goals.

"Believe me there is probably no-one here in this room who knows [better] how good Emi is and how big his potential is," Farke said in February 2020. "If he is just there with 95 per cent [effort] then it was definitely possible to bring him back [into the team] at Championship level and he could still make the difference.

"But at this [Premier League] level, let's be honest when he is not 100 prepared — you could realise it at Newcastle when we brought him in. Not to accuse him but our game looked poorer when we brought him in.

"When I think about his ability to assist, he is already there with seven. It is perhaps not world class on this level for a winger, but for our level it is top class and it is the best of all our players in these terms. Let's be honest, we've had the 26th game day and he is there with no goals. There are several losses of the ball and also sometimes he lacks running in behind."

But Buendia stuck around, seemingly accepting he still had plenty to learn, and his improvement in front of goal has been notable.

In the Premier League he averaged just 1.46 shots per game, but he has more than doubled that frequency to three every 90 minutes in the Championship, likely a consequence of the fact he has spent more time in the central areas of the pitch and closer to the penalty area.

As a result, his goals haul shot up from one to 15 and his xG of 11.8 shows that, while he may have been lucky on occasions, he would still have expected to reach double figures. Even if you take into consideration the drop in quality from the Premier League to the Championship, that is still a commendable improvement and highlights his willingness to take on criticism and use it to better himself.

Creating his own luck?

Buendia's even greater tendency to work centrally seemed to benefit his creative talents as well. As shown in his xA map, many of his 16 assists came from the middle vertical of the attacking half.

Granted, he has outperformed his 9.3 xA (open play) by approximately seven, which is significant and suggests some of those assists have benefited from particularly good finishing or a slice of fortune, yet his overall xA of 12.4 is still at least four more than any other player in the Championship this term.

Similarly, his 93 key passes in open play was – remarkably – 31 more than anyone else in the division.

It will be intriguing to see what role Buendia is deployed in at Villa and whether both he and Grealish are compatible in the same side. Even if they line up on opposite flanks, they will want to do much of their work in similar areas as they drift inside.

But regardless of any potential teething issues, Buendia looks set to be another smart acquisition by Villa – and potentially the one who got away for Arsenal.

Euro 2020 has been a long time coming. Delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the European Championship is less than a week away from kick-off.

While the disappointment of seeing such a major tournament postponed and pushed back in 2020 was significant for many football fans, the delay has arguably helped the prospect of having more young players involved.

Every international event has its star man, but they also have their breakthrough talents and youngsters on the scene for the first time.

Euro 2016 had the likes of Kingsley Coman, Joshua Kimmich, Young Player of the Tournament Renato Sanches and Marcus Rashford – the youngest individual to feature – enjoying their first experiences of such events.

Who will be their equivalents at Euro 2020?

Well, Stats Perform has identified 10 members of the 'next generation' either hoping to stake their claim for a regular spot in the team or announce themselves on the big stage.

Becir Omeragic, 19, centre-back – Switzerland

It's no mean feat to establish yourself as a regular at club level as a teenage centre-back, a position that often requires maturity and composure, but Omeragic has done just that with FC Zurich, playing 48 league games for them since the start of 2019-20.

A tidy player in possession, Omeragic generally operates as the right-sided defender in a back three, and that suits him down to the ground with the national team, whom he has represented four times already.

If he does appear for Switzerland in the Euros, he'll become their second-youngest player to feature for them at a major tournament in the past 10 years, with Breel Embolo the only one to do so at a younger age (19 years, 118 days at Euro 2016).

 

Kacper Kozlowski, 17, attacking midfielder – Poland  

The fact Kozlowski was even in contention for a place in the squad is a triumph in itself, given that he broke his pelvis and back in a car crash just last January. That he actually secured a place is truly remarkable.

Kozlowski is the next great hope of Polish football, having already made a name for himself back home at Pogon Szczecin, with whom he became the second-youngest player in Ekstraklasa history (15y, 215d). He then became the club's youngest league goalscorer (17y, 182d) in April with a diving header against Podbeskidzie.

That came a month after he made history with the national team, becoming their youngest ever player (17y, 163d).

Kozlowski is a technical gifted attacking midfielder, but don't let that lead to certain misconceptions – he's also an impressive physical specimen for his age and a feisty competitor.

 

Jonas Wind, 22, forward – Denmark

Scandinavian countries are producing some bright attacking talents at the moment, and Wind looks set to be Denmark's contribution to the trend.

Wind has been a regular in the Copenhagen squad since he was a teenager, but in 2020-21 he enjoyed something of a breakthrough as he started 28 of their 32 league games.

His haul of 15 goals and eight assists was bettered by only one Danish Superligaen player and also shows his well-rounded nature.

A real unit, Wind is effective in the air, good at holding up play and also technically efficient. This blend of abilities – particularly his aerial prowess – could be a real weapon in Group B, which looks as though it could be a tight one.

Adam Hlozek, 18, forward – Czech Republic

If there's one teenager who looks likely to spark a post-tournament bidding war among Europe's biggest clubs, it's arguably Hlozek, who appears to be a serious talent.

At Sparta Prague, he initially started out as a winger because of his direct style of play and dribbling abilities, but those skills have transferred particularly well to a more central berth this term, where he has also been able to make the most of his impressive build.

Despite missing a chunk of the season through injury, Hlozek's still managed to plunder 15 Liga goals in just 19 matches, and in April became the competition's youngest hat-trick scorer with his treble against Opava.

He then finished the season with an astonishing four-goal haul against Zbrojovka Brno to finish as the league's joint-top scorer, though he also had six assists to his name. The 18-year-old is a complete striker if there ever was one, and he could be a wonderful wildcard option for Czech Republic if he overcomes a pre-tournament injury.

 

Illya Zabarnyi, 18, centre-back – Ukraine

Hopes are high for Zabarnyi, not just with Ukraine, but at club level as well. Currently playing for Dynamo Kiev after coming through their academy and making his debut just last September, the highly regarded centre-back is already attracting interest from abroad, with Chelsea supposedly among those keen on him.

Zabarnyi was one of only two Dynamo players to play every minute in the group stage of the 2020-21 Champions League (540), along with Tomasz Kedziora, highlighting just how trusted he already is by the Ukrainian champions.

The nine clearances he made in December's 1-0 win over Ferencvaros was more than any other Dynamo player in a single game in the 2020-21 edition, while his 34 across the group stage was bettered by only seven defenders. While some might point out such metrics tend to favour those in so-called lesser teams, it's worth mentioning the likes of Marquinhos, Antonio Rudiger and Stefan Savic were among the few with more clearances than Zabarnyi.

His distribution can still be problematic when under pressure, but he does possess a cool head on the ball – Zabarnyi certainly has the potential to be a mainstay for Ukraine in the coming years, and hopefully he'll get an opportunity at Euro 2020.

 

Maksim Mukhin, 19, defensive midfielder – Russia

With Belgium the big favourites to advance from Group B, there's going to be a three-way tussle for second (and third) between Denmark, Finland and Russia. Those three could be quite well-matched, with their contests looking difficult to call either way.

Mukhin's destructive tendencies could be key towards the end of games if Russia are under pressure but still in with a chance of victory, with the 19-year-old recording the best minutes-per-tackle rate (one every 19.8 minutes) among all players to feature at least 10 games in the Russian Premier League in 2020-21.

Young he may be, but Mukhin won't be overawed by the occasion having made his Champions League debut with Lokomotiv Moscow this season, catching the eye in his solitary appearance – a 3-1 defeat by Salzburg in which he made four tackles (bettered by only one player on the pitch) and three interceptions after coming off the bench at half-time, evidence of his defensive capabilities.

An energetic and competitive midfielder, Mukhin – who has agreed to join CSKA Moscow for next season – could be a real asset for Russia, if not now then almost certainly in the future.

 

Jules Kounde, 22, centre-back – France

Granted, Kounde is perhaps a level above the rest here in terms of how established he already is at club level with Sevilla, but it's worth noting he only got his first senior cap since the domestic season ended.

His form with Sevilla has helped him jump up the queue somewhat, with the Bordeaux youth product getting into France's squad ahead of Bayern Munich-bound Dayot Upamecano.

Kounde won't go into the tournament as first choice, but he is an interesting option at centre-back should France need – or want – a change.

A progressive and positive defender, Kounde's 624 carries (defined as movements of at least five metres with the ball) was bettered by only Pau Torres, while he carried possession forward to the tune of 3,908.8 metres across the campaign, a figure only two defenders could improve on in LaLiga this term.

He's also a keen distributor with 3,172 attempted passes – Edmond Tapsoba is the only player younger than him to try more (3,509) across the top five leagues. Potentially set for a big move away from Sevilla this year, making the most of any opportunities at the Euros won't hurt his chances.

 

Jeremy Doku, 19, winger – Belgium

It seems as though most young talents these days have a backstory that includes almost joining one of Europe's biggest clubs – Doku is no different, having opted against signing for Liverpool back in 2018.

A player who dreams of joining Barcelona, Doku definitely looks primed to have an impact for Belgium at the Euros. An explosive winger to his very core, the teenager has just enjoyed a fine debut campaign at Rennes in Ligue 1.

While his goal involvements return of five (two goals, three assists) is modest, his ability on the ball makes him a nightmare to defend against. In fact, of the players to attempt 200 or more dribbles in the top five European leagues this term, he's one of just three to boast at least a 60 per cent success rate – the other two are Lionel Messi and Adama Traore.

Raw, for sure, but if you want a livewire to inject a little unpredictability to you team, you can count on Doku.

Giacomo Raspadori, 21, forward – Italy

Italy are back in the big time after missing out on the 2018 World Cup, and much of the scoring burden will fall on Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti. But if they aren't doing the business, Sassuolo's Raspadori offers a considerably different alternative.

A nimble and technically gifted forward, Raspadori does not have great physicality on his side, so Italy might need to adapt their game slightly if he's in the attack as opposed to Immobile or Belotti, but he is more likely to dribble past his man.

That's certainly not all he's good at, though. While his return of six Serie A goals is by no means remarkable, four of those were scored in his final six games of the season and among Italians to net five non-penalty goals or more this term across all competitions, Raspadori's conversion rate of 37.5 is the best.

Nuno Mendes, 18, left-back – Portugal

A key player in the Sporting CP side that won the club's first league title since 2001-02, Mendes looks set for a big future.

The teenage left-back has already been strongly linked with the likes of Real Madrid and could be the ideal long-term replacement for Marcelo, such is Mendes' skillset.

He was the only teenage defender to create 30 or more chances (31) across the Portuguese Primeira Liga or any of Europe's top five leagues in 2020-21, proof of just how effective he can be and his forward-thinking nature. He also offers good deliveries from set-pieces.

He'll likely be back-up to Raphael Guerreiro at the Euros, but he's certainly not there just for the ride – he can have an impact if given the chance.

One of the premier pass-catching weapons in the NFL over the last decade is available for trade, and Julio Jones should have no shortage of suitors, with several contending teams likely to see him as the final piece of the puzzle on offense.

A seven-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2015 and 2018, Jones has the resume of an all-time great.

Since he entered the league in 2011 as the sixth overall pick of the Atlanta Falcons, no player has more receiving yards than Jones, with his 12,896 putting him well clear of Antonio Brown (11,579) in second.

Jones also has 119 receptions of 25 yards or more in that time, again the best mark in the league ahead of T.Y. Hilton (104).

He has topped 1,300 yards in six of the last seven seasons, but a 2020 campaign in which he missed seven games and posted his lowest yards per game average (85.7) since 2012 raises the question about whether Jones can truly be considered among the best of the best at his position.

With a parting with the Falcons seemingly imminent, Stats Perform analysed the data to examine whether Jones is still a receiver who can put a contending team over the top.

Big-play beast

As his career tally of plays of 25 yards or more illustrates, Jones has long since been one of the premier big-play threats in the NFL.

His comparative lack of time on the field in 2020 meant he produced only seven such plays last season. However, even though he played just over half of the games, Jones still proved himself an efficient downfield threat.

Jones produced a 'big play', a burn for 20 yards or a burn for a touchdown, on 27 of his 67 targets, giving him a big-play percentage of 40.2 that was eighth among wide receivers with at least 50 snaps and 50 targets.

It was also a marked improvement on his performance in that metric in 2019.

Over the larger sample size of 157 targets, Jones registered 53 big plays, a percentage of 33.9 that put him 22nd among receivers with a minimum of 50 snaps and targets.

Jones may be getting older, but last season's numbers indicated he is getting better at finding ways to make impact plays down the field.

And he has remained consistent when it comes to regularly winning his matchup with opposing defenders.

Burn notice

At 6ft 3in and 220 pounds, Jones' athleticism and route-running ability has continually made him a nightmare for cornerbacks to defend.

The 4.3 speed with which he entered the league may have declined somewhat, but any drop-off in his physical gifts has not hindered his success in getting the better of those tasked with guarding him.

Jones recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is considered catchable, on 63.7 per cent of his targets in 2019.

That was comfortably above the average of 60.9 for receivers with at least 50 snaps and 50 targets, and he improved on that in 2020, recording a burn percentage of 73.1 ranking sixth among wideouts to meet those thresholds.

Only seven receivers had a higher burn yards per route average than Jones' 3.2 in 2019, and he marginally bettered that last season as he finished with 3.3, level with Justin Jefferson, who set the rookie record for receiving yards with 1,400.

Jones was also seventh in burn yards per target (13.69) among receivers with 50 snaps and targets last year, demonstrating he can still regularly leave defenders trailing in his wake, providing his health allows him to deliver the kind of influential displays that have defined his career.

Situation critical

A lingering hamstring injury restricted Jones' availability in 2020 as the Falcons endured a 4-12 season, and his failure to shake off a soft tissue problem may raise concerns over whether teams can rely on him to stay on the field and contribute.

But franchises interested in investing in Jones' services need not look far for an example of a comparable player performing at a Pro Bowl level at this stage of their career.

Jones turned 32 in February, and can draw inspiration from Larry Fitzgerald, who racked up 1,215 yards during his age 32 season in 2015, helping the Arizona Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game.

Fitzgerald was invigorated by the coaching of Bruce Arians and the opportunity to play with a quarterback of Carson Palmer's talents, and his 2015 campaign was the first of three successive 1,000-yard seasons. Fitzgerald led the NFL in receptions in 2016.

The success of Fitzgerald during that span is instructive is it was partially a product of Arians' abilities as a play-caller and the undoubted upside offered by Palmer, a former number one overall pick who led the NFL in passing touchdowns for the second time in his career in 2015.

Situation plays a substantial role in the performance of any player and Jones could land in one of several excellent spots. A reunion with Kyle Shanahan, who oversaw Jones' most productive season (1,871 yards) in 2015, with the San Francisco 49ers has been mooted.

The New England Patriots and their talented offensive play-caller Josh McDaniels are also credited with an interest in Jones, as are the Baltimore Ravens, who boast a former MVP at quarterback in Lamar Jackson, and the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson, whose superb accuracy saw him throw an interceptable pass on just 2.64 per cent of throws in 2020.

Jones compares extremely well with Fitzgerald as a physically imposing and dependable receiver who dropped only one pass last season after registering two drops in 2019.

While conventional wisdom would point to him declining as he gets up there in age, the numbers suggest he may in fact be getting better. For the contending team lands him, Jones still has what it takes to be a pivotal element of a potential Super Bowl-winning picture.

The year-long delay to Euro 2020 has shifted the narrative for a host of stars, and meant the long wait for a return to the big stage has been extended for others.

Now, though, Europe's elite are set to battle it out as Portugal defend the title they won in France five years ago.

Some players enter the competition in great form and with little baggage, but for others this month-long tournament is a chance to make a big splash, or live up to long-held expectations.

Here, Stats Perform looks at two famous footballing nations, four big-name stars and a coach who bows out of his current job and may have designs on his next assignment.

Gareth Bale: Finished or a new beginning?

The wing wizard can do little wrong in the eyes of Wales and Tottenham supporters, and perhaps now there is a glimmer of hope for his Real Madrid career.

At the end of a season-long loan at Spurs, it seemed likely Bale would head back to Madrid and spend the final year of his contract largely on the sidelines. His future looked to be one of training, playing the odd Copa del Rey game and making fleeting LaLiga appearances, and spending his happiest hours on the region's best golf courses.

Now that Zinedine Zidane has moved on, that could change all of a sudden, and Bale has an immediate chance to make an impression on new Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti when he captains Wales at the Euros.

Bale joined Madrid in 2013, when Ancelotti was embarking on his first spell at the Santiago Bernabeu, but his career in Spain looked to have all but conked out 12 months ago.

The door certainly seems open for the 31-year-old to do just that as, in his presentation news conference at Madrid, Ancelotti said: "Gareth has not played much in the Premier League [in 2020-21], but he scored lots of goals, and was very effective in recent games when he had a chance to play.

"He is coming back, I know him very well, he will be motivated to play better and have a great season, no doubt."

At Spurs, he scored 16 goals across all competitions at an average of one every 104.44 minutes, and his match fitness appeared to be building up nicely when the season ended.

Bale exceeded his expected goals (xG) total of 11.07 quite handsomely, and for the first time since the 2015-16 season he scored more goals than he had big chances.

He had 15 such chances, defined by Opta as situations "where a player should reasonably be expected to score".

Bale is said by some observers to be considering retiring after Euro 2020, but that could be a waste of a still-luminous talent and Ancelotti is sure to be closely watching.

Eden Hazard: Brilliant Belgian has been a Real disappointment

So often sparkling for Belgium and Chelsea in the past, Hazard has left Madrid supporters wondering what has happened to that fizz since he landed in Spain.

He started just seven games in LaLiga in the season just ended, a string of muscle injuries and a spell out with COVID-19 ruining his campaign.

When fit enough to feature, the forward's numbers have been way down on those that he produced – to take a pertinent example – during Belgium's Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

A fair way of assessing his figures is to look at how Hazard contributes for every 90 minutes he is involved with club and country, and the comparison between his displays in Belgium's run to reach this tournament and in 2020-21 at Madrid shows an alarming dip.

His chances created total per 90 minutes falls from 4.6 to 1.0, his number of touches of the ball slides from 95.1 to 73.8, and his dribbles attempted plummet from 7.4 with Belgium to 4.2 in Madrid's season.

His involvements in shot-ending sequences of play fall from 10.8 to 4.9 per 90 minutes, and analysis of goal-ending sequences shows his contribution drops from 1.9 with Belgium to 0.8 per 90 minutes with Madrid.

It bears remembering that Hazard has not had the run of games that would give him full match fitness. If Real Madrid fans want any succour, they can find it in his Belgium statistics and must hope the coming month sees the 30-year-old roll back his form a couple of years.

A fit and firing Hazard would be a huge asset to Ancelotti, who is expecting the former Chelsea star to have an impact next term.

"Hazard is a top player, he has had injury problems, and not shown his top potential yet here," Ancelotti said. "I believe he can do that next year, he wants to, is motivated."

 

Karim Benzema: Have France really missed him?

Nobody doubts Benzema's ability or his current form. Firing 23 goals for Real Madrid in LaLiga showed he is coming into Euro 2020 in great shape.

The thing is: few expected him to play any part in this tournament.

Off-field matters and an impending court case have seen Benzema frozen out by France, the 33-year-old sidelined from international duty since 2015 following allegations he had a part in a plot to blackmail former Les Bleus player Mathieu Valbuena.

Benzema strenuously denies any wrongdoing and for the duration of Euro 2020 he will aim to show what France have been missing in his absence. They managed to win the 2018 World Cup without him, and reach the final of Euro 2016, yet coach Didier Deschamps has decided his team need Benzema's presence for the coming month.

It could be a masterstroke or could go disastrously wrong, with France a national team who have combusted before during a big tournament.

Benzema last year made the snippy remark that Olivier Giroud was a go-kart and he, by contrast, was a Formula One car, but now they are rivals for selection.

Squad harmony is vital at any major championship, and Benzema's presence brings that little extra frisson. This gamble could go either way. Watching him and France will be fascinating.

Marcus Rashford: Making his pitch for a better England

Manchester United striker Rashford has been a pandemic social justice warrior, emerging as an inspirational figure as he battled for school children to avoid food poverty.

There is so much to admire about the 23-year-old Mancunian, who has also faced – and faced down – appalling racism on social media.

It would take a cold, cruel heart to begrudge Rashford a major moment on the pitch now, and that could come with England over the coming weeks.

On the international scene since just before Euro 2016, Rashford is now fixtures-and-fittings within the Three Lions set-up, but he has still yet to score at a World Cup or European Championship.

Before June's pre-Euros friendlies he had 40 caps and 11 goals and will want to improve his so-so goals-to-games ratio, which is partly explained by the fact only 20 of those caps came as a starter.

Golden Boot winner Harry Kane carried so much of the scoring burden for England at the last World Cup, and sometimes it takes two. Rashford scored three times in Euro 2020 qualifying and is coming off a 21-goal campaign with United, scoring on average once every 197.76 minutes.

The man who is effecting positive change in the way many live their lives, influencing politicians and shaping a better future for millions, could now do his country a massive favour on the football field.

 

Scotland: They're back, thanks to Mourinho's former right-hand man

Few in the Scotland team are long enough in the teeth to remember the last time the Tartan Army descended on a major tournament.

It was 1998, with the Scots giving Brazil a major test in the opening game at the Stade de France. A draw followed against Norway followed the 2-1 loss to the Selecao, before a dismal defeat to Morocco meant the campaign ended in crushing disappointment.

Hopes have flickered and foundered in the decades since, but Steve Clarke, once an assistant boss to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, has led his team back to the big time.

With the likes of Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay and Che Adams, they possess Premier League quality, and two games Hampden promise to be nourishing for the soul.

Scotland is an expectant nation. That tends to end in intense disappointment at major tournaments, but optimism abounds as the games approach, the June 18 clash with England at Wembley ringed in the diary.

Italy: Blue skies again for Azzurri

It felt absurd that Italy should be absent from the 2018 World Cup, but they failed the meritocracy test of qualification when losing a play-off to Sweden.

That meant they were absent from football's great global gathering for the first time since 1958, and coach Gian Piero Ventura was swiftly given the heave-ho.

Enter Roberto Mancini, the former Inter and Manchester City boss who has led a scorching revival of the Azzurri, a team who won all 10 of their qualifiers and headed into June on a 26-game unbeaten run.

Wales, Turkey and Switzerland are the group-stage opposition for Italy, and the Turkey game in Istanbul gets the tournament underway.

They are a team perhaps without a superstar, but as Paolo Rossi and Toto Schillaci would attest, iconic Italian figures can emerge on the big stage.

Joachim Low: Hit for six, Germany go back to the future

After 15 years, Low will step down as Germany head coach following these finals. Many in Germany think he should have stepped aside already, but Low has powerful support within the DFB, the national federation.

A 6-0 defeat to Spain in the Nations League last November felt like an appalling nadir, with Germany outshot 23-2 in Seville and having just 30 per cent of possession.

Something had to change and it has, with Low summoning Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels out of the international exile he harshly imposed on the experienced pair over two years ago.

Low felt he could do without their talents but it proved a major misstep, and for Germany's sake they are back. What Low does next remains to be seen, but a strong Euro 2020 campaign with Germany would bolster his chances of landing any elite club job.

The 61-year-old was a World Cup winner seven years ago, but the most immediately telling part of his legacy will be written during this European summer.

For Carlo Ancelotti, the lure of Real Madrid proved too good to turn down. Again.

A first full season in charge at Everton had resulted in a 10th-place finish in the Premier League, though there was no sign of the Italian doing anything other than planning for the future at Goodison Park during the close-season.

Then, however, Zinedine Zidane left Madrid and everything changed. In a flash, Ancelotti is now back in the Spanish capital six years after Los Blancos said 'thanks, but no thanks', ending a first stint in charge that spanned two eventful years and included a historic Champions League triumph.

"What did Ancelotti do wrong? I don't know," club president Florentino Perez said when announcing Ancelotti's exit in 2015. The pair parted ways as work colleagues but the personal relationship remained intact, allowing them to come back together again.

Perez opted to dispense with Ancelotti despite him delivering 'La Decima', as well as the Copa del Rey and FIFA Club World Cup. He also boasted the best success rate of any head coach to be at Madrid for a minimum of 50 games at 74.8 per cent, winning 89 of his 119 games. That number eclipses Jose Mourinho (71.9 per cent) and comfortably Zidane, too (65.4 per cent).

However, there was no league title the first time around. Now the former Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain boss gets another crack at conquering LaLiga, with Los Blancos aiming to knock noisy neighbours Atletico Madrid off their perch.

Attack the best form of defence

There will be some familiar faces in the dressing room to greet Ancelotti upon his return, but also some notable absentees from the squad he left behind.

Across his previous reign, Madrid averaged 2.7 goals per game. That number was aided by the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the club's all-time leading scorer now taking up residence in Turin.

In LaLiga, Ancelotti's side led the way in terms of goals, getting 104 in 2013-14 and then 118 in the following campaign, eight more than a Barcelona squad led by Luis Enrique that clinched a famous treble. His Madrid averaged 18.1 shots per game – the same number as Zidane's side during his first stint – with a conversion rate of 14.9 per cent.

The Frenchman's time between January 2016 and May 2018 sees similarities in terms of attacking numbers to the period under Ancelotti, the common denominator being they both had the irrepressible Ronaldo to call upon.

Zidane's comeback saw a different Madrid, one that attempted more passes – they averaged out at 596.5 per game, compared to 576 previously – but dipped in terms of attacking output, their goals-per-outing number dropping from 2.6 to 1.8.

There was an over-reliance on Karim Benzema in 2020-21, the French striker scoring 23 times in the league. No other Madrid squad member reached double figures, Casemiro next on six. Well, Gareth Bale did, though that was during a year on loan at Tottenham.

Ancelotti may struggle to match the offensive numbers of his previous version of Madrid, but he is acutely aware of what is expected from his team.

"The history of this club forces you to play well and have a spectacular game. I believe that football has changed in these years towards a more organisational approach, but the idea of ​​Real Madrid must remain the same," he told the media.

The same Ancelotti, only different

"This is not the same Carlo Ancelotti from six years ago. I have six more years of experience. Positive and negative. I was very happy at Everton and I have grown as a person and as a coach."

Those were the words of the man himself at a news conference on Wednesday which covered a number of topics, including Sergio Ramos' future, the potential arrivals of Kylian Mbappe and Ronaldo, plus the open letter released by the man he has now replaced.

Ancelotti's appointment at Everton was seen as a coup for the Merseyside club and while there were high points during his reign, including a long-awaited win at Anfield (one of 11 away victories in 2020-21), but inconsistent results at home sunk hopes of securing European football, with a resounding 5-0 defeat to Premier League champions Manchester City ultimately bookending the 61-year-old's tenure.

Still, Ancelotti averaged 1.53 points per game, better than any other previous Everton boss to have at least 10 games in charge, including David Moyes (1.50) and Ronald Koeman (1.47), who – if reports are to be believed – will be staying on at Barca, meaning the Toffees will have been coached by both men in charge for next season's Clasico contests.

However, it is Atleti who are the top team in Spain. Diego Simeone's side faltered with the line in sight, but still managed to finish first in a title race that had seemed set to be a procession at one stage during the campaign.

LaLiga is the solitary title in the top five European leagues to so far evade Ancelotti, who knows better than anyone that not even on-pitch success is always enough to keep you in one of the biggest jobs in football.

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