Italy scraped into Euro 2024 with a fraught goalless draw against Ukraine but the defending champions are not among the favourites for glory in Germany next year.
Along with the host nation, two-time world champions France and perennial nearly men England appear to have the strongest squads on paper.
However, as has often been the case during the 21st century, we should also expect a strong challenge from the Iberian Peninsula.
Here, The Sporting News run the rule over the teams who are leading the way with the bookmakers as we count down to the European Championship.
Gareth Southgate has led England to their best consecutive set of major tournament performances in history, but this is a very different Three Lions team to the one that punched above their weight to reach the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup. The Euro 2020 final on home soil at Wembley brought penalty shootout heartache against Italy, 18 months before all-time record goalscorer Harry Kane blazed over from 12 yards in a 2-1 World Cup quarterfinal defeat to eventual finalists France in Qatar.
At the start of this century, England suffered three consecutive quarterfinal exits under Sven Goran-Eriksson, although there was a sense that was the point at which their team ran out of road in terms of big games being a fair fight. This England going blow-for-blow with a formidable France in Qatar did not feel like that and a lavishly talented player pool has blossomed since then. Jude Bellingham has been a revelation at Real Madrid, Kane is going from strength to strength at Bayern Munich and the likes of Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Declan Rice all have their best days ahead of them.
England still have weaknesses in terms of depth of quality in central defence, defensive midfield and the goalkeeping department, but these feel like minor gripes overall. Is it actually coming home?
We should perhaps have no choice but to be lauding one of the great international sides, but this France team still has left their legacy up for grabs, having proved to be less than the sum of their parts since winning the 2018 World Cup. Euro 2020, for all the promise of the dream team combination of Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann in attack, descended into shambles as Les Bleus failed to win after their opening match and players friends and family members rowed in the stands after a penalty shootout loss to Switzerland.
Didier Deschamps kept his job and France took it to the wire in Qatar, missing out on back-to-back World Cups as Argentina prevailed on spot kicks after Mbappe’s final hat-trick. The Paris Saint-Germain superstar will again lead the charge for a sensationally talented squad. This French generation still have plenty of good years ahead of them, but any more near misses will start to feel wasteful.
A host nation steeped in an esteemed football heritage with a wonderful collection of players arguably the most gifted coach in the competition. What’s not to like about four-time world champion (and four-time runners-up) and three-time European champions (again, also three-time runners-up) Germany? Well, it’s almost a decade since Joachim Low led them to glory at the 2014 World Cup and a predicted era of dominance has not panned out that way.
A semifinal loss to hosts France at Euro 2016, well, we can give that a pass. Group stage exits at the 2018 and 2022 World Cups either side of a last-16 loss to England at Euro 2020? Not so much. Low was replaced by his old No. 2 Hansi Flick, who was unable to inspire the dominance he oversaw when leading Bayern Munich to Champions League glory in 2020. A 4-1 friendly defeat to Japan saw Flick pay with his job. Julian Nagelsmann made the same journey from the Allianz Arena dugout to the national headquarters and is going about putting his own unique stamp on things (Kai Havertz at left-back, anyone?), even if back-to-back November friendly defeats to Turkey and Austria demonstrated on-going teething problems.
There are still plenty of reasons to like Germany’s prospects, from home advantage to the prospect of breakout superstar Jamal Musiala and a rejuvenated Leroy Sane operating in tandem. However, any early setback could open up painful recent scars if Nagelsmann has not managed to get his complex ideas well-grooved in a limited period of time.
Since their golden period of three consecutive major tournament wins between 2008 and 2012, Spain have fallen into a repeated pattern of turning up with talent-stacked squads, playing dominant football, lacking cutting edge and leaving with their tails between their legs. Luis Enrique’s Champions League knowhow threatened to break that pattern at Qatar 2022 before a resolute Morocco had other ideas.
As a former coach of Spain’s Under-19, Under-21 and Olympic squads, internal appointments did not really get more internal than Luis de la Fuente’s elevation to the top job. However, the former Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla defender has proved to be a useful continuity candidate, leading La Roja to Euro 2024 qualification at a canter. They won every match after a shock 2-0 defeat to Scotland early in the campaign and also beat Croatia on penalties to win the 2022/23 Nations League.
Fears remain that another technically excellent side will come up short when the heat is on and Gavi suffering a serious knee injury is a huge blow, no matter how well-stocked De la Fuente is for midfield playmakers. On the other hand, Alvaro Morata has torn into the 2023/24 season in prolific form. What a redemption arc that would be.
When Portugal’s band of brothers slogged their way to success at Euro 2016, Cristiano Ronaldo had a much-desired major trophy at international level. Unlikely hero Eder scoring an extra-time winner against France capped a tournament where Portugal won one match inside 90 minutes. Fernando Santos’ pragmatic, hard-to-beat approach was ideal for a limited squad with one standout superstar.
The veteran Santos was still in charge by the time the 2022 World Cup rolled around, having survived on a combination of Euros goodwill and victory as hosts at the inaugural Nations League Finals in 2019. However, the emergence of a superbly talented band of attacking and creative talents, including Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Rafael Leao and Joao Felix, demanded a breaking of the shackles with which Santos was never completely comfortable.
Enter Roberto Martinez, who had a point to prove after an underwhelming end to his Belgium tenure. After 10 games, 10 wins and 36 goals in qualifying and Portugal are in excellent shape. Ronaldo is still racking up the goals, too, and the Al Nassr star will be hungry to make this, potentially his last tilt at a major international tournament, count.