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Euro 2020’s surprise stars of rescheduled tournament

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Timing is everything in sports. Success requires both quality and well-timed opportunity.

One might not figure that a year would make that much of a difference, but a few of the teams on display at Euro 2020 look quite a bit different than they would have had the tournament gone on as planned last summer. Certain players’ stock fell during that period of time — hello, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Dayot Upamecano — but the delay created quite a bit of opportunity, for some of the sport’s rising young stars and for a few veterans who made particular use of the past 12 months.

Let’s take a look at 15 players who have especially benefited from the tournament’s odd timing.

Locatelli enjoyed a breakout year for Sassuolo in 2019-20 but didn’t make his Italian debut until September 2020. After a brilliant 2020-21 Serie A campaign — four goals, 38 chances created, 239 ball recoveries (fifth in the league) — he has quickly become a prime option for Italy manager Roberto Mancini.

The 23-year old has played 160 minutes in the Euros and made a lasting mark in Italy’s 3-0 win over Switzerland. He showed up in the box on a counterattack and poked in a cross from Domenico Berardi to make it 1-0 in the 26th minute, then boomed in a 23-yarder to put the match away in the 52nd minute. His game isn’t just about scoring, but he’s making the most of his chances.

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Half Dutch and half German, Gosens was not on his national team’s radar early in his career. He ground away at second-division Dutch club FC Dordrecht for one season, then moved to Heracles for two before attracting the attention of Serie A’s Atalanta in 2017, already aged 23.

Fast forward four seasons, and he was playing the match of his life in a must-win game against Portugal. The most natural wing-back in the German pool, he produced a goal and an assist against Portugal’s disheveled defense in a 4-2 win, and he created a dangerous chance for Toni Kroos during Germany’s comeback against Hungary. Less than a year after his initial call-up, he’s become one of Joachim Low’s most important players.

Benzema took the “timing is everything” theme to a new level in France’s draw against Portugal, scoring twice … at the same time. He scored one minute and 44 seconds into first-half stoppage time, then again at 46:44 of the second half. The goals were the 33-year old’s first for France in a non-friendly since the 2014 World Cup.

Ostracised from the national team for nearly six years due to his alleged role in a blackmail scandal, he was brought back to the team by manager Didier Deschamp, and he didn’t need much time to do what he always does: score goals. He has scored 360 of them in all club competitions, and after a long wait, he’s up to 29 for his country.

After a sluggish start in a must-win match against Russia, Denmark found the spark it was looking for when the 20-year old Damsgaard scythed an arcing, 25-yard goal past keeper Matvey Safonov. It was his third goal for his country since making his debut last November. And this came after he created two dangerous chances in an unfortunate loss to Belgium.

Used mostly as a left midfielder for Sampdoria, Damsgaard scored twice and created 25 chances in his first full Serie A season this year. Danish manager Kasper Hjulmand has used him in a more central attacking role at the Euros, and it has paid off. Safe to say, Denmark wouldn’t be in the round of 16 without him.

What a story. Phillips was born in Leeds and spent most of his youth career at Leeds United. He has played only for his hometown club in seven senior seasons, and after helping to lead Leeds back to the Premier League for the first time in 15 years last summer, he made his England debut at age 24 in September.

Thanks to England manager Gareth Southgate’s defensive predilection, Phillips played every minute of the group stage alongside a second defensive midfielder, Declan Rice. Considering Phillips led the team with 17 ball recoveries and England didn’t allow a single goal, it’s safe to say he did his job remarkably. He usually does.

After steadily improving over three and a half seasons with Belgium’s Genk, Maehle has seen his career take a rapid rise in the past year. He debuted for Denmark last September, then moved to Atalanta in January, where he quickly became a stalwart for the annual Champions League club.

At the Euros, the 24-year old has done a little bit of everything. He’s made 24 ball recoveries (second on the team), attempted seven shots (second) and created five chances (second), and he put away Denmark’s 4-1 win over Russia with a poised and precise 16-yard strike on a counter.

Luke Shaw | 25 | Defender | England

The 25-year-old made his England debut in 2014, when he was just months away from a Southampton-to-Manchester United transfer, but he had played just 60 total minutes for his country in the four years between summer 2016 and summer 2020. But his stock rose considerably during his brilliant 2020-21 campaign for United, and in two group-stage matches he created four scoring chances — including a gorgeous pass that resulted in an early shot off the bar for Raheem Sterling against the Czech Republic — with 13 ball recoveries.

The best version of Shaw both fulfills every defensive role required of a full-back and sends a delectable pass or two into dangerous areas each half. That’s the version of Shaw we saw in England’s last two matches.

Pedri | 18 | Midfielder | Spain

A year ago, Pedri was an exciting 17-year-old prospect, a mainstay at 2019’s U17 World Cup and a recent Barcelona addition. His future was obviously bright.

Almost instantaneously, his future became his present. Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman played him in 37 La Liga matches — he scored three times and created 39 chances — and he not only made his national team debut in March, he also played every minute of Spain’s bumpy group-stage journey. He averaged more than a touch per minute and completed 90% of his nearly 79 pass attempts per game. Almost overnight he has become one of this country’s most reliable and trusted ball progressors.

After a brilliant run to the Euro semifinals in 2016, Wales have positioned themselves well again, finishing second in Group A and drawing Denmark in the round of 16.

While the core rotation includes plenty of veterans who were part of the 2016 go-round, they have also benefited from a burgeoning group of younger players forcing their way into the lineup. Chief among them is the 23-year-old Rodon. You can’t say the 6-foot-4 central defender wouldn’t have played a role had the Euros been played a summer ago — he had already made his national team debut in 2019 — but Wales have a lot of defensive options, and his October move to Tottenham Hotspur probably didn’t hurt his stock. He has played every minute of the tournament thus far.

Phil Foden | 21 | Midfielder | England

Southgate asked big things of the 21-year-old midfielder in their first two group-stage matches, commanding him with a creative role for a defence-first squad. If we’re being honest, Foden didn’t respond all that well, creating just one scoring chance with two shot attempts (neither on goal) in 134 minutes. But the fact that he was thrust into that role at all spoke volumes.

Foden hadn’t made his England debut until last November in a UEFA Nations League win over Iceland. But after his brilliant 2020-21 season with Manchester City — 12 goals and eight assists in the Premier League and Champions League — it’s safe to say he’ll be a Three Lions mainstay for quite a while.

Chelsea‘s academy player of the year in 2020, Gilmour made 11 appearances in all competitions for the Blues this season. After making his Scotland debut in early June, he earned man-of-the-match honors in his very first start, a brilliant Euros performance against England. In 76 minutes, he completed 40 passes (six in the attacking third) and made eight ball recoveries. He was everywhere … and then he got sidelined by a positive COVID test and had to watch as Scotland got eliminated by Croatia.

Scotland took a pretty experienced team to its first European Championship in 24 years, but Gilmour’s rapid rise has provided a solid boost of hope for the future.

Dani Olmo | 23 | Midfielder | Spain

Like Rodon, Olmo had made his national team debut before last summer’s stoppage, scoring in his first appearance in November 2019. But the 23-year-old became a mainstay with German challengers RB Leipzig in the past year — he scored five goals with nine assists in the 2020-21 Bundesliga season and scored in a vital 4-3 Champions League win over Basaksehir last December.

Olmo hasn’t made a massive contribution for Spain in the Euros yet, but he could be due. In 135 group-stage minutes he attempted six shots and placed three on goal. Early in Spain’s draw with Sweden, he placed a dangerous header on goal but was stonewalled by a brilliant save by Robin Olsen.



Steve Nicol is adamant that Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal shouldn’t be discounted because of their moderate performances.

Everyone’s career path unfolds differently. The 28-year-old AS Roma full-back had to wait quite a while for a full-fledged opportunity. He made a handful of national team appearances while serving as part of Juventus‘ loan army — he played for six different teams in seven different loans (including two to Atalanta) across seven seasons before making a permanent move to Rome in 2019 and igniting.

Spinazzola has had a lovely tournament thus far, playing in every minute of Italy’s 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland, progressing the ball well and attempting three shots with two chances created. His name has been linked to Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea in the transfer rumour mill. Better late than never.

Long regarded as one of the best Ajax academy products, the 6-foot-3 midfielder made his senior club debut in 2018 at the age of 16, then debuted for his national team this March in the middle of a three-goal, 37-chance Eredivisie campaign.

The Netherlands cruised through a pretty easy Euro group, with Gravenberch playing 106 minutes in two matches. He completed 84% of his 95 pass attempts and won seven of his 11 duel attempts. He’s not a key contributor yet, but it’s just a matter of time.

Reece James | 21 | Defender | England

Things have moved very quickly for the 21-year-old Chelsea defender. An academy product, he made his club debut early in the 2019-20 season, then earned his first English call-up barely a year later.

James started in Chelsea’s Champions League final win over Manchester City, and he created two of England’s more dangerous chances (while completing 80 of 81 passes) in the draw with Scotland. That was his only Euro appearance thus far, but even that’s more than would have been expected of him last summer.


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