The countdown to Euro 2024 has now truly started after the draw for the tournament mapped out the road to glory -- or failure -- for the 24 nations set to compete in Germany for the honour of becoming European champions.
Pre-tournament favourites France and England are on course for a semifinal clash in Dortmund if both nations top their respective groups, while hosts Germany have been given a daunting path to the final. Julian Nagelsmann's team go into the tournament in a dismal run of form, but could face a quarterfinal clash against Spain or reigning champions Italy if they top Group A.
And Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo still scoring at a healthy rate for Roberto Martinez's team, know they will avoid facing a fellow group winner all the way until the semifinals if they top Group F.
There are plenty of storylines waiting to be written and surprises in store, so how will it all shape up? Gab Marcotti and Mark Ogden have made a rapid assessment of the groups to predict how Euro 2024 will play out.
EDITOR'S NOTE: There are three playoff places up for grabs, represented below as Playoff Winner A, Playoff Winner B and Playoff Winner C, with 12 teams still in contention.
- Teams competing for Playoff A: Poland vs. Estonia, Wales vs. Finland on March 21, winners play on March 26 for final spot in Group D
- Teams competing for Playoff B: Israel vs. Iceland, Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Ukraine on March 21, winners play on March 26 for final spot in Group E
- Teams competing for Playoff C: Georgia vs. Luxembourg, Greece vs. Kazakhstan on March 21, winners play on March 26 for final spot in Group F
Germany, Scotland, Hungary, Switzerland
Germany are aiming to become the first host nation to win the European Championships since France in 1984, but Julian Nagelsmann's team are in turmoil right now, having lost five times in their past eight games. With an abundance of talent including Ilkay Gündogan, Joshua Kimmich, Leroy Sané and Jamal Musiala, Germany can still turn their fortunes around, but they have a difficult group.
Hungary are one of the most improved nations in Europe, with Liverpool's Dominik Szoboszlai their driving force in midfield, while Scotland have become a well-organised side under Steve Clarke, defeating Spain in the qualifying campaign. Switzerland have a proud record of qualifying for the knockout stages at recent major tournaments and they have top-level experience in goalkeeper Yann Sommer, Manchester City's Manuel Akanji and Bayer Leverkusen's Granit Xhaka. Chicago Fire forward Xherdan Shaqiri is also a proven performer at tournament level.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Germany vs. Scotland
The opening game of a tournament is a crucial moment for any host nation, and Germany need to get off to a winning start against Scotland in Munich on June 14. While Scotland lack firepower up front, they make up for it in terms of goals from midfield via Scott McTominay and John McGinn, while Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson have a formidable partnership down the left.
Much depends on Germany's form going into the tournament, but while they clearly have the talent to win this game comfortably, Scotland will be organised and tough to beat. They could frustrate the hosts to make things interesting.
X FACTOR: Scotland's traveling fans
Although Scotland qualified for Euro 2020, ending a 22-year wait to reach a major tournament, the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic denied the Tartan Army the opportunity to live up to their billing as the most passionate supporters in international football. Expect Scotland fans to travel in huge numbers to Germany and their presence, particularly in the games against Hungary and Switzerland, could tilt the balance in the team's favour.
PREDICTED FINISH: Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Scotland -- Mark Ogden
Spain, Croatia, Italy, Albania
This is one of the toughest groups, with Spain, Italy and Croatia all ranked in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings, and while those rankings may have their flaws, they're still a decent barometer.
Luis de la Fuente's Spain side is stacked with talent, especially in the middle of the park (even with the absence of the injured Gavi), and Álvaro Morata has regained his scoring touch, at least at club level. If there's a weak spot, it might be at the back, though the French-born duo of Robin Le Normand and Aymeric Laporte have offered some stability of late.
Defending champions Italy have had major issues of their own in terms of converting chances into goals, and they look a notch below the Spanish. They have quality in midfield, but on the attacking end, you feel a lot will depend on Federico Chiesa and his ability to be healthy and on top of his game come tournament time. Meanwhile, at the back, compared to Euro 2020, they will miss the leadership of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Croatia had a tough time in qualifying, but will be hoping what's left of their golden generation (Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Perisic, Domagoj Vida) can still conjure up the magic. Josko Gvardiol was one of the standout defenders at the last World Cup, and he'll need to show the same form at this tournament.
Finally, underestimate Albania at your peril. Former Brazil assistant Sylvinho who only took over in September, has given them a shot in the arm, they have some tough defenders in Berat Djimsiti and Elseid Hysaj, a cult hero in the making in Jasir Asanji -- who plays his club football in South Korea -- and if Chelsea's Armando Broja is fit, they have a viable center-forward too.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Spain vs. Italy
Spain beat Italy twice in Nations League final fours in recent years and finished ahead of them in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, but, of course, lost to them on penalties in the semifinals of the last Euros. That's enough to set this up as a nice little grudge match.
Italy, rocked by the sudden resignation of coach Roberto Mancini in August, have continued down his tactical path by trying to dominate possession and play attacking football under his successor, former Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti.
Whether they try to beat Spain at their own game or try something different will be a fascinating tactical decision. Without a deadeye center-forward, you feel Italy need to create multiple chances to score a goal. Spain, on the other hand, have Morata in fine form and the likes of Mikel Oyarzabal, Dani Olmo and wunderkind Lamine Yamal can beat you in different ways.
X FACTOR: How much does the Golden Generation have left?
Most neutrals will likely be cheering on Modric who, at 38 years of age, will likely be playing his final international tournament. It feels as if the last two tournaments were supposed to be Croatia's swan song, and yet they reached the final and semifinal of the last two World Cups. Modric, who plays his club football in Spain for Real Madrid, will be very familiar with Spain and, you imagine, will relish the opportunity to get one over on those who, as his minutes decline at club level, consider him past his best.
PREDICTED FINISH: Spain, Italy, Croatia, Albania -- Gab Marcotti
Every major tournament carries the same pressure for England, each one more intense than the last, in that they simply have to lift a trophy for the first time since the 1966 World Cup.
Coach Gareth Southgate has taken England to a World Cup semifinal at Russia 2018 and lost the Euro 2020 final against Italy on penalties, but he arguably now has the strongest squad of any England manager since 1966. Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and many others give England a raft of world-class players, and they have not only landed a soft group, but they will also avoid a group winner until the semifinals if they finish top.
For Denmark, Slovenia and Serbia, it really seems like a battle for the runners-up spot. Each has a real goal-scorer in their teams, with Rasmus Hojlund (Denmark), Benjamin Sesko (Slovenia) and Aleksandar Mitrovic (Serbia) all capable firing their teams to the second round.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Denmark vs. Serbia
Denmark and Serbia face off in Munich on June 25 in the final group game and it is likely to be a decisive fixture. Slovenia will back themselves to be competitive in the group, but Denmark and Serbia have greater depth and tournament experience, and this fixture should decide who finishes as runners-up.
X FACTOR: Which version of England will show up?
England are the X factor not only of their group, but of the tournament as a whole. If they perform to their potential, there really should be no stopping Southgate's team -- can Bellingham, Kane and the rest deliver a signal of intent by coasting to three wins in the group?
They should do. England are capable of blowing all their group opponents away, but that could be easier said than done.
PREDICTED FINISH: England, Serbia, Denmark, Slovenia -- Ogden
Playoff Winner A, Netherlands, Austria, France
World Cup finalists France are the standouts here; in fact, they're the standouts of the entire tournament. This side are so stacked with talent that you feel their second XI would have a good chance of going deep into the competition. Beyond that, they have experience, too, with coach Didier Deschamps having already taken them to two World Cup finals and the final of Euro 2016.
You sort of feel that France can only beat themselves -- like they arguably did when they were knocked out of the Euros last time, eliminated by Switzerland on penalties in the round of 16. France have one of the outstanding keepers in Europe (Mike Maignan), a well-drilled back line, a midfield that is deep (and will only get deeper once Christopher Nkunku is fit) and an embarrassment of riches up top, as evidenced by the fact that three of Les Bleus' all-time leading goal-scorers (Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann) will be at the Euros.
Austria are second seeds after a qualifying campaign that saw them beat Sweden home and away. They're led by Ralf Rangnick who you'd imagine is highly motivated after his humdrum stint at Manchester United and would love nothing more than to regain his status as one of the game's tactical visionaries. He can count on the leadership of David Alaba at the back and a high-energy core of midfielders to make life difficult for any opponent.
The Dutch finished behind France in the qualifying group and Ronald Koeman's crew looked like less than the sum of its parts for much of the campaign. They're loaded at the back (Virgil van Dijk, Denzel Dumfries, Sven Botman, Nathan Aké, Matthijs de Ligt, Jurriën Timber) and have an interesting mix of young and old in midfield (Frenkie de Jong, Ryan Gravenberch, Xavi Simons), but you wonder if Cody Gakpo and Wout Weghorst will be enough up front.
On paper, Poland with the likes of Piotr Zielinski and Robert Lewandowski look like the biggest threat of the playoff quartet, but they were disappointing and unsettled in qualifying. You wonder if a better drilled group like Wales or Finland might just pip them and provide a greater threat.
MUST-SEE MATCH: France vs. Austria
The Dutch are the second-best team in the group, but we've seen enough of them against France. What Rangnick might conjure up to to stop Mbappe & Co. might make for a more interesting clash. Austria have a bunch of disruptive, high-energy midfielders in the likes of Xaver Schlager, Nicolas Seiwald, Konrad Laimer, Christoph Baumgartner and Marcel Sabitzer, all of whom have come through the Red Bull system. Might that give them a fighting chance?
The fact that this will be the first game in the group stage also comes into play, as Deschamps will have some big decisions to make going into the tournament in terms of his starting XI. You never want to bet against France, but if there's an upset cooking, it might well be here.
X FACTOR: Can Ronald Koeman find the balance in his side?
The issue with the Dutch is that they're light in attack and have plenty of questions in goal: Bart Verbruggen seems to be the No.1 right now, but he's not even an automatic choice at Brighton. Yet on paper, once Sven Botman and Jurrien Timber return from injury -- and assuming they shake off the rust quickly -- this is one of the best back fours in the tournament. The midfield is very solid and the attack less so, but if it comes together, there's enough talent for the Dutch to go on a run.
PREDICTED FINISH: France, Netherlands, Austria, Playoff Winner A -- Marcotti
This is arguably the weakest group in the tournament and Belgium should advance with ease, although the pool will look slightly more difficult if Ukraine make it through Playoff Path B to complete the group.
Belgium's so-called golden generation have now largely faded from the scene, but Romelu Lukaku is still scoring goals on a regular basis for Domenico Tedesco's team, while goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and captain Kevin De Bruyne -- two world-class talents -- should be back from injury in time for the tournament.
Romania are a young team in the nation's first major tournament since Euro 2016 and will possess the same outstanding technical ability of previous teams, but they lack top-level experience. The same applies to Slovakia.
Meanwhile, the playoff team makes the group tough to predict. Ukraine would expect to progress to the second round, but Israel, Iceland and Bosnia & Herzegovina would struggle to make it beyond the group.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Belgium vs. Slovakia
Belgium's opener against Slovakia in Frankfurt will tell us whether Euro 2024 is a tournament too far for Tedesco's side or they have the legs to take what is likely to be their last chance at glory.
Everything needs to fall into place for Belgium: Lukaku needs to be in form, Courtois and De Bruyne have to be fit and Youri Tielemans, Leandro Trossard and Jérémy Doku have to show that they can do what their predecessors failed to do by winning a major tournament. For Slovakia, this is the opportunity to take advantage of the pressure on the Belgians and get off to a winning start against the odds.
X FACTOR: What can Romania do?
It has been too long since Romania produced star players like Gheorghe Hagi, Gheorghe Popescu and Ilie Dumitrescu, so can Edward Iordanescu's young team propel a new generation of Romanian stars onto the major stage?
It is a squad that lacks players in Europe's major leagues and clubs but Hagi's son, midfielder Ianis, is now in Spain with Alaves (on loan from Scottish giants, Rangers) and could emerge as Romania's standout player.
PREDICTED FINISH: Belgium, Slovakia, Romania, Playoff Winner B (unless they are Ukraine, who would be second) -- Ogden
Portugal coach Roberto Martinez previously worked with Belgium, where he took charge of that country's golden generation and was tasked with getting the best out of a talented side without ever managing to actually deliver the gold. He's in a similar situation now with Portugal, a side filled with household names -- Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Rúben Dias, João Félix, Diogo Jota ... plus that Cristiano Ronaldo guy -- that are sometimes difficult to turn into a coherent team. Qualifying taught us little, because they were in a very easy group, so it remains to be seen what this side can deliver.
Turkey topped their qualifying group ahead of Croatia and Wales, but it was a turbulent campaign that saw them fire coach Stefan Kuntz and replace him with Vincenzo Montella in September 2023 ahead of some key games. Other than the semifinal runs in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2008 and a quarterfinal finish in 2000, Turkey have never advanced beyond the group stage in a major tournament. And, in fact, they slipped into Division C in the UEFA Nations League, which seems crazy given the size of the country, the passion of its fans and the fact that the SuperLig is easily a top-10 domestic tournament in Europe.
The Czechs also had a rough ride to Germany. They finished second to Albania on goal difference in their qualifying group, but were thoroughly unimpressive, winning just four of eight games, drawing with Moldova and only beating the Faroe Islands 1-0. They're also without a coach: Jaroslav Silhavy resigned just after the qualifying campaign, and it may or may not have had something to do with the fact that three senior players were sent home after they broke curfew and went out clubbing the day before the final decisive group game. They have six months or so to put the unrest to bed.
Georgia, with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, are probably the most exciting side of those who could advance via the playoffs, though Greece -- who, to be fair, had a brutal qualifying group with France, Holland and Ireland -- are probably favorites. Look out for perennial cellar-dweller Luxembourg, who took points off Slovakia, Iceland and Bosnia in qualifying and will be hoping to be the fairy-tale story of the tournament if they make it through the playoffs.
MUST-SEE MATCH: Portugal vs. Turkey
On paper, Turkey are Portugal's toughest test in the group. Unlike previous incarnations, there's a certain resilience to this Turkish side. Hakan Calhanoglu leads the midfield, and the defence is solid with the likes of Merih Demiral, Zeki Celik and Caglar Söyüncü. Heck -- by this point, maybe the highly touted 18-year-olds Arda Güler (Real Madrid) and Kenan Yildiz (Juventus) will be ready to contribute.
Portugal will be favourites, obviously, but this feels like a classic trap game, especially if Roberto Martinez's crew don't hit the ground running in the opener and his choices are being second-guessed.
X FACTOR: Where does Cristiano Ronaldo fit?
When he was dropped by Fernando Santos at the World Cup, many thought it was the right and sensible thing to do: the side was more fluid without him, they had other options like Goncalo Ramos, he wasn't in great form. Many even wondered whether new coach Roberto Martinez might drop him entirely from the national team. But now Cristiano Ronaldo comes to Euro 2024 as the second leading goalscorer in all of qualifying with 10 goals, second only to Romelu Lukaku.
It's true that Portugal came through a rather milquetoast qualifying group, and that his goals came against Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Bosnia. But it's also true that he has scored roughly a goal a game at Al Nassr, and hey, nobody has scored more in men's international football than he has.
Martinez's decision to not make a clean break with his resident legend means he'll have to find the right spot for him and do so in a way that retains Portugal's balance. It's a big ask.
PREDICTED FINISH: Portugal, Turkey, Czech Republic, Playoff Winner C -- Marcotti