Jack Grealish is taking inspiration from international team-mate Harry Kane ahead of England's Euro 2020 campaign.

Aston Villa playmaker Grealish is preparing for his first major international tournament after being selected as part of Gareth Southgate's 26-man squad.

The 25-year-old is coming off the back of an impressive Premier League campaign for Villa and is in strong contention to start England's Group D opener with Croatia.

Kane seems certain to feature from the beginning in Sunday's clash at Wembley and Grealish, who captains his club side, is hoping to continue learning from the Three Lions skipper.

"I speak to Harry a lot," Grealish said at a news conference on Wednesday. "I speak to everyone in the changing room. 

"I think it's good when you do come away with England to get different opinions off people, see what certain people do, what certain people don't do.

"But when you come away here there's no better person to look at than Harry Kane, to see the way he looks after himself and stuff like that.

"I think the main thing is you come here and you see the likes of Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane, and what they do off the field.

"Obviously what they do on it we can all see that, but what they do on the training pitch and around the place and how they look after themselves, and you sit there and you think it's no wonder why they've had the careers that they have had.

"And that's I think one of the main things that has made me mature as a player, as a person and as a captain."

Kane topped the scoring charts in Euro 2020 qualifying with 12 goals and also finished as top scorer in the Premier League in 2020-21.

That made the Tottenham striker the third player after Thierry Henry (four) and Alan Shearer to win the Golden Boot three times or more.

He also set up 14 goals to become just the second player in the Premier League era to top the charts for both goals and assists (also Andy Cole in 1993-94).

Kane was edged out by Manchester City pair Kevin De Bruyne and Ruben Dias for the two main Premier League Player of the Year awards, and Grealish believes the Spurs man deserves more recognition for his incredible campaign.

"For me, he's at the very top of his game right now," Grealish added. "I think he's had one of the best Premier League seasons I've seen. 

"I don't know how he didn't get more awards than he did, with the most goals and the most assists."

Despite missing 12 matches, Grealish was by far and away the most fouled player in the English top flight last season with 110 fouls won.

His 2.68 dribbles completed per 90 minutes was bettered by just six players to have played at least 20 times, meanwhile, with his skills on the ball and ability to win free-kicks both likely to come in handy for England at the Euros.

"I got a few kicks last week in the two friendlies," Grealish said. "But like I said after those games, if I'm doing something to help the team, I'll do that.

"You look around our team here and you see the set-piece takers here that we've got - especially Trips [Kieran Trippier]. 

"Obviously it was unfortunate that Trent [Alexander-Arnold] went home - but there's still so many people that have just got unbelievable set-piece ability here.

"So if I'm getting fouled or whatever, I'll take the hits for the team. That doesn't really bother me."

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.

Spain have retained 11 of their Under-21 players who featured against Lithuania on Tuesday, with Luis Enrique's Euro 2020 squad having been hit by coronavirus cases.

La Roja's preparations for the tournament were hit by Sergio Busquets' positive coronavirus test on Sunday, with the entire team forced into isolation.

Tuesday's friendly against Lithuania also had to be re-arranged, with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) promoting their entire Under-21s side, though La Rojita took their opportunity to impress.

Hugo Guillamon, Brahim Diaz, Juan Miranda and Javi Puado scored in a 4-0 win, but it was confirmed after the match that another member of the senior squad – Leeds United centre-back Diego Llorente – had tested positive for COVID-19.

Luis Enrique had already created a parallel training bubble with standby players, including Rodrigo Moreno, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Soler, Brais Mendez, Raul Albiol and Kepa Arrizabalaga.

With Spain starting their campaign against Sweden on Monday, 11 of the players who played against Lithuania have now been added to the separate training bubble.

Alvaro Fernandez, Oscar Mingueza, Marc Cucurella, Miranda, Gonzalo Villar, Alejandro Pozo, Diaz, Martin Zubimendi, Yeremy Pino, Puado and Bryan Gil – the only player to feature on Tuesday having represented the senior side in the past – are the youngsters selected by Luis Enrique, who only named 24 players in his initial squad.

Diego Llorente has become the second Spain player to test positive for COVID-19, less than one week out from their Euro 2020 opener.

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) confirmed the news on Tuesday following the latest PCR tests within the squad.

Spain's Euros preparations were thrown into chaos when captain Sergio Busquets returned a positive coronavirus test on Sunday, forcing the entire team into isolation and Tuesday's friendly with Lithuania to be hastily re-arranged.

Leeds United defender Llorente has since left Las Rozas in a medicalised vehicle, following all health protocols, while the national team will continue with personalised training.

The remainder of the senior squad in isolation all returned negative tests but will continue to follow strict protocols before the start of Euro 2020, with Spain scheduled to open their tournament against Sweden on Monday.

"The RFEF regrets to announce that central defender Diego Llorente has tested positive in the last PCR tests carried out this morning at the national team camp in Las Rozas," the statement read.

Spain head coach Luis Enrique has created a parallel training bubble with stand-by players, including Rodrigo Moreno, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Soler, Brais Mendez, Raul Albiol and Kepa Arrizabalaga

The Spain Under-21 squad represented the side in Tuesday's friendly with Lithuania, winning 4-0.

Spain have been drawn in Group E, alongside Sweden, Poland and Slovakia.

France head coach Didier Deschamps confirmed Karim Benzema suffered a "knock" that will require further assessment after the world champions finalised their Euro 2020 preparations.

Benzema was withdrawn during the first half of France's 3-0 victory over Bulgaria, having fallen awkwardly after challenging for a header in the pre-Euros warm-up fixture on Tuesday.

With France's opening game at the rescheduled European Championship just a week away – against Germany on June 15 – the sight of Benzema limping from the field represents a major worry for France.

But Deschamps gave little away in his assessment of the blow, telling TF1: "It's a knock on the knee, which also affects the muscle. He felt he was getting stiff so he asked to be subbed.

"The medical staff are taking care of him."

The good news for France is that they have a ready-made replacement for Benzema in Olivier Giroud, who led the line during their victorious 2018 World Cup campaign.

Giroud netted the 45th and 46th goals of his international career late in the second half to move within five of all-time top scorer Thierry Henry's 51 – all despite Deschamps not expecting to use him much against Bulgaria.

"Taking into account the situation in which he arrived, psychologically and especially physically, I had planned to bring him in for less time," Deschamps added.

"He's still a scorer, with a foolproof mind. I'm not going to complain, and the squad will need it too. We will need all our strength. He is part of it too, [that's] good for him and the France team. 

"I think he has played more tonight than the last three months combined."

 

Spain's youngsters had no problems cruising to a straightforward 4-0 win over Lithuania on Tuesday as the Under-21s filled in for the senior side's final pre-Euro 2020 warm-up match due to coronavirus protocols.

Sergio Busquets' positive COVID-19 test on Sunday threw Spain's European Championship preparations into disarray as the situation forced the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to promote their entire Under-21s side, though La Rojita took their opportunity to impress.

Spain quickly showed they were a cut above Lithuania and opened the scoring inside three minutes, Hugo Guillamon slamming home from 16 yards after Manu Garcia's low cross was deflected back towards the edge of the box.

It was 2-0 with less than half an hour played when Brahim Diaz drilled across goal after being afforded a lot of space in the box following an incisive pass from Gonzalo Villar.

Lithuania were fortunate not to concede further goals before the break, as Tomas Svedkauskas saved Abel Ruiz's feeble penalty after Markas Beneta wrestled Bryan Gil – the only Spain player with a prior senior cap – to the ground, while the goalkeeper also denied Oscar Mingueza from point-blank range.

Half-time substitute Juan Miranda took just seven minutes to get his name on the scoresheet, with Svedkauskas only able to tip the Real Betis left-back's free-kick against the inside of the post and in.

Javi Puado, another introduced from the bench, made it 4-0 with 18 minutes to go as he latched on to Bryan's incisive chipped pass, skipped past a defender and blasted beyond Svedkauskas.

Although Spain could not match the 5-0 win they recorded over Lithuania back in 1993, their Under-21s at least showed they have plenty of talent in reserve should they be needed in the Euros.
 

England boss Gareth Southgate has hit back at suggestions he and his players should "stick to football" amid debate over their decision to take the knee before games.

The Three Lions' squad and staff have shown their support for the global movement to eradicate racism by kneeling prior to recent fixtures.

However, boos and jeers were heard from sections of the crowd when England offered up the gesture prior to European Championship warm-up games against Romania and Austria.

That backlash has prompted a debate over whether Southgate and his squad should be supporting a movement that is considered political in some quarters.

But the England manager pushed back on that idea in a stirring pre-tournament column for the Players' Tribune.

He wrote: "Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. 

"We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people.

"I have never believed that we should just stick to football.

"I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I'm below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men's football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.

"It's their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate."

The topic of abuse on social media – particularly racial abuse – has also been widely discussed in the aftermath of a recent uptick in such incidents.

Southgate admits he does not understand why his high-profile players engage with such platforms but remains certain that those who troll them are on the "losing side" of the battle.

"Social media has been a key resource in giving our players a platform and has been a positive tool in so many ways," he added.

"In fact, I feel like this generation of England players is closer to the supporters than they have been for decades. Despite the polarisation we see in society, these lads are on the same wavelength as you on many issues.

"That said, there are times when my parental instincts kick in. I can't help it. After all, I'm old enough to be a father to most of my players!

"I see players scrolling on their phones straight after the final whistle and I think … Hmmm, is that a particularly good idea? 

"Reading abusive comments on Twitter or Instagram is never going to help performance. 

"There are genuine risks for our players online and I will always want to protect them, but I would never put rules on how or when they use their accounts while on England duty. I trust them and know they are mature enough to make their own decisions, to do what's right for their mental health and to keep being a force for good as we strive for a better society.

"The last 18 months have put added pressure on everyone, I know. Venting that might have taken place while walking out of the stadium, or in the pub has been transferred online. I get that. However, there are things I will never understand.

"Why would you tag someone in on a conversation that is abusive? 

"Why would you choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin?

"Why?

"Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of behaviour, I have some bad news. You're on the losing side. It's clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.

"It might not feel like it at times, but it's true. The awareness around inequality and the discussions on race have gone to a different level in the last 12 months alone. 

"I am confident that young kids of today will grow up baffled by old attitudes and ways of thinking."

Netherlands midfielder Donny van de Beek has been ruled out of Euro 2020 due to injury.

Van de Beek endured a difficult 2020-21 season with Manchester United, making only 15 starts for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side.

The 24-year-old played no active role in the Netherlands' European Championship warm-up fixtures against Scotland and Georgia.

It was announced by the Dutch federation – the KNVB – on Tuesday that Van de Beek will miss the tournament, and head coach Frank de Boer has decided against replacing the former Ajax man in his squad.

"Van de Beek has to let the European Championship pass by," the KNVB announced on Twitter.

"The midfielder is struggling with an injury. As a result, he is not available in time for EURO 2020. Frank de Boer will not call a replacement for Van de Beek."

The nature of Van de Beek's injury blow was not specified, but he had been seen training away from the main group.

Van de Beek may have seen the tournament as an opportunity to prove a point, having been frequently sidelined at Old Trafford following his £34.7million move from Ajax last August, but he must now get himself fit for the 2021-22 campaign.

Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga is the latest player to be called up to Spain's back-up training bubble ahead of Euro 2020.

Spain's preparations have been thrown into disarray following Sergio Busquets' positive coronavirus test on Sunday.

The senior squad, who are in isolation, all returned negative tests on Monday but will continue to follow strict protocols before the start of the Euros, with players from the Under-21 squad set to play in Tuesday's friendly with Lithuania.

As a precaution against further positive cases depleting his squad, coach Luis Enrique has created a parallel training bubble with players effectively on stand-by to join the main Euros squad.

Rodrigo Moreno, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Soler and Brais Mendez were first called up to the bubble before defender Raul Albiol was added late on Monday.

Kepa will also join the group, giving Luis Enrique coverage across the positions should any further COVID-19 cases arise.

Kepa made only seven Premier League appearances in 2020-21 after losing his place to Edouard Mendy. The former Athletic Bilbao keeper has 11 senior caps for Spain.

Spain have added Raul Albiol to the group of players on standby to plug holes in Luis Enrique's Euro 2020 squad if COVID-19 strikes any further blows.

Captain Sergio Busquets tested positive for coronavirus on Sunday and was taken away from the national team training camp, although it is hoped he will be able to return.

Subsequent tests on remaining players and staff have all showed up negative results, but Spain are erring on the side of caution by ensuring they have suitable reinforcements if needed.

That is why versatile Villarreal defender Albiol, a 56-cap international who won the Europa League with his club side last month, comes into the picture at the age of 35.

With the senior squad in isolation and training individually, it will be a Spain Under-21 team who line up in a friendly against Lithuania on Tuesday, but senior caps will be awarded.

It was also announced on Monday that Leeds United forward Rodrigo Moreno and three midfielders in West Ham's Pablo Fornals, Valencia's Carlos Soler and Celta Vigo's Brais Mendez would be called in to train in a 'parallel bubble', being ready to step in should Luis Enrique's squad be depleted.

Spain's opening game against Sweden at Euro 2020 takes place on June 14 in Seville.

While the senior squad suck up the blow of missing out on a final international before the tournament begins, Spain Under-21 boss Luis de la Fuente will give his youngsters a "dream" outing.

De la Fuente said in a news conference: "This does not change the way I work, nor my responsibility and my professionalism. The players, like me, will be very excited to represent Spain.

"For us it is a great dream. I guarantee that the players and the coaching staff are only think about winning."

He said the match day would be "a beautiful day because the boys are going to show their potential".

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.

Rodrigo Moreno, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Soler and Brais Mendez will join Spain's parallel bubble for training ahead of Euro 2020 after Sergio Busquets tested positive for coronavirus.

The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) revealed on Sunday that captain Busquets had contracted COVID-19 just eight days before Spain's first game of the European Championship against Sweden.

With the senior squad in isolation, Spain will be represented by the Under-21 team in a friendly against Lithuania on Tuesday.

The RFEF has now announced that Leeds United forward Moreno, West Ham midfielder Fornals, Valencia midfielder Soler and Celta Vigo midfielder Mendez will enter the bubble on Tuesday.

Another "small" group of players will also train with the senior squad after the game against Lithuania, with Spain's final Euro 2020 squad dependent on further coronavirus test results.

An RFEF statement said: "In anticipation of the possible consequences that Sergio Busquets' positive could bring, the coaching staff has decided to incorporate a group of footballers to complete training during the next few days under Luis Enrique's orders within a parallel bubble.

"In this sense, tomorrow [Tuesday]  the players Rodrigo Moreno (Leeds United), Pablo Fornals (West Ham United), Carlos Soler (Valencia CF) and Brais Mendez (RC Celta) will join the sessions in Las Rozas.

"In addition, once the game against Lithuania is over, a small group of footballers yet to be confirmed will join the training sessions of the senior team under the same conditions as the previous ones. 

"They will train at different times and will not mix in any case with the summoned.

"The players invited to the training sessions will remain outside the Ciudad del Futbol bubble and will go daily to Las Rozas after having passed the relevant daily tests before their arrival and during their stay. 

"Their definitive incorporation to the Euro 2020 list will be evaluated based on the results obtained in the coming days."

Roberto Martinez will not rush Eden Hazard back into Belgium's starting line-up and says Kevin De Bruyne looks "fresh" and "ready" for Euro 2020.

Hazard has been blighted by injuries since joining Real Madrid from Chelsea two years ago and there have been concerns over his fitness for the European Championship.

The winger gave the Red Devils a lift on Sunday, though, making his first international appearance for 19 months as a late substitute in a 1-0 victory over Croatia.

Belgium boss Martinez will be patient with Hazard, who looks set to be on the bench for the Group B opener against Russia at Saint Petersburg Stadium on Saturday.

The Spaniard said: "I think the target for Eden was to be on the pitch and I think that was almost a psychological step. You need to be on the pitch, in a match scenario and it doesn't matter the minutes.

"It wasn't the case Eden needs to play bigger chunks of time on the pitch but I think the next step now will be in training to try to get the match intensity, but I was very pleased in the way that Eden came on, affected the pace of the because it's very hard to come on as a substitute to adapt to the pace of the game.

"It was a needed step, it wasn't about the minutes, it was about being able to do make that step without risk, in a safe manner and that is what we did."

Martinez is unsure when Hazard will be in a position to play an entire game, but says that is not essential.

He added: "I think it will be difficult to tell when he will be ready. It will depend on a lot of things; how the game goes, what is the scoreline, how demanding the game can be in and out of possession.

"What is important is now he is medically fit and now we have a good build-up of five days before the Russia game and then it will be about quality.

"It's not going to be about playing minutes, it's going to be about being able to see Eden Hazard with a big smile on his face and when he's on the pitch he can make the difference.

"I'm not too concerned about the minutes and I think it's a different approach, it's a tournament where we need to think we have five substitutes. It's not a lot about the starting XI, it's about every player when he's on the pitch can make a contribution.

"Five substitutes means almost 50 per cent of the outfield players can almost share the minutes, so I think that approach is going to be very important in this tournament."

Midfielder De Bruyne linked up with the Belgium squad on Monday as he recovers from the fractured nose and left orbital he suffered in Manchester City's Champions League final loss to Chelsea.

Martinez will take no risks with De Bruyne against Russia but gave a positive update on the playmaker's condition after he underwent surgery.

"Kevin De Bruyne has joined the group and that’s fantastic news," said the former Everton manager. "He looks ready, he looks fresh and just for him walking into the dining room was a real highlight of the day.

"He watched the game [against Croatia] and he's already in the mood of the team and is looking forward to slowly taking his own pace with the medical team. But it makes a big difference when he's with the players and is part of the group."

Asked how De Bruyne's recovery is going, Martinez replied: "Very well, the medical intervention went extremely well. It's still a very fresh one, so will take a few days, but the initial reaction has been really positive and he seems ready. He’s looking more forwards than backwards."

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