EURO 2020: Young stars, home comforts boost England hopes

A squad bristling with young and exciting talent. Home advantage through the final. A strong recent tournament record.

England has much going in its favor heading into the European Championship, putting one of the world’s underachieving soccer teams among the favorites.

Can the nation that invented the sport end a 55-year wait for a major title? England coach Gareth Southgate could hardly have a better chance.

YOUNG STARS

Phil Foden. Mason Mount. Reece James. Jude Bellingham. Jadon Sancho. Mason Greenwood. The list goes on and on.

Southgate already had a solid platform on which to build after leading England to the World Cup semifinals in 2018, but the number of youngsters who have emerged since then, especially in the last 12 months, has been staggering and is the envy of many of England’s rivals.

Bellingham is an assured, 17-year-old midfielder who has established himself as a regular at Borussia Dortmund, alongside the 21-year-old Sancho. Attacking midfielders Foden (20) and Mount (22) are already stars for the clubs — Manchester City and Chelsea, respectively — who played in the Champions League final on Saturday. James, a 21-year-old Chelsea right back, was one of the best players in that final and will challenge Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier for that spot in the team. They could all be the sparks to drive England to the title.

Greenwood, a 19-year-old striker at Manchester United, is out because of an underlying injury but can expect to be involved in many major tournaments in his career.

HOME COMFORTS

England will play all of its group games at Wembley Stadium, while the team’s last-16 match will be staged there if it finishes at the top of its group.

With the semifinals and final also being held at Wembley, there’s the possibility that England would only have to play one game — in the quarterfinals — away from home.

England has won 18 of its 24 homes games under Southgate since he took charge late in 2016, losing twice. England also won its only major title, the World Cup in 1966, on home soil and reached the England-based European Championship semifinals in 1996, losing on penalties.

Southgate has also talked up the benefits of his squad being based at St. George’s Park, England’s plush national soccer center, around matches.

MIDFIELD SOLVED?

England’s major flaw at the last World Cup was the midfield’s inability to retain possession and manage games, highlighted in the way Croatia gradually overwhelmed the team in the semifinals.

Central midfield has been a work in progress — and remains the team’s weakest link — but there are signs Southgate has found a formula. Declan Rice is now established as the holding midfielder and Mount as the creative force further upfield. They just so happen to be best friends.

The other place is likely to go to Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s Premier League and Champions League-winning captain, although he has had fitness issues.

That trio has a bit of everything — leadership, energy, drive — and there are solid backups in Bellingham and Kalvin Phillips if injuries strike.

TOURNAMENT RECORD

England might not have ended its long wait for a title but the team has been going deep in competitions under Southgate, giving players experience in pressure matches.

The run to the World Cup semifinals was England’s best performance at a major tournament since 1996 and included the team’s ending its so-called curse in penalty shootouts, against Colombia in the last 16.

England also reached the semifinals of the inaugural Nations League tournament in 2019, losing to the Netherlands in extra time.

KANE’S MOMENT

England captain Harry Kane was the top scorer at the last World Cup, finished as the top scorer in this season’s Premier League, and has added an extra edge to his game by showing off his ability to drop deeper and be the link-up man in attacks for England and Tottenham this season.

His goals come from all over — close range, outside the area, right foot, left foot — and he might be peerless as an all-round striker.

With 34 goals since his England debut in 2015, when he scored with his first touch, Kane looks certain to break Wayne Rooney’s record national team total of 53 if he stays healthy.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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