Scotland, playing at the highest level for the first time since the 1998 World Cup, will face the Czech Republic in Glasgow on Monday, before a new-look Spain get their bid for a record fourth European crown underway without captain Sergio Busquets who tested positive for coronavirus.
Scotland’s match in Group D has been slightly overshadowed by the racism ban which ruled Czech defender Ondrej Kudela out of the tournament.
The Slavia Prague player was suspended for 10 games for racially abusing Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara on a Europa League visit to Scotland in March.
“I believe that he did not tell him anything racist, there was no evidence, but a lot of people on the islands (the UK) condemned him and he received a severe sentence,” said Czech Republic and West Ham midfielder Tomas Soucek.
The Scots begin their campaign on home soil in front of 12,000 fans at Hampden against the Czech Republic on Monday and will also have home advantage against Croatia in Group D after a trip to face England at Wembley on Friday.
Robertson was four the last time Scotland reached a finals at World Cup 1998 and even called on schools to scrap lessons for a 1400 local time (1300 GMT) kick-off against the Czechs.
“A lot of kids, teenagers, even people in their early twenties haven’t witnessed us ever in a major tournament,” said the Liverpool left-back on Sunday.
“The fact now that is going to happen, I hope it inspires a nation, I hope we can make them happy. You can feel a real buzz around the country already.
“The schools can maybe give them a pass to watch the game, we want the whole country behind us. For me it has been a long time coming, it’s up to us to try and keep a smile on their faces.”
Scotland have set up their training base in the north of England to avoid some of the fanfare around their return to a major tournament.
And manager Steve Clarke wants his players to balance the excitement without letting the pressure of the occasion get to them.
“I think when you qualify for the first time in 23 years you probably feel a little bit less pressure,” said Clarke.
“We’ve done well to be in the tournament, we’re looking forward to it, we’re going to give our best in every single game and try and make the next step to the knockout stages which would be a first for the men’s national team.
“I think the Tartan Army can get overexcited for us. We have to be excited, but we have to keep an emotional control so that when we get to the match we perform to our full potential and I feel we can do that.”
The coronavirus, which delayed the tournament for a year, is still proving a major headache.
Portugal defender Joao Cancelo has tested positive for Covid-19 and is out of Euro 2020, with Diogo Dalot taking his place in the squad.
No excuses for Spain
Spain’s preparations have been badly hit by the virus, with Busquets missing for Monday’s clash with Sweden in Seville, while defender Diego Llorente was only allowed to rejoin the group on Saturday after giving a fourth consecutive negative test.
Luis Enrique has said there will be “no excuses” for Spain at Euro 2020, despite positive Covid-19 tests derailing their preparations for Monday’s Group E opener against Sweden.
Luis Enrique’s training plan was thrown into disarray last week, with the squad training individually and the last friendly against Lithuania passed over to the under-21s.
The team were allowed to come together again on Saturday, at their training base in Las Rozas in Madrid and, on Sunday, at La Cartuja stadium in Seville, where they begin against Sweden.
“About a year ago I talked to the players and told them we were going to have a very clear of idea of how to play,” Luis Enrique said in a press conference on Sunday.
“We have had to change a little, we don’t have our captain here, Busquets, and we would have loved to have him, but we adapt.
“It’s been a tough week, without doubt, but no complaints, no excuses. We have a great squad and we are excited for the first game tomorrow.”
The Spain squad was vaccinated by the Spanish army in Madrid on Friday and Jordi Alba allayed fears the players could feel side-effects before or during the match.
“We are all perfect,” said Alba on Sunday. “All good, luckily. We are in good spirits.”
Alba, who looks set to step in for Busquets as captain, admitted training individually has been “more boring” but insisted “the players know what the boss wants us to do”.
He said they have been focusing on physical work, which had not been greatly affected.
The conditions could be unforgiving for anyone feeling below-par, given temperatures in Seville could reach 30 degrees Celsius on Monday night.
But Spain’s players will be used to the heat and Luis Enrique has been timing recent sessions in Madrid to be at the hottest time of the day to ensure they are prepared.
“The heat is a factor but in Madrid it has been very hot,” said Luis Enrique. “It’s not incredibly hot here so I think we should be able to play at a decent tempo.”
Luis Enrique has rotated his team a lot during his three-year tenure and results have been inconsistent.
Alba and Busquets remain from Spain’s Euro success in 2012 but Luis Enrique is attempting to launch a new era, with the aim to end the nine-year wait for a quarter-final at a major tournament.
Luis Enrique was asked if they are ready to challenge again. “I’d love that and I’m convinced that is the case,” he said.
Hamsik boost for Slovakia
The other opening Group E game sees Robert Lewandowski’s Poland face Slovakia in Saint Petersburg.
Slovakia captain Marek Hamsik said Sunday he was fit to play in his team’s Euro 2020 opener against Poland after sitting out pre-tournament friendlies with a calf injury.
“I feel fine, I’m fit and ready to play,” Hamsik, who signed with Turkish top-flight side Trabzonspor last week, told reporters.
Slovakia begin their Group E campaign against Poland on Monday and then face Sweden in St Petersburg before taking on Spain in Seville.
“The Poles are definitely a very tough opponent, they have immense quality up front so we have to defend really well,” said Hamsik, singling out Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zielinski as Poland’s top threats.
Hamsik left Chinese side Dalian Pro for IFK Gothenburg in Sweden in March to get ready for the Euro, his third major tournament with Slovakia after the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2016.
But he missed friendly draws with Bulgaria and Austria in the run-up to the tournament.
“I suppose I can play the whole game,” said the 33-year-old former Napoli midfielder with a distinctive mohawk hairstyle.
“We’re really looking forward to it, we’re ready to go out there, sing the anthem and give everything we have.”
Hamsik’s recovery is a big relief for Slovak head coach Stefan Tarkovic, who said everyone was fit except striker Ivan Schranz, who had picked up a hamstring injury in the Austria friendly on June 6.
“The other 22 players and three goalkeepers are ready, they are in a good shape and motivated, and I believe we will prove that in the game tomorrow,” Tarkovic added.
Tarkovic was an assistant coach at Euro 2016 when Slovakia advanced to the last 16 before bowing out to Germany.
“The feeling is different now, I am responsible for the line-up and the results,” he said.
“On the other hand, I was a proud Slovak at that time and I still am a proud Slovak now,” added the 48-year-old, appointed as head coach last October.
(With AFP inputs)
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