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Who will punch their ticket to FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021?
NEWCASTLE (Paul Nilsen's Women's Basketball Worldwide) - Even if a ball has not yet been thrown up in the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021 Qualifiers, I have already been asked by several people who I think will qualify.
Sticking my neck out, I thought it would be interesting to be bold and go for some predictions - despite it having only been about 6 to 7 weeks since the curtain came down on the 2019 editions!
There is also the added complication this time around that the windows are strung out all the way until February 2021 - just months before Final Round. That is due to having to fit in the February 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments.
So who will join co-hosts Spain and France? As a reminder, there are 14 tickets to take, with each group winner collecting one - plus the 5 best runners-up.
Group A - 1. Slovenia (Q), 2. Greece, 3. Iceland, 4. Bulgaria
I can’t see anybody beating Slovenia from top spot because of their super guard rotation with the likes of Nika Baric and Teja Oblak – plus the emerging Annamaria Prezelj and Zala Friskovec. If Eva Lisec plays and is healthy, they are a formidable unit because of their added chemistry and continuity under Coach Grgic. It feels like it is in their hands and especially since Greece could be in transition for these next few years. They have delayed it for the longest possible time, but finally they will have to play without the legendary Evina Maltsi who announced her NT retirement recently – plus several other performers are in the twilight of their careers. Greece have some talented younger players but it may be a bit much to expect them to pick up the torch and be an instant success. Although this group gives them a decent shot of qualifying after they only just missed out on the last Final Round. Iceland and Bulgaria will inevitably battle for pride in the last two positions, which could be either way around.
Group B - 1. Sweden (Q), 2. Montenegro, 3. Israel
Sweden have opted not to continue with veteran French play-caller Francois Gomez despite making the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments and that was not really a surprise. They showed heart to dig out that precious ticket, but were awful to watch and had no offensive rhythm at all. It was enjoyable to see the likes of Kalis Loyd perform so well at Final Round, with Amanda Zahui remaining a special talent and centrepiece. They must avoid taking their eye off the ball in this first window and looking ahead to next February’s OQT’s. They have the depth and roster to win this Group, but I think it could be tricky if they are not focused and ready. Montenegro showed that on their day under the new leadership of Jelena Skerovic, they can be dangerous. Bozica Mujovic and Glory Johnson (if she continues) are a threat and there are a few good youngsters ready to play too. Israel can’t be discounted completely if Alysha Clark commits again. Sweden might benefit from the possibility of Israel and Montenegro splitting games.
Group C - 1. Russia (Q), 2. Bosnia and Herzegovina (Q), 3. Switzerland, 4. Estonia
The sense of relief at the Russian Federation must have been huge when they were drawn in this Group. They have landed on their feet and it is one less headache to worry about during what is crisis time for a proud nation who have fallen spectacularly from the top tier in the past 6-7 years. They have not played at a global event since London 2012 which is simply astonishing and big questions are being asked about what has continually went wrong. A succession of coaches have taken the blame, but a lack of guards and too many Russian players not having leading roles at club level has not helped. With Maria Vadeeva anything is possible, so providing she plays, they should see off three opponents in what is arguably the weakest group of them all. Bosnia and Herzegovina can get hugely excited because they could feasibly go 4-2 and secure a maiden trip to Final Round. They were only just squeezed out in 2019. Led by Marica Gajic and with some nice teenage talents ready to add some strength and depth, they should be able to beat Switzerland and Estonia who I can’t see causing an upset.
Group D - 1. Italy (Q), 2. Czech Republic (Q), 3. Romania, 4. Denmark
I was left bemused by the Italian Federation not extending the contract of Marco Crespi which I feel is a knee-jerk reaction to them missing the OQT’s. The play-caller was arguably a victim of his own success in picking up the pieces from their 2017 Final Round heartache and getting them on a roll and with momentum heading into the 2019 edition. Italy should have enough talent to top this group and obviously the match-ups with Czech Republic will be crunch. Under new head coach Pierre Vincent, Cecilia Zandalasini and hopefully Giorgia Sottana will continue to lead and I can’t wait to see Italy in these next five years because the young talent they have is phenomenal. I am pencilling them in for a medal in 2023 and 2025 if all goes well. Czech Republic are difficult to predict because they had so many injuries and absences at Final Round. The return of Alena Hanusova in particular will be huge for them. Romania always threaten to do cause a surprise but never quite manage. They might fancy their chances against the Czechs at home, but must also look over their shoulder at Denmark. The newcomers are massive underdogs but the work they have done at youth level has shown they have some nice prospects for the future and they are no mugs having won the Small Countries title recently.
Group E - 1. Serbia (Q), 2. Turkey, 3. Lithuania, 4. Albania
Naturally the 2019 co-hosts and bronze medalists Serbia will be the favorites although nothing can be taken for granted in what I think is the most cut-throat of all the groups. Leaving Albania aside (who must have been wondering what on earth they did to deserve this tough trio) the triangular series between Serbia, Turkey and Lithuania could be epic. Marina Maljkovic will no doubt prioritize Tokyo 2020 which is natural but there is no margin for error in this group and Serbia will need to be ready. They will likely have too much firepower for their opponents and their scoring ability and core rotation is way too classy on paper at least - or at least if no senior players call it a day after Tokyo. The interesting dynamic in this group is whether Turkey will get bitten by Lithuania. I think they will just about scrape into second spot, but assuming they lose twice to Serbia and only split with Lithuania, a 1-3 record could see them squeezed out. I predicted the wheels to come crashing off Turkey for some time and nobody really listened. The problem with too many Turkish players sat on club benches is a big issue. They will have to play well to beat Lithuania who could and probably should have made it to 2019 Final Round. They lost a string of tight games against Russia and Hungary. I like some of their younger players and they could actually end up squeezing out Turkey. The difference-maker might only be the presence (or lack of) a naturalized player – which is a pity if this is how it pans out.
Group F - 1. Great Britain (Q), 2.Belarus (Q), 3. Poland
This could be quite a tight group, but I have to tip Great Britain to continue their momentum from their historic Final Round campaign in Belgrade when they made the Quarter-Finals and then the Semi-Finals for the first-time. It was great work from the ‘positive glasses’ of the charismatic play-caller Chema Buceta, but the big caveat to them winning this group is the fragility of having almost all of their eggs in the Temi Fagbenle basket. The 2019 All-Star Five member is a colossus and if she was unable to play for any reason, the Brits look vulnerable. They must also put the excitement of the Serbian capital behind them, ignore the OQT’s on the horizon and firmly knuckle down. Belarus will be an unknown quantity at this stage because they have some question marks over some players. Of course the legendary Yelena Leuchanka did not play at Final Round and there were shrugs of the shoulders when it was stated whether the amazing Anastasiya Verameyenka would continue to commit. They are capable of winning this group by the way – if they get their big names on the floor. The only question mark is probably about the fact that several fringe members of the roster got no court time at Final Round 2019 and it might be a bit much to ask them to suddenly become part of the core rotation. Poland are still looking like a team rebuilding and in search of inspiration. They will be solid and not spectacular so won’t just roll over.
Group G - 1. Belgium (Q), 2.Ukraine (Q), 3. Finland, 4. Portugal
I feel a little sorry for Finland and Portugal in this Group if I am brutally honest. With the emergence of Awak Kuier and some other nice young talents, I was wondering if Finland could close the gap and make some noise in these Qualifiers (maybe for 2023 in reality) but having to face Ukraine and Belgium makes it tough. Similarly with Portugal, who have many younger players who could impact on the senior team that has struggled to get anywhere close to Final Round qualification. Ukraine were rotten at Final Round, or at least from a defensive standpoint and once again made a mockery of my feeling they could pack a punch, be dark horses and push for the OQT’s. Even with the amazing Alina Iagupova, they flopped badly. However they seem to have made it their mission to impress in Qualifiers and fail at Final Round. That pattern may be repeated. I am looking for Belgium to come back strongly from what was a learning curve mentally at Final Round. Tipped to potentially win gold, they creaked under that weight of expectation and almost missed out on the minimum of a top six finish and an OQT spot. It was a big and valuable lesson about what it takes to be a truly top level team. With the incredible Emma Meeseman, exciting Julie Allemand and sharp-shooting Kim Mestdagh to call upon, they should ease their way to the top position.
Group H - 1. Hungary (Q), 2. Slovakia. 3. Netherlands
This is the weirdest/strangest of all the Groups for me. Hungary will surely do the business and take pole position. They are a nation who can surely rise up in these next years, since outside of France, Italy and Spain, I don’t see anyone else with as much young talent. Of course they also have the senior players now to see off Slovakia and Netherlands even before the pending integration of the likes of Reka Dombai and Co. They will lean on the leadership of Krisztina Raksanyi and it will be interesting to see if Yvonne Turner continues to play too. For sure, the likes of Agnes Studer, Virag Kiss and Reka Lelik all need to now take the initiative and start really impacting for the senior team. They have the talent to do it. Slovakia will look to upset their neighbors in the two derby games and are a team that you can never rule out. They have a back catalogue of upsets. They made the Quarter-Finals in 2017 against all expectations and only just missed out in 2019. If they can get the likes of Zofia Hruscakova and Barbora Balintova on the court, they will not be an opponent to be taken lightly. But, what is fascinating and what could make this Group very strange is Netherlands. Suddenly their former youth starts who have largely locked Stateside in the NCAA are more free to play as they embark on their respective pro-careers during coming months. So, if Laura Cornelius and Emese Hof play in every game, alongside the likes of Janis Boonstra, they might cause some issues.
Group I - 1. Croatia (Q), 2. Latvia (Q), 3. Germany, 4. North Macedonia
Maybe this is my most controversial choice. And, I accept that it is probably more likely that Latvia will take first place. The reason I have chosen Croatia is that there were good signs last time in a tough group including Italy and Sweden. Andja Jelavic did a good job in making Croatia very competitive and now that baton has been picked up by Stipe Bralic who you will recall helped his country reach the 2012 Olympics (with Jelavic in the team). Croatia also posted some nice results and performances in the summer preparation tournaments and I think they have some interesting players with talent in Marija Rezan, Ana Marija Begic, Antonija Sandric and Ivana Dojkic to name but a few. They have a nice sprinkling of rising stars in the pipeline as well, so they have reasons to be positive. Latvia will be absolute favorites if their big names were back on board during these next 18 months or so – they were without Kitija Laksa and Anete Steinberga, while they were never able to naturalise Shey Peddy as they had hoped. They also have young players with big skills but it depends on how much of a chokehold the NCAA commitments will have. I worry about that and also the fact that it will be almost 3 years since Latvia even played in Qualifiers (as they were co-hosts in 2019). Germany should have enough in the tank to see off North Macedonia and maybe in 2023 or 2025, they can rely on a glut of talent that won the FIBA U18 Women’s European Championship to get closer to qualifying as they have been some distance away – despite nice players such as Sonja Greinacher and Marie Gulich.
So that means my bold prediction is that the Final Round will consist of France, Spain, Slovenia, Sweden, Russia, Italy, Serbia, Great Britain, Belgium, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus. Yes, that means potentially no Turkey - but only because I think Lithuania and Turkey may kill each other and both miss out.
But of course it is slightly crazy in many ways to even attempt this prediction, since the alluring nature of the women's game remains its ability to continually throw up unpredictable surprises!
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