With Euro 2016 just around the corner, let’s take a look at how the groups may unfold over the upcoming weeks in France.
Group A: France, Romania, Albania and Switzerland
Starting things off, hosts France will be expecting to win a reasonable group. They see themselves matched with Romania, new-comers Albania and Switzerland, who Les Bleus demolished 5-2 at the last World Cup. France will already be setting their sights on the trophy, with star players such as Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann thriving at domestic level. With top spot being favoured to the two-time winners, Switzerland and Romania look to be the two sides battling it out for second place, with Albania having no tournament experience at this level. The Swiss should edge out a very defence minded Romanian side with quality in their ranks. Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Arsenal’s newly signed midfielder Granit Xhaka look to feature as two of Switzerland’s key players this summer. Now with both automatic places taken, Romania may have to settle for a place amongst the best third-placed teams.
Prediction: 1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Romania 4. Albania
Group B: England, Russia, Wales and Slovakia
The main stand out fixture of this interesting group is England’s clash with fellow Brits Wales.
The two teams that are expected to pass in first and second spot are seeds England and Euro new-comers Wales, who have reached their first tournament for 58 years. Despite many people’s views on how Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale can inspire his side and reach the knockout stages, I think that they will struggle to adjust to this level of football. However, a win in their first game against Slovakia could see them amongst the 3rd placers. Fellow rivals England will be hoping for improvements since another dreadful showing at a World Cup. Players such as Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli will be hoping to make an impact, whilst Wayne Rooney seems to be hanging on to his place in the starting eleven. Opting for a midfield role, Rooney could form a deadly trio behind Vardy and Kane, who ahve both been in terrific form for club and country. Quarter finals would be a good tournament for the Three Lions, and any further would be incredible.
All the talk may be focused on England and Wales (understandably), however I get the feeling that many people are dismissing Russia and Slovakia as a threat. The former will be hoping to wash away a disappointing World Cup, and bring back the golden days of their semi final appearance at Euro 2008. Fabio Capello departed after two years with the side, halfway through qualifying. Since August last year, Leonid Slutsky has taken on two managerial jobs, one with Russian club CSKA Moscow and the other his national team. His aim is to bring back the glory days of old, and assuring that the memories of the last two group stage exits at tournaments have gone, then who knows. Slovakia are debutants in this area, but provide good pedigree with a victory over holders Spain during qualifying. Although they do have players such as Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel and in-form Napoli midfielder Marik Hamsik, they are fourth favourites in the group.
Prediction: 1. England 2. Russia 3. Wales 4. Slovakia
Group C: Germany, Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland
World champions Germany will be hoping to win back-to-back trophies for the first time since 1974. Die Mannschaft have a tricky group to get through before they can start to think about lifting the trophy in Paris. Co-hosts of the last Euros Ukraine and Poland will both be aiming for that second spot, knowing that a quarter final is very much there for the taking if either achieve second. Ukraine’s main threat comes from the width, with Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka a dangerous player. The best striker in the whole tournament is probably from Poland. Robert Lewandowski fired 42 goals in 51 games last season, adding to a Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich. In my opinion, Poland are a true dark horse to go far in the tournament, and the goal machine will be hoping to guide his side to a quarter final, which doesn’t actually seem all that unachievable.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill would have been dreading a draw like this, but his side can take an enormous amount of confidence having topped their qualifying group over the likes of Romania and Greece. Kyle Lafferty has been in fine form during qualifying, and of course, Will Grigg could be on fire. With no pressure what so ever, playing in their first ever Euros, Norn Iron will be hoping to achieve good performances against quality opposition in France, and maybe even a push for a third place spot.
Prediction: 1. Germany 2. Poland 3. Ukraine 4. Northern Ireland
Group D: Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia
Since their disastrous bid to retain the World Cup in Brazil, Spain have gradually got back to being amongst the very best in Europe. La Roja have moved on from the days of tika-taka, and althought they still pass the ball with such class, a new batch of Spainards have emerged. Manager Vicente Del Bosque has opted for more of a youthful look, with players such as Koke, Thiago and striker Alvaro Morata looking to break through into the squad. Veteran’s Andres Iniesta and Iker Casillas are still in the team, one maybe more certain to start than the other, with Manchester United’s David De Gea grasping number one spot between the sticks. Czech Republic come into the tournament having seen off The Netherlands to qualify. Experience with Arsenal’s Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky within a side that can cause an upset, as they did reach the final of Euro 1996 and won their group four years ago.
Turkey have reached a major tournament for the first time since Euro 2008, where they got to the Semi finals. Faith Tarim’s side were the side that qualified as the best third-placed team, and they will be aiming to reach at least third in this highly competitive group. Star players such as Barcelona’s Arda Turan and Hakan Calhanoglu of Bayer Leverkusen add greta creativity at the heart of the midfield. Finishing off the group is Croatia. Certainly a threat to any side, I would consider them another dark horse. With a fantastic midfield trio of La Liga stars, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, they will be hoping to provide for the target man Mario Mandzukic who shined in Poland and Ukraine four years ago.
Prediction: 1. Spain 2. Croatia 3. Czech Republic 4. Turkey
Group E: Belgium, Italy, Republic Of Ireland and Sweden
Titled as the ‘Group of Death’ by many, Europe’s highest ranked team Belgium, old war horses Italy, The Green Army of Ireland and Zlatan’s Sweden certainly does provide evidence for that name. The Red Devils will be heading to France with one objective. To win it. Marc Wilmot’s side will be without captain Vincent Kompany, a huge miss for any side. However, there are plenty of options for the head coach to choose from, with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. The midfield of the French neighbours is really where things start to shine. Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne has had a good season domestically and in Europe, and although Eden Hazard hasn’t been able to replicate the form of two seasons ago at Chelsea, he will be hoping to transform himself with his national team.
Many people have tipped Italy to slightly upset the seeds and finish above them. The Azzuri are coming into this tournament after a woeful World Cup, where they didn’t get past the group stages. However, times have changed since then, with Antonio Conte coming in as manager. The former Juventus coach will be off to Chelsea next season, but he has a mission with Italy. He will be thankful that the Serie A has featured many Italian’s playing impressively this season, with players such as Lorenzo Insigne and Simone Zaza breaking into the team. Southampton’s Graziano Pelle looks like he will lead the line at striker, with the ageing but still so brilliant Gianluigi Buffon in goal. Quarter finals would be a reasonable aim.
The Republic Of Ireland will be downhearted to get a draw like this, but Martin O’Neill’s men head to France with the best Irish team ever, according to some. Shay Given and Robbie Keane have been around for a while now, providing lot’s of experience for the boys in green. Shane Long definitely gives lots of versatility to the side, with his pace and aerial threat. The team that will probably be competing for that third place could be Sweden. When you think of Sweden and football, only one name springs to mind. That name is Paris Saint Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Having scored an unbelievable 50 goals in 51 games for the Parisians last season, he looks to be the main man for the job to take Sweden to the knockout stages.
Prediction: 1. Belgium 2. Italy 3. Sweden 4. Republic Of Ireland
Group F: Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary
Maybe seen as the weakest group, Portugal will be favourites to win this unconvincing group, with Cristiano Ronaldo seeking a first major trophy at international level. Former United team mate Nani has picked up good form with Turkish side Fenerbahce. Both Southampton defenders Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares will more than likely feature, having come off the back of another successful season with the Saints. Ronaldo and co will be aiming for the quarters, any further would be another successful Championship for A Seleccao. Iceland managed to win their qualifying group ahead of the likes of Czech Republic, Turkey and The Netherlands. Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson seems to be the start of the side. The midfielder provides a good vision of passing, with terrific set pieces. Alfred Finnbogason of Bundesliga side Augsburg will be hoping he gets the service from the Premier League creator. A true Icelandic legend Eidur Gudjohnsen also heads to France, providing an enormous amount of experience.
A side that may get in the way of Iceland’s progression is Austria. With the main man of the team David Alaba coming off the back of another title winning season with Bayern, he is surely the most versatile player in the entire tournament. Probably sitting in the heart of the midfield, Alaba will be looking to gain chemistry with Stoke’s Marko Arnautovic. Premier League title winner Christian Fuchs will occupy the left-back spot, aiming to carry his fine form with Leicester City into the Championships. Finally, Hungary will more than likely be seen by the weakest team in the group, but after surprising Norway in the qualifying playoff, they will not be going to just fulfil fixtures. Buraspor’s Balazs Dzsudzsak is both his club and country’s star player, and he will be aiming to have successful tournament, but I feel as though there is not enough quality around him to achieve progression.
Prediction: 1. Portugal 2. Austria 3. Iceland 4. Hungary
Written by Joe Dutton
Sources: Pitchero, Pitch Invasion, Russian Football News, Run Last Man, Blog Spot & Fox Sports