This Friday sees the start of the European Championships in France, the tournament is the largest finals tournament in UEFA’s history and with the 2020 tournament to be spread across multiple venues; it may be the last of its kind. My wife and I will be heading off to Nice for the first week of the tournament where we will meet up with my Dad and Our Kid to visit the brand new Allianz Riviera Stadium on Sunday for what promises to be an intriguing clash between Northern Ireland and Poland.
A key focus of comment in advance of the competition has focused on a potential dilution of the quality of the tournament brought about by the increase from 16 to 24 teams. The 8-team tournaments of a couple of decades ago made them cut-throat in nature but it seemed that there were simply too few matches; whereas the recent 16-team tournaments have struck an excellent balance between the quantity and quality of matches.
Unquestionably motivated by the desire for increased revenue generation, as is usually the driving force behind any decision taken by UEFA/FIFA, the fear is that the tournament has lost something of its elite nature and with the fact that only 8 teams will be eliminated at the group stage (the 6 bottom placed teams in each group and 2 of the third placed teams) that this will act as a disincentive for teams going all out to win games early on. As a result the great fear is that we have an overly cautious group phase, with lower quality matches that might even test the football addiction of people such as myself.
In addition, the qualification of 4 third-placed teams makes the composition of the Round of 16 almost impossible to predict and could mean that we are in for some rather one-sided games at this first knock-out stage.
While I won’t even pretend to have an in-depth knowledge of all the teams that will be competing in the finals tournament; these are some of my initial thoughts:
Lowest ranked among the teams qualifying for the first time is Albania, somewhat of an unknown quantity, scoring goals would appear to be their weakness; they are in a group with the hosts and two middle-ranking sides in Romania and Switzerland so they are very likely to be in the first 8 teams to go home.
Other than Sigurdsson, Gunnarsson and of course the ‘veteran’ Eidur Gudjohnsen (god it makes me feel old to write that!), there aren’t too many familiar names in the Iceland squad; however with only really Portugal as an established force in their group, there may be the possibility of progression for these tournament debutants.
In Group B with England, Wales and Russia and centred around the enigmatic talent of Napoli’s Marek Hamsik, Slovakia on their day, ie if Hamsik is on his game, may be capable of causing a few problems and make the group a bit tighter than people are expecting.
Hungary are like Albania largely an unknown quantity but in a group with one clear favourite and carrying a set-piece threat they may have a slight chance of getting out of the group.
While not having the reputation of past generations Romania are apparently a team that is solid in defence and that likes to play on the counter; results against Albania and Switzerland will determine their fate.
Having beaten Russia home and away and battered Sweden in qualifying, Austria may be a surprise package; they were largely anonymous in the tournament they co-hosted in 2008 and didn’t qualify four years ago. This time around though they would appear to be a more serious proposition with Leicester’s Christian Fuchs playing at left back to allow the exciting David Alaba from Bayern to be deployed in midfield.
The Home Nations
Out of pure self-preservation I am trying to quell any optimism I have for England’s chances, having been heartbroken so many times before, I find it easier to try and go into these tournaments expecting nothing. Having said that though there are some very exciting attacking players in the side, although the concern seems to be that we are shaky at the back and could concede goals. Presuming we don’t manage to make a mess of the group stage, the accepted prediction seems to be that a quarter final or semi-final place is achievable for Roy Hodgson’s side.
All through their qualifying campaign and in the build-up to the Finals Wales have tried to downplay their reliance on Gareth Bale; however he did score 7 and set up a further 2 of their 11 goals in qualifying so it is hard not to think that if a team can contain the Real Madrid forward they can nullify the Welsh team.
After a disastrous tournament last time the Republic of Ireland will be hoping to make a bigger impact this time around; with the pace of Shane Long up front they should carry a goal threat but like England they may be a bit suspect at the back.
Not content with simply qualifying for a tournament for the first time for 30 years, Northern Ireland will be keen to make their mark in France; but in a group featuring Germany, Poland and Ukraine they could be up against it.
France look to be a really strong proposition, after a relatively decent World Cup, they seem to have developed further as a team and having won the last two tournaments they have hosted they will relish being at home. The lack of competitive matches since Brazil, the decision not to pick Benzema and injuries to first choice centre backs may inhibit them somewhat.
The Big Guns
Amazingly dropping points in qualifying to Ireland and a defeat by England in a friendly has sparked some speculation that World Cup Winners Germany might be on the decline. They have lost some top players through retirement and have some injury issues, but it would be brave to not think that Germany will be one of the most likely to win.
After three consecutive tournament wins it almost felt like Spain were found out in Brazil. The 5-1 hammering by Holland, the way that Chile disrupted them with intense pressing of their midfielders, and Diego Costa not providing the answer to the striking issues, has led many to feel that they have reached the end of their dominance of the international game. However the squad does contain some very talented players and there is plenty of creative ability if not the goal threat up front.
As was the case before the World Cup a lot of people are tipping Belgium to win the whole thing. They were ranked as the best team in the world for a large part of the past year and the quality in their squad is obvious; it only remains to be seen if after Brazil they now have the experience to make a real challenge,
True to their footballing traditions Italy are well organised defensively and will no doubt prove hard to break down; however with Southampton striker Graziano Pelle seemingly the first choice up front, decent player though he is, they would seem to be lacking a bit of firepower up front.
With a relatively straightforward group and a seemingly more balanced team, ie apparently not completely reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal seem to be being tipped as dark horses by some experts. The Real Madrid star seemed to be hampered by injury in the Champions League Final and didn’t play against England in the friendly last week, so they may have to prove they have other players to step up.
On a personal note I will be interested to see how Arsenal’s new signing Granit Xhaka performs in midfield for Switzerland.
Two years ahead of hosting the World Cup surely Russia must have developed and improved from a very flat World Cup in Brazil?
I am looking forward to watching Ukraine’s two exciting inverted wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and erstwhile Liverpool target Yevhen Konoplyanka.
Croatia feature two top level central midfielders in Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic from Barcelona; despite having nearly made a mess of qualification resulting in the replacement of Niko Kovac they should progress through to the knockout phase where they are capable of posing a challenge to most sides.
With Arsenal veterans Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky featuring for the Czech Republic, it would be easy to write off their chances; but they are apparently a well-organised, attack-minded side that carry a threat on the break.
For many, myself included, Poland are fancied as a team capable of being the surprise side and going far in the tournament. With their two striker system featuring the highly impressive Robert Lewandowski and Ajax youngster Arkadiusz Milik, they certainly carry a goal threat.
As has usually been the case over recent seasons Sweden remain heavily reliant on new Manchester United signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic; in what may prove to be his last major tournament he will be keen to make an impact, although in a group featuring Italy and Belgium that might not prove to be too straightforward.
With an exciting attacking midfield Turkey may be capable of springing a surprise or two; it would seem to be a straight fight with Croatia and the Czech Republic for qualification behind Spain.