It’s come round again. My secret favourite international football tournament – the European Championships. Despite my attempts at nostalgia recently (though I’ll finish my Euro 2000 post at some point as it was too good a tournament to not recall), time has strode inexorably on to the point where in less than 48 hours, France will kick off the 2016 European Championships against Romania. This first 24-team Euros perhaps doesn’t quite have the wall-to-wall quality of the previously 16-team tournament, but I imagine the Championships will still do the job pretty well in terms of general entertainment and footballing endeavour.
As this is a 24 teams into 16 group stage, I’ve employed the useful services of the Sky Euro 2016 predictor (I guess they have to do something when they don’t (for once) have the TV rights) to get the third place predictions properly into play. As ever in compiling these, I am also rather grateful to the good people at FourFourTwo for producing such a chuffing excellent preview to the Championships. I’ll do the first three groups tonight, with the next three to follow tomorrow night.
Inevitably, I think France will qualify with ease from group A and do so as group winners. One might argue that France’s Benzema-less forward department is perhaps, a little lacking in quality and/or experience compared to its other divisions, but given France won the World Cup in 1998 with Stephane Guivarch as the lone man up front, this may not be troubling too many at the other end of the Channel Tunnel.
Runners-up in Group A will I think be Switzerland, as was the case when the two countries were drawn together in the 2014 World Cup’s group stage. Switzerland are in that reasonably happy spot where they have markers of quality across their side – Shaqiri, Xhaka, Lichtsteiner and their ilk should see the Swiss comfortably into second.
Also qualifying from Group A will, in my view, be Romania. Like the Swiss they do have a smattering of quality in key positions, though perhaps a less convincing smattering. They also have everyone’s favourite Football Manager Romanian, Gabriel Torje, available to do his real-life thing, as well as having the manager of that wonderful 1994 World Cup team, Anghel Iordanescu, back in charge which should help.
Rather predictably, I reckon Albania will be on their way home in fourth. I’m not entirely convinced they have the quality in their squad to last the pace over the three games, and they did slightly have to rely on a flag-based riot to get them into this Championships (a chip on my shoulder you say?). That said, they did still qualified automatically from a group containing Denmark, Portugal and Serbia and have a tactically secure and sound manager in Gianni De Biasi. They will be wrapping Lazio keeper Etrit Berisha in many protective layers though – his two potential replacements both play in the Albanian top flight.
Again sticking fairly tediously with the seedings, I think England will finish top of Group B. Again, on balance the squad’s quality should be sufficient to see off their various opponents. Roy Hodgson, unlike in 2012 and arguably 2014 too, now at last seems to have found his favoured starting 11, a system that works and has picked hungry players (largely) more on form than reputation. As previously mentioned, I’m still utterly baffled why the best English midfielder in the Premier League in 2015-16 has been discarded in favour of someone who’s played about 78.92 seconds of football in 18 months, but you can’t win em all.
I really fancy Wales to join their near-neighbours in the last 16, on the assumption that they keep Gareth Bale fit. Like the Swiss in Group B (and other than the fact both sides play in red), they have a reliable spine through their team with Wayne Hennessey, Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey and the aforementioned world transfer record subject all playing at a high level. The added poignancy of this being a team arguably built (or at least the foundations) by the late Gary Speed will I imagine provide further motivation.
In third but still in the round of 16, I’ve plumped for Slovakia. This is largely based on the premise that I really, really rate Marek Hamsik who has, when so many around him have high-tailed it to England, Spain or Germany, stayed put in Naples and helped his club side to half-decent runs at the Serie A title and in Europe. Like Bale for the Welsh, he is the man the Slovaks build their side around and rightly so. If Martin Skrtel can reduce his propensity for own goals, the lower half of the Velvet Divorce should also be solid at the back.
In last I’ve gone for Russia. I’ll admit right away that this is predicated solely on the fact that, other than the blip that was Euro 2008, Russia tend to be abysmal when they qualify for tournaments. Still relying on Ignashevich and Berezuitsky as your first-choice central defensive partnership two years prior to hosting the World Cup perhaps also demonstrates the dearth of defensive talent in President Putin’s domain. I am though looking forward to seeing if Aleksandr Kokorin can produce the bacon for his side in a major tournament.
Sticking to my record so far of exciting and out there predictions, I think a recently-slightly-ropey Germany should still top their group. Though Lahm-less they are certainly not sheep, though have, as everyone seems to have pointed out over the last few months, lost something of their defensive solidity and decisiveness despite Jerome Boateng emerging as a leader in the back four. Like the French, their forward line is severely lacking other than the ever-present yet elusive Thomas Müller. Deutschland should still however be capable of progressing some way into this tournament.
The only other side joining Germany from Group C in the last 16 will be Poland. At last the Poles appear to have found a way to get the most out of Robert Lewandowski (unlike in 2012), while there is more reliable European experience throughout the squad. Remaining unbeaten against Germany (and Scotland) in qualifying will only add to the Poles’ (rightful) sense of entitlement to progress further in the competition.
It gives me no pleasure in saying that I think Northern Ireland‘s European odyssey will come to an end when the group stage concludes. I still though, with their incredible team spirit and astute manager in Michael O’Neill, fancy them to beat Ukraine. For a side which features players from the likes of Kilmarnock, Notts County and Melbourne City, to get this far (at the risk of sounding extremely patronising) is an incredible achievement. And again makes me question why Scotland won’t be in France this summer.
Joining Northern Ireland on their way home (though in a different direction) will be Ukraine. Though granted Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka are both excellent creative players with real European pedigree, the spine of the side looks to be suffering a few slipped discs (I’m here all night). Andriy Pyatov is not immune to the odd blunder, while Anatoly Tymoschuk, while undoubtedly a wonderful holding midfielder in his best days, is playing in Kazakhstan at the age of 37. Add to that the fact that a significant minority of the squad haven’t played in their club side’s home stadium in 2 years, and much as I’d like them to bring their countrymen some well-needed cheer (and frankly stick one to the Russians), I think Kiev Airport will be seeing a charter return flight reasonably soon.
Enough of my babbling for tonight – until tomorrow for Groups D-F.