Continuing last night’s preview, here are the remaining three groups, as well as my thought on the overall winner of the tournament.
Group D is where, in my view, this tournament starts to get a little more interesting. Despite their somewhat abject loss to Georgia the other night (Scotland can do that!), I think Spain will top this group. While Xavi has gone, the likes of Iniesta, Busquets and Ramos remain, while there is genuine competition both up front (Morata and Nolito) and in goal (De Gea and Casillas. But really just De Gea). I am a little dismayed at the fact that Vicente del Bosque chose to leave Saul Niguez and Isco in Madrid rather than taking them across the Pyrenees, but you can’t have it all.
In second, and I think in with a real chance of going a fair way into this tournament, will be Croatia. Our August holiday destination have real quality at full back and particularly in the creative midfield positions – you’d be hard pressed to find a better midfield pairing than Rakitic and Modric in any international side. In Mario Mandzukic they should also have a reliable centre-forward, though I imagine Hrvatska will more want to see his Bayern form than his Atletico Madrid form during the tournament.
In a qualifying third place I’ve gone for the Czech Republic. While there are no particularly magnificent players in their squad (perhaps other than Petr Cech), the Czechs are a hideously reliable side at the European Championships, escaping from the groups in three of their five Euros appearances so far. Theirs is a side with a great deal of experience and not much youth, which in a 24-team tournament such as this might just be enough to see them not finish in one of the eight positions which entail a journey home.
In last and heading back in the general direction of the Bosphorus, I’ve gone for Turkey. Where the Czechs and the Croats have been largely reliable in tournament football over the last twenty years or so, barring those two miracles in 2002 and 2008 the Turks have been generally nowhere. That said, players like Hakan Calhanoglu and Arda Turan especially are clearly not lacking in quality. Goalkeeper might be the position which particularly damages Turkey, however – following Volkan Demirel’s self-imposed banishment from the squad, Volkan Babacan of Istanbul Basaksehir seems the most likely man to step into those previously reliable shoes.
While the old 16-team Euros tended to produce at least one and generally two or three “Groups of Death” – Group D in Euro 2000 featuring 4 sides who’d won the thing (France, Netherlands, Denmark and Czech Republic) – this 24-team Euros has slightly diluted the potential group mortality rating. Nonetheless, I think Group E is the one which is probably the most open of the six.
Sticking with the ever-reliable cliche that Italy always do well when a tournament comes around, I think they’ll win this group. Though this is one of the more uninspiring Italian squads in recent years (Thiago Motta isn’t really a worthy successor to Roberto Baggio’s number 10 jersey), I still think they have a sound enough platform to win the group. They will be solid rather than cavalier in winning the group, I fancy. And I still don’t understand Conte’s exclusion from even his 30-man preliminary squad of Sebastian Giovinco, even if the soon-to-be Chelsea manager is right about the lack of quality in MLS.
I reckon Belgium will come in second. Their squad is full of talent, from front to back. Defensively they are a little odd – Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have tended to play as full backs rather than at centre-half as they did so well for Spurs this past season. With Vincent Kompany injured, that club partnership may well be restored, though then Belgium don’t look over clever in the full back area. But, if Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku and their ilk all fire, Belgium should do well but I think will improve as the tournament progresses. That said I wasn’t particularly impressed with them at the World Cup in 2014 – Marc Wilmots has since had two years to get a little more out of his side but Belgium may again find it a little difficult to win people over despite their apparent strength.
Coming in third but still going home will, I think, be Sweden. Zlatan’s last chance will ultimately be dashed, though he will still no doubt make his mark with some outrageous piece of skill or astonishing 30-yard volley. Seemingly his partnership with Marcus Berg has been yielding some goals – though where in the late 90s and early 00s Sweden used to have reliable names throughout their squad, they still rely on Andreas Isaksson in goal and largely forgettable mid-table Premier League, La Liga and Serie A players make up much of their starting 11.
In fourth (and no the island of Ireland, it’s not personal) I think we will find Ireland. The Irish will be much improved on their horrendous performance in 2012 (they couldn’t be much worse) though will still in my view find it difficult to win points in this group. There is a little more strength in their squad than in that of their neighbours in the North – Seamus Coleman has even made the first cut of my Fantasy Euro 2016 team. That he is one of Ireland’s main attacking outlets perhaps says it all though – the Irish are solid rather than particularly creative. They should be good for a point or two – that game first up against Zlatan and Sweden will be vital to both sides’ chances.
And so to the end of the groups, and near the end of this post, with Group F. In first place will I think be Portugal. This should be too easy a group for them to fail in, and, as Michael Cox pointed out in today’s Guardian preview of this group, Cristiano Ronaldo loves battering in goals against rubbish teams. This group certainly has one of those in Hungary. Any side with Pepe and Bruno Alves as their first choice centre-backs are always going to be living somewhat dangerously, and in conforming with a problem that has seemingly existed in Portuguese football since Eusebio retired, they don’t have anything like an international-class centre forward. But then with the other Ronaldo in the side, maybe they don’t need one, at least go get into the last 16.
In a solid second place I’m going to plump for Austria. Like their Alpine neighbours, Austria have a decent smattering of quality players – as well as the obvious in David Alaba, there’s also Christian Fuchs, Marko Arnautovic and Dynamo Kiev’s Aleksandar Dragovic among others. Though qualifying form is never too indicative of how a team’s summer will pan out, given the absolute ease with which Austria qualified from a not particularly easy group, I think they’ll have enough about them to reach the last 16.
In a qualifying third place spot, and I really hope this happens, will be Iceland. The smallest country to ever qualify for a Euros (with a population roughly equivalent to Coventry), again their squad has fine players in important positions. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Kolbeinn Sigporsson and Aron Gunnarsson will be very important to the Icelandic cause, whose defence I’m not quite as convinced by. The fact that Eidur Gudjohnsen will get the opportunity at 37 to represent his country at an international tournament is also one of the lovely side-stories of the tournament.
Last, and competing with Albania for dead last in the tournament, will be Hungary. Having finished third behind Northern Ireland and Romania, a play-off victory against Norway saw Hungary through. One point of undoubted pleasure is that it is the first time since 1986 that this country with a proud footballing heritage has qualified for a major tournament. However, I think the achievement of qualifying will be the best the Hungarians can take way from France. A side that still relies on Gabor Kiraly and Zoltan Gera is probably one that won’t get too far, though fans of World War 1 history will enjoy the Austro-Hungarian derby on the 14th.
Having used Sky’s predictor, my semi-final line-up came out as Spain v Belgium and Germany v France. From that, I think it’ll be a cross-Pyrenees final between Spain and France, from which France will emerge triumphant – their third success in the last three tournaments they have hosted.
I’ll have no doubt got at least 50% of these predictions wrong – nonetheless I am really looking forward to 8pm tomorrow and the start of Euro 2016.With no doubt more (hopefully shorter) posts to come.