By Manish Pandey.
A 24 team tournament. Bigger. Maybe better. Certainly more complicated. To accommodate the expansion, there has been a change in the format of the tournament. 2 extra groups in the group stage and an extra knockout round.
The six groups (A-F) would contain 4 teams each, with the top 2 from each group going through to the knockout stage. In the new format, the 4 best third-ranked sides would also progress, leaving 16 teams going into the new round of 16 knockout stage, ahead of the usual quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, and only 8 teams going out at the group stage.
Beyond the structure, it is the football in the tournament and the teams in the tournament which will catch the eyes of every ardent football fan and many part-time fans alike.
Group A contains France, Romania, Albania and Switzerland.
France are the hosts and will be spurred on by the home support. They will expect to qualify with ease in this easy group and will believe they can go all the way. They have, on paper, the most balanced team of all the teams. Defensively they have solidity and experience in the likes of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Hugo Lloris. In midfield, they have the power and skill of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi.
France have a unique blend of pace, power and athleticism, which can be adapted to suit different styles of playing. They’ll be adept at keeping possession against lesser teams, but also playing a higher tempo against better teams. Attackingly, they have variety. The speed and skill of Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann. The creativity of Dimitri Payet – who can also provide goals from set piece chances. The power of the in form Olivier Giroud. Giroud will be very useful against defensive teams who prove hard to break down.
Romania have coach Anghel Iordanescu, who took Romania to the quarter-finals of USA 1994, back in the job, for his third spell. Vlad Chiriches and Costel Pantilimon are the most prominent members of the Romania squad. Romania qualified unbeaten, and no team in Europe conceded fewer than the two goals they allowed in. However, Romania also struggled to score goals, scoring only 11 in the 10 games. Romania have been effective sitting back and playing on the counter-attack, and will likely continue this approach against France and Switzerland in particular.
Albania have made it to their first ever tournament. The backbone of this team is the defence, as they only conceded 5 goals in qualifying. Taulant Xhaka (brother of Granit who is playing for Switzerland) will be an important player as he can be very versatile across defence and midfield with his intelligent dribbling and skill of winning the ball back. Amir Abrashi will also be key, as alongside Xhaka, the pair can can make quick and long passes to help start counter attacks. Like Romania, a big weakness is in the attacking areas. They have only scored 7 goals in 8 qualifying matches, and each of the 7 goals were scored by different players.
Switzerland will fancy themselves to qualify from this group in 2nd place due to the relative weaknesses of Romania and Albania. They will rely heavily on the known ‘names’ in the squad, including Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, with support from Valon Behrami and Gelson Fernandes. In defence, the new captain, Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus will be important due to his class and experience. Having won the Scudetto 5 times in a row, he will understand the standards that need to be set in this tournament.
Group B contains England, Wales, Russia and Slovakia.
England have made excellent progress since the debacle of the 2014 World Cup. They have bright young talents who do not carry the mental scars of previous tournaments. Defensively, England have genuine concerns. They have only 3 natural centre backs with Eric Dier providing back up. Chris Smalling is the only one who has had a consistently good season. In midfield, Dier will provide protection to the defence.
There are several tactical dilemmas for Roy Hodgson. Does he start Jack Wilshere alongside Dier with Dele Alli in front, leaving out Wayne Rooney? Does Rooney play in midfield in a diamond formation? Do both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy start? England have plenty of talent, but the biggest challenge will be relying on Hodgson to get the best out of his players tactically. England have looked jaded in the warm up games, suggesting the traditional tournament fatigue has already kicked in after a long and intense season. England will be relying on the forwards to score them to victory in individual matches and the tournament. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy whilst proving themselves in the Premier League, have yet to do it at the highest level. It will not be an easy group for England. It could be a group they struggle to escape from.
Wales are the team England will fear the most, and should they qualify, most teams will want to avoid Wales. The big focus is rightfully around Gareth Bale. One of the few genuine world-class players in the world, who can change the game in an instant. This is a big tournament for him, to prove that he belongs in the upper echelons of world football today. Wales need him to fire. Yet he is not the only threat Wales possess. Proven defensive quality in Ashley Williams. Reliable midfield talents in Aaron Ramsey, Andy King and Joe Allen. Manager Chris Coleman has shown tactical nous in using a 5 man defence in a 5-3-2 formation. They play on the counter attack using quick transitional passes developed playing in the high-speed Premier League. The main problem for them will be breaking down teams who sit deeper and do not allow a counter-attacking game.
Russia are not a particularly exciting team, with a lack of youth and quality, yet they have good organisation which could make them a tough prospect to beat. They have some solid experience in Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov and captain Roman Shirokov. Having only conceded one goal in the qualification process since new manager Slutsky took charge replacing Fabio Capello, Russia’s defence could be a deciding factor as to how long they stay in France. Experience can go a long way and if they manage to get draws from the games against England and Wales, Russia could set up the prospect of reaching the round of 16.
Slovakia had an impressive qualifying campaign and will believe they can get through this group. In Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka, they have players who play regularly for top European clubs. Kucka is the toughness and hard work to Hamsik’s flair and finesse, and should prove to be an effective shield for Slovakia’s star man. They have a compact style and defensively have discipline. With an average age of 28, they also have enough individual experience. However, this is the first European Championships they are competing in since becoming independent, and they are very reliant on Hamsik. If they can get a win against Russia, they will fancy themselves to getting through to the round of 16.
Group C contains Germany, Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland.
Germany are the reigning world champions and despite a few retirements, they are the fancied choice for many. They are the most cohesive team in the tournament, filled with world-class talents. Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are now in peak form, with Muller in particular being lethal in the big tournaments. The class of Toni Kroos in midfield ensures control, whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger on his day (as shown in his man of the match performance in the 2014 World Cup final) can win any game for his team.
In goal, Germany have arguably the best in the world in Manuel Neuer, who is another match winner for them. Germany have the ability to switch from being a possession orientated side to being a counter attacking side, meaning they are able to adapt for both the big and small teams. If there is a weakness, it is that they do not have a proven natural striker, as the recall of Mario Gomez shows. Mario Goetze is likely to start as a false ‘9’. Defensively, with the exception of Mats Hummels, there is no other stand out.
Ukraine will look to improve on the disaster of 2012. This is the first ever European championships for them where they have earned a place through qualifying. The wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko will hold the key for Ukraine to have any chance in this group, with the ability to score goals. The experienced squad, with many players having Champions League experience will hold them in good stead, as they will know the levels they need to reach. The ageing squad however, also means they are susceptible to energetic teams. Ukraine will be tough to beat, but should not be making the knockouts in this group of death.
Poland like Wales, will be relying heavily on a single individual: Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski finished as the top scorer in qualifying with 13 goals to his name, a European qualifying record. The ability to score goals at will makes Poland an extremely tricky team to encounter. They will believe that goals can fire them to the knockout stages. Defensively, Poland have been poor and inconsistent, keeping only four clean sheets in qualifying. Poland will need Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki to fire to provide service to Lewandowski. If the rest of the team can keep it tight, and Lewandowski can fire, there is no reason why Poland cannot make the round of last 16.
Northern Ireland are the fierce underdogs in this group. Michael O’Neill has Northern Ireland playing attractive football, with qualification for this tournament the most important thing. They have an unbreakable team spirit and a willingness to work for each-other. They are determined and will never give up. They have proven Premier League defensive quality in Jonny Evans, Gareth McCauley and Craig Cathcart. Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty provide hard work and goals further up the field. Northern Ireland will be relying on Lafferty’s goals if they are to have any chance. However, the lack of quality in the squad suggests they will not progress from the group. The hard work and discipline means they will provide a challenge to the other teams, but they do not have enough quality to trouble other teams.
Group D consists of Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia.
Spain will be looking to bounce back after the humiliation of the 2014 World Cup. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding Spain, they still have a hugely impressive array of players, many of whom have won it all. Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva would be cause for delight in most countries. Spain are not currently playing the Spanish way of the past 10 years.
The passing has lacked the pace and precision that once characterised them and chances were few and far between. Spain lacked spark, freshness, an apparent sense of purpose, edge, creativity and speed. The manager, Vincent del Bosque talked about the importance of releasing longer balls more quickly, of being able to play on the counter-attack, of a willingness to mix the game up. This though is coming at the cost of their identity and is not seemingly effective. They do however, have a natural striker in Alvaro Morata and still have individual brilliance. If the individuals can turn up, there is no reason why Spain cannot go all the way and retain the crown that currently belongs to them.
Czech Republic were one of the more impressive teams in qualifying. They topped Group A scoring 19 goals and only losing 2 of their matches. They have a determined style which can compensate for the poor defence that they have- they failed to keep a single clean sheet. They have a world-class goalkeeper in Petr Cech who can make the difference in crucial pressure situations. Even if they fail to keep a clean sheet, Cech can pull off vital saves which ensures the game can still be won. The team does not have many world-class players, but its team spirit and unity can cause problems for opponents. They have a good chance at making the round of 16 in this relatively evenly matched group.
Turkey have momentum on their side after an excellent qualifying campaign and they will be driven on by one of the most popular and eccentric managers in the game, Fatih Terim. Turkey have immense quality in the attacking areas which could make the difference in this group. Arda Turan has immense quality and drive. Alongside him, Mehmet Topal and Burak Yilmaz provide experience and technical class. Turkey also have a promising crop of youngsters, with Hakan Calhanoglu a free-kick specialist, Gokhan Tore providing explosive talent and Oghuzan Ozyukap being able to run with the ball and control the tempo of the game. Having only conceded 6 goals in qualifying, and only 3 after the first game, Turkey have a solid defence. They will believe they can cause an upset and qualify to the knockout stages. Turkey are the dark horses of the competition.
Croatia have experience and quality and will believe they can beat anybody in the group. Ante Cacic has remained undefeated in competitive matches since taking over as manager. In Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic they have experience and quality at the highest level. Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic are both energetic midfielders with the pace to burst forward. With creativity and attacking prowess, Croatia will be a handful and threat. They do however, have a big defensive weakness. The Croatian defence often are unable to cope with sustained pressure put on them by opponents. The manager has yet to find a tactical solution, experimenting with a 3-5-2. If the defence can tighten up and become reliable, Croatia have a real chance at getting to the quarter finals and beyond.
Group E consists of Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden.
Belgium have experienced a meteoric rise in recent years in world football, officially being the best team in Europe. They have an incredibly talented squad even without Vincent Kompany, but football is not won on talent alone and the questions about the mental strength of Belgium will remain unless they do something significant. Coach Marc Wilmots has to find the correct balance. Defensively, they have the best centre back pairing in the Premier League in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, yet Wilmots will choose to play them at full back. Thibaut Courtois will look to prove his doubters wrong after a difficult season in the Chelsea goal.
In midfield, Belgium have a plethora of options of both creative skill and combative nature. Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Moussa Dembele, and Marouane Fellaini provide the power and tackling, with Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco providing the flair and spark. In attack, Romelu Lukaku will be the key man as a focal point and goalscorer in the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Wilmots. Belgium have the class, and they will provide a threat to every team they face.
Italy are always threats in major tournaments, but this is undoubtedly one of its weaker squads of recent times. Injuries to key players such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio have not helped Italy. As expected, the defence of this Italy team is its strongest suit. The Juventus back 3 of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci will be more crucial than ever as Antonio Conte will look to deploy a back 3. Gianluigi Buffon’s world-class abilities as goalkeeper and leader will have to make a difference. The forward line is a big weakness, with Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne being the only reliable forwards. Antonio Candreva and Daniele De Rossi have proven quality in midfield, but Italy are very thin in those areas to make much of a difference. It is always hard to rule out Italy in big tournaments, but this tournament seems too competitive for Italy to make much of a mark.
Republic of Ireland led by Martin O’Neil and Roy Keane along with the vociferous fans they will bring along make for an interesting proposition. They face a tough group and lack the all round quality to make much of a difference. They have a big team spirit, are well organised and are all consistently at a similar level, meaning they can use the depth of the squad without a drop off in quality. ROI have Premier League quality players in Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea. Shane Long will be a menace up front and Robbie Keane can always find the goal. In order to progress, they will have to consistently produce team performances with every individual contributing, as they do not have an individual match winner.
Sweden have historically struggled to exit the group stage. In this tough group, they will be relying heavily on the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who delivered in the playoff against Denmark to drag Sweden to the Euros. Sweden have a balanced squad with decent footballers, none of whom compare to the skills of Ibrahimovic. Kim Källström and Pontus Wernbloom will be important in the midfield battle. Sweden are defensively susceptible to long balls over the top due to a lack of pace in the defence, so will need to play deeper against teams with pace. Ultimately, if they are to have any chance, they will need their talisman to fire.
Group F contains Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary.
Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo which means Portugal can beat any team. The strength of Portugal will be their defence. Whilst that seems strange, Portugal do not have any other attackers on the same level as Ronaldo, but they do have a solid defensive unit, proven through England’s difficulty in breaking them down even when they were reduced to 10 men. The central defence is particularly strong with Pepe and Bruno Alves, assisted by Southampton’s Jose Fonte and veteran Ricardo Carvahlo who is the best form of his career. In the attacking areas alongside Ronaldo is Luis Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, who are experienced but have struggled to set the stage alight. Whilst they should easily make it through the group, they will struggle against tougher opposition. If Ronaldo fires though, anything could happen.
Iceland are a very small nation of only 330,000. Yet the achievement of them qualifying is no fluke. Iceland have a very talented generation of players who have been playing together since youth football. Iceland are a team very capable of producing attractive football. They had balance in attack and defence in qualifying, scoring 17 and conceding only 6. They defeated the Netherlands twice, with Gylfi Sigurdsson being the star man. He will be crucial to their efforts in this tournament, being a threat on the dead ball, creating chances and scoring goals. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson will be another attacker to keep an eye on. Iceland have a terrific team unity and work ethic, yet they lack genuine world-class quality. They also do not have a very deep squad and lack the experience of tournament situations. They will believe that they could make it through to the next round in 2nd place because of the similarity of skill levels with fellow group competitors Austria and Hungary.
Austria are another one of the dark horses of the competition. They qualified unbeaten and are ranked in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Austria have several big name players including Premier League winner Christian Fuchs as captain, Tottenham defender Kevin Wimmer, Bayern Munich defender David Alaba and Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic. The squad is extremely well-balanced with a nice blend of youth and experience. Austria under manager Marcel Koller are able to adapt at playing attacking football and counter attack, depending on the strengths of the opposition, with high tempo transitions. Austria have a real chance to progress and will need stars such as Arnautovic and Alaba to perform consistently. Much like Iceland, they will also believe they can qualify because of the similarities of skill level.
Hungary are possibly the weakest team in the group, with few standout players. Yet they have a new-found resilience and team spirit which saw them overcome Norway in the playoffs. Former Premier League stars Gabor Kiraly and Zoltan Gera, despite being past their very best, remain key men in the squad and will provide important experience. Skipper Balázs Dzsudzak is their biggest threat going forward. He has the pace and skill to beat a man in a 1v1 situation and is crucial to the counter-attack that Hungary employ. Whilst not being the toughest group they could have been given, Hungary do lack individual quality, the kind of quality that Austria and Iceland contain. If Hungary can muster the resilience and team spirit of the playoffs, they will feel they can get something against those 2 teams, giving themselves a chance at qualifying.
This tournament will be a close tournament, with several teams containing the quality which could cause a few upsets.
The increase in the number of teams will potentially make the group stages a more defensive affair. The underdog teams will look to limit the defensive damage and will seek to counter attack, much in the vein of Leicester City, because they know they cannot compete in the attacking third with the bigger nations. There are many sit back and counter-attacking teams in the group stages: Albania, Romania, Wales, Russia, Northern Ireland, Ukraine and Austria. Perhaps the unfortunate success of a defensive approach is reflected in the stat that there is an 87% of qualification from the group if a team obtains 3 scores of 0-0 (credit to Michael Cox).
This tournament will have its high and low points. Whilst there will undoubtedly be some bore-fest draws, there will also be lots of attacking and exciting football. Groups D, E and F look the most entertaining and competitive. There is plenty of individual quality on offer for us to enjoy. As is the way in football however, anything can happen.
Let us hope Euro 2016 in France provides us with rich summer entertainment.