The next instalment of international football is only around the corner, with only six months to wait for the next chapter of the UEFA Euros competition. Hosted by France in June, who boast a good history lifting the trophy, stadia locations will include Paris, Bordeaux and Lille as the nation prepares itself for the quadrennial competition. This will, for the first time in its history, involve 24 European competitors, building up from the previous number of 16 – meaning more matches and unpredictability.
How does the new 24-team system work?
The competing national teams across 9 qualifying groups had to either win or runner-up their group to progress. Seeded into a pot draw, the group winners and runners-up have guaranteed their place for next year, along with the ‘best third-placed team’ which is yet to be determined. With France automatically qualifying as hosts, this leaves 4 seeds left, decided by a play-off round between the remaining 8 third-place teams. Essentially, what has been created is another layer for the knockout stages.
What happened last time out?
Cast your mind back to 2012 and it was an invincible Spain side who dominated every game to retain their grip of the trophy which they also lifted in 2008. Italy were humbly defeated 4-0 against an eye-watering teamsheet that bragged the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Fernando Torres – who won the Golden Boot award with 3 goals. The Netherlands infamously lost all three of their group stage matches which left pundits across the globe scratching their heads. England’s promising progression was stumped in the quarter-finals after a goalless draw with Italy resulted in the next penalty shootout episode of the Three Lions’ endemically woeful series.
Can England win it this time?
Maybe. Our media are notoriously guilty of over-hyping our players before a major tournament, so having said that, there are a selection to keep a careful eye on in the run up to the competition. The retirements of veterans Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and John Terry has left an evident hole in the England side, marking the end of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s ‘golden generation’. But in its place is born some excitable young prospects – Everton’s Ross Barkley, Harry Kane at Tottenham (pronounced ‘Hurricane’ in case you didn’t know already) and the most expensive British footballer in history, Raheem Sterling. Can he justify the £49 million price tag? In the run up to the next World Cup, the Euros provide a great platform for young players to adapt both their individual and collective playing styles together at international level. But it’s not just the youngsters who are showing glimpses of potential. Take Jamie Vardy as an example, who at the start of the season netted consecutively in eight Premier League matches – perhaps a new finisher for England. Inevitably, every team is in need of an anchoring, experienced player, which we have… albeit in the form of a 34-year old Michael Carrick. Not the strongest of teams we’ve fielded this century, but Roy Hodgson’s men are in a period of transition – in 2 years aforementioned players may blossom.
But not all of the British focus is on the Three Lions – both Northern Ireland and Wales secured their first Euros qualification. ‘The Dragons’ are currently sitting at a commendable eighth position in the FIFA World Rankings table – that’s higher than Italy, Uruguay, England and Chile. The optimistic manager Chris Coleman and the talismanic Gareth Bale are definitely to be applauded.
Who are the favourites?
The 24-team system makes it harder to predict a winner. But if most were to bet on it, Germany are looking almost unstoppable off the back of the 2014 World Cup win – need the historic thrashing of hosts Brazil be mentioned? The Germans do look the favourites, with individuals who have dominated club level football in England. However, this is far from a one-horse race…
Belgium are arguably the dark horses of the competition. Ranking third in FIFA’s list, the squad has some world-class individuals – with Eden Hazard pulling the strings, confident hands in Thibaut Courtois in between the sticks and playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, they may cause a few upsets.
France also look quietly confident and are almost spoilt for choice on the offensive, with plenty of attacking options in the squad: Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud, Alexandre Lacazette, Antoine Griezmann and Loic Remy. Defensively strong, but the central partnership of Paul Pogba and the in-form West Ham man, Dimitri Payet, could prove lethal.
Spain, whose number one position was unquestionable four years ago could be on the road to revival. Having lost their opening two games in the previous World Cup finals to the amazement of the footballing world, ‘La Furia Roja’ would relish the chance to find the chemistry that has priorly worked so well for them. There are some new faces, too. David De Gea has taken the exigent challenge to fill Iker Casillas’ gloves, and Diego Costa may have more involvement in the striker position with Torres out of the picture. As the old cliché goes: ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’; can Spain scribe their credentials onto the trophy for a record fourth time since its introduction in 1960?
With guaranteed uncertainty, ups, downs, and goals galore, this year’s Euros are shaping up to be one of the most promising yet, and all the action can be watched live between the BBC and ITV as part of the television rights. For those of you thinking of watching the real thing, tickets are in huge demand with UEFA reporting ticket requests from 209 territories, highlighting the global appeal for the biggest continental tournament. There are many ways to get involved, such as fantasy football teams or sweepstakes with mates, whichever country you are rooting for.
In the wise words of Roy Hodgson… ‘bring on the Euros!’