A week into Euro 2016 and the conquest is now well and truly underway for Europe’s coveted crown. Sport Writer, James Threadingham, reflects on the opening week of the competition and predicts who will go all the way in France.
As the home nation, Les Bleuses will be buoyant with confidence and support from all over the country. With the magic and anticipation, comes an expectancy to challenge and pressure to win. The French will only stand proud if they emerge victorious from their hosting. They face stiff competition for the crown, but know they are as l’equipped as anybody. The perfect mixture of youth and experience, coupled with a manager who has been there and done it in ’98. It is France’s time to give back some glory and pride to their hurting people. It would be a romantic tale after the tragedy of the Paris attacks. The country was on its knees but will no doubt provide a wonderful spectacle for the world to see. Although the opening games of Romania and Albania have not provided too much of a problem to France, if Deschamps’ men have a weakness, it’s in their disruption to what was a settled back four. However, protecting this arguably weakened back four and lack of pace in defence, France possess one of if not the best central midfield at the Euros. Paris Saint Germain captain Blaise Matuidi leads by example as the energetic box to box midfielder alongside Paul Pogba, the most coveted young general in the midfield engine room around the world. Deschamp in the opening matches has also deployed Ngolo Kante alongside both Pogba and Matuidi, and he has looked as if he will continue the fine form he showed in the Premier League into this competition. The French have so many wonderful options for their favoured 4-3-3 system, none more so than in their forward line. Down the middle, Olivier Giroud or Andre-Pierre Gignac can provide a target man role as a reliable option to offer a different outlook to their attack, both impressing in France’s two games so far. Arguably their most coveted player, Antoine Griezmann has had the season of his life and will go into the Euros with all eyes drawn to the excitement he provides in attack. He can also cross over into his natural position out wide, swapping in and out with Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman. The former is red hot property in his natural position as ST, but has made a real nuisance in the Premier League for his ability out at LW. The latter of Bayern Munich and Juventus, already offers an outstanding CV at just the slender age of 19. Expect these three players to light up the tournament, and perhaps lead the Revolution all the way to the final in Paris.
Key Player: Antoine Griezmann
One to Watch: Kingsley Coman
The World champions arrived in France off the back of some disappointing performances including a 1-3 defeat to Slovakia, yet Die Mannschaft kicked off their Euro 2016 campaign with an impressive 2-0 victory over Ukraine. Despite losing two key components of their cup winning squad in Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Germans remain the team to beat. Expected to ease through their group, Joachim Low’s men should at the very least reach the semi-finals. Last time they did that, they demolished hosts Brazil 7-1. Although the French are my tip, the Germans have the know-how and confidence to storm the continent and continue their dominance. Low will be unmoved by the inconsistencies of his side in recent games. He will know better than any European that his nation always rise to the occasion when it matters most. The core and firm spine of their World Cup line-up will remain intact. Down the middle of their team, Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller offer the world’s best quality. Mario Gomez may even re-emerge as the side’s main striker, with support provided by the likes of Julian Draxler and Andre Schurrle on the flanks. Deutschland’s major problem lies in their wide areas. The powerful, masculine presence in the middle of the park, does not transcend to any outlet on the flanks. As did Howedes at left back in 2014, central defenders and midfielders are expected to be placed at RB, LB and if they play with any width, RAM and LAM. Emre Can and Howedes are expected to play full back, with Muller shifting into a wide area to compensate for Ozil down the middle behind the striker Gomez. Podolski, Draxler, Schurrle and the exciting young prospect Leroy Sane can jump off the bench or be rotated in when Low feels it’s necessary to shift formation. There are many options at the manager’s disposal, so Low’s tactical options give him an advantage in the race to the final.
Key Player: Thomas Muller
One to Watch: Leroy Sane
Spain kicked off their Euro campaign with a dominant yet underwhelming 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic. Spain has undoubtedly and deservedly dominated world football in recent times. Winning three major tournaments in succession is exceptional and historic, but last time out at the 2014 World Cup they fell from their throne. Still, Vicente del Bosque will know his side can become the first nation to ever win the Euros three times in a row. If they play the revolutionary football we all know they are capable of and have produced in previous years, then they will run out winners. Possession based dictatorship of the game gives them dominance and control over their destiny. All over the pitch, their renovation has begun. David de Gea will finally take the gloves from the icon Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique remain the best of the best, and the new Spanish full-back will resume their weaponry down the flanks. Jordi Alba remains undoubtedly the best option at left back, but Hector Bellerin will challenge Juanfran for an exciting new look at right back to the no-nonsense Alvaro Arbeloa from before. In midfield, despite losing another legend of the game in Xavi, Iniesta will lead as captain in front of his fellow Barcelona star Sergio Busquets. Cesc Fabregas and Thiago will fight over the spot alongside in midfield, but the latter should play given Fabregas’ below-par season with Chelsea. Pedro has also been selected despite his club side’s struggles, but team-mate Diego Costa and Premier League compatriots Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata miss out. Spain should go with an inside forward approach rather than an all out attacking wide type of player. David Silva will be the instigator in attack, supplying Alvaro Morata and Nolito in all likeliness. The pair have performed prolifically in recent friendly games, and should put to rest the doubt over del Bosque’s team selection. If he doesn’t opt for his false 9 option of playing Fabregas or Silva as the centre-forward, then the Spanish will be the free-flowing exciting side they once were. Although the formation worked to success at Euro 2012, the thought of a midfielder leading the line is not likely to sit well with their people. Expect the Spanish to bounce back from recent criticism and go to the near end in their neighbouring country.
Key Player: Andres Iniesta
One to Watch: Alvaro Morata
Although the Belgians have started off shaky with a 2-0 loss to Italy, the Belgians are blessed with a golden generation of footballers at their disposal. Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard are two of the world’s top players. Wilmots’ team are exciting to watch going forward, but their defence is equally as impressive. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld may resume their central defensive partnership as the Premier League’s best, with club teammate Moussa Dembele, Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel likely to shield and distribute. But their weakness is at full-back, which could force the Tottenham pair to move out RB and LB respectively. Captain Eden Hazard will play LM/LW after rediscovering his top form towards the end of the season. Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco will be vying for the other wide berth. If they play their usual 4-2-3-1 system, then the lone striker role will be the most difficult berth to select. All four strikers Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Michy Batshuayi will have rightful claims to start, however it seems Lukaku will get the nod from Wilmots with Origi his deputy from the bench. They all share similar ability in pace, power and goals. With the quality they have in their side, the Semi-finals should be a minimum.
Key Player: Kevin de Bruyne
One to Watch: Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco
Italy arguably provided the shock in the opening week of the tournament with an impressive 2-0 win over Belgium. Over the years of watching international tournaments, the Italians always seem to get lighter on the ground and possess less well-known quality. After Andre Pirlo’s omission from Antonio Conte’s squad, once again their squad doesn’t seem to light up any excitement from the neutral perspective. However, as last week showed, one thing that will never change from the Gli Azzurri is their reputation as the defensive specialists of the game. Serie A has lost its appeal to the modern audience in recent years, as attacking football has been replaced by a game of tactics similar to that of chess. Conte’s line-up is littered with half decent footballers and unknown gems from their own league. The Juventus barricade of the great Gianluigi Buffon and his three club centre backs, assures great confidence in their defensive organisation. Their creative spark going forward is the problem. Naturally in the Italian way of playing, the attacking players must work in a system rigid and tight without much creative freedom. The playmakers and magicians must find and create quality in the limited spaces they have. Antonio Candreva and Lorenzo Insigne offer the most likely threat, with El Shaarawy and Southampton’s own Graziano Pelle offering something different in the final third. Expect them to continue to be compact and resolute, but scoring goals may be their issue later on in the competition. Although they’ve started well, I think they will do well to reach the last four.
Key Player: Antonio Candreva
One to Watch: Stephan El Shaarawy
The Portuguese started off their campaign with a hugely disappointing 1-1 draw with Iceland, leading to some rather ‘sore loser’ like remarks from Cristiano Ronaldo. Like the Italians, their side looks weak and lacking in depth on paper, but as the tournament goes on you can bet your bottom dollar they will cause problems. Boasting the continent’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo can single-handedly inspire his countrymen to go beyond their ability and really challenge for the ultimate prize. Ronaldo is a winner, a player with a fantastic international record and one who always expect those around him to aspire for similar glory and don the shirt with pride. An unpredictable side littered with players from across Europe’s top leagues, expect Fernando Santos’ men to still go on to top their group and make the quarter-finals at the very least.
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
One to Watch: Renato Sanches
It’s nye on impossible to ignore, but on paper, we will be seen as serious contenders. Yes, we fall for it every time. We get our hopes up and start to believe, only to be knocked back down to earth with embarrassment and regret. Why oh why do us English suffer? But maybe it might be our year! (I say that with the false sense of secret optimism we all have right now) We support our country through thick and thin, despite the sheer pain and agony which our football team torment us with. There are many reasons (as always) that will trick us into thinking we might actually make it past a last-16 penalty shootout defeat (or something similarly dire), despite the gutting 1-1 draw with Russia last weekend. Roy’s boys won all 10 of their qualifying matches, although I’m the first to point out how weak our opponents were. Although, winning can help create this false belief that we might actually show up this summer. In all three of our friendlies in the past couple of weeks, we have won all three without ever really looking uncomfortable (friendlies mean nothing though). It’s the same old story before I blabber on about how wonderful our players are in the Premier League; we have the talent but not the bottle for the big occasion. Can we shift this negativity which has built up around the national team? Well if club form can be translated into our team collectively, we can do it. Joe Hart, top goalkeeper and usually reliable (jinxed it now). Nathaniel Clyne and Danny Rose, excellent attacking outlets at full back (but, can they defend?). Chris Smalling playing exceptional for a poor United side alongside… well… Gary Cahill if he can recover his undoubted ability from 2014/2015. In midfield, the real intrigue begins. Hodgson recently said we’re set up to attack but he will still be cautious as always and not deploy an attacking midfielder. Well it depends which formation he plays. Eric Dier will sit in front of the back four, with his excellent partnership with Spurs teammate Dele Alli filtering into central midfield. Alli will be like Sissoko for France by carrying the ball with confidence into dangerous areas. Roy’s favourite Jack Wilshere controversially got in from playing next to no game time, and constantly being injured. Yet on his day, the Arsenal midfielder is our best all-round midfield player. He can help us keep the ball and offer some class alongside perhaps another tenacious grafter in Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson or James Milner (Danny Drinkwater should’ve gone too). Then to the forward 2 in 4-1-2-1-2 or the 3 in the 4-3-3; Harry Kane just fills me with confidence as one of the hottest properties in world football today. He is what England Football Team should be all about; youth, quality, passion, exuberance, class. The new Alan Shearer? No, he is a household name himself. He’ll no doubt be our main option and key player in making things happen. Jamie Vardy is the Premier League’s other golden goalscorer, emerging from nowhere to the very top like Kane. Those two could start as the two like they did in the friendly against Portugal, or Hodgson could insert Sturridge as an alternative. Wow three top class strikers. Sorry, four. Of course, Mr Wayne Rooney. How could I forget the captain? Well he could play as the attacking midfielder behind the two forwards. Or Sterling and Sturridge could play out wide, Barkley or Alli further forward, or Rashford? Sorry I’m getting excited, aren’t I? Let’s just hope not expect that the boys do us proud and at least get to the semi-finals. We can dream. Three Lions on the shirt. Come on England!
Key Player: Harry Kane
One to Watch: Dele Alli
In every competition, there are always one or two surprise packages that could be outside bets for challenging;
Poland Strong in qualifying and possess proven quality across the pitch. Quarter-finals would be a realistic aim.
Key Player: Robert Lewandowski
One to Watch: Piotr Zielinski
Competitive team who can give anybody a run for their money. Will need Modric and Rakitic at their best. Progression will be tough from Group D, but never rule them out.
Key Player: Luka Modric
One to Watch: Mateo Kovacic
Struggled against England in qualifying but are still a quality side. If their attacking players click, they should emerge from Group A, and then possibly play us again? So who knows how far?
Key Player: Xherdan Shaqiri
One to Watch: Granit Xhaka
The Home Nations
Just a note on the Welsh. Wales will just be proud to make it to a major tournament. Their win against Slovakia last week was phenomenal and they will certainly be extremely competitive in their upcoming games against England and Russia. If they progress from the group, they could face the hosts in the last 16. It will be a wonderful effort to reach that target but the Welsh have nothing to lose. Bale and Ramsey have already demonstrated they can provide the top class quality for a hard working, passionate unit under Chris Coleman. These players will die for their country and honour their shirt (as proven by Palace’s Joe Ledley in recovering from a broken leg just 3 weeks previous). Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae. Best of luck to the Welsh (aside from against England please!).
Key Player: Gareth Bale
One to Watch: Jonathan Williams
Ok. We can’t forget the other part of Britain that made it through. NI’s achievement is just as remarkable as the Welsh. They won’t be expected to qualify for the latter stages, but they’ll enjoy the experience nonehtheless. Best of luck to Michael O’Neill’s men also, they’re gonna need it. Will Grigg’s on fire?
Key Player: Steven Davis
One to Watch: Will Grigg (obviously)
Republic of Ireland
Just a special mention for my second country. Being a quarter Irish, I know what Ireland are all about. Watching their games almost as a supporter, the passion and togetherness I felt from the nation in winning the qualifier play-off, champions and exemplifies their wonderful spirit. I hope they can do well, but expect them to struggle in a difficult group. Fág an Bealach! Or more simply, give us the charm at the end of the rainbow. Green army!
Key Player: Shane Long
One to Watch: Seamus Coleman