On Friday 10th June the 15th UEFA European Championship will commence when the host nation, France, play against Romania in Saint Denis. This will be the first time the tournament has comprised of 24 teams and shows a huge expansion from the 4 teams who competed in the first tournament. The French are the bookmakers’ favourites to win the tournament but who else should we look out for?
The big three
Spain are the holders of the title and have won the last two tournaments whilst Germany are the world champions so these two are major contenders. However, the Spanish squad is in transition with new players such as Nolito and Morata replacing Torres and Mata in the squad. The German squad still retains the majority of their World Cup winning team but their results in qualifying were underwhelming and included defeats by Poland and Republic of Ireland.
As host nation the French will have home advantage and they won as hosts in 1984 in a team inspired by Michel Platini. Their team is centred around a core of English Premiership stars, such as Hugo Lloris, N’Golo Kante, Anthony Martial and Dimitri Payet, as well as world stars like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann. Their will have become increasingly focused after the November terrorist attacks in Paris. The argument against a French triumph is a potential quarter or semi-final against the Germans.
Making up the final four
Portugal, Italy, Belgium and England will be hoping to get into the semi-finals. Portugal have probably the best European footballer in Cristiano Ronaldo, while historically Italy historically do well at major tournaments. Belgium are the team to look out for as in Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaka and Toby Alderweireld they a magnificent selection of individual players. However, they now need to show they can develop into a team and challenge at a major tournament.
This is an exciting time for England. They qualified with 10 victories out of 10 and have an exciting young team lead by a now experienced Wayne Rooney. However, all England’s talent seems to be in attack where Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli have all excelled in the last 9 months. They have good attacking full backs but a shortage of centre backs. It may be that England will need to score freely to make up for any weaknesses in defence.
It is worth bearing in mind that 12 years ago this tournament was won by an unfavoured Greece team and 12 years before that in 1992 by Denmark who only qualified as a replacement for the war torn Yugoslavia. Two teams who may be interesting outside bets are Austria and Poland. Poland are inspired by striker Robert Lewandowski and recorded a qualifying victory over Germany. Austria qualified strongly winning their group with 9 wins out of 10. They have star players in David Alaba of Bayern Munich and Marko Arnautovic of Stoke City and have one of the weaker qualifying groups.
What about the other Home Nations?
This is the first time since the World Cup of 1958 that four Home Nation teams have qualified for a major tournament and Wales were the team who progressed furthest reaching the quarter finals on that occasion. The 1958 team was built around their star player, John Charles of Juventus, just as the 2016 team revolves around Gareth Bale, the Real Madrid striker. He is backed up by other stars, such as Aaron Ramsey and Ashley Williams. The other players include a mixture of Premiership and Championship players.
This is also the case with Northern Ireland who would appear to have no big name players, although they do have a core of well experienced Premiership players in Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley. However, this band of brothers have the elusive quality of team spirit and are backed up by the raucous support of the Green and White Army. Also, they may be the only team who has a player with a current top 40 hit about them. Expect to hear the anthem ‘Will Grigg is on fire, your defence is terrified’ ringing around the stadium whenever they play. Something happens when players like Kyle Lafferty pull on the green shirt so expect some surprises.
The Republic of Ireland qualified through the play-offs and have an excellent manager in Martin O’Neill. Like Northern Ireland they are a team of honest, hardworking professionals with strikers Shane Long and Robbie Keane offering a bit of star quality.
A word about penalties!
Invariably at some point we will be subjected to the particular pain of the penalty shootout. Unfortunately, England have one of the worst records of all the nations involved. With 6 failures they have lost the most shootouts with a single Stuart Pearce inspired victory at Euro 1996 being their solitary success. Only Italy can come close to England with 5 failures, while Germany with 5 successes and Spain with 4 have the best records. Penalty shootouts need to be avoided at all costs!
Who will win?
In the spirit of 1992 and 2004 I would love to predict success for an outsider but a Northern Ireland v Wales final seems unlikely sadly. I think we could see a France v England final with England being inspired by in-form strikers, Kane and Vardy. It may be fanciful but in the words of the Northern Ireland slogan we should ‘dare to dream’.
This article was originally published on the OU Sport & Fitness Team blog.