A big international tournament is right around the corner once again and for the next month, we will all put our beloved club football to the back burners and sit in front of our television sets to see Europe’s best go toe to toe. The squads for the various teams are taking shape little by little and Euro 2016 scheduled to hold in France, promises to be an exciting tournament. For a good number of football fans, the Euros bring with it a significant level of excitement as not only are the world’s top leagues situated here, some of the most exciting brand(s)of football will also be on display!
Defending Champions Spain will be looking to defend their throne and clinch their third straight European title but they will have their work cut out this summer. Host nation France will be desperate to win the title on home soil. Just across the border, “Weltmeister” Germany is warming to the possibility of winning the European Championships for the fourth time. Can Jorgi Löw’s men do it? Does England have a chance? Can Cristiano Ronaldo finally lead Portugal to a major title? Here we have a look at the some of the contenders for the title, their strengths, and weaknesses and how they could fare in France.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS: FRANCE, GERMANY AND SPAIN
The strongest host nation since 2000 will be looking to repeat their triumph from the 1984 European Championships where a Michel Platini inspired French team romped to victory on home soil. The French are no strangers to winning tournaments in front of their own fans as the side captained by current manager Didier Deschamps marched to World Cup glory in the 1998 Mundial staged in France. Very few teams will be able to cope with the French in midfield. The host nation possesses a tantalizing mixture of power, dynamism and creativity. Paul Pogba is the one man in midfield that combines all these attributes and the onus will be on him to inspire his team to victory.
Manager Didier Deschamps is already without Zouma, Sakho and Laporte for the tournament and with Raphael Varane now ruled out with a thigh injury, the make-up of his defence is a major worry. Even with the notable absentees the French squad is still one of the strongest squads. A mixture of young talents such as Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial, experience in Laurent Koscielny, Hugo Lloris, and Blaise Matuidi just to mention a few give France that much fabled mixture of youth and experience. Going forward they have the attacking talents of Griezmann, Dmitri Payet and the mercurial Giroud. In midfield they have an abundance of energy, the running powers of Matuidi, Cissoko and Ngolo Kante. I mean, it is almost unfair to the other teams in the tournament.
Deschamps has spent the last two years trying to fine tune his team and they seem to be playing very well in the 4-3-3 system he favours. With his bold decision to leave out Karim Benzema, there are doubts regarding where the X-factor will come from upfront. Olivier Giroud and Gignac are proven target men but if they are not on song what happens? Step forward Anthony Martial. In 1998, there was then 20 year old French forward by the name Thierry Henry who stood out and helped his team to the final of the World Cup. The Manchester United man Martial will be hoping he can be that man this time around and help his team to another trophy on home turf.
Verdict: France is my favourite for the Cup. The squad, the home advantage, the coach’s experience and recent results suggest the French are strong contenders. I am personally excited to watch France. The balance, experience and talent in this squad make them stand out as strong favourites.
World champions Germany are another team that go into every tournament as favourites and with good cause too. They have arrived at the semi-finals of every major tournament for the last 20 years. They most recently destroyed Brazil 7-1 on their way to the world title and that was no simple feat considering Brazil are Brazil and were host. Looking at it on paper, it’s obvious that Germany will win the Euros. They are world champions and Europe is a super subset of the world so invariably, they’ll win it! Just kidding! With Per Mertesacker, Miroslav Klose and Philipp Lahm deciding to retire from international football after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Jorgi Löw has some leadership gaps in his squad.
Captain Bastian Schweinsteiger is still in a race against time to prove his fitness for the tournament. Goalkeeper, Manu Neuer, is the undeniable leader of the defence and Löw will be hoping the confidence he oozes, flows right through the team. Centre back pairing of Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng proved in Brazil that when on song, they can be as formidable as any around. There are still lingering doubts over both full back positions especially at right back as Germany appear weakest there.
Further up in midfield, Germany possesses a plethora of options. Despite Ilkay Gündogan’s unfortunate absence due to injury, the options for Jorgi Löw are still ridiculous. Arsenal’s Mesut Özil is the star man in Germany’s midfield. The 4 time German player of the year will be the one the nation pins her creative hopes on in France. The decision by Löw to leave out Marco Reus due to injury concerns is a tough one. The trainer described it as “a bitter decision” and Reus would have been charged alongside Mesut to infuse some magic into Germany’s play. That magic now has to come from someone else. Leroy Sane and Andre Schürrle both offer the speed, trickery and directness to stretch teams if chosen to play on either flank. Jorgi Löw has already suggested that he will adjust his system depending on opposition. He said earlier,
“We need two teams for this tournament, a team up until the round of 16, and then a second team.” – Jorgi Löw
The trainer is preparing his team to face ultra-defensive setups in Group C and as ever, he has some good options to pick from. The major dilemma for Löw is who he goes with upfront. In the recent past, he’s opted to start without an out an out number 9 utilizing Müller as the furthest man up the pitch but with Mario Gomez in good form, he has quite the selection dilemma. Players like Julian Draxler, Lukas Podolski and World Cup hero Mario Götze give Löw an embarrassment of riches should he decide to alter the system or want something different.
Verdict: The Germans are known to be very efficient and do have the experience of going into the biggest tournaments and doing the business, you don’t need to go too far back to see the Germans do their business. The Germans have lost the experience of influential captain Philip Lahm and Per Mertesacker who both retired after the success of the 2014 world cup, most teams would find that void hard to fill but if any team could manage it, it would be the Germans. I can predict another semi-final appearance but I don’t think they might have that little extra to go all the way.
Spain are the title holders and would be the first team to win three European titles back to back to back. It is hard seeing that happen but you wouldn’t want to bet against the Spanish. Granted, they had a disastrous World Cup in Brazil where they surrendered their crown at the first hurdle after being smashed 5-1 by The Netherlands in their first match. But surely this Spanish team has enough quality to bounce back. They still have a core of the same team that won the last European cup, added to the dominance of the Spanish league in recent years it’s hard to rule them out. Real Madrid, Barcelona and another final featuring the big Madrid clubs goes to show the strength of the Spanish teams in Europe, granted that these teams are not made up of all Spanish nationals but they do have a core of Spanish players. La Roja have lost a little bit of their aura but as nine wins from 10 in the qualifiers will tell you, they are far from a spent force.
In France, they have a chance of being the first team to win this tournament for the third consecutive time and Vicente Del Bosque’s men will be up for it. With the experience and depth in the squad, it would not come as a shock to see La Roja triumph as Kings of European Football once again.“I don’t think we’re leaving any Leo Messi’s out”, Vicente del Bosque insisted, but with the likes of Santi Carzola, Fernando Torres, Diego Costa, Javi Martinez, Saul, Isco, Juan Mata all not making the final 23-man squad, it further highlights the staggering quality Del Bosque has at his disposal.
David De Gea will hope he has done enough to guarantee his place between the sticks and with three of the back four settled (right back being the only doubt); the team look balanced enough to mount a strong title defence. Sergio Busquets is the best in the world in his position and he is the key cog at the base of midfield for the team. With this likely to be the last tournament for a number of Spain’s golden generation, the likes of Iniesta and Casillas will be desperate to go out on a high. The World Cup in Brazil left a major dent on the Spanish National team, but Spain are still the reigning double European champions and when the tournament kicks off on June 10th, they will not be giving up their crown without a fight.
Verdict: The Spanish have been there and done it before and can do it again. After the dismal showing at the world cup, head coach Vincent Del Bosque (who has been head coach since 2009) must have looked things over and certainly won’t make the same mistakes again. He has introduced some youngsters and called up new names while keeping the core of the title winning teams still fit enough to play. It would take a brave man to bet against Spain; however I think they’re one or two better sides but we’ll know more when the games start.
THE DARK HORSES: BELGIUM, PORTUGAL.
For every tournament there are always one or two teams everyone keeps an eye on waiting to see if this year would be their year but if they disappoint everyone goes, “oh well”. Think Spain 2002 to 2008. They always had the potential to do something big until they did something big.
Belgium is the main dark horse for this tournament. It’s been said that Belgium are living through a golden generation in soccer, you only need to look through their squad to understand this. Their FIFA ranking as number 2 in the world raised some eye brows but they are certainly worth that lofty position with the results they’ve been churning out in the past year. Most analysts believe this is the year the Belgians put in a real challenge since the last golden generation over 30 years ago. The Belgian squad is one of the strongest squads in the tournament, famous names such as Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Thibout Courtois are part of a strong squad. Even with notable absentees such as Captain Vincent Kompany and Kevin Strootman the Belgians should still fancy their chances at going the way.
Starting from the back, they have much maligned Courtois in goal, and a quality deputy in Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet. In defence they have Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, who were for so long the strongest centre back pairing in the English premier in the just concluded season. The Belgians do not have recognised fullbacks something that has forced head coach Marc Wilmots to use centre backs in that position. In midfield the Belgians have no such concerns. A triumvirate of Moussa Dembele, Axel Witsel and Naigollan should be one of the best midfield combinations at the tournament. Further forward, the likes of Eden Hazard, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Lukaku is comfortably one of the scariest attacking prospects of the tournament. Romelu Lukaku has been in outstanding form for Everton this season and surely Wilmots cannot overlook him anymore. Christian Benteke’s style suits Wilmots’ preferred system but with the Liverpool striker short of confidence and bang out of form, the Everton man has to lead the line. Benteke’s Liverpool teammate Divock Origi is another option but if Lukaku can adjust his game a bit to suit his manager’s style, he’ll surely lead the line for his country in France.
The time has come for the Belgian Golden generation to step up and compete for a title and the Belgian public will be hoping that stars like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne step up to the plate this summer while the highest scoring international in the team Marouane Fellaini will be expecting to play a significant role to in France. Coach Wilmots has been with the team for 4 years now; if he plays his card (which by the way is a very lovely hand) right the Belgians will become another force to be reckoned with for the next few years.
Verdict: The Belgians have what it takes to be the best team in Europe, head coach Marc Wilmots has however said he will likely play Vertoghen and Alderwiereld as fullbacks to compensate for their lack in those positions. Personally I think that would be a disservice to those players who have spent the better part of a year playing as a centre back pairing. With the talents in the Belgian squad and the attacking prowess they have, they should make the semi finals at least; going further would be decided on how Mr. Wilmots manages his deficiencies.
When you have one half of the best footballing duo in world football in your team, you’ll always stand a chance. Cristiano Ronaldo is the ace up the sleeves of the Portuguese. For the better part of 12 years they have had this advantage. They have maybe underperformed for most of that time not because Ronaldo didn’t do his part but because his supporting cast has been quite disappointing. The best showing the Portuguese have shown in recent years was way back in 2004 when a baby faced Ronaldo was part of the supporting cast for Portuguese legend Luis Figo, they made it to the final that year where they lost to outsiders Greece. This year, Ronaldo is the Portuguese legend being cast alongside a crew of young talents.
Followers of the Portuguese league will know most of the Portuguese squad but the rest of us can be forgiven if we don’t. The Portuguese squad this year has been sprinkled with youth backed by a lot of experience. A lot of the squad selected ply their trade within the Portuguese league with mostly players from league champions Benfica (UCL quarter finalist), Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Braga. First choice goal keeper Rui Patricio is the goalie for sporting Lisbon, certainly one of the best in the league he has capable deputies in Anthony lopes (Lyon) and Eduardo (Dynamo Zagreb). In defence the Portuguese employ an old guard which consist of the likes of Pepe (33 years old), Ricardo Carvalho (38 years old), Bruno Alves (34 years old) and Eliseu (32 years who also plays in midfield). Southampton’s Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares would be hoping to stake claims at centre back and right back respectively. In midfield Andre Gomes, William Carvalho the invisible wall, Joao Moutinho the creative force and 18 year old wonder kid Renato Sanchez should have Portuguese fans pretty excited. In attack Eder has been recalled after a loan spell at Lille from Swansea saw him finding the back of the net again, upfront he is joined by the enigmatic Nani and Quaresma and the king himself, Cristiano Ronaldo. Coach Fernando Santos has been in charge of the Portuguese team for less than 2 years but he did oversee a relatively stress free euro qualification campaign.
Verdict: Portugal are not the intimidating team they once were back in the early 2000s. They have underachieved with the kind of quality they possess. Under Fernando Santos they are a defensive team and their results show this. I expect Portugal to top their group and go as far as the quarter finals then maybe look for the magic of Ronaldo to go further.
The national anthem of the English is “God Save the Queen”, that song might as well be God save the team, God save this team. If there ever was a team that flattered to deceive for just about every major tournament it’s been the English. The perennial underachievers had a relatively straightforward qualifying campaign and boost of one of the hottest strike forces in Europe today. On the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup triumph, the English team head into the tournament amidst a subdued environment with limited expectations but why not dare to dream? The last time they were in a semi final of a major tournament was way back in 1996 and their only triumph at a major tournament was way back in 1966 when they won the world cup 50 years ago. A lot has changed but if you somehow only listened to the English press (apologies if you do) then you would think the English team are once again clear favourites. They did win all their games in the qualifiers but we have seen that before.
A worry for manager Roy Hodgson will be the apparent lack of experience in the squad with a good number of players in his squad having less than 10 caps to their names. Another worry for Roy Hodgson should be Roy Hodgson himself! His weird tactics and selections seem to leave the team short but if he gets it right in France, England have enough firepower to go a significant distance in France. The intensity and lengthiness of the domestic league in England has often been said to be a contributing factor to the abysmal showings of the National team at major tournaments as the players turn up physically and mentally exhausted from a long hard season. A challenge for Hodgson will be to find a way to re-energize the players and get them focused on the prize.
The England conundrum is always a fascinating one; they can either go out there and make history or crumble again like a piece of glass! Time will tell what the England team of 2016 does but recent history does not do them any favours.
Verdict: England seems set to fall when push comes to shove and I don’t see that changing this time around. They might navigate a seemingly easy group but I don’t see them going too far, a quarter final appearances should be seen as a success for a young squad lacking the necessary experience.
The excitement and anticipation will only get more intense as June 10th draws closer. There is a healthy mixture of strong contenders, dark horses and underdogs for this tournament and only time will tell what happens. The Euros unlike the World Cup is a tournament where the underdogs have a shot at winning as Denmark in 1992 and Greece more recently in 2004 have proved. With the four best third placed teams from the groups qualifying for the round of 16 in this tournament you can’t write off the unexpected. Irrespective of who lifts the trophy on July 10th, this tournament in France promises to be one to remember.
Brace yourselves folks, it’s almost here!
Article by: Eric Ubong, @EricUbong and Nkay, @swaynkaayyy