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Euro 2016 Preview 

By Wasim Parkar
Toronto – After one of the best seasons of European club football in recent years, the focus shifts to international football with Euro 2016 in France upon us. It is an expanded tournament this time around, with 24 teams participating in the jamboree in France. Experts consider this to be one of the most unpredictable major tournaments with no clear favourite and the potential for a lot of exciting upsets. It’s time to run the rule over all 24 contenders.

Group A

France

Winners of the last two tournaments they hosted at home in 1984 and 1998, France go into the tournament with huge expectations. Building from the back and right across the pitch, Didier Deschamps has one of the most complete squads an international manager could wish for. Though injuries and off-field issues have led to the absence of some major players, the remarkable depth of talent is highlighted by the fact that Alexandre Lacazette and Hatem Ben Arfa haven’t made the final 23.

Strengths:

Vociferous home crowds, the midfield power of Paul Pogba, a solid back four marshalled by the leadership of Hugo Lloris

Weaknesses:

While Deschamps has rightly chosen team unity over discord, but will the absence of Karim Benzema be felt at decisive moments in tight matches?

Key players:

Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Laurent Koscielny, Hugo Lloris

X-Factors:

Dmitri Payet and Kingsley Coman

Switzerland

Not the strongest team in the tournament, but Switzerland should still be good enough to finish second in Group A. While Vladimir Petkovic’s men might not dominate games, they still carry a significant threat on the counter with the distribution of new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka and the wizardry of Xherdan Shaqiri. It will be hard to see them progressing past the round of 16 though.

Strengths:

Variety in forwards and fluidity in midfield

Weaknesses:

As the team has become more exciting, they have become vulnerable at the back and have a knack of conceding soft goals

Key Players:

Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Yans Sommer, Ricardo Rodriguez

X-Factors:

Breel Embolo and Admir Mehmedi

Romania

Fans of the great Romanian team of the 90’s will be happy to see them in a major tournament again. However, the quality of this team is simply incomparable to the ones featuring Hagi, Petrescu and Dimitrescu. Romania relied on a solid defence to get through qualifying and not conceding will be the order of the day once the tournament gets under way.

Strengths:

A team that is comfortable without the ball and can stay compact while defending

Weaknesses:

Conversely lacking invention to trouble teams on the break

Key Players:

Vlad Chiriches, Ciprian Tatarusanu

X-Factor:

Florin Andone

Albania

One of the Cinderella stories of qualification, Albania are making their debut at Euro 2016. While cynics may suggest they are only there because of the expanded tournament, the truth is they beat Denmark and Portugal en route to qualifying. In manager Gianni De Biasi they have a shrewd operator. Opponents who may consider them a soft touch will be in for a huge surprise.

Strengths:

Aerial prowess at set pieces and physicality while defending

Weaknesses:

Tendency to be a little undisciplined and not very creative in possession

Key Players:

Elseid Hysaj, Taulant Xhaka, Lorik Cana, Etrit Berisha

X-Factor:

Ermir Lenjani

Group B

England

Depending on perspective, England can be classified as serial under-achievers at major tournaments or their results are accurately indicative of the talent they possess. Roy Hodgson has selected one of England’s youngest ever squads and for once the team doesn’t seem overburdened with expectations. While the draw may do them some favours, it would be no surprise if England were to be knocked out at the quarterfinal stage once again.

Strengths:

If deployed in the right manner, a young attack with a multitude of options

Weaknesses:

The defence is not what it once was, while the suspicion remains that the midfield can be overrun against high-calibre opposition

Key Players:

Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart

X-Factors:

Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford

Euro 2016-2

Russia

Leonid Slutski revived a flagging campaign for the 2018 World Cup hosts when he took charge of Russia midway through qualification. As impressive as the second half of the campaign was, there are still issues in an ageing squad. Russia have the wherewithal to be troublesome opponents for the more fancied teams, but don’t have enough to be a factor in the later stages.

Strengths:

Technical ability in possession as well as the leadership of midfield veterans

Weaknesses:

Lacking a creative spark in the final third and a dodgy defence

Key Players:

Igor Denisov, Oleg Shatov, Roman Shirokov, Igor Akinfeev

X-Factors:

Aleksandr Golovin and Artem Dzyuba

Wales

Ryan Giggs never made it, but at least Gareth Bale did. Wales have qualified for a major tournament after what seems like eternity and their superstar played a crucial role in getting them to France. Chris Coleman’s men have gone off the boil since qualification, but after waiting so long for their chance in the spotlight, Wales will want to get out of the group stages.

Strengths:

Defensive resilience and Bale’s speed and finishing on the counter

Weaknesses:

Tend to lose imagination if they don’t’ score early and also lacking tournament experience

Key Players:

Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams

X-Factors:

Sam Vokes and Jonathan Williams

Slovakia

Making their second major tournament after the 2010 World Cup, Slovakia enter Euro 2016 in the unheralded manner that suits them. The key driving force in the team is on Marek Hamsik, but goal scoring issues in the rest of team will likely lead to an early exit.

Strengths:

Bite in midfield and directness in style of play

Weaknesses:

Fatigue may play a part in aging squad and lack of variation might prove costly

Key Players:

Juraj Kucka, Marek Hamsik, Vladimir Weiss, Martin Skrtel

X-Factor:

Miroslav Stoch

Group C

Germany

The World champions enter the tournament with unusual expectations as many experts don’t consider Germany outright favourites. Joachim Low’s men will not be too bothered by the pundits. Known to start slowly at major tournaments, Germany will expect to show their best form in the later stages. Defensive issues however could lead to their dream being unhinged.

Strengths:

Great midfielders and attacking players with imagination and invention

Weaknesses:

Defensive reshuffle on the eve of the tournament has led to uncertainty

Key Players:

Thomus Muller, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira

X-Factors:

Leroy Sane and Julian Draxler

Euro 2016-1

Poland

Carried through qualifying on the back of Robert Lewandowski’s goal scoring prowess, many feel now is the time for Poland to finally get out of the group stage. On their day Poland have the weapons to cause an upset. Whether they have the quality to put in a sustainable run is another matter altogether.

Strengths:

Goal scoring through one of Europe’s premier strikers – Robert Lewandowski

Weaknesses:

Are unlikely to keep many clean sheets, especially considering the erratic nature of their goalkeepers

Key Players:

Robert Lewandowski, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kamil Glik, Lukasz Piszczek

X-Factors:

Kamil Grosicki and Piotr Zielinski

Ukraine

Not many teams possess the natural width that Ukraine have, thanks to the talents of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko. Like Poland, Ukraine have the tools to cause damage on their day. Whether they do will depend if the limitations of the rest of the squad can be hidden.

Strengths:

Wing-play that will stretch most defences

Weaknesses:

Defensive uncertainty and an error-prone goalkeeper

Key Players:

Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko, Taras Stepanenko, Yaroslav Rakitskiy

X-Factor:

Viktor Kovalenko

Northern Ireland

 

Northern Ireland were the lowest-seeded team to ever win a qualification group and were justified in making it to Euro 2016. Their fans will add greatly to the atmosphere of the tournament and with their spirit, an upset or two is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Strengths:

Excellent levels of concentration when defending with two banks of four

Weaknesses:

Beyond Kyle Lafferty, the goals have been difficult to come by

Key Players:

Kyle Lafferty, Steven Davis, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans

X-Factor:

Jamie Ward

Group D

Spain

Twice-defending champions, Spain come into the tournament with one of the most interesting questions – was the 2014 World Cup a one-off or the beginning of a decline? Considering their domestic league continues to set the standard in European competition, one is inclined to believe the former. With the core of the squad coming off successful seasons at Real and Barca, Vicente Del Bosque has added just the right amount of unpredictability with players who have performed at other clubs. Spain remain many pundits pick to win it again.

Strengths:

Mesmeric and metronomic with possession of the ball in midfield

Weaknesses:

Tendency to spurn chances remains as does a vulnerability at set pieces

Key Players:

Andres Iniesta, Koke, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique

X-Factors:

Nolito and Alvaro Morata

Croatia

Croatia always have the potential to be dark horses. Extremely comfortable on the ball and with good goal scoring options, Croatia can be an extremely tricky opponent in the knockouts, pending their progression from the group stages. If Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic can dovetail effectively, Croatia will be a treat to watch.

Strengths:

Control in midfield and lethal finishing in the box

Weaknesses:

Aging defence, especially vulnerable to balls played behind

Key Players:

Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Darijo Srna, Mario Mandzukic

X-Factors:

Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic

Czech Republic

While not boasting the stardust of yesteryear, the Czech’s remain an entertaining team to watch with a propensity to play the game on the front foot. However, their lack of true superstar quality means the Czech Republic are unlikely to get past the group stage.

Strengths:

Can mix it up well between possession and a more direct approach

Weaknesses:

Their attackers have limitations to make a difference against elite defences

Key Players:

Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky, Jaroslav Plasil, David Lafata

X-Factors:

Vladimir Darida and Pavel Kaderabek

Turkey

They may not consistently qualify for major tournaments, but when Turkey do make it, they tend to enthrall and entertain. Expect the Turks to play with flair backed by one of the most passionate travelling crowds. Even against fancied opposition, Turkey are unlikely to play with men behind the ball. Attack, attack, attack. Should be fun to watch.

Strengths:

Technically accomplished in midfield and attack

Weaknesses:

Defensively rash and can be undisciplined in the heat of the moment

Key Players:

Arda Turan, Hakan Calhanoglu, Nuri Sahin, Selcuk Inan

X-Factors:

Emre Mor and Yunus Malli

Group E

Belgium

Belgium’s golden generation takes the spotlight in their second successive major tournament. Labelled by some as dark horses and even favourites by some others, Marc Wilmots men come into the tournament with high expectations. Can Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku deliver for their country on the biggest stage? It could ultimately be the decisive factor this talented group of players.

Strengths:

Almost unparalleled depth of forwards, wingers and attacking players

Weaknesses:

No true playmaking presence in midfield and shoehorning of players over a defined tactical system

Key Players:

Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Radja Nainggolan

X-Factors:

Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco

Italy

Italy come in to the tournament with one of their least fashionable squads in a long time. That being said, Italy are probably relishing the tag of underdogs. Manager Antonio Conte is not one to just roll over and will surely have a plan to maximize output from his squad. Defences win major tournaments, and they don’t come any better than Juve’s famed back three and goalkeeper.

Strengths:

Defensive solidity and poachers who can grab goals on the break

Weaknesses:

A midfield that might not be able to link up play between defence and attack

Key Players:

Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini

X-Factors:

Federico Bernardeschi and Stephan El Shaarawy

Sweden

Rarely has an international team been dominated by the narrative of one individual. Step forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The self-style King and Legend will hope to make a mark in his last international tournament. There isn’t much else to boast about in the squad, but commitment and courage will be seen in abundance in Erik Hamren’s team.

Strengths:

The goal scoring ability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Weaknesses:

Pedestrian in midfield and too many soft goals conceded at the back

Key Players:

John Guidetti, Albin Ekdal, Oscar Hiljemark, Mikael Lustig

X-Factors:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kim Kallstrom

Ireland

Like their neighbours, Ireland are bound to add to the carnival atmosphere of the tournament. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have made the Irish extremely hard to beat under their stewardship. Don’t expect too much in terms of entertaining football, but with their resilience and defensive organization, Ireland can easily cause an upset against the more fancied teams.

Strengths:

Physically strong, sound in defence and good instincts on the counter

Weaknesses:

Struggle with the ball if they concede first, perspiration over inspiration

Key Players:

James McCarthy, Shane Long, Jon Walters, Ciaran Clark

X-Factors:

Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady

Group F

Portugal

While the tendency is to talk about this squad in terms of only one man, this Portuguese squad is quite well-rounded. That being said, a fit and firing Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t hurt. Ronaldo’s goals allied with a young midfield that many strides during the European club season, means that Fernando Santos’ men can be cautiously optimistic about going far this time around. Provided they don’t fall victims to complacency, they could be one of the teams to watch at Euro 2016.

Strengths:

The supreme predatory instincts of Ronaldo and a well-rounded midfield

Weaknesses:

Though experienced, the defence can be exposed, while the young stars might face greater pressure in the later stages

Key Players:

Cristiano Ronaldo, Renato Sanches, Joao Moutinho, Pepe

X-Factors:

Raphael Guerreiro and Andre Gomes

Austria

A truly remarkable qualification campaign saw Austria winning 9 out of their 10 games and drawing the other. While one can’t draw too many conclusions from the qualifying stage, the message sent was that Austria are a force to be reckoned with. Driven by the versatile David Alaba and the subtle midfield pressing of Julian Baumgartlinger, Austria might win the hearts of many neutrals who will watch them for the first time at Euro 2016.

Strengths:

Goal scoring variety and ruthlessness on the counter

Weaknesses:

Untested when going behind and tournament inexperience

Key Players:

David Alaba, Christian Fuchs, Julian Baumgartlinger, Kevin Wimmer

X-Factors:

Marko Arnautovic and Alessandro Schopf

Iceland

Surely, the ultimate fairy tale. A nation with a population of just over 800,000 qualifying for a major tournament. Iceland have been gradually building towards this moment. They comfortably topped a group ahead of the Czech Republic, Turkey and the Netherlands. Only a fool would bet against them battling the odds again. Almost every neutral will cheer them on.

Strengths:

The experience of Lars Lagerback and a solid defence that doesn’t concede cheap goals

Weaknesses:

Goal scoring from open play may turn out to be the stumbling block

Key Players:

Gylfi Sigurdsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Kolbein Sigthorsson, Elmar Bjarnason

X-Factors:

Alfred Finnbogason and Eidur Gudjohnsen

Hungary

The land of the legendary Puskas makes an appearance at an international tournament after a long time. Hungary may not be the team of the of the neutrals as it once was, yet they shouldn’t be taken lightly. The tactically astute Bernd Storck will have his men well-drilled and ready for battle, though the dearth in international quality may well result in Hungary exiting in the first round.

Strengths:

Playing within their limitations, don’t expect Hungary to cross the halfway line too much

Weaknesses:

Obvious goalscoring issues means the Magyars will have to rely excessively on hanging on

Key Players:

Adam Szalai, Tamas Priskin, Mihaly Korhut, Gabor Kiraly

X-Factors:

Adam Nagy and Zoltan Gera

Euro 2016

 

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