Who will rule Europe?

June is “Europe month” with the UK’s EU referendum dominating the political news (I’ll get to that in a future post) while in sport the main event is Euro 2016 the European Men’s football championship which starts in Paris on Friday.

The first thing I’ll say is that the tournament is far too big now with 24 teams in it. From 1996 to 2012 the Euros had a perfect format. Sixteen countries playing in four groups of four teams with the top two in each group going through to the last eight and the tournament then being played in a knockout format. Sixteen teams meant most of the big teams qualified but minnows still had a chance (Slovenia in 2000 and Latvia in 2004 being the best examples). No one – except disgraced former UEFA President Michel Plattini – thought the Euros needed expansion but there you go. In the ideal world now that Plattini has been banned from football UEFA should do with him what WWE did with Chris Benoit and wipe him out from history.

But they won’t so we are stuck with 24 teams which means four third place teams will qualify and that it takes 36 games to knock out 8 teams. With that all said what might happen in France during June and July? Let’s take a look at the groups.

Group A – France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland. It is a joke that host nations get easy groups at major tournaments and on paper this group is weak. Not that France need the help. France unlike most countries do well at home. They are the only country since 1978 to win the World Cup or Euros at home. In fact they have won them both – the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998. Plus their current team is loaded with talent – Paul Pogba, Kingsley Coman, N’Golo Kante the unsung hero of Leicester’s title win, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial among others. Add one of the best keepers in the world in Hugo Lloris and you have a formidable side. Add to that the fact that coach Didier Deschamps had the good sense to leave underachieving trouble maker Karim Benzema out of the squad and France have a great chance of going all the way.

They have little to fear from the rest of Group A. Romania might have been unbeaten in qualifying but drew half their games and finished behind Northern Ireland in a poor group, Switzerland lost twice to England in qualifying and Albania are finals debutants. Second place will be between Romania and Switzerland and if they both beat Albania and draw with each other they will both likely go through.

Group B – England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia. England are the team with the youngest average age in the tournament.Young stars like Harry Kane, Ross Barkley and Deli Ali could shine. Two problems for England are do they play record scorer Wayne Rooney and can the defence which has looked dodgy cope? Quarter Finals at best.The group is not easy. 2018 World Cup hosts Russia have improved since sacking Fabio Capello (which probably won’t surprise England fans) and Slovakia beat Spain in qualifying, Germany in a friendly last week and put holders Italy out of the 2010 World Cup so could be dangerous. The big danger could be Wales. Wales are a team of journeymen who depend too much on Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale and could be out of their depth. But the game against England on June 16th will be a British style Cup tie which will be a classic banana skin for England. If they get through that they should top the group with Russia and Slovakia following them.

Group C – Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland. As World Cup holders Germany should be favourites but struggled – by their standards – to qualify losing in Poland and not beating the Republic of Ireland home or away. In friendlies they have lost in France, at home to England and at home to Slovakia. But its Germany we are talking about, most of the 2014 team are still there and anything short of a semi final is unthinkable. Poland whose star player Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandovski is well known in Germany are the main threat. Ukraine and Northern Ireland – who like Wales did well to qualify but could be out of their depth – look below the quality of Germany and Poland and the third placed team in this group could miss out.

Group D – Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia. Spain are two time defending European Champions still have Sergio Ramos, Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in their squad plus David de Gea the best goalkeeper in the world. However I think they peaked in 2012 when they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final to win Euro 2012. They will do better their pathetic defence of the World Cup in 2014 but won’t win the tournament. The rest of the group is unpredictable.  Croatia are always dark horses, the Czechs always overachieve in the Euros and Turkey had a sensational run to the Semi Finals in 2008. Croatia would be my favourites for second place but there are no no hopers in this group.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden. This group could contain teams that will underachieve. Belgium on paper are scary  but some big names had poor Premier League seasons – Eden Hazard did not score a League goal until April, Christian Benteke was 32 million down the drain at Liverpool and keeper Thibaut Courtois got sent off twice. On paper they are formidable but they are less than the sum of their parts and I don’t think they go past the last eight. Italy could be another big name to underachieve. They are short of goals and got hammered 4-1 in a friendly in Germany. But they still have Gigi Buffon one of the best keepers in the world and usually do better in tournaments than their talent suggests they should (though this did not apply in the last two World Cups). And nothing is guaranteed with Sweden and the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a Republic of Ireland team who played Germany twice in qualifying without losing both capable of causing upsets in the tournament ‘s toughest group.

Group F – Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary. This group is unlikely to produce the winner but it is the stage for Europe’s best player Cristiano Ronaldo. However great players do not best great teams. Ronaldo has helped Portugal to semi finals in the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012 but they went no further and that will be the case again. Austria could be a surprise team. They won nine out of ten in qualifying – in a group that included Russia and Sweden. They have a star player in David Alaba plus another Leicester hero in Christian Fuchs and if they maintain their qualifying form they could emulate teams like Turkey (2008) and Czech Republic (1996, 2004) who have overachieved at Euros. Of all the debutants Iceland (population 300,000) are the most unlikely (because of the size of the country). But in another sense they are not surprising qualifiers. The book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (pages 238-260) claimed that Iceland is the most fanatical football country in Europe. A higher percentage of Icelandic people watched the 2010 World Cup on TV than any other country in Europe even though they had no team in the tournament. I suspect that with their own team in the event the audience will be even bigger. I think they will get to  the last 16 in third place ahead of Hungary which would be a remarkable achievement.

If I were to predict the tournament I would say France, Germany and Spain are a class above with Portugal, England and perhaps Italy as Semi Final candidates. Poland, Sweden and Austria could cause surprises but Belgium could be surprise underachievers. And if I were to predict a winner I would say France.

What I sincerely hope for is that the tournament passes without incident. France suffered two terrorist attacks last year – one of them at a France v Germany friendly. Just keep your fingers crossed that there is no terrorism and that Euro 2016 can rise above its ridiculous format to give us a memorable month of football.

 

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