EURO 2016: FAVOURITES, DARKHORSES AND PRETENDERS
With a day left for the European Championship to finally kicks off, national teams are by now putting finishing touches to their plans and strategies ahead of what promises to be one of the most intriguing tournaments in recent history. The decision by Europe’s football governing body,UEFA to increase the number of participants from sixteen to twenty four will not only provide football fans across the world with more tension, drama and excitement, but also provide the opportunity for more nations to immerse themselves in the experience of playing in a major international tournament. The likes of Wales, Albania and Slovakia are among those who have benefitted from this “golden opportunity” to qualify for Euro 2016, and although are not included among the favourites, stranger things have been known to happen (remember Greece in 2004?). Tournaments in recent years usually have a habit of throwing up major upsets, particularly during the knock-out stages where a bit of complacency or an inspired performance can produce a result that will shock the world and prove book makers wrong.
It is no surprise that leading European nations will participate as strong favourites to triumph in the tournament with hosts France leading the way.
“Les Bleus” as the French team are fondly called certainly have history on their side. This summer marks exactly eighteen years since they last hosted a tournament which they deservedly won in a 3-0 victory against Brazil at the Stade de France to lift the World Cup. Didier Deschamps, who was the winning captain that night, will hope to replicate the feat as manager, and while France have been through a period of turbulence in which humiliating early exits from major tournaments threatened to tarnish their reputation, their current crop of players certainly have what it takes to mount a serious challenge. It is easy to see why France are considered favourites when they have the likes of Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane, Hugo Lloris and Antoine Griezmann at their disposal,it will be difficult to stop a French side that will be spurred on by a tumultuous crowd across the country.
Coach: Didier Deschamps
Goalkeepers: Benoit Costil (Rennes), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Marseille).
Defenders: Lucas Digne (Roma), Patrice Evra (Juventus), Christophe Jallet (Lyon), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Eliaquim Mangala (Manchester City), Samuel Umtiti (Lyon), Bacary Sagna (Manchester City), Adil Rami (Sevilla)
Midfielders: Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace), Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United), N’Golo Kante (Leicester), Blaise Matuidi (Paris St-Germain), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Moussa Sissoko (Newcastle).
Forwards: Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Tigres), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Anthony Martial (Manchester United), Dimitri Payet (West Ham)
SPAIN are automatic favourites, and even though we can’t fully vouche for them after what befell them at the 2014 world cup: a heavy 5-1 defeat against the Netherlands and a shock 2-0 loss to Chile which saw them exit the tournament at the group stage, they are back to back defending champions of the tournament. Let us not also forget that the past two years, the biggest club competitions in Europe; the UEFA champions league and the Europa league were won by spanish teams. Add these to the array of stars selected, then you’ll agree without a doubt that Vincente Del Bosque’s team will as usual rank among the top favourites for this year’s tournament.
Coach: Vicente del Bosque
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Porto), David de Gea (Manchester United), Sergio Rico (Sevilla).
Defenders: Marc Bartra (Barcelona), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Hector Bellerin (Arsenal), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Juanfran (Atletico Madrid).
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich), Bruno Soriano (Villarreal), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Koke (Atletico Madrid).
Forwards: Pedro (Chelsea), David Silva (Manchester City), Alvaro Morata (Juventus), Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao), Nolito (Celta Vigo), Lucas Vazquez (Real Madrid).
GERMANY is always backed to do well in every major tournament, such is the considerable depth in quality they have in all areas. This does not always guarantee success however, but I dare any pundit to write off a team that won the world cup just two years ago. Also worthy of note is the fact the bulk (if not all) of that team will participate in this year’s tournament. And the best part: The “German machines” always thrive on the big occasion through unerring professionalism and a level of quality that very few teams, if any at all, can match. Who says it’s impossible for them to hold both the world and European cup just like Spain ?
Coach: Joachim Löw
Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), Bernd Leno (Bayer Leverkusen), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona).
Defenders: Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich), Emre Can (Liverpool), Jonas Hector (Cologne), Benedikt Howedes (Schalke), Mats Hummels (Dortmund), Shkodran Mustafi (Valencia), Antonio Ruediger (Roma).
Midfielders: Julian Draxler (Wolfsburg), Sami Khedira (Juventus), Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich), Toni Kroos (Real Madrid), Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray), Andre Schurrle (Wolfsburg), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Manchester United), Julian Weigl (Dortmund).
Forwards: Mario Gomez (Besiktas), Mario Gotze (Bayern Munich), Leroy Sane (Schalke).
ITALY will always make it to my list of favourites for any competition because they always wear the tag “write us off at your own peril”. A proper tournament team whose doggedness in defensive stand them out, preventing even the best attacking teams from penetrating. They may not be quite the formidable force they once were during the days when the likes of Gennaro gattuso, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro were plying their trade, but Antonio Conte’s side certainly possesses the same hallmark that Italy have been famous for over the years – a superb defensive resilience which makes them incredibly difficult to break down.They have as good a chance as France, Spain and Germany to mount a serious challenge this year.
Coach: Antonio Conte
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Federico Marchetti (Lazio), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris St-Germain).
Defenders: Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham).
Midfielders: Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), Daniele de Rossi (Roma), Mattia de Sciglio (AC Milan), Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna), Thiago Motta (Paris St-Germain), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Stefano Sturaro (Juventus).
Forwards: Eder (Sampdoria), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Graziano Pelle (Southampton), Simone Zaza (Juventus).
Major international tournaments always provide the opportunity for darkhorses to rise to the occasion and go all the way, and with the number of teams increased for the first time in European Championship history, there is more potential for an underdog to seize the day. These teams are relatively “unknown” teams which give the favourites a run for their money, capable of springing surprises and might probably win it. My pick for darkhorses:
CROATIA which has always been a team with huge potentials are yet to go beyond their best ever finish in the Euros with quarter-final appearances in 1996 and 2008 are aiming to spring a surprise at Euro 2016. Their qualification was fraught with difficulty following charges for racist behaviour that resulted in a points deduction and being forced to play home games behind closed doors. But two draws with Italy are an indication of their true quality and this is a team that has lost only twice since the 2014 World Cup.The midfield is a particular strength with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic the stars. But they’re not alone. Ivan Perisic has had a fine season with Inter and was his country’s top scorer during qualifying with six goals. In attack, Mario Mandzukic, joint top scorer at Euro 2012, remains a force. With favourites, Spain alongside them in Group D, it will be difficult but not impossible to top it but it would hardly be a huge shock to see the two-time quarter-finalists come through that. Ante Cacic’s men have the look of typical dark horses and bearing in mind that their best ever finish in a world cup was third place in France in 1998, who says they can’t repeat the same feat or go further this time?
Coach: Ante Cacic
Goalkeepers: Danijel Subasic (Monaco), Lovre Kalinic (Hajduk Split), Ivan Vargic (Rijeka).
Defenders: Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Domagoj Vida (Dynamo Kiev), Sime Vrsaljko (Sassuolo), Gordon Schildenfeld (Dinamo Zagreb), Ivan Strinic (Napoli), Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen).
Midfielders: Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic (both Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), Milan Badelj (Fiorentina), Marko Rog (Dinamo Zagreb), Ante Coric (Dinamo Zagreb).
Forwards: Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), Nikola Kalinic (Fiorentina), Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb), Duje Cop (Dinamo Zagreb), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim).
AUSTRIA secured qualification for the Euro championship unbeaten and in a hugely impressive style, topping a group containing Sweden and Russia with nine wins out of 10. Only England qualified with more points, and Marcel Koller’s side exhibited their potential with a 4-1 thrashing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in Stockholm, Sweden last September. Bayern Munich’s David Alaba is the star and plays in a midfield role for his country, but the 23-year-old is not the only talent in the team. Towering striker Marc Janko scored seven goals in qualifying and is ably supported by Stoke forward Marko Arnautovic. They are defensively strong too. Leicester’s Christian Fuchs captains the side from left-back, and they only conceded five goals in qualifying. In a seemingly favourable group containing Portugal, Hungary and Iceland, they will fancy their chances of progressing to the European Championship knock-out stages for the first time in their history.
Coach: Marcel Koller
Goalkeepers: Robert Almer (Austria Vienna), Heinz Lindner (Eintracht Frankfurt), Ramazan Oezcan (Ingolstadt).
Defenders: Aleksandar Dragovic (Dynamo Kiev), Christian Fuchs (Leicester), Gyorgy Garics (Darmstadt), Martin Hinteregger (Moenchengladbach), Florian Klein (Stuttgart), Sebastian Prodl (Watford), Markus Suttner (Ingolstadt), Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham).
Midfielders: David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Marko Arnautovic (Stoke), Julian Baumgartlinger (Mainz), Martin Harnik (Stuttgart), Stefan Ilsanker (Leipzig), Jakob Jantscher (Lucerne), Zlatko Junuzovic (Werder Bremen), Marcel Sabitzer (Leipzig), Alessandro Schoepf (Schalke).
Forwards: Lukas Hinterseer (Ingolstadt), Rubin Okotie (1860 Munich), Marc Janko (Basel).
POLAND were co-hosts four years ago but couldn’t get beyond the group stage. The good news for them and their fans is that there’s more reason for optimism this time around given their qualifying campaign – their tally of 33 goals was more than any other nation in Europe. That owed much to Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich forward who netted a record-equalling 13 goals.The big difference is that Lewandowski now has support. Ajax striker Arkadiusz Milik scored in five of the qualifying games himself, while Sevilla midfielder Gregorz Krychowiak was also missing at Euro 2012. With the formidable right-flank partnership of Lukasz Piszczek and skipper Jakub Blaszczykowski still going strong there is quality in this team if not depth.Recent friendly wins over Iceland, Serbia and Czech Republic mean that Poland have lost only once – in Germany – in the past two years and while they find themselvves alongside the world champions in Group C it’s a favourable draw.
Coach: Adam Nawalka
Goalkeepers: Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea), Wojciech Szczesny (Roma), Artur Boruc (Bournemouth).
Defenders: Thiago Cionek (Palermo), Kamil Glik (Torino), Artur Jedrzejczyk (Krasnodar), Michal Pazdan (Legia Warsaw), Lukasz Piszczek (Dortmund), Bartosz Salamon (Cagliari), Jakub Wawrzyniak (Lechia Gdansk).
Midfielders: Jakub Blaszczykowski (Dortmund), Kamil Grosicki (Rennes), Tomasz Jodlowiec (Legia Warsaw), Bartosz Kapustka (Cracovia), Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla), Karol Linetty (Lech Poznan), Krzysztof Maczynski (Wisla Krakow), Slawomir Peszko (Lechia Gdansk), Filip Starzynski (Zaglebie Lubin), Piotr Zielinski (Udinese).
Forwards: Arkadiusz Milik (Ajax), Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Mariusz Stepinski (Chorzow).
No tournament is complete without the participation of pretenders. These set of teams are those who perennially appear like favourites with array of stars at their dispossal but as the competition progresses tend to get bullied by favourites and dark horses, disappointing their fans at the end by only making up the numbers like other lowly placed teams.
PORTUGAL are known to be perennial pretenders that even the year they paraded the golden generation of great players like Luis Figo, Rui Costa, etc , they still couldn’t win a single trophy. Having one of the best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo makes them dangerous opponents for anyone to face this summer. The Real Madrid star is enjoying yet another wonderful season in front of goal for club and country, and although he may need his international team-mates to stand up and be counted, he has the unerring ability to win games on his own. Fernando Santos appears to be opting for a combination of experience and youth at Euro 2016, and while Ronaldo undoubtedly carries the weight of expectation from an entire nation on his shoulders, I predict that even though it appears like a tournament in which the highly-talented duo of Renato Sanches and Andre Gomes announce themselves on the international stage, they’ll still not do enough no run shoulders with the big boys.
Coach: Fernando Santos
Goalkeepers: Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon), Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Eduardo (Dínamo Zagreb).
Defenders: Vieirinha (Wolfsburg), Cedric (Southampton), Pepe (Real Madrid), Ricardo Carvalho (Monaco), Bruno Alves (Fenerbahce), Jose Fonte (Southampton), Eliseu (Benfica), Raphael Guerreiro (Lorient).
Midfielders: William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon), Danilo Pereira (Porto), Joao Moutinho (Monaco), Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich), Adrien Silva (Sporting Lisbon), Andre Gomes (Valencia), Joao Mario (Sporting Lisbon).
Forwards: Rafa Silva (Braga), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas), Nani (Fenerbahce), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Eder (Lille).
ENGLAND‘s previous shortcomings and disappointing campaigns has automatically earned them a place in the usual list of title pretenders but the Three Lions can finally do themselves justice and end fifty years of hurt. Impressive victories against France and Germany in recent friendlies were matched by excellent performances which highlighted the number of talented and in-form players that Hodgson currently has at his disposal. Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Ross Barkley were all notable performers in a team that looked extremely bright and full of ideas going forward, whilst also playing a fluid style of football that suited those who have been on top form for their respective club this season but those who have followed the English team in recent years will recall how their own version of the “golden generation” couldn’t stand out to be counted among the big boys. This team does not appear different from what obtains from a regular English team who only thrive on excessive hype of it’s average players by the over zealous English media.
Coach: Roy Hodgson
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Southampton), Tom Heaton (Burnley).
Defenders: Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Everton), Kyle Walker (Tottenham), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton), Danny Rose (Tottenham), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool).
Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham), Ross Barkley (Everton), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), James Milner (Liverpool), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal).
Strikers: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United).
BELGIUM will always make this list even though they’re a team that has made the number one spot in the FIFA world rankings some couple of months ago. Some would argue that they are undoubtedly the team that the favourites want to avoid, with Marc Wilmots the benefactor of a golden generation who have an abundance of talent and quality to cause real danger. Reaching the quarter finals of the 2014 World Cup is a sign of the progress that is being made in Belgium, and if the likes of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku are on top of their game, then there is no reason why the highest-ranked nation in the latest FIFA World Rankings can topple the big guns and return home from France victorious but we know what usually becomes of teams like these as the competition begins to gain momentum.
Coach: Marc Wilmots
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Jean-Francois Gillet (Mechelen), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool).
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact), Jason Denayer (Galatasaray), Christian Kabasele (Genk), Jordan Lukaku (Ostend), Thomas Meunier (Club Bruges), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham).
Midfielders: Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester Utd), Radja Nainggolan (Roma), Axel Witsel (Zenit St Petersburg).
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Marseille), Christian Benteke (Liverpool), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Divock Origi (Liverpool).
ALL GROUPS AT A GLANCE :