Group D – Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic + Turkey
Q: Who should top the group? – Spain
Q: Who are the dark horses – Turkey
Q: One to watch: Emre Mor (Turkey)
Having won back to back Euro’s in 2008 and 2012, Spain are looking to make history by completing the treble and lifting the trophy in Paris on July 10th. However a poor performance at the last World cup where they failed to progress out of the group stage has forced a dramatic rethink with Del Bosque tinkering his squad. The result is that several big name players like Diego Costa, Santi Carzola and Juan Mata miss out in favour of the likes of Hector Bellerin, Nolito and the uncapped Lucas Vazquez. The end product is the shortest squad in the tournament (averaging 5ft 9in) but that should matter little as technically they are one of the most gifted squads. Spain did qualify with ease, losing only once along the way to Slovakia but that was to a late goal and against the run of play. Few will bet against Spain at least reaching the final if not going all the way. Croatia however have little chance of making it to the final. They are very much a side in transition under Ante Cacic, a former TV repairman turn fairly unspectacular coach. His appointment was widely slammed at home in Croatia and will need an outstanding Euros to keep his job. he does have a talented squad that contains Real’s Luka Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic but Cacic lack of credbility or tactical knowledge means that Croatia often underwhelm. Only a win against Turkey in their opening game will give them a chance of progressing.
Turkey have no such problem under Faith Terim, the legendary three times national manager who also strangely holds a Italian Knighthood. Turkey enter as the lightweights literally with the lightest squad on average of all sides at 74kg. But that wont deter an experienced group who should progress at the expense of the Czech Republic. Led by Barcelona’s Arda Turan who was unable to play for the Catalan’s until January due to the club’s transfer ban, Turkey are a unique mix of youth and experience that almost didn’t click in qualifying. An 89th minute free kick in game ten against Iceland allowed Turkey to scrape through as the best third placed team. Winners of their group in qualifying were the Czech Republic so it will be the third time in a year and a half that the two sides have met in competitive competition. It’s one game a piece but the bookies will favour the Czech’s who topped the group that also contained Iceland and Holland. Despite free scoring hitting 19, the Czech’s failed to keep a clean sheet in ten attempts conceding 14 goals in the process, the most of any of the nations to qualify. Manager Pavel Vrba has a wealth of knowledge and is widely respected having won five consecutive Czech coach of the year awards from 2010-2015.That however may not be enough to progress especially if Spain and Croatia both beat them before they face Turkey on the last match day.
Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland + Sweden
Q: Who should top the group? – Belgium
Q: Who are the dark horses – Sweden
Q: One to Watch: Yannick Carrasco (Belgium)
In the so called group of death, the smallest of margins will likely determine who advances and who goes home. Speaking of small, Italy happens to have the tournaments shortest player in its ranks. However what Lorenzo Insigne (5ft 6in) lacks in stature he makes up for in raw talent with the Napoli striker key to Italy’s success. Manager Antonio Conte may have already sealed his exit from the national team (he joins Chelsea afterwards) but wants to go out on a high no matter what. Repeating their feat of four years ago when they reached the final is definitely on Italy’s agenda but suffering another 4-0 defeat (the worst defeat in a Euro or World Cup final) is not. Standing in his way is some lofty competition including Sweden who are the tallest squad at the Euros at an average of 1.86m, the most recognisable being their legendary striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To say they are dependant on Zlatan to ensure they have a good tournament is an understatement with the former PSG striker hitting 11 of the 19 goals they scored in qualifying. In truth it was a difficult campaign with Sweden only making it via the playoffs at the expense of Denmark. Since then 2 wins, 3 draws and a defeat to Turkey highlight their indifferent form going into the Euros.They will need Zlatan to be at his very best if they are to escape the group.
One team that is very much on form is Belgium who have assembled the most expensive squad of any of the qualified nations. A total of $319m in transfers has been paid for Belgian players like Christian Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne both of whom secured big money moves last summer. Many point to attacking options of Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi as the reason why Belgiam are considered dark horses for the tournament. However in qualifying, only four goals from 24 were scored by the strikers – with each one only scoring once. A worrying problem for manager Marc Wilmots to think about. Finally the Republic of Ireland are set to make their third appearance at the Euros having first qualified back in 1988. That year only eight teams took place with the Republic finishing third behind eventual finalists Holland and the Soviet Union but ahead of England after a Ray Houghton goal sealed a memorable victory. This time around, the Republic is unlikely to provide a shock having scraped through qualifying (they did beat Germany though). As one of the oldest squads (average age of almost 30), its likely that this tournament will be the last for several of their star players. Robbie Keane has been one of the most constant performers for the Irish but at 35 the LA Galaxy striker is nearing the end of the road.
Group F – Austria, Hungary, Iceland and Portugal
Q: Who should top the group? – Portugal
Q: Who are the dark horses – Austria
Q: Who to watch: Joao Mario (Portugal)
Cristiano Ronaldo enters the tournament with a hunger to rewrite history and finally forget about the horrors that fell upon him at Euro 2008. That year he helped Portugal reach the final on home soil only to fall at the last hurdle to Greece in a shock loss. Cristiano Ronaldo could become the first man to score at four Euro finals if he nets in France. He currently sits on six goals in his career, so is every chance to catch Michel Platini’s nine goals at the top of the tree if Portugal have a good tournament. This time around there will be no Luis Figo or Nuno Gomes to help him, with afresh batch of players being brought into the fold for this tournament. Several members of Portugal’s under 21 winning side from last summer have made the move up to the full team including the impressive midfield trio of William Carvalho, Joao Mario and Andres Gomes but surprisingly Bernardo Silva, the creative force of that team misses out. Another side with an impressive youthful squad is Austria.The former co-hosts of 2008 have improved year over year since that tournament and are one of the most improved sides in Europe rising over 95 places in the FIFA world rankings in less than 8 years. They blitzed group G in qualifying, topping the group with nine wins and a draw scoring 22 and conceding just 5. Bayern Munich’s David Alba has grown into their most important player but its the supporting cast of Stoke’ Marko Arnautovic, Stuttgart’s Martin Harnik and Mainz’s Julian Baumgartlinger that make Austria a tough team to play against. Much is expected of this side and talk of being a dark horse may not be too far from the truth.
Iceland on the other hand are not expected to do much. The expansion of the Euros to 24 means we get the charming inclusion of a country like Iceland, in their first ever tournament. Their population is 330,000, making them the smallest country to ever qualify for a European Championship finals. Co-managed by Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson (a dentist by trade who will replace Lagerback at the end of the tournament), Iceland rely on team spirit to get them over the line. All time record goalscorer Eidur Gudjohnsen makes the squad despite being 37 years young. He wont however be the oldest player at the tournament with Hungary goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly set to take that honour at 40 years old. Known for his tatty grey jogging pants that he wears in every game instead of shorts (based on comfort), Kiraly is looking to add to his 103 caps at Euro 2016 but not much is expected of this Hungary side whose best years are behind them. Despite a troubled qualifying that saw them go through three different managers in the process, Hungary booked their passage to France with a convincing 3-1 aggregate win over Norway. Like the Irish, this will be the final roll of the dice for several of the Hungary players including Zoltan Gera and Kiraly.