The crop of the Euros has gotten ever bigger but the cream is still expected to rise to the top at this Summer’s’ European Championship. Six of the last nine tournaments have been won by Spain, France or Germany and those three are the clear favourites in the eyes of bookmakers once again.
It’s no surprise that France are favourites. Home advantage is invaluable at these tournaments – just ask the French to recall their 1984 success or their 1998 World Cup win – and over the past two years steady money from 8/1 at the beginning of the World Cup has come down to 7/2 favoritism at the time of writing. That was helped by a solid performance in Brazil where they went down 1-0 in a tight encounter to Germany where they didn’t reach the standards of the group stage. Since then an inexperienced squad has won plenty across Europe including titles for Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann whilst N’Golo Kante played a crucial role in delivering a shock title to Leicester. If their centralised Friendlies had counted then they would have topped their group – albeit a comfortable one – and their preparation on the pitch has also been ideal, with four straight friendly wins.
Quality runs straight through their side despite the hard-nosed attitude of Didier Deschamps (who alone has removed Maxime Gonalons, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Andre Lacazette after one defeat to Albania) and a delightfully easy section (Switzerland look to be the only real threat to them topping the group and they look to have limitations man for man that could prevent them from going further than the last 16, whilst Albania and Romania) should see them take a third placed side and then face the winner of the the clash between the runners up of B and F in the quarter finals. They’ve every chance, but there are flaws in the side. The sex tape scandal that involved Mathieu Valbuena has seen Karim Benzema – their best forward – expelled from the side, and the loss of Raphael Varane may be an even bigger blow. Laurent Koscielny is an extremely solid centre back but a partnership with Adil Rami is a raw one and the latter was awful against Cameroon recently. Not helping the matter is the fact that Lassana Diarra, first choice holding midfielder, is out of action too which complicates matters for Hugo Llloris.
No team is perfect at the Euros, but Germany knocked out France at the last World Cup on their way to a success which included that demolition of Brazil before knocking out Argentina in the final and whilst they have had some dodgy moments on the road, there was no danger of them failing to make the tournament in qualifying.
The side that won in Brazil has basically made it intact to France and is standout on paper. Manuel Neuer is regarded as the world’s best goalkeeper by many and Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels balance eachother out in good style. At fullback there are weaknesses in the shape of Jonas Hector – who is getting used to the game at this level – whilst anyone of Howdes, Can or Ginter could play. But that looks to be their only real area of weakness and it’s hardly the worst place to be below par.
The midfield is world class with Toni Kroos fresh from winning the Champions League backed up by Mesut Ozil – provider of 19 assists for Arsenal this season – and any number of other options including Julian Draxler, Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle and Julian Weigl.
Thomas Muller scored 9 goals in qualifying and 20 in the Bundesliga, whilst Mario Gomez – in superb form for Besiktas since a move from Fiorentina can backup or play with Muller. Their poor form in the leadup to the tournament has worried many – they have lost four of their last seven – but they have their eyes only on the tournament proper. Their group contains a tough test in Poland, but beat them and they will be expected to go through with three wins and that means a third place clash before the quarter finals were things begin to heat up.
Spain are the defending Champions and entitled to a great deal of respect but they went out of the World Cup (albeit in a group of death) in bitterly disappointing fashion and it must be a worry that the rest of the world seems to have caught upto the the possession based style of play that Vicente Del Bosque has implemented. They qualified easily enough from a weak section and and little can be gathered from their friendlies which took place without the presence of Iniesta and Busquets but Cesc Fabregas had has a dire season by his standards for Chelsea and Silva didn’t reach his peak for Manchester City either. An extremely tight defence – it’s approaching a decade since La Roja last conceded a goal in the cut-throat stages of a major tournament. – will be their bedrock, but looking forward they lack striking options. They won in 2012 without a striker in the final but had Villa and Torres in 2008 and 2010 (whilst Torres scored three in 2012), and this time around, Alvaro Morata apart, there doesn’t seem to be a striker in that mould, and Morata has struggled in Serie A for Juve (albeit he has been strong in Europe with Nolito being a winger. It’s not hard to imagine Artiz Aduriz being very effective if he carried his club form into the tournament but whether he gets a chance is another thing and Pedro had a disappointing season for Chelsea. If they top Group D the route through to the final is clear but there can be no doubting how tough their group is and second place leaves a potential tie against Belgium in the last 16.
A flurry of promising penalty results and a promising qualifying performance – they went through with a 100% record – has seen England cut into fourth favourites but they look too short on all known evidence. A youthful Three Lions has potential in plenty of places but a vast amount of inexperience going through the midfield and forwards and it remains to be seen just how much quality there was in the Premier League this season where so many thrived. They should go through against Russia and Slovakia – who are decent but don’t make appeal to go anywhere past the last 16 – however.
Harry Kane was tremendous for Tottenham and has carried his form to the National side, whilst the same can be said to a later point of Jamie Vardy, and if Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy can continue the breakthrough seasons they have had for Spurs then they will be tremendous assets. However the presence of Wayne Rooney has complicated things in midfield with the United man below his best and whilst Jack Wilshere has impressed in his touches since coming back from injury, bar him keeping the ball has been an issue for England and defensive worries are also something to be considered. There can be a lack of protection for Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill in the team setup and Joe Hart, for all his ability, may have his work cut out especially given that all the fullback options are better going forward than back.
Of the other home nations, Wales have the best player in Gareth Bale and it may be worth not paying attention to a poor run of form since qualifying as they came through a tricky enough qualifying section only two points behind Belgium. Much will rest on the Madrid man’s shoulders but the standard of players around him has improved with Aaron Ramsey profiting from the space Bale creates and Joes Allen and Ledley useful in midfield. The worry is injuries; Coleman was able to used seven players eight games including Ben Davies, Ashley Williams and James Chester as a back three and if any of those three were to suffer a knock they’d be significantly compromised.
Ireland have once again reached a major tournament, a huge win for them after they reached the finals four years ago, and they will make for awkward opponents having finished behind Poland and Germany – both of whom they took points from during qualifying. Their performance at Euro 2012, when alongside finalists Spain and Italy, doesn’t bode well but there are more flaws in their group rivals this time around for a side that has remained typically tight under the guidance of Martin O’Neill.
The issue won’t be their defence – but rather an attack which scored just eight goals in eight games apart from games against Gibraltar, and going through to the latter stages that is sure to be an issue that uproots them. Exactly the same could be said of their Northern counterparts, who have reached the finals for the first time since 1986. Having overcome their fifth seeding to top Group F on the way here, they defensive capability has to be admired but in a group containing Germany, Poland and Ukraine they will have to go forward sooner rather than later and of their four Premier League players three are centre backs.
Belgium have the feel of a side that should be fourth favourites. Quarter finalists at the World Cup two years ago, they topped a well contested section and now have a squad with major tournament and club experience to boot. Romelu Lukaku had led the Everton line for two seasons and looks set to start but in midfield they really pack a punch with Kevin De Bryne having taken Manchester City by storm this season with a flurry of goals and assists. Eden Hazard did the opposite for Chelsea but towards the end of the campaign he scored four goals in his last five games and should be ready to roll. Yaannick Ferreira-Carrasco was a standout in the Champions League for Atletico Madrid but Dries Mertens has been exceptional for Napoli when asked and a midfield of box-to-box roamer Radja Nainggolan and Alex Witsel is more balanced than most will bring to the side. Injuries have upset the balance of their defense with Vincent Kompany missing and Jan Vertongen and Toby Alderweireld being pushed out to fullback could present troubles whilst Thomas Vermaelen has barely played for Barcelona and Jason Denyer does not look on the same level as the others. That said, Thibaut Courtois is not a bad man to have between the posts.
They are favourites to beat Italy to the punch in their Group, which is understandable given that Italy’s attack will not matchup to their rearguard. Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli have conceded just six goals in 21 Serie A matches in the calendar but ahead of them Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, Claudio Marchisio of Juventus and Riccardo Montolivo of AC Milan have robbed them of their best midfielders. They lack an out and out striker of the quality of most of the nations ahead of them in the betting and it remains to be seen if Lorenzo Insigne actually gets a shot. Eder has scored only once since moving to Inter in January ,Simone Zaza is unused as a substitute for Juventus in general and Graziano Pelle only scored in qualifying three times. Sweden went through thanks to the playoffs – they had a tough group against Australia and Russia – but have a tough task in this section and much rests on the shoulders of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored three of their goals in their 4-3 aggregate victory over Denmark. The big problem is that against the top two in the section, they took just two points from a possible 12 and the fact that they conceded two set piece goals in the playoffs doesn’t bode well for them either. A young group of players who won the Under 20’s tournament have come through to the senior squad, but they number only sixth and things could be difficult.
Portugal – or Cristiano Ronaldo – have a generous draw which is a great help considering that they are short priced favourites to win their group. Fernando Santos is an ideal manager – he took Greece to the knockouts of the last Euros and the last World Cup to boot – and there are two things they do well – give the ball to Ronaldo and defend. That combination saw them take Spain to penalties in the semifinal in 2012 and it’s understandable that players will be tempted to back them given what they see as a passable draw into the latter stages but their poor performance at the 2014 World Cup would raise questions in that regard although Renato Sanchez and William Carvalho are just two who have the potential to take Portugal far.
Looking through the main sides, it’s clear that every team has strengths and weaknesses and with only eight of 24 sides being eliminated at the group stages, there’s a chance to get one outsider at least on board until the latter stages, either as each/way plays or back to lay propositions. Many golden generations come, go and disappoint but Croatia may not have a better side than they do now and they look to have been ignored in most of the conversation regards tournament winners.
Let’s forget their 2014 World Cup blowout. They faced Brazil in the opener and then collapsed late on having trashed Cameroon in Manaus against a good Mexico when the game was 0-0 until the latter stages. Two years before that they’d gone out at the group stages here but they ran into the finalists in both Spain and Italy and it was an 88th minute winner from Jesus Navas which sealed the deal for the hosts and they drew with Italy as well.
Qualification has been rocky but they did well to get here despite the transition to Ante Cancic, initially unpopular before winning over doubters with his five wins in six games during and they drew twice against Italy despite finishing four points behind them and they can be rated better than the bare form of that qualifying campaign.
We’ve recounted some impressive midfielder here but Canci can choose from Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic in midfield – both will play – and Mateo Kovacic should be fresh after a light campaign for Los Blancos. Ivan Perisic has become the most consistent attacking talent for Croatia and upfront Mario Mandzukic’s hard yards are very helpful for setting up others even if he doesn’t score as much as he should do considering his talent. Nikola Kalinic scored 12 and assisted six for Fiorentina and gives the other centreback something to think about.
Milan Badejli and Marcelo Brozovic are two solid holding midfield options which is helpful as they are reliant upon Vedran Corluka (for all there is plenty of experience) and stopper Subasic is decent in goal; After all they they only conceded five times in the 10 qualification matches is encouraging.
The worry is their group, but they have nothing to fear from a Spain side that looks no better at the most than it was then and they should have no fears of playing the Cezchs or Turkey, who are improving under Faith Terim. It’s a tough route all the way through but no side since 2000 hasn’t had a tough early game and it should sharpen them up nicely. 28/1 looks big.
Plenty made appeal at his price, including Austria who will get more words later, but it is a surprise to see Poland at a freely available 50/1. They’ve disappointed twice here before but have never had a side with the experience they do now and looked a genuinely improved side when chasing Germany to only one point in qualifying. They beat the World Cup winners 2-0 in Warsaw and had their only defeat in the return game, scoring more goals than any other team in qualifying (33); Admittedly a good deal of them were plundered against Gibraltar (15) but they scored one less without that total than Ireland got through the entire qualifying stages.
Robert Lewandowski, scores of 13 goals through the qualifying stages and 30 in the Bundesliga, is the focal point and will take all the attention but but since Nalwanka has joined he’s finally had a second striker to link up with in the shape of Arkadiusz Milik, who has scored 21 goals and interestingly assisted eight times for Ajax this season; In qualifying he scored six and set up seven. The second most popular name is going to be Jakub Blaszczykowski, the popular Dortmund winger (albeit not in the best form for Fiorentina, where he wasn’t a major favourite of Paulo Sousa) who has terrorised defences across the continent for the last few years, likely to be used in counter-attacks; The same goes to Lukas Piszczek too who will be bombing on from the rear. It should also be said that they have three of the tournament’s better goalkeepers in Lukasz Fabianski, Wojciech Szczesny and Artur Boruc, giving them plenty of depth.
The worry is that they ship goals on the counter attack, but their high press strategy should seem then inflicting just as much damage on opponents and if they get through their group second (they have more going forward than Ukraine and should be able to outshoot Northern Ireland) then a runner up from France’s group, the worst of which will be Switzerland on the rankings, and then it’s a big test against Spain in the offing, although there seems to be no reason why they can’t give Vicente Del Bosque’s side plenty of headaches in that matchup. There are goals from everywhere in a side that looks far too big.
Australia just failed to make the cut and for good reason. Marcel Koller’s side were the most impressive qualifiers, finishing eight points clear of Russia and 10 clear of play off winners Sweden, winning nine games in a row. This is a golden generation – they hit the heights of 10th in the world last year – the result of government support given to talents between 15-19 – take not England, including many who finished fourth in the 2007 U20 World Cup.
In qualifying they broke a record in not conceding for 630 minutes and the squad is packed with big team talent. Amongst their number are Leicester City’s Christian Fuchs, Bayern Munich fullback David Alaba, Stoke City powerhouse Marko Arnautovic and Marc Janko – who now plies his trade for Basel. They should prove too good for Hungary (too limited going forward) in the group and will be favourite to go through second against Iceland (a lurking threat although unlikely to challenge past the last 16) , which would arguably give them a better chance of winning their last 16 game than topping it ironically.
5 pts Germany (9/2 Ladbrokes, Coral, Betfair)
1 pt each/way Croatia (28/1 Ladbrokes)
1 pt each/way Poland (50/1 general)