And so it’s upon us. After months- perhaps even years in some cases (Wales, I’m looking at you)- of waiting, Euro 2016 is set for lift off on Friday evening. Expectant fans across Europe await, with a sternly security conscious France putting final measures in place (for good reason) for the extravaganza of football that’s going to dominate TVs up and down the country over the next four weeks.
In many ways it’s a hermit’s dream. What better than three games of top level football per day, on average, for the foreseeable? Answer: little to nothing. Sorry, in advance, to anyone who watches the Chase or Pointless. Cancelled until further notice, thanks.
The normally arduous qualification process was simple enough- to be expected in light of the tournament’s expansion. The usual suspects have all made it bar Holland, who are still feeling the effects of Louis van Gaal’s move to Manchester United post World Cup 2014 (I kid you not) and a dearth of new talent as yet unable to replicate the Robben/Van Persie generation.
Otherwise, the cast looks stellar. Ronaldo’s Portugal? Tick. Ibrahimovic’s Sweden? Pareil. UEFA officials and their corporate counterparts in the sponsorship world will be over the moon, even if the sight of Jon Walters riding into focus sullies it all a little.
Enjoyably, a host of new faces will be on display, too. The new format of 24 sides has been much debated. Some will say that it devalues the competition; that the additional eight teams have basically qualified by default, while others will highlight a batch of intriguing new teams as a further reason to tune into the action.
In truth, it’s probably a bit of both, but I, for one, welcome the change, despite the bizarre irregularity that only 1/3 of teams will fail to qualify for the round of 16. Bin that please, UEFA.
So seize* your chance to engage with footballing hipsters in the pub on the respective merits of rampaging Croatian full-back Šime Vrsaljko and the presence of international minnows Iceland in the competition while you have it, as UEFA will probably soon realise that the tournament’s new structure has gone down like a lead balloon with most.
*Or not. Up to you (I myself intend not to).
Anyway, onto what this is all really about; the group stages.
France, Switzerland, Romania and Albania. Hardly a stellar ensemble, but a real chance for one of Romania or Albania to progress as one of the best runners up- nope it’s not an oxymoron. On paper, you’d have to think that the group will very much go with the pre-tournament seeding/as listed above. Hosts France may lack a reliable centre-forward in the absence of Karim Benezema- who only lives up to the description given about 50% of the time- and a top class centre-back to cover the loss of Raphael Varane through injury, however, there’s more than enough quality (and home advantage) to see them comfortably through to the next round.
Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba is the tournament’s poster boy in light of his wonderful ability to excel in almost every technical aspect of the game- in spite of his gangly frame- and combine it all with brute physicality. Alongside him, unheralded PSG road-runner Blaise Matuidi will join Leicester’s N’golo Kanté in a superbly mobile midfield. Who’d want to play that lot? Not me, that’s for sure. Anyway, Pogba should, if all goes well, star in his homeland, although expect Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial to shine too.
Elsewhere, Switzerland’s relatively solid defensive structure should also be enough to edge a similarly robust Romania. Both teams will be tough to break down, but the feeling remains that in creator-in-chief Xherdan Shaqiri and striking sensation Breel Embolo, the Swiss have a more potent attacking dimension to their side.
Albania, the ugly duckling of the group, may struggle, however they’re tough enough not to take any real beatings ala Aston Villa (sorry Villains). Keep your eyes peeled for a Xhaka reunion in the Swizerland-Albania game, and two Roy Keane impersonators in the form of the elder Xhaka, Taulant and Sunderland flop Lorik Cana.
Ingerlund, Ingerlund, Ingerlund. All aboard the good ship patriotism. Just don’t ask me to sing God Save the Queen.
For the first time since 2006, there seems to be a sense of real optimism about this latest batch of Hodgson-inspired gladiators, even if Woy has only taken three centre-backs- all of whom are not that great at the moment. Expect an injury or two in centre of defence courtesy of Sod’s Law.
On the face of it, the attacking tools are there, it’s just a question of moulding them into a cohesive unit and not selecting Jordan Henderson. With Kane, Vardy and Rooney to call on it should be relatively easy, but Hodgson will probably make it far more complicated than it needs to be. Kane central, Vardy off the bench late on, and Rooney in a deeper role, would be my solution, although don’t bank on it. Genuine width would be nice, even if Raheem’s typically forlorn attempts at keeping the ball in play after a mazy (unsuccessful) dribble are only allowed against Everton. In the second-leg of a domestic semi-final. Nice one.
Russia, Wales and Slovakia will all provide genuine danger, yet, equally, the trio fall just short of England’s quality on paper. Wales have a chance as long as Bale’s about, and probably will qualify, while one of Russia and Slovakia could make it as well.
Games to look forward to? England v Wales could be a humdinger in the British sense of the word. So too Hamsik v Bale in a potential shootout for second place. I hope.
Check out Part Two of Patrick’s Euro 2016 Preview!