By David de Winter – Sports Editor
It’s the start of the summer so that can only mean one thing – more football! The European Championships start in France on Friday with a new improved (expanded) format consisting of 24 teams (why? Money, obviously). The usual suspects are in the mix (minus the Netherlands) alongside a few less heralded nations (Albania, Iceland and Wales, amongst others). Expect the Euros to follow the pattern of most major tournaments – exciting games at the group stage and turgid bore-fests in the knockout rounds. So I recommend getting on the sofa, stocking up the fridge, ignoring the (hopefully) nice weather and sticking the telly on non-stop for a month.
Who’s going to win it? Not England, that’s for sure. Although I am slightly more optimistic about the make-up of the squad than previous tournaments, the defence is an accident waiting to happen and the manager knows neither his best formation, nor his preferred starting XI. England should make it through their relatively easy group and may even advance to the quarter-finals, but they will come unstuck against the first half-decent team they face like they always do. (By my reckoning, the last significant nation that England beat in the knockout stages of an international tournament was Spain in the quarter-finals of Euro 96 – 20 years ago). However, a last 8 spot is about par for the course for England and it would be an improvement on the fairly diabolical showing at the World Cup.
Euro 2016 is about the most open tournament I can remember in my relatively brief lifetime. There is no obvious favourite. Spain are always going to be fancied but they have an ageing squad and no top class striker (yes, I know they employed the ‘false nine’ successfully at the last tournament but football tactics have moved on since then). Surely World Cup holders Germany? Normally I would stick my mortgage on Deutschland reaching at least the semis but they have been indifferent in the last couple of years, even losing to England in March (the ignominy).
As the host nation, France should go into the tournament full of confidence but, true to form, an off-field blackmail scandal has robbed them of star striker Karim Benzema and tricky playmaker Mathieu Valbuena. Nonetheless, they have one of Europe’s most underrated forwards in Antoine Griezmann and combined with a pretty solid defence and the likes of Dimitri Payet and Kingsley Coman supplying plentiful assists, I think they could go far.
There are plenty of teams who are dominated by one star player: Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo), Sweden (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), Wales (Gareth Bale), Slovakia (Marek Hamsik) and Poland (Robert Lewandowski) which does highlight the ever-spreading strength in depth of European football. However, these players may be able to win a match on their own but to sustain such excellence throughout a tournament (à la Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup) is unrealistic.
No, I have a sneaking suspicion that this tournament will be won by an underdog, like Denmark in 1992 or Greece twelve years later. I quite fancy Switzerland (if they can get out of their group). They don’t have a quality striker and their defence would make Alan Hansen weep, but they seem to have a collective spirit about them together with an array of attacking talent, among them new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka and Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri. Similarly, Belgium have perhaps the most gifted squad of all at their disposal with a front four of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Add to that Spurs duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Aldeweireld and Chelsea stopper Thibaut Courtouis and you have a formidable line-up. They have a tough group (Italy, Eire and Sweden) but if they can harness a team performance (unlike at the World Cup two years ago) they could be the team to beat.
Who else? Austria are most likely to qualifiy second to Portugal in Group F and with Bayern Munich’s David Alaba pulling the strings in midfield, the mercurial Marko Arnautovic up front and Premier League-winning captain Christian Fuchs in defence, they have the opportunity to spring a surprise or two. Likewise, Croatia who, if they can negotiate their way round Turkey, Spain and the Czech Republic, have a quality spine to their team in midfield duo Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona) and Luka Modric (Real Madrid) as well as Mario Mandzukic of Juventus. Nevertheless, defensively they do look suspect with Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren not in the squad having fallen out with the manager. Ex-Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur man Vedran Corluka will marshal the defence which is a worry.
For what it’s worth, here are my predictions:
Top Scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Surprise Package: Austria
One to watch: Kingsley Coman (France)