This summer’s eagerly anticipated Euro 2016 is set to be quite possibly one of the most unpredictable tournaments in the recent history of international football, and with no clear favourite, not only is their room for a big team to step up, a shock could be on the cards.
Many so called ‘small teams’ could surprise a few, whilst many previously successful teams from the past few teams are struggling.
Hosts France have arguably the best squad at the tournament along with Germany and Belgium, and coach Didier Deschamps will be making it a priority to get the most out of his key players.
Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba is the poster boy of the tournament, and the fact that the last two major tournaments hosted by France in 1984 and 1998 saw attacking midfielders from Juventus Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane steal the show respectively means that Pogba, with the tournament on home soil, has immense pressure resting on his 23 year old shoulders.
Off the back of a season when, despite winning the double, Pogba was less productive than in the previous campaign, he still has a point to prove, and should he light up the tournament like his Juve-based predecessors, his career would almost certainly take off, and his ever so slight dip in form would be forgotten instantly.
As for the rest of the team, Deschamps has a balanced squad at his disposal, with trusty Hugo Lloris behind a solid back four, along with the formidable duo of Pogba and Matuidi added to the magic of Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann. Griezmann, who often plays on the right in a France shirt, may have to take a more central role due to the loss of star striker Karim Benzema, which will undoubtedly be a big miss.
Still, there are exciting and pacey players available off the bench in the form of Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial, so there is more than just a plan A for the hosts.
As for the rest of Group A, Albania could well be the whipping-boys of the tournament, whilst Romania, who face France in the first game of the tournament, lack star names, and the big players that they do have have been struggling to perform for their clubs this season, with the likes of Vlad Chiriches and Alexandru Maxim failing to achieve the required level of consistency.
However, they will fancy their chances of taking third spot ahead of Albania, which would mean they would be in with a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.
Finally, Switzerland, who on paper have many good players and have the potential to do well in this tournament, have often failed to meet expectations, and haven’t played well as a team despite the talent of Xherdan Shaquiri among others.
Group B contains an exciting England side that could be a real competitor to win the tournament, although for once, there won’t be a huge sense of expectation which could potentially work in their favour.
Placed in a favourable group, the Three Lions have a squad of promising young players with the likes of Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford in the ranks, and coach Roy Hodgson has many selection dilemmas, which can be seen as a positive.
One of the main topics in the country recently has been about the starting 11, and Wayne Rooney, despite breaking the country’s all time scoring record in 2015, is certainly not a guaranteed starter.
The options point to playing him in midfield, with Harry Kane as the lone striker, and a partnership of Dele Alli and Rooney could work, with Eric Dier behind them as the holding midfielder protecting the back four.
When asked about England’s supposed lack of wide players in the squad, Hodgson suggested that many of his strikers could do a job out wide, which means we could see Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge or even Marcus Rashford on the wing, but Vardy’s potential would only be fulfilled if he is played as a striker, and in a game where England will look to use their pace and get in behind on the counter attack against the likes of Spain, the Leicester man would be perfect.
England’s opponents in the group are Wales, Slovakia and Russia, and Wales, who many have often labelled as a one man team, are more than just the talent of Gareth Bale.
With a well balanced side containing Ashley Williams in defence, Aaron Ramsey in midfield and Gareth Bale up front, if everything clicks there is real potential, but, despite the fact that they can do a job without Bale, they are extremely reliant upon him, and without him on form, they simply won’t be anywhere near as strong, and any miracles would be out of the question.
As for Slovakia, they are a hard working team that are solid in defence, and that, combined with the magic of attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik, means that there is a good chance they will be able to pick up enough points to see them through to the knockout stages.
Lastly, Russia are a side lacking quality in the ranks, but manager Leonid Slutsky is a highly rated manager, and with him leading the team, anything is possible.
In group C, world champions Germany are under pressure, as both off-field and on-field problems mean that they have a big task ahead if they want to add to their 2014 triumph.
On the contrary, Northern Ireland aren’t under any pressure, and their ambition, self-discipline and belief could take them far in this tournament, especially with the dangerous Kyle Lafferty in the side.
Michael O’Neill’s team, whilst certainly not being the most talented, are unlikely to go down without a fight, and it would be foolish to back against them.
Looking at Poland, their last Euro’s campaign, where they co-hosted with Ukraine, was disappointing, but this time there is a cause for optimism, as deadly striker Robert Lewandowski’s goals could be enough to see them deep into the tournament.
Not only that, but his partnership with Arkadiusz Milik has blossomed recently, and Grzegorz Krychowiak, who won the Europa League with Sevilla last month, could be key in midfield.
The final side in the group are Ukraine, and the less than exciting side often set up with a ‘don’t lose’ attitude.
Their squad is ageing and they focus very much on defence, but wingers Konoplyanka and Yarmalenko do offer a glimour of hope, although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them finish bottom of the pile.
In group D, current champions Spain will not only be relying on Iniesta and Busquets to be on top form, but they will be hoping that their chosen striker, whether that be Aritz Aduriz or Alvaro Morata, can score the goals they need.
If that happens, and it is a big if, there is no reason why Spain cannot overcome the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup, although it does seem unlikely.
Also in group D, Croatia will fancy their chances of having a good tournament, as their squad promises a lot, especially with the creative trio of Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
As for Turkey, they are an unpredictable team, and their impressive midfield featuring Arda Turan and Hakan Calhanoglu could see them sneaking into third place or even finishing higher than that.
Whatever happens with Turkey, they will expect to finish above Czech Republic, but despite being a side lacking famous players, their attacking football could cause a few problems, so don’t rule out their chances, even if it would take a near miracle to qualify for the knockout stage.
Now if group D wasn’t the group of death, there is no doubting that group E is the group of death, and Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland will be up against it facing Italy, Belgium and Sweden.
However, with Roy Keane as the assistant coach, they weren’t afraid to qualify for the tournament the hard way, and if they want to get through to the round of 16, they will have to do that the hard way aswell.
The current Sweden side would pose almost no threat if it weren’t for their talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and for him, it is one last chance for international glory.
The opponents will certainly not scare Zlatan, and if he’s in the mood, there is a good chance that he could carry this relatively poor side deep into the tournament, but even with him, it is not likely.
Anotnio Conte’s Italy side are definitely not in the category of the best Italian teams down the years, but they should be steady until they meet a real test.
There are questions as to whether Antonio Conte will have the Chelsea job on his mind, and with their lack of a top striker, it seems as if they will struggle.
The last team in the group are Belgium, who, despite having a squad of top players, have rarely been able to play well together as a team, so their hopes are hinging on whether coach Marc Wilmots can assemble a side that can fit both Hazard and De Bruyne whilst also being a side that flows well and plays as a team rather than individually.
In 2014 there were suggestions that they could have won the World Cup, but they failed to live up to expectations, and their impressive golden age is unlikely to last forever, so the pressure is on.
The last group will see Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and with much optimism at home, the Portuguese are confident of success.
Still, an ageing defence and the lack of quality to join Ronaldo in attacking positions could be their downfall, but a young and exciting group of midfield stars are emerging with the likes of Joao Mario, Danilo and Renato Sanches, and if they can produce their club form, Portugal could be a formidable side to face.
Moving on to Hungary, they are not afraid to take risks, and there were many risks which paid off in qualifying, so in their first tournament for 30 years, they have everything to prove, and they will be willing to gamble.
Finally, Gylfi Sigurdsson’s Iceland, who despite being a small country have become a stronger side due to an improvement in youth development, partner Austria, who are emerging as one of Europe’s stronger forces with the likes of Marko Arnautovic and David Alaba.
Marcel Koller’s side are fast becoming a team with the potential to do great things, and after the pain of recent years they have the opportunity to finally do well.
So, good luck trying to guess the winners, my pick is France – but for once, don’t rule out England – it’s not impossible…