EURO 2016 Preview

On Friday, EURO 2016 begins in France, and it promises to be an interesting tournament on and off the pitch.

On the pitch, there will be more teams taking part in the EURO’s than ever before, with an increase from 16 to 24 teams for this tournament. Five teams will be making their tournament debuts; Wales, Iceland, Albania, Northern Ireland and Slovakia. This means that the format of the tournament has been changed, with 16 teams qualifying from the six groups, meaning the 4 best 3rd placed teams will make the second round.

Off the pitch, the tournament takes place with a few things hanging over its head. UEFA currently doesn’t have a president, as Michel Platini refused to quit right up to the moment where his ban from football due to ethics breaches was upheld.

There is also the threat of terrorism hanging over this tournament. EURO 2016 could well be a target for terrorists; in fact, there’s been two plots uncovered in the past week; and following the terror attacks in Brussels earlier this year coming after the attacks in Paris last year, there was, for a brief time, talk of the tournament being cancelled.

In my opinion, the decision to play the tournament is absolutely correct. None of us have the luxury of being completely sure that we’ll never be caught up in a terror attack, but our best weapon to fight back against the terrorists is to show we’re willing to live with that possible threat and carry on with our lives as normal. And in Europe, football is as normal as it gets.

This will also be the first tournament with goal-line technology being used. As well as that UEFA are also testing virtual reality cameras during the tournament with a view to making content available on a VR platform in the future. It will also be the last time, for 8 years at least, the EURO’s are held in one place, after the stupid decision to make the 2020 tournament be spread all over Europe rather than based in one place.

Another shadow hanging over this tournament is the teams who aren’t going to be there. The increase in teams playing in the tournament led many to believe that qualification would be easier than ever for the big teams. That certainly wasn’t the case. Of Europe’s top 24 teams when qualifying began, 8 failed to qualify.

The biggest casualties were the Netherlands, who finished 3rd in the World Cup but only 4th in their qualifying group. Also missing are EURO 2004 winners Greece, following a disastrous qualifying campaign; Bosnia, who were at the last World Cup and Denmark, who have been one of Europe’s most consistent teams in the past 20 years.

Of the teams who will be there, France will be the favourites. France are blessed with an abundance of talent in their team, but there is possibly a question over which of those players should be in the starting XI, and if a lack of competitive games over the past few years will work against them.

Challenging France will be World Cup winners Germany, who are still a formidable team, but have looked vulnerable defensively of late and have lost a lot of experience over the past few years. Spain, who will be trying to win their third consecutive EURO’s, should also be in the mix, but their performance at the last World Cup meant that they lost their air of invincibility and teams aren’t afraid to go for the win against them. Much is expected of Belgium, ranked first in UEFA, but they have disappointed in recent tournaments, and still have to prove they are a good team rather than a collection of brilliant individual players.

Other than those teams, England, who were superb in qualifying winning all 10 games, are feeling confident of going far in the tournament. This is the probably the most exciting England side in about 20 years, but there is a question mark over the inexperience of a lot of their players, plus the tendency of England to look dominant in qualifying but then fall apart against the first good team they play against, coupled with the fact that improved performance levels over the past two years has raised expectation levels at home, which is something England have struggled to live up to in the past.

Similarly, Croatia have some brilliant players in their team, but there is a suggestion that, due the influence of some powerful people in the Croatia Football Federation, there are some players that would probably make the starting side that haven’t been selected at all. As a result Croatia may struggle to fulfil their potential.

Italy have seemingly been in decline for the past few years, and will go into this tournament with what looks to be, on paper at least, one of the weaker Italian squads I can remember. That squad will also have the challenge of playing in one of the tougher groups in the tournament. However, tournaments always seem to bring out the best in Italy, and their tactical acumen cannot be discounted. 

One of the features of the EURO’s seems to be that a totally unexpected team ends up going far in the tournament. Greece won it in 04 and Turkey and Russia both made the semis in 08.

I’m not sure a team ranked in the world’s top 10 and the top 5 of Europe, ahead of teams like France, England and Italy, could ever truly be considered a dark horse, but Austria’s on-field achievements over the past few years have gone barely noticed. Austria had a brilliant qualifying campaign; only dropping two points along the way, which was the second best record of all the UEFA countries. This is possibly the best Austria team since the Wunderteam of the 1930’s, and while they don’t have anyone as good as Mathias Sindelaar; they are still a formidable team, with a rock-solid defence and a consistent goalscorer in Marc Janko.

Austria aren’t in the strongest group, and should easily qualify. If they finish 2nd to Portugal in that group, they have a much easier path in the 2nd round and they have the potential to go far. 

Similarly, Poland have flown under the radar somewhat, and will go into this tournament having scored the most goals of any team in qualifying and have only lost twice in the past 2 years. Having such a fearsome goal threat as Robert Lewandowski will always give Poland a chance, and watch out for Arkadiusz Milik, who is one of the brightest attacking talents in Europe.

With 4 of the teams finishing in 3rd place qualifying for the second round; and one win may be enough to achieve that, this means that every single team participating in the tournament will believe they can at least qualify from the group stages. Nobody will be there just to make up the numbers.        

All of the debutant teams will fancy their chances of getting out of their groups. Wales and Slovakia will each be confident of beating the other when they play on Saturday, and will both reckon they can then beat Russia. Northern Ireland have a tough group, but are a on a long unbeaten streak and have a miserly defence, so they are no pushovers. Similarly, Albania will believe they can beat Romania and will provide tough opposition for France and Switzerland.

The achievement of Iceland, with a population of about 320,000, in qualifying for EURO 2016 cannot be overstated, and I’m especially excited to see how they get on. I’ll be at Iceland v Hungary, and I think that game will be decisive for both teams’ future in the tournament. Both will think that they can beat the other and make it into the next round. 

Hopefully we’ll be in for a treat over the next couple of weeks and none of the off-field stuff will overshadow what has the potential to be a brilliant tournament on the field.