A look ahead to France: Euro 2016 contenders

Team: Spain

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Spain are looking like a quality side once again. Despite the shambles that was the 2014 World Cup Campaign let’s not forget Spain are still the champions of Europe. Having won this competition in its previous two editions, you wouldn’t put it past them to complete the hat trick. La Roja eased through qualification, topping group C with an impressive 27 points with just the blip versus Slovakia keeping them from a perfect score. Some might say a loss like this shows a loss in character but then again they did lose 3-2 away to Northern Ireland before lifting the Euro 2008 crown! Vicente Del Bosque’s men put away 23 goals with only 3 against them in reply. Their attack are sharp and their defence are even sharper.

With David de Gea, Iker Casillas and Sergio Rico, Spain are blessed with a wealth of goalkeeping talent. Casillas has equalled the most international caps by any international player with 166 appearances and De Gea is arguably one of the top 5 keepers in the world at the minute.

In defence Spain have a blend of youth and experience. Pique and Ramos at the heart of the Spanish defence have amassed 208 caps between them! Around them Jordi Alba, Juanfran, Azpilicueta and Bartra are bound to be on the plane. All have international pedigree!

The midfield is the sine qua non for Spain’s title chances and is packed with a star studded line up. This includes; Busquets, Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva, Mata, Koke, Isco, Thiago and Cazorla. And they can’t take all of them! Whatever combination Del Bosque settles on he is guaranteed excellence.

Up top Spain are noticeably stronger than the World Cup squad too. That tournament was all about a disappointing Diego Costa and David Villa on his way to the MLS and even Torres. Spain, thankfully, have upgraded. Alvaro Morata is setting Serie A alight and Aritz Aduriz is like a fine wine getting better with age. Then there is Paco Alcacer with only 13 caps, he has 6 goals including 5 in qualifying. He thrives in competitive matches. It remains to be seen if Costa will even have a seat on the plane to France.

Verdict: If they get a fair enough draw then at minimum will be semi-finalists. It would be foolish to ever write Spain off.

Team: Germany

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The depth in players that the Germans have is absolutely terrifying but in spite of this they haven’t had the best of form recently. But that is so typically German. After going out of Euro 2004 in the groups (yes I know shocking!!) they came third at the 2006 World Cup then second in Euro 2008. It is something the German national team prides themselves on; bouncing back when nobody expects it. And let’s not forget die Nationalmannschaft are the world champions!! With the ever-reliable Joachim Löw still tightly holding the reigns, we are guaranteed to see some high risk, attacking football from Germany.

That high risk approach starts from the very back. Manuel ‘keeper/sweeper’ Neuer is going to be the linchpin to this German team. He is undoubtedly the world’s best and has redefined goalkeeping. If he plays well and organises his defence, the leaky backline of late will surely be filled. With his able understudies ter Stegen and Trapp there too, there is no lack of goalkeeping talent within the German squad.

As I’ve alluded to, the defence is possibly Germany’s rare weak point. In qualification they conceded 9 goals resulting in 2 losses. In fact they only picked 1 point from a possible 6 off Ireland! Though to be fair this defence still boasts the like of Hummels, Boateng in their ranks backed by Mustafi, Ginter and Hector. It mightn’t be the German back 4 of old but it still has a quality spine.

Germany’s midfield, like Spain’s, is mouth-watering. Kroos, Schweini and Khedira deep with Özil, Reus, Müller, Schürrle, Podolski, Gündoğan and Draxler in front. The amount of talent is off the Richter scale! With Kroos’ long balls, Özil’s assists and Reus and Müller’s goals- this German midfield is a force to be reckoned with!

Up top Germany are seeking a long term replacement for Klose and yet I feel Götze is the man for the job. He hasn’t had much game time this campaign but there is no denying his ability. At 23 years old he has 50 caps for his country and 17 goals (including 3 in qualifying) mostly from midfield positions. Let’s not forget his goal in the World Cup Final either! With Mario Gomez, Kevin Volland and Max Kruse also there with Müller more than capable too, I don’t think the Germans will have too many problems scoring.

Verdict: Have to be favourites to win! Final at worst.

Team: France

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In 1984 the Euros were hosted in France, the winners… France! In 1998 the World Cup was hosted in France, the winners… France! In 2016 the Euros are hosted in France, the winners… France? They certainly thrive off being a host nation and truly are a team that live for tournaments. 2 time European Champions, 2 times Confederations Cup Champions and 1 time World Champions. They do not take these competitions lightly. While being hosts means they had no qualification they played friendlies versus the Group I nations, resulting in 8 wins and 2 draws and scoring 20 goals. Not too shabby at all.

In nets the skipper Hugo Lloris has had a great season. Tottenham ow him a lot and now France need him too. If he performs then France are in for a shout. Having Steve Mandanda as a replacement isn’t something to be sniffed at either. With plenty of European club football experience and 22 international caps he is bound to be one of the most experienced back-ups at the tournament. In defence France are spoilt for choice. Whether it’s Varane or Zouma, Sakho or Koscielny, Mathieu or Jallet, Sagna or Evra, France have a mountain of options. The only thing I fear they may lack is experience with only 2 defenders that have more than 50 international caps.

In midfield again it will be a selection headache who to take. Pogba, Payet, Matuidi, Sissoko, Kanté, Diarra, Cabaye. It says something when Hatem Ben Arfa, Mathieu Valbuena and Morgan Schneiderlin missed out on the most recent squad. Striking options appear to be where they are lacking with the imposed exile of Karim Benzema- their greatest goal threat. Giroud, Coman, Martial, Gignac, Lacazette and Griezmann aren’t to be laughed at though. Martial has been a rare gem in United’s poor season, Coman is responsible for Bayern’s Champions League status and Griezmann has been prolific in La Liga.

Verdict: I’m going to say potential winners. If the draw allows they have to be near the final but up against a German or Spanish team with more experience it’s hard to say how they’ll cope. But with the home support they certainly have an upper hand.

Team: Belgium

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A team that has sprung from nowhere! Since 1984 they have qualified for only 1 European Championship in 2000 and that was as hosts. The world cup of 2014 was their first since 2002. They were a team that was lost. FIFA ranked them 71st in the world in 2007. Today they are 1st. Their 6th place finish in the 2014 World Cup was their highest ever finish and since then they have only gotten stronger. In qualifying they won 7, drew 2, and lost 1. Only losing to a Gareth Bale inspired performance in Cardiff. 23 points and top of their group, all things considered, is good going.

Between the sticks is Thibaut Courtois with Simon Mignolet waiting in the wings. With 50 caps between them (34 and 16 respectively) either seem experienced enough for the big stage. Courtois may only be 23 but he has been Chelsea number 1 for two years and Atletico Madrid’s key shot stopper for 3 years previous. He has played in a Champions League final and won the Premier League. I have no doubts he can handle the pressure of a nation’s hopes and dreams.

The Belgian defence, when fit, are formidable. Kompany, Vermaelen, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Lombaerts. All names that send fear into any striker. If they can stay injury free then Belgium have a solid foundation.

In the middle of the park they have even greater pedigree. Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Steven Defour, Axel Witsel, Dries Mertens, Marouanne Fellaini, Moussa Dembélé and Nacir Chadli. What a list! Chadli and Dembélé have shone for Spurs this year, de Bruyne has netted goals left, right and centre and if Hazard can recapture his form of last year then Belgium truly will be a team with entitlement.

Up top Benteke, Origi, Januzaj and Mirallas are all capable strikers but one man is above them all. Lukaku! What a player he has become. 22 years old with 41 international caps and 8 goals coupled alongside his 60 premier league goals already he will be the key man for Belgium. Verdict: Quarter/semi-final stage.

Team: England

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“This is our year” they thought after beating Germany and after winning all 10 qualifying matches before a 2-1 defeat to a Dutch team that didn’t even qualify. England’s football team is a squad full of great players that aren’t reaching their potential. They are almost always there. They have qualified for every world cup bar 2 and 6 out of the last 7 European Championships. 1966 was their first and last World Cup victory though and they have never won a European Championship. History is not on their side on the run up to this tournament.

In nets Joe Hart is a sound keeper. He has 57 caps and two premier league winners’ medals to his name but he can be inconsistent. They suffered a blow in that Jack Butland will not be there but Fraser Forster with 5 caps is a good fill in.

In defence both Cahill and Jagielka have bags of experience. Smalling less so but arguably United’s player of the season so far. John Stones has 8 caps but he is a talent; it isn’t often a ball playing centre back like him comes around. Clyne and Walker have the RB spots wrapped up and Rose will be there too. The other LB? Bertrand? Bibbs? Maybe even Shaw? Only time will tell.

In midfield England have young stars. Young Dele Ali has been a revelation and Ross Barkley is becoming more complete. Eric Dier has been fantastic all season too. For experience and recent form Adam Lallana has to be there. If Sterling, Chamberlain and Wilshere are fit, they all deserve a look in; as does the steady Michael Carrick. Milner and Henderson will be picked though not on merit.

Up top is the big dilemma. No doubt the starting pair should be Vardy and Kane but that’s not how Hodgson works. His captain and country’s all-time leading goal scorer Wayne Rooney will have a starting place. Hodgson favours Welbeck who is in a decent run of form and you would imagine Walcott or Sturridge will be there based on experience.

Verdict: Quarter finals.

Team: Italy

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Gli Azzurri are a nation with history on side. With 4 world cup victories and a European Championship, as well as being runners up last time round, Italy are certainly no pushover. Antonio Conte is a fantastic man in charge at the helm too having led Juventus to glory and looking like he is Chelsea-bound, he will want his time as national team coach to be remembered for the right reasons.

In nets Italy have no issues whatsoever. The most expensive keeper ever Gianluigi Buffon takes pride of place between the sticks and rightly so. 156 international caps, a world cup winners medal, 6 Serie A titles and even runner up once for the Ballon d’Or. The stats speak for themselves. His deputy is the able Salvatore Sirigu of PSG.

At the back Italy’s rock is built on club partnerships. Chiellini, Barzaghi and Bonucci (all of Juve) have 191 caps between them. Talk about experience. Around them Darmian, de Sciglio, Astori and Ranocchia firm up the defence. On centre stage will be Montolivo, Candreva, Motta, Giaccherini, Veratti, Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi and maybe even Pirlo. While not as stand out as other teams’ midfields, do not write off the Italian passing game.

As for striking options, expect Insigne, Zaza, Pellè, Immobile and El Shaarawy all to be in with a shout. It may lack the stand out names of other squads but again Zaza is playing well at Juve and I can’t imagine where Southampton would be without their Talisman Pellè.

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