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France 2016#2016 EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS PREVIEW

The wait is finally over. After just over a year of grueling qualifying games. The lucky but deserved 24 teams have booked their places in France and will battle it out in arguably the toughest international tournament of them all.

Amazingly, this tournament will see five teams making their tournament debuts and we will be missing the notable nations of 1988 winners Holland and 2004 winners Greece. Also, spear a thought for poor old Scotland who will be sitting at home while the four other home nations will be competing in France.

It will be interesting to see if France can win a hat-trick of major trophies as hosts. Or if Spain can win a hat-trick of European titles. Or if Germany can win back to back major trophies. Or if we will get a new winner…..England maybe?

All in all in will naturally be an exciting four weeks of competition, with the usual shocks, nail biting finishes, heroes, villains and interesting story lines. Below is my full 24 team preview and predictions…..

GROUP A

ALBANIA

AlbaniaCaptain: Lorik Cana
Star Man: Etrit Berisha
One to Watch: Elseid Hysaj

Albania surprised one and all by qualifying for their first major tournament, finishing runners up to Portugal. They benefited from being in the smaller group and was unbeaten away, though they only played 3 games, due to being awarded one game. They did however, beat Portugal 1-o away in the opening game.

It will come as no surprise that they have an Italian manager as most of their success is built on having a solid defensive unit, in front of goalkeeper Berisha. They rely on stifling their opponents with a tight, tactical and disciplined base, led by defenders Cana & Hysaj. Then hope to catch their teams on the break or wear them down to nick the odd goal through Lenjani, Cikalleshi or Sadiku. Much like the Italian teams of old.

PREDICTION: Groups Stages

FRANCE

FranceCaptain: Hugo Lloris
Star Man: Paul Pogba
One to Watch: Antoine Griezmann

Hosts France will come into this competition full of confidence, especially with the memory of the last time they hosted major tournaments in 84 & 98. Although they are not quite the same star studded squad of then, they still have a squad full of very capable stars, led by the considerable talents of Pogba in midfield.

The squad is filled with talented footballers from keeper and skipper Lloris. To defenders Koscielny, Evra, Sagna & Digne. Midfielders Payet, Kante, Cabaye & Sissoko. And strikers Marital, Giroud, Grizmann & Coman. Although past glories does bring its own pressures. This is a young, slick and exciting squad who will be hard to beat in their own back yard.

PREDICTION: Semi Finals

ROMANIA

RomaniaCaptain: Vlad Chiriches
Star Man: Nicolae Stanciu
One to Watch: Nicolae Stanciu

Romania are competing in their fifth finals and in the previous four, they have only got out of the group stages once, in 2000. They qualified unbeaten, a point behind Northern Ireland and surprisingly conceded the least in the qualifiers (2) which were both at home. They also scored the joint fewest goals from all the qualified teams that played 10 games (11).

With a record like that, naturally they are a far cry from the free flowing attacking teams of the 90’s. These days, the are a defensive, battle hardened team, led by skipper Chiriches. They rely on neat and tidy footballers to create chances upfront where Stanciu will lead the way with help from defender Rat. Midfielders Torje & Popa, also striker Stancu.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

SWITZERLAND

SwitzerlandCaptain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
Star Man: Xherdan Shaqiri
One to Watch: Granit Xhaka

The Swiss qualified in a fairly routine runner up spot, but a massive 9 points behind England, losing home and away to them. They have qualified for 6 of the last 7 major tournaments (once as host) but have only been out of the group stages twice.

Their success in mainly in the strength of their midfield, led by the flair and power of Shaqiri, along with Xhaka pulling the strings behind him. They also have Fernandes, Behrami and Dzemaili in support. With the skipper Lichtsteniner and Rodriquez as the full backs who complement their keep ball style of play. Up top is where they have struggled and they will need strikers Seferovic, Mehmedi & Derdiyok to really step up to the plate.

PREDICTION: Last 16

GROUP B

ENGLAND

EnglandCaptain: Wayne Rooney
Star Man: Harry Kane
One to Watch: Daniel Sturridge

England come into this tournament as the only team to qualify with a perfect record of 10 wins from 10 games. They also scored the second most (31) and conceded the joint second least (3). They should feel confident but they have only been past the QF’s twice in 8 attempts and never been to the final.

They are led by record goal scorer Rooney in what could be a more deeper role. Giving way to an exciting cluster of strikers in Sturridge, Kane, Vardy & young Rashford. Equally exciting in midfield they have Alli, along with Sterling, Barkely, Wilshere if fit and the experience of Milner. Smalling and Cahill will hold the fort while the full backs give a lot of energy down the flanks. England have a young, exciting squad and should expect to go far.

PREDICTION: Semi Finals

RUSSIA

Russia!Captain: Roman Shirokov
Star Man: Oleg Shatov
One to Watch: Alexsandr Kokorin

Russia stuttered their way qualify as runners up, a huge 8 points behind Austria. They had to part ways with manager Capello half way through to do it. Possibly, qualifying was taking its toll on this ageing (especially in defence) squad who have reached their fifth finals and are trying to emulate the one time they got out the group stages, reaching the SF’s in 2008.

Russia will try to play disciplined, tactical football, where skipper Shirokov will hope to lead his team with the support of fellow midfielders Shatov, Glushakov & Mamaev. They will need the experienced of keeper Akinfeev, defenders Berezutski and Ignashevich. But they are going to need all the talents of Dzyuba who finished joint fourth in the scoring charts with 8 goals. Along with Kokorin & Smolov who will try to contribute in attack.

PREDICTION: Last 16

SLOVAKIA

SlovakiaCaptain: Martin Skrtel
Star Man: Marek Hamsik
One to Watch: Adam Nemec

Slovakia are another team who are competing in their first European championships, and only their second major tournament, after World Cup 2010, where they reached the last 16. They impressed in qualifying, finishing runners up, 5 points behind Spain who they beat 1-0 at home.

They will need all the experience of skipper Skrtel at the back to keep the goals out, along with fellow defender Durica. The creative spark will come from Hamsik, with support from Kucka & weiss. They will hope Nemec or Duris can do the business up front. Slovakia are a team that like to play football and keep the ball at their feet.

PREDICTION Group Stages

WALES

WALESCaptain: Ashley Williams
Star Man: Gareth Bale
One to Watch: Aaron Ramsey

Wales both surprised and impressed by finishing runner up, only two points behind Belgium. Even more surprisingly, it was their defence that helped them there, by conceding the third least in qualifying (4). They have reached their first European Championships and only second ever major tournament.

Naturally, all eyes will be on Bale who was joint fifth in the scoring charts with 7 goals. He will obviously be their play maker, talisman and go to guy. But he will be a marked man and will need the likes of Ramsey in midfield to pop up with the odd goal or assist, along with the experience of Ledley & Allen. Then hope skipper Williams is strong in defence along with the likes of Collins & Davies, if they are to get out the group.

PREDICTION Last 16

GROUP C

GERMANY

GermanyCaptain: Bastian Schweinsteiger
Star Man: Mesut Ozil
One to Watch: Thomas Muller

The world champions look a formidable outfit and are gunning for back to back major trophies. They were pushed all the way in qualifying, winning their group by only one point from Poland, and they wont be too happy to see their neighbours in their group. Germany are going for their fourth title and in the last 11 tournaments they have reached the SF’s 8 times and the final 6 times.

We all know how strong and talented Germany are. Led by Schweinsteiger. They have defenders Hummels, Howedes & Boateng. Midfielders Ozil pulling the strings with Kroos & Khedira in support of forward men Gotze, Muller and Gomez. They seem to have a good blend of youth and experience and any team that beats them will be worthy of the title.

PREDICTION: Winners

NORTHERN IRELAND

Northern IrelandCaptain: Steven Davis
Star Man: Kyle Lafferty
One to Watch: Niall McGinn

Northern Ireland made history by becoming the lowest seeded team to win their group. It was a truly great feat as they finished a point ahead of Romania, to qualify for their first European Championships. Impressively, they have been unbeaten for over a year, since a friendly defeat to Scotland in March 2015.

They will look to the goals of Lafferty, who finished joint fifth in the scoring charts with 7 goals. They will need to call on all the experience of skipper Davis along with Baird & McNair in midfield. More importantly, defenders such as Evans, McAuley, Cathcart & Hughes will need to be in top form as they hope to keep it tight and threaten on set pieces, where they have had a lot of success in qualifying.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

POLAND

PolandCaptain: Robert Lewandowski
Star Man: Robert Lewandowski
One to Watch: Arkadiusz Milik

Poland may be happy for another crack at their neighbours. Or may be frustrated to be pitted against Germany again, as they pushed them all the way, finishing runners up, just a point behind. Poland scored the most goals in qualifying (33). They have reached the last two Euro Championships but failed to get out of the group stages both times.

Skipper and star man Lewandowski will be feared. He topped the qualifying scoring charts with 13 goals. He formed a formidable partnership with Milik, who notched 6 goals. In support of that double act will be midfielders Blaszczykowski, Krychowiak & Zielinski, along with defenders Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk & Piszczek. Poland play high tempo, powerful, attacking football and could be a dark horse in this tournament.

PREDICTION: Quarter Finals

UKRAINE

UkraineCaptain: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk
Star Man: Andriy Yarmolenko
One to Watch: Yevhen Konoplyanka

Ukraine scraped their way to the finals after finishing third in their group, behind Spain and Slovakia. They then drew Slovenia in the plays offs where they won 2-0 at home and drew 1-1 away. To actually qualify for their first championships, after qualifying as host 4 years ago, where they failed to get out of the group.

Ukraine have the potential of being a highly exciting and difficult team to play against on their day. They have an abundance of width with Yarmolenko & Knoplyanka on either side. They are also boosted by the experience of skipper Tymoshchuk & Rotan in midfield along with the young gem Kovalenko. With Kucher, Khacheridi & Rakitskyi in defence. Then hope their athletic wing play can be finished off by strikers Seleznyov or Zozulya.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

GROUP D

CROATIA

croatia.Captain: Darijo Srna
Star Man: Luka Modric
One to Watch: Mario Manzukic

Croatia qualified as runners up, 4 points behind Italy but just a point ahead of third placed Norway. They have done well in recent qualifiers as they have made it to the last 3 finals and 4 out of the last five. They also reached the QF’s in 96 & 08.

They are a slick, passing team who can cut opponents open when they are on song, and always prone to upset teams. Modric pulls the strings in midfield, supported by Rakatic, Kovacic & Perisic. Skipper Srna, Corluka & Vida look strong in defence. With Manzukic up top. Croatia have a squad full of top quality footballers and could be another dark horse gunning to upset the bigger nations.

PREDICTION: Last 16

CZECH REPUBLIC

Czech RepCaptain: Petr Cech
Star Man: Tomas Rosicky
One to Watch: Tomas Necid

The Czech’s were partly responsible for Holland missing out on their 8th finals in a row, when they topped their group, two point ahead of Iceland. It was hardly routine as they conceded the most of any of the qualified teams (14). They have qualified for all six finals since they left Czechoslovakia. But they are a long way from the team that took the 96 tournament by storm in their first finals and finished as runners up.

It’s surprising they conceded the most in qualifying when their skipper and goalkeeper is Cech. He will be have to be in top form if they are to progress. Along with the ageing Rosicky who can still put a shift in on his day. Necid will try to spearhead the attack along with Skoda. Experience wise they will also call on midfielders Plasil and Dockal and will hope defenders Kadlec & Sivoc can stay strong in front of Cech.

PREDICTION: Last 16

SPAIN

SpainCaptain: Iker Casillas
Star Man: Andrea Iniesta
One to Watch: Alvaro Morata

Spain stormed their group and were one defeat away from 10 wins from 10 games. They were fairly comfortable and finished 5 points ahead of Slovakia, conceding the joint second least (3). We all know their pedigree, winning the last two tournaments. Although it would be a stretch to make it a hat-trick. But such is the talent of their squad, you cannot completely count it out. Though the World Cup did make them look human.

Led by the keeper Casillas who may lose his play to De Gea. Iniesta will continue to purr in midfield, supported by Fabregas, Busquests, Pedro & Silva. The likes of Ramos, Pique, Alba & Azpilicueta will continue to be consistent at the back. With a new strike force of Morata who is looking like the main man. Supported by up and comers Vasquez & Nolito. Everyone knows how they will play, question is who can stop the tika taka?

PREDICTION: Runner Up

TURKEY

TurkeyCaptain: Arda Turan
Star Man: Arda Turan
One to Watch: Burak Yilmaz

Turkey finished third in their group. Five points ahead of a poor Holland side and two points behind Iceland. I feel they benefited from an average group, helped by under performing Holland and qualified as the best placed third team in the qualifiers. One point ahead of Hungary. They have now qualified for four of the last five finals and reached the SF’s in 2008.

Literally led by the charismatic Turan, he will be the creative spark in the team but will be supported by Sahin, Inan and the young, impressive Calhanoglu in midfield. Defenders Erkin, Balta & Gonul with Yilmaz and Tosin spearheading the attack. Turkey will try to play an aggressive, energetic style to unnerve and unsettle their opponents.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

GROUP E

BELGIUM

BelgiumCaptain: Eden Hazard
Star Man: Kevin De Bruyne
One to Watch: Romalu Lukaku

Belgium have made it to the finals for the fifth time in their history and the first time since 2000. They finished top of their group, two points ahead of Wales and were unbeaten at home. De Bruyne & Hazard top scored with 5 goals each. They come into this tournament no more a dark horse and are looking to build on reaching the QF’s at the World Cup.

Though Hazard finished the season well, De Bruyne seems to have stepped into his shoes as the main threat. But together they are a real handful. Speaking of which. On his day and with the right service, Lukaku can be unplayable. If that wasnt enough. Belgium have a multitude of star names with Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Nainggolan, Fellaini, Dembele, Witsel, Benteke, Origi and Mertens in a very strong, promising looking squad.

PREDICTION: Quarter Finals

ITALY

ItalyCaptain: Gianluigi Buffon
Star Man: Danielle De Rossi
One to Watch: Graziano Pelle

Italy have gone about their business in a quiet confident manor, and are not to be taken lightly. They qualified top of their group unbeaten, and 4 points ahead of Croatia. Although they’ve qualified for 8 of the last 12 tournaments and the last five in a row. Their sole victory was back in 1968. They have finished runners up twice in the last four tournaments. 2000 & 2012.

Outgoing manager Conte will love to leave with a second title for Italy. They will be led by the highly experienced De Rossi, who will be supported by Motta & Florenzi in midfield. They rely on having a strong, defensive unit with the likes of Chiellini, Bonucci & Barzagli with Pelle up front giving them a different dimension. That said, they have players to mix it up with the likes of Immoble, Insigne & Eder. Italy are a seasoned tournament team.

PREDICTION: Quarter Finals

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND

Rep of IrelandCaptain: Robbie Keane
Star Man: Robbie Keane
One to Watch: Shane Long

The Rep of Ireland have qualified for only their third championships but more importantly, the last two. They qualified by finishing third, 4 points behind Germany and 3 points behind Poland, but more importantly, 3 points ahead of Scotland. They was then drawn in a tough looking play off with Bosnia where they drew 1-1 away and won 2-0 at home,which was no surprise as they were unbeaten at home in qualifying.

They come into this tournament with confidence as they took four points off Germany, beating them at home and drawing away. There have been question marks over their main man, Keane’s fitness. But they have the likes of Long, also Walters who scored both goals in the play off win. Defensively, they will need all the experience of O’Shea. As well as the likes of Coleman, Brady, Hoolahan & McCarthy in a no nonsense, all committed Irish team.

PREDICTION: Last 16

SWEDEN

SwedenCaptain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Star Man: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
One to Watch: Sebastian Larsson

Sweden qualified for the finals by finishing third in their group. A massive 10 points behind Austria and 2 behind Russia. They were then drawn against neighbours Denmark in the play offs, where they won at home 2-1, then drew 2-2 away for a narrow but fulfilling victory. Sweden have qualified for the last four tournaments, but only managed to get out of the group once. The only other time they qualified they reached the SF’s in 1992.

The question is how far can a 34 year old Zlatan drag his team? Naturally, everything will go through him. He scored three of their four goals in the play offs and was the second top scorer in qualifying with 11 goals. But he will need major contributions from Granqvist & Olsson in defence. Killstrom, Forsberg, Larsson and young star Hiljemark in midfield. And maybe even Berg upfront if they are to get out of the group.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

GROUP F

AUSTRIA

AustriaCaptain: Christian Fuchs
Star Man: David Alaba
One to Watch: Marc Janko

Austria really surprised one and all by steam rolling their group. They were one draw away from winning all 10 games and only England finished with more points than them. They will be competing in only their second major tournament after joint hosting in 2008. Following their qualifying campaign and with a very favourable draw, very will be very confident.

They will be led by the very versatile Alaba. Left back for club side Bayern. He is an influential center midfielder for his country. He will be supported by the likes of skipper Fuchs, Dragovic & Hinteregger in defence. Arnautovic & Junuzovic in midfield with Janko a 6ft 5inch striker, who finished joint 5th in the scoring charts with 7 goals. Austria are a hard working outfit, who like to catch people on the break with quick, athletic runners. Another dark horse.

PREDICTION: Last 16

HUNGARY

HungaryCaptain: Balasz Dzsudzsak
Star Man: Balasz Dzsudzsak
One to Watch: Tomas Priskin

Hungary are another unlikely team, who are qualifying for these finals for the third time in their history and the first since 1972. The last time they made it to a major tournament was back in world cup 86. They qualified by finishing third in the group behind Northern Ireland and Romania. Then went into the play offs against Noway and won 1-0 away, then 2-1 at home. Amazingly, they have had three different managers during this campaign.

Led by winger Dzsudzsak, they will rely on him to provide a creative spark with support from the likes of 37 year old Gera, Nagy & Kleinheisler in midfield. Along with Kadar & Guzmics in defence, with a combination of Szalai, Bode, Nemeth & Priskin in attack. Hungary will try to stay compact and defensive for as long as possible then hope to create the odd chance or two on goal.

PREDICTION: Group Stages

ICELAND

IcelandCaptain: Aron Gunnarsson
Star Man: Gylfi Sigurdsson
One to Watch: Kolbeinn Sigborsson

Iceland made history by becoming the smallest country ever to qualify. They finished as runners up, 2 points behind Czech Republic but more importantly 2 points ahead of Turkey. They beat Holland home and away without conceding a goal. They also claimed victories against Czech Rep & Turkey. Iceland are competing in their very first major tournament.

Many of the current squad were also part of the under 21’s who qualified for the 2011 championships for the first time. Led by the experience and scoring talents of Sigurdsson, Iceland are a surprisingly, technical, footballing side with support from skipper Gunnarsson along with Gudmundsson in midfield. Arnason & Sigurosson will try to stay strong in defence with Sigborsson and the experience of 37 year old Gudjohnson up front. Iceland come into this tournament with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

PREDICTION: Last 16

PORTUGAL

PortugalCaptain: Cristiano Ronaldo
Star Man: Cristiano Ronaldo
One to Watch: Joao Moutinho

Portugal went under the radar in qualifying for their sixth finals in a row. They have managed to get out of the group on all five occasions with a recent tournament record of QF, SF, RU, QF, SF. That could suggest another deep run in this tournament. After losing their opening home game to Albania, which cost the manager his job. New manager Santos won 7 games in a row to top their group, 7 points from Albania.

Naturally, their hopes rest on the performance of Ronaldo. He wasn’t great in qualifying but still top scored with 5 goals. Behind him, Moutinho will be important to their cause, keeping the ball and dictating play. In support, they will also need the likes of Nani, Quaresma, Eder and the young, talented Wiliam Carvalho. Defensively 33 year old Pepe & 38 year old Ricardo Carvalho will need to be at their best to complement Portugal’s glittering forward play.

PREDICTION: Quarter Finals