The 15th edition of the European Championships begins this week in France. The top European national teams will compete. For the first time ever, there are 24 teams competing in the group stages. The top two teams from each of the 6 groups will qualify for the knockout stage as well as the top 4 third place teams from each group. The four best third place teams will be determined by 1) higher number of points obtained, 2) superior goal difference, 3) higher number of goals scored, 4) fair play conduct, and 5) position in the UEFA national team coefficient ranking system. The group stage will run from June 10th to June 22nd and the round of 16 will take place on June 25th, 26th, and 27th. The quarterfinals will happen on June 30th, July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. The semifinals will be in Lyon on July 6th and Marseille on July 7th. The final will be in Saint-Denis at the Stade de France on July 10th. Here is my quick preview of each group, plus a word from Conor and our picks…
Group A: France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland
France: The host nation will be looking to win their third European Championship and second as hosts. They last won the title in 2000. They are one of the favorites to win this group and win the tournament. They are lead by Didier Deschamps who captained the 98 world cup winning French side. They are without Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) but have two young players ready to step on to the big stage in Anotine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) and Paul Pogba (Juventus). Both of these two have lost the Champions League final recently, but that experience might be a nice driving force for them. This team has the potential to win the whole tournament, or have it all blow up on themselves.
Romania: The Romanian national team returns to the European Championships after missing out in 2012. They have only ever advanced out of the group stage once and that was in 2000. Anghel Iordanescu is back as manager of this side. He famously managed this team in 1994 when they made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. They qualified for the tournament unbeaten, but they only managed to score 11 goals in the 10 qualifying games. They are led from the back with the familiar names of Vlad Chirches (Napoli), Razvan Rat (Rayo Vallecano) and Costel Pantilimon (Watford) in goal. If they continue to struggle to score goals, they will struggle in the group.
Albania: This is the first ever major tournament qualification for Albania. In fact, the country has only played in two international competitions, 1982 Unter-18 and 1994 U-16 European Championships. Italian manager Gianni de Biasi has this team in the tournament and will be hoping that they can play carefree and make a splash. They are captained by Lorik Cana (Nantes), but the two players to watch are Etrit Bersha (Lazio) in goal and Elseid Hysaj (Napoli) in defense. They also feature Shkelzen Gashi who plays in America for the Colorado Rapids.
Switzerland: This team will look to challenge France for the top spot in the group. Their youth development program has been developing better and better players and this may be the tournament that we finally see how good the program is. The names to keep an eye on are Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City), Valon Behrami (Watford), Breel Embolo (Basel), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), and Granit Xhaka who just complete his move to Arsenal a couple weeks ago. They are coached by Vladimir Petkovic. They could set history as they look to get out of the group stage for the first time in the Euros. They did make it to the round of 16 in Brazil. They have a good young core, but can they take the next step and be a threat to win the tournament is still yet to be seen.
My Picks: France, Romania, Switzerland, Albania
Conor’s Picks: France, Switzerland, Romania, Albania
Group B: England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia
England: Is this the year that England finally wins the European Championships? The English have never made it to the final of this competition, placing third in 1968 and in 1996 when they hosted the tournament. They will hope to go farther they have in the past, having gone to the quarterfinals in 2012 and 2004 and failing to qualify in 2008. Roy Hodgson has picked an interesting side by bringing 18 year old Marcus Rashford (Manchester United) with him to France. They have a very young squad with a lot of talent, but where Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) will play is going to be the question of the tournament and his play will dictate how well England does. They are in great form and should advance from the group, but can they make it all the way? That we will have to wait and see…
Russia: This tournament is more of a warm up for the 2018 World Cup hosts as they will no doubt be looking forward to that tournament. The Russian squad is one of the oldest squads in the tournament with 8 players 30 years or older. Their defense is most likely going to feature 2 or 3 30+ year olds and there have to be questions regarding their ability to defend some great attacking talent in this group. Capello was removed as coach last June when it looked like Russia might not qualify. CSKA Moscow coach Leonid Slutsky stepped in and guided Russia to qualification, but he will struggle to get them out of the group if Aleksandr Kokorin and Artyon Dzyuba (both from Zenit Saint Petersburg) do not find the back of the net a lot.
Wales: Two Words… Gareth Bale. Wales is very dependent on Gareth Bale (Real Madrid) and he will need to be at his best for Wales to qualify for the knockout stages. This is Wales’ first-ever European Championships and only their second ever major championships. They reached the quarterfinals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. While all of the focus will be on Gareth Bale, there are some other big names that Chris Coleman can call upon. Joe Allen (Liverpool), Andy King (Leicester City), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), and Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace) are all strong in the midfield. Ashley Williams (Swansea City) is the captain of the side and will play in defense with Ben Davies (Tottenham), Neil Taylor (Swansea City), and James Chester (West Brom). This is an interesting team and one that could make some noise if they play up to their potential.
Slovakia: They may have only qualified for their second major tournament, but they are not to be overlooked. In 2010 they made it to the round of 16 in the World Cup. They are going to be the one team that has no pressure on them in the group and that can play to their benefit. They are captained by Martin Skrtel (Liverpool) and have a dynamic playmaker in Marek Hamsik (Napoli). Those two could guide this team to an upset or two and possibly out of the group.
My Picks: England, Wales, Russia, Slovakia
Conor’s Picks: England, Wales, Russia, Slovakia
Group C: Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland
Germany: The defending World Cup champions will look to do what Spain has done recently and back up a major tournament win with another. They have won the tournament 3 times in 1972 and 1980 as West Germany and then again in 1996. They lost the final in 2008 to Spain, which started the Spanish dynasty. Can they start one of their own is the question now. They are no doubt a favorite for the tournament, but there are some question marks around Joachim Low’s side. Low included Andre Schurrle (Wolfsburg) and Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray) instead of Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen) and Karim Bellarabi (Bayer Leverkusen). Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund) also misses out due to his history with injuries. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Manchester United) takes the armband from the retired Phillip Lahm. They enter the tournament with just 3 forwards, but no true number 9s except for Mario Gomez (Besiktas). Look for Low to start with a false 9. They are the favorites for the group and favorites for the tournament.
Ukraine: Ukraine is a team that will make you play at your best as they hope to make it out of the group stage for the first time ever. They have great attacking width and will look to get at teams down the wings. On one side is Yevhen Konoplyanka (Sevilla) and the other is Andriy Yarmalenko (Dynamo Kyiv). Mykhaylo Fomenko will hope that these two players can lead his side, as his defense might not be as strong as he would have liked. This, plus the heated clashes between Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv, might jeopardize the harmony of the squad and might mean and early exit for them.
Poland: Poland are the second one man team we will talk about as the focus of all their opponents will be on Robert Lewandowski, and it rightly should be. The Bayern Munich striker is one of the best in the world and can seemingly score at will. Adam Nawalka will hope that his team can find enough service for their big number 9 to see them get out of the group stage for the first time ever. While Lewandowski is the star, there is some other talent that is worth keeping an eye on. Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla) and Piotr Zielinski (Empoli) are some good midfield talents that could use this tournament as a spring board to bigger clubs. Arkadiusz Milik (Ajax) had a great season in the Dutch league and will look to be the Robin to Lewandowski’s Batman. Poland should make it out of the group and could be a threat in the knockout stages if Lewandowski is scoring for fun.
Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland shocked the footballing world when they won their qualification group and ended a 30 year long wait to appear in the European Championships. They boast the longest unbeaten run of all the teams in the tournament and hope that they can surprise a couple more teams and qualify for the knockout stages. Martin O’Neill’s side will be lead by Kyle Lafferty (Birmingham City) up front and captain Steven Davis (Southampton) in the midfield. They have an experienced back 3 of Jonny Evans (West Brom), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), and Craig Cathcart (Watford). Northern Ireland will be very well disciplined and if they play their cards right, they could be within a shout of the knockout stages.
My Picks: Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland
Conor’s Picks: Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland
Group D: Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia
Spain: This is the final tournament for Vicente Del Bosque as he plans on retiring after the tournament ends. Will he go out with a bang? He takes the two time defending European Champions into this tournament looking for a little redemption after they were stunned and dumped out of the World Cup very quickly. The selection process for Spain has been interesting. Some people argue that there are 11 players not in the squad that could advance from this group with their own team. That means there must be a lot of talent on the squad that Spain did select, and there is. This team could make history and be the first country to win three European Championships in a row. The decision of who plays in goal should be an interesting one with David de Gea (Manchester United) pushing for the job, but Iker Casillas (Porto) is still around and might be the number 1. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets (Barcelona) will lead the midfield with Fabregas (Chelsea), David Silva (Manchester City), Koke (Atletico Madrid), and Thiago (Bayern Munich) fighting for the last spot. Up front it looks like Alvaro Morata (Juventus) or Nolito (Celta Vigo) might lead the line with Pedro (Chelsea) and possibly one of the midfielders. Personally, I am happy to see Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao) finally make the squad.
Czech Republic: The two time finalist and one time winners, Czech Republic come into this group as possibly the team favored to finish last. They are not the same team that we are used to seeing coming from the Czech Republic. They are led by captain Tomas Rosicky and Petr Cech (Arsenal). They will have a strong midfield but the questions will come at attack. A name to keep an eye on in this tournament is Vladimir Darida (Hertha Berlin). He had a very impressive season and will need to be the playmaker for the Czechs if they are to advance out of the group stage. They will rely on Tomas Necid (Bursaspor) and David Lafata (Sparta Prague) up front and they will need to score if they are to advance. This will be a tough group as there will be a fight to get out of this group. Can the Czech’s score enough to make it out?
Turkey: Turkey is back in the Euros after missing out in 2012. In 2008, they reached the semifinals of the tournament where they lost to Germany 3-2. In 2000 they reached the quarterfinals. If we follow this pattern, they should reach the finals this time around 😉 Turkey will be led by midfielder Arda Turan (Barcelona). Turan had a rocky start to his career in Catalunya but will hope that a good display in France can lead to more play time. They will also feature Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen), Nuri Sahin (Borussia Dortmund), and Selcuk Inan (Galatasaray) in the midfield. Faith Terim was the man that led Turkey to the semifinals last time they were in the Euros, can he do it again?
Croatia: Croatia might be one of the most fascinating teams to watch and it is equal parts their amazing midfield and their picnic blanket-esq jerseys. The red and white checker jersey of Croatia is classic and iconic, but this year they have doubled down with an away kit that has the same checkered pattern but alternates between dark blue and light blue. They have to be one of the favorites for the group and seem like perennial dark horse for every tournament. Their midfield will feature Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), Ivan Perisic (Internazional) and either Milan Badelj (Fiorentina) or Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid). The people that will benefit from this midfield are Nikola Kalinic (Fiorentina) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus). This will be a fun team to watch and a team that could make it all the way.
My Picks: Spain, Croatia, Turkey, Czech Republic
Conor’s Picks: Spain, Turkey, Czech Repulbic, Croatia
Group E: Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden
Belgium: This was supposed to be the summer of Belgium. Their golden generation is all reaching their prime right now and they are poised to take over international football. However, the injury bug seems to have hit them hard. First it was captain Vincent Kompany, then Nicolas Lombaerts, Dedryck Boyata, and Bjorn Engels. That is four defenders that were all tipped to make the squad out injured. But all hope is not lost since this Belgium side is very deep. They have Thibaut Coutrois (Chelsea) in goal with Simon Mignolet (Liverpool) in reserve. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), and Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) are all still in the squad. The squad only features four true midfielders as Axel Witsel (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Radja Nainggolan (Roma), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United) and Mousa Dembele (Tottenham) are all very strong on and off the ball and will give Belgium a strong central presence in the midfield. Finally, the shining star of this team has to be the attacking power. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Dries Mertens (Napoli) and Eden Hazard (Chelsea) will be the ones creating the plays for their stronger center forwards. In the number 9 role, Belgium could play Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Christian Benteke (Liverpool), Michy Batshuayi (Marseille) or Divock Origi (Liverpool). They have one of the deepest teams in the tournament but the question remains; can they put it all together and bring home some silverware?
Italy: Antonio Conte would love to end his stint as Italy manager with a big success. However, that might be tougher than you would think. The runners-up in 2012 have seen some big changes to their team since the last Euros as the team looks to build for the future and win now. They will have their rock solid defense as Gigi Buffon (Juventus) is in goal with Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli (all Juventus) join Gigi in defense. Graziano Pelle (Southampton) should lead the line for Italy. Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Stephan El Shaaraway (Roma) will be called up to be the young playmakers. Daniele De Rossi (Roma) will be the leader in the midfield. Italy has won the European Championships in 1968. They were runners-up in 2000 and 2012. Can they make it out of the group this year? If they do then they could be a tough out in the knockout stages.
Republic of Ireland: Ireland is back in the Euros after finishing 4th in their group in 2012. They will hope that they can have a better showing this time around. They have made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 1990 and the Round of 16 the other two times they qualified for the World Cup in 1994 and 2002. US fans will recognize the captain, Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), as he has been dominating the MLS. He is in fact the only player on the team not playing in England right now. Their midfield leaders will be Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy (both Everton). Shay Given (Stoke City) should be in goal. Manager Martin O’Neill has his team defending well, but they will need to get a good start to the tournament if they want to have any hopes of advancing.
Sweden: ZLATAN!!!! Sweden is another one of those one man international teams and he is the reason people will watch. The big Swede has his future up in the air with a move to Manchester United rumored. Can he carry his country to the knockout stages, or will he be joining Jose Mourinho early this summer?
My Picks: Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Ireland
Conor’s Picks: Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, Italy
Group F: Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary
Portugal: is this going to be the summer of Ronaldo? He has already won his third Champions League trophy after scoring the winning penalty kick last month. Now he sets his sight on the European Championships and Portugal can only go as far as he takes them. He did not have the greatest game in the Champions league final and has been given extra rest following this performance and manager Fernando Santos will hope this pays off. Besides Ronaldo, Portugal has a lot of young talented midfielders that will be getting their first major tournament exposure. The likes of Joao Mario (Sporting CP), William Carvalho (Sporting CP), Andre Gomes (Valencia), and Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich) will all get a shot in the midfield to be creative and drive Portugal to their first European Championship. At the back, Portugal looks set to rely on experience as 6 of the 8 defenders they brought to France are over the age of 30. They have experience but do they have the legs? Will they be able to link with the midfield that averages 23 years old? Ronaldo is the driving force and will need to be at his best if they are to advance.
Iceland: This is the smallest country to ever qualify for the European Championships. During qualification, they defeated the Netherlands both home and away. They will be everyone’s darling this summer and the team that any neutral fan will want to do well. Iceland has joint-managers in Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson. Lars Lagerback was the manager of Sweden for 9 years in which he led them to the World Cup in 2002, the European Championships in 2000 and 2004 in which they made the quarterfinals, and the 2008 Euros. Hallgrimsson is a native of Iceland and have been very successful at the club levels there. They will be lead by Eidur Gudjohnsen (Molde FK) who, at 37, is making it to his first major tournament. Aron Gunnarsson (Cardiff City) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea) are the two to watch in the midfield. They seem to have a nice connection and if they are able to connect in France then they could be the Cinderella team.
Austria: Austria is a nation on the rise as they have qualified for their first European Championships. In 2008, they hosted the European Championships and exited in the Group stage, but now they could make some noise. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City) and Marc Janko (Basel) will lead the line for them and have posed a threat this year. They are captained by Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), but also have Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham) and Aleksandar Dragovic (Dynamo Kyiv) in defense. In the midfield, the star is David Alaba (Bayern Munich). He can be the playmaker that makes the difference and could lead them to the knockout stages.
Hungary: Hungary is back in the European Championships after 44 years of not qualifying. In the two championships that they did qualify for, they finished third in 1964 and fourth in 1972. How will they manage now? Their qualification was not straight forward, as they defeated Norway in the playoffs. They now will look to extend their stay in France as they look to get back to their glory years. They have some names that might be familiar as Krisztian Nemeth (AL-Gharafa) used to play for Liverpool and Zoltan Gera (Ferencvaros) used to play for Fulham and West Brom. They struggled to score in qualifying, as they only scored more than once in 2 of the 10 matches. They are back in the tournament, which is good, but I do not think that they will be as strong as the Hungary of old.
My Picks: Austria, Portugal, Iceland, Hungary
Conor’s Picks: Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary
My Winner: Spain
Conor’s Winner: France
My Dark Horse: Croatia
Conor’s Dark Horse: England
Schedule for the Group Stage (all times EST)
France vs. Romania – Friday June 10 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Albania vs. Switzerland – Saturday June 11 – 9:00 am – ESPN
Wales vs. Slovakia – Saturday June 11 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
England vs. Russia – Saturday June 11 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Turkey vs. Croatia – Sunday June 12 – 9:00 am – ESPN
Poland vs. Northern Ireland – Sunday June 12 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Germany vs. Ukraine – Sunday June 12 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Spain vs. Czech Republic – Monday June 13 – 9:00 am – ESPN
Ireland vs. Sweden – Monday June 13 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Belgium vs. Italy – Monday June 13 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Austria vs. Hungary – Tuesday June 14 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Portugal vs. Iceland – Tuesday June 14 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Russia vs. Slovakia – Wednesday June 15 – 9:00 am – ESPN
Romania vs. Switzerland – Wednesday June 15 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
France vs. Albania – Wednesday June 15 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
England vs. Wales – Thursday June 16 – 8:00 am – ESPN
Ukraine vs. Northern Ireland – Thursday June 16 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Germany vs. Poland – Thursday June 16 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Italy vs. Sweden – Friday June 17 – 9:00 am – ESPN
Czech Republic vs. Croatia – Friday June 17 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Spain vs. Turkey – Friday June 17 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Belgium vs. Ireland – Saturday June 18 – 9:00 am – ESPN
Iceland vs. Hungary – Saturday June 18 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Portugal vs. Austria – Saturday June 18 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Romania vs. Albania – Sunday June 19 – 3:00 pm – Watch ESPN
Switzerland vs. France – Sunday June 19 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Russia vs. Wales – Monday June 20 – 3:00 pm – ESPN 2
Slovakia vs. England – Monday June 20 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Northern Ireland vs. Germany – Tuesday June 21 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Ukraine vs. Poland – Tuesday June 11 – 12:00 pm – ESPN 2
Croatia vs. Spain – Tuesday June 21 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Czech Republic vs. Turkey – Tuesday June 21 – 3:00 pm – ESPN
Hungary vs. Portugal – Wednesday June 22 – 12:00 pm – ESPN
Iceland vs. Austria – Wednesday June 22 – 12:00 pm – ESPN 2
Italy vs. Ireland – Wednesday June 22 – 3:00 pm – ESPN 2
Sweden vs. Belgium – Wednesday June 22 – 3:00 pm – ESPN