The draw for Euro 2016 was conducted this weekend, and as usual we’ve got a number of tasty match-ups, the traditional ‘Group of Death’ and a few dark horses capable of springing a surprise. Next summer will be the first Euros to feature the new expanded format, with more teams than ever competing. The winners, runners-up and the four best third-placed teams will make it through to the knock-out stages. Here’s an overview of the six groups and what you should look out for.
Group A – France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland
It’s always positive when the hosts go deep into their own tournament, and the French national team will be among the favourites to go all the way next summer. Alongside fairly unremarkable company with Romania, Albania and Switzerland, the most talented French squad since 2002 will be delighted with this draw.
Predicted Winner: France – Les Bleus have the pedigree and experience to walk this group and go far in the tournament. It remains to be seen how they’ll cope with the pressure of playing at home.
Second Place: Switzerland – Solid and unspectacular, the Swiss will expect to progress to the next round. How much further they can go will depend on the form of key men Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka.
Group B – England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia
Wales boss Chris Coleman said before the draw that he’d prefer to avoid a group with neighbours England, but in truth his Wales team are strong enough to cause the best teams in the tournament problems. Central to their hopes will be Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, two players as good as any in Europe. England will perhaps find a tie against a Welsh team with so many Premier League players familiarly comforting, and the match between the two will likely decide who tops the group. Russia have an ageing squad without the individual talent of past years and have endured a shaky qualifying campaign. Meanwhile, Slovakia will rely heavily on Napoli captain Marek Hamsik. The attacking midfielder was his country’s top scorer in qualifying.
Predicted Winner: England – With more depth and quality all over the field, England should go through with a 100% record. The Premier League feel of the tie against Wales will play into the hands of a team renowned for under-performing on the big stage.
Second Place: Wales – With Gareth Bale fit and firing, the Welsh should have enough to secure positive results against Russia and Slovakia.
Group C – Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland
World champions Germany face stern tests against Ukraine and Poland, with both having the individual talent and pace on the break to cause problems. Poland will be hoping that talismanic striker Robert Lewandowski can take his remarkable form from this season into the summer, while wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka carry the hopes of a Ukraine team who have qualified for a European tournament for the first time. Northern Ireland have their work cut out if they are to progress, but with more goals from set pieces than any other team in qualifying, they have proven able to take chances when they arise.
Predicted Winners: Germany – The world champions should find this group relatively straightforward. With the team finishing third likely to progress, we could well see more open games than the cagey affairs often seen in group stages of major tournaments.
Second Place: Poland – In Robert Lewandowski Poland possess arguably the finest number 9 in the world. With a team set up specifically to provide him with chances, his clinical finishing should be enough for Poland to take second.
Group D – Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia
After a fairly traumatic World Cup in Brazil, it’s easy to forget that Spain are still holders of the Euros, having won the past two competitions. With old heads Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso out of the picture, Spain now favour a single holding pivot of Sergio Busquets, with Andres Iniesta and Atletico Madrid’s Koke likely to complete the midfield. No other country has midfield competition quite as fierce as Spain, but injuries to Sergio Ramos or Gerard Pique in defence could prove difficult to manage. Questions also remain over the first choice striker, with Diego Costa struggling for form this season, and in goal, where David de Gea is yet to fully cement his place ahead of Iker Casillas.
The Czech Republic are unlikely to spring any major surprises, although in Petr Cech they have a world class goalkeeper of real pedigree. Both Croatia and Turkey have talented teams capable of causing an upset. Croatia in particular look dangerous in midfield, with the impressive La Liga trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic able to dictate games against any opponent.
Predicted Winner: Spain – It’s hard to look beyond Spain, who should take advantage of their opponents’ defensive frailties and progress without any trouble.
Second Place: Croatia – Despite a slow, ageing defence, Croatia have to be considered dark horses to cause an upset next summer. With Mario Mandzukic leading the line and supplied by Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, Croatia have the quality to go far.
Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden
Group E has already been labelled the ‘Group of Death’, partly because of the presence of both Belgium (currently the best team in the world if you believe the FIFA rankings) and Italy, the perennial tournament team that knows how to win on the big stage. Throw into the mix Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and anything can happen. While first place will likely come down to the Belgium v Italy clash in the first round of fixtures, this is, by a long way, the hardest group to call.
Predicted Winner: Belgium – With a host of big names known to Premier League fans, Belgium have quality all over the pitch, and plenty of depth in the squad. Hazard, Lukaku, De Bruyne, Kompany, Vertonghen, Courtois – this is a side to take seriously as potential outright winners. And there’s more than just the impressive cohort familiar to those who follow English football. Euro 2016 could be the tournament where Marseille’s Michy Batshuayi makes his name on the international stage.
Second Place: Italy – With the rock solid Juventus quartet of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and legendary goalkeeper Buffon, Italy’s main problem will be scoring goals this summer. For that reason they should make it through the group, but may struggle to make an impact in the latter stages.
Group F – Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary
One for the hipsters, Group F brings together the first Iceland side to qualify for a major tournament with a young, technically gifted Austrian team, alongside tournament regulars Portugal and potential whipping-boys Hungary. Expect to see an often-frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo, a left-back dominating midfield for Austria and Gylfi Sigurdsson pulling the strings for Iceland.
Predicted Winners: Austria – A bunch of silky Bundesliga-based players, including Bayern Munich man David Alaba and Stuttgart pair Florian Klein and Martin Harnik , mean that Austria have both the quality and team spirit to do well in France.
Second Place: Portugal – It feels as though Cristiano Ronaldo has been carrying this Portugal team for a few years now, but the emergence of a younger generation, including Bernardo Silva and William Carvalho, suggests the future is brighter than you might think. That said, Portugal still lack a quality centre-forward, and although Ronaldo could well play in that role, a lack of goals in the team in general may be an issue.