This summer’s European Championships will be the biggest yet, as for the first time there will be 24 teams competing, compared to 16 in recent tournaments. Whilst the new format means there are some national squads that will be travelling to France with very slim hopes, it also means there is more potential for an upset. The usual suspects such as world champions Germany, current European champions Spain, Italy and of course the hosts France are all going to be there. Unsurprisingly, they are all amongst the favourites to win the tournament, and it’s easy to see why, with each side boasting several strengths.
However, there are a few dark horses that will be hoping to make their mark on the competition, and the more fancied sides may just have to be wary of potentially slipping up against one of those sides. Here, we take a look at some of the sides that could be worth watching, their key players, and just how far they may be able to go this summer.
Now, major tournaments are getting a bit repetitive for England fans. They tend to consist of an optimistic build up to the competition, followed by an underwhelming display at the finals, and an early exit leaving the supporters questioning what made them hopeful in the first place.
However, this summer could be different for the Three Lions as – for a change – they go into the tournament without a huge amount of expectation. The pressure is off for Roy Hodgson & co, as the message has consistently been that it is a tournament that will be used to give some of the younger internationals the experience needed for future competitions.
So with the shackles off, could England show what they’re truly made of and actually make a big splash in France?
During qualifying, England were the only side to record a 100% record, doing so as the second highest scoring side with 31 goals to Poland’s 33. Wayne Rooney remains England’s key man and is now the national side’s record goalscorer, but the mix of experience from the likes of Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and James Milner as well as the youthful enthusiasm from Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Harry Kane could be a special combination.
Also, Jamie Vardy has had a sensational season for Leicester, and if Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere are fit for the tournament, Hodgson will have several options to choose from.
England most likely won’t go all the way – it is too soon for some of the current squad to challenge at the very top – but with it being 50 years since their one and only major success – the 1966 World Cup – it would be fitting if they did manage to surprise everybody.
The most likely scenario, though, is that they will make it through to the quarter finals where their tournament will come to a crashing halt – leaving the England faithful with a familiar feeling.
Wales enjoyed a superb qualifying campaign, with the Welsh supporters – as well as many others – noting that the team’s collective spirit was at its strongest for several years. Led by the talismanic Gareth Bale, Wales lost just once on the road to the Euros, conceding only four goals along the way. Only England, Spain and Romania had a better defensive record in qualification.
It’s their first appearance at a major European finals, with their last foray into international competition coming in Euro 1976. Although they reached the quarter-finals that year, only the games from the semi final stage onwards were considered a major finals.
They join England, Russia and Slovakia in a tough group in France, but their ‘Together Stronger’ mantra could serve them well. It certainly served them well on their way to finishing as runners-up to Belgium in their qualifying group.
There is no doubt – meanwhile – who Wales’ key man is. Whilst they have some very good players such as Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Swansea captain Ashley Williams, Gareth Bale remains their key player. The world’s most expensive player has had a mixed time at Real Madrid since joining them in 2013, winning the Champions League and Copa del Rey in his first season but struggling with injuries since then. The primary concern of every Welsh supporter will be his fitness, but if he is match ready for the European Championship he will be leading their charge.
Wales boss Chris Coleman will not be getting carried away. Their first objective will be to make it past the group stage, but if they manage that – and there is no reason why they won’t – then Wales can begin to dream of a run in the competition.
Much has been made of Belgium’s golden generation of players. England fans will remember the era that saw the emergence of talent such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole. They joined the likes of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Michael Owen, yet the side’s biggest achievement during that time was three consecutive quarter finals in major tournaments.
Belgium will be hoping to avoid such disappointment. Amongst their ranks they have some serious talent, many of whom have experienced winning the title in one of the major European leagues. The likes of Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany and Toby Alderweireld provide a solid foundation for the team, and going forward, they can call on players including Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Marseille youngster Michy Batshuayi.
In the 2014 World Cup the squad didn’t quite live up to its potential as Marc Wilmots’ men were knocked out by beaten finalists Argentina in the quarter finals, but they are definitely worth watching this summer. Belgium currently top the FIFA World Rankings, which underlines their undeniable talent.
In recent years, Chelsea’s Hazard has been considered the main man for the Red Devils, yet De Bruyne has shown incredible form for both Wolfsburg and Manchester City in recent years and is surely their key player. As long as he is fully fit, the Belgians will be looking to him to fire them as far as possible in the tournament.
They will be optimistic of negotiating their way through a tricky-looking group that includes Italy, Ireland and Sweden, and then the sky’s the limit for this balanced, talented Belgium side.
Their squad isn’t exactly the strongest, but Portugal cannot be ignored – especially when you remember they have Cristiano Ronaldo within their ranks. Portugal were beaten finalists on their own soil in 2004 and made the last four at Euro 2012, but they will be hoping that their performance at this summer’s tournament is reminiscent of those displays, rather than their disappointing showing at the World Cup two years ago.
Portugal scored just eleven goals during qualifying but topped their group under the management of Fernando Santos, winning seven of their eight matches. Their only defeat came in their first game – against Albania – when Santos wasn’t the manager.
Ronaldo has been in a constant battle with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi to be known as the greatest player in the world. Obviously, he will not come up against Messi this summer, but he will be aware of the critics that say the Madrid man cannot be considered as one of the greatest until he wins a major tournament.
Along with the likes of Southampton duo Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares, Sporting midfielder William Carvalho, former Manchester United winger Nani and Real Madrid defender Pepe, Ronaldo will be hoping to reach the quarter finals at the very least. From there, anything could happen.
Poland cannot really boast a terrific record in major tournaments during recent years, not making it past the group stage in any of their four major finals since the turn of the century. However, they showed during qualifying that they have some serious quality at their disposal, ending up as top scorers with 33 goals and also beating world champions Germany 2-0 along the way.
They have a brilliant midfielder in Grzegorz Krychowiak – the Sevilla man has been linked with several major transfers away from the Spanish club – but their main man is undoubtedly Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski.
There’s a lot of debate about whether Lewandowski or Barcelona man Luis Suarez is the best striker in the world, which underlines his quality. He scored 13 goals in qualifying, equalling the record set by former Northern Ireland striker David Healy, and if he can carry that form into the tournament in France, he will make Poland an interesting proposition.
They will be hopeful of finally making it past the group stages this summer, especially with the new format that sees 16 of the original 24 sides progress to the knockout stages.
Definitely dark horses, mainly due to their superb midfield duo Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, as well as striker Mario Mandzukic. The trio, who play for European giants Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus respectfully, will provide a huge test for any opponent.
The squad is brimming with technical ability to envy and whilst Spain are the favourites to win their group that also contains the Czech Republic and Turkey, Croatia will be confident of taking second spot at least and having a very strong tournament.
Rakitic and Modric are both incredible players but Rakitic is arguably their key man now. He has shown in his time at Barca that he is a natural on the ball and that he has the winning mentality. It was always going to take a special talent to replace the legendary Xavi, yet Rakitic managed to do exactly that and was part of Barca’s treble winning side in his first season.
Croatia should definitely not be underestimated, and they have the talent to hurt any of the sides that will be in France this summer.
So who will win the tournament?
It is hard to look beyond hosts France, world champions Germany and holders Spain. They are surely the three strongest sides in the competition, with some of the world’s very best players at their disposal.
But, as Greece showed everybody in 2004, the plucky underdog can sometimes surprise even themselves with a stunning performance and unimaginable success.