For the present, Europe is continuing its focus on club football. However people’s attentions will turn more and more to the European Championships finals whose six groups of four teams were drawn in Paris on 12 December.
In Germany, who will face Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland in Group C, the discussions are in full flow as to whether, after the triumph in Rio de Janeiro in July 2014, the world champion is still capable of winning another title. The side will have to improve significantly from the none too smooth qualifying competition, stressed Team Manager Oliver Bierhoff who, 20 years ago, helped Germany secure their last European title. Bierhoff’s call for an improvement was however immediately followed by a set-back as the side’s pivotal defender, Jerome Boateng, is threatened with a race to get back to full fitness ahead of the tournament after a groin injury.
Bayern Munich’s 27-year old centre back will be given special treatment by national coach Joachim Löw as a result of his immense importance for the team. Despite probably being out of the game for the next three months, he can still hope of being a part of the championship that begins on 10 June. “I’ve told him that I believe in him and that, despite his serious muscle injury, he can make the team,” said Löw. Pinning one’s faith in a vital team regular, even when not fully fit, has been successful in the past. “As we did with Sami Khedira before the World Cup in Brazil, we’ll leave the door open to Jerome for a long as possible.” However the time span is limited as Löw has to name his squad for the finals by 31 May at the latest – like all the other 23 national coaches.
Group C is considered very doable for Germany – as are the groups in which England and France are the favourites. Facing what appear to be tougher tasks are title holders Spain and Italy. Hosts France do not seem unduly perturbed at the prospect of facing the first three hurdles at the tournament which is hoped will culminate in the next home title after the 1998 World Cup. In 1984, the French won their first European Championships title – on home soil. The second EURO triumph came their way in 2000 at the finals in the Netherlands and Belgium. The chances of them winning their fourth major international championship are generally seen as being rosy.
Being up against teams – Switzerland, Albania and Romania – that do not belong to Europe’s elite, anything other than easy progress to the next round would be a major disappointment for the French. In Switzerland and Albania, fans are happy with the draw has it has served up a spectacular battle of brothers involving Albania’s Taulant Xhaka (24/FC Basel) and the Swiss Granit Xhaka (23/Mönchengladbach). The latter already played in World Cup qualifying against his parents’ home country – and would have liked to not have had to repeat the experience. “To be honest it’s a terrible feeling. It hurt being booed by my countrymen and at times even being insulted,” he said.
A group phase match has also sparked big emotions in the British Isles as, according to the Sun, the “breathtaking draw” also served up the Battle of Britain between England and Wales in Group B. Russia and Slovakia are the other opponents standing in the way of England and the last 16.
Interesting and top class games are also promised in Group E where four attractive teams in the world No. 1 Belgium, the 1968 champions Italy, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden and the always passionate Irish will do battle for a place in the next round. The Paris-based Ibrahimovic even enjoys a bit of a home advantage in France – and has additionally already scored a European Championship goal – in 2004 – against Italy. The “Corriere dello Sport” newspaper nevertheless was upbeat after the draw: “Ibrahimovic and Belgium – but Italy is ready.” National coach Antonio Conte also appeared to be confident, “As far as I’m concerned, I’d prefer to face the strongest teams straight away.”
The draw has also presented none too easy games for the countries in Group D where title-holders Spain will play Croatia, the Czech Republic and Turkey. There is a lot of respect amongst the quartet: “I don’t know whether it’s a group of death or not but we know we have to play extraordinarily strong opponents and they have been the ones that have managed to hinder teams from winning and defending important titles,” said Spain’s national coach Vicente Del Bosque. In winning EURO 2008 and 2012, the Iberians claimed the last two continental titles but then failed miserably as title-holders at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Group F is considered to be less spectacular. Portugal will go into the matches with the revitalised Austrians, Hungary and Iceland as the clear favourites. One thing is for certain: with more than four months to go before the opening match, the hot phase in the EURO 2016 build-up has now begun. Injuries and losses of form are something players in the running for places in the 23-player squads cannot afford. Scheduled for the end of March are two friendlies and then it is decision time for the club competitions. Following will be the biggest European Championship since its inception in 1960.