Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia
After the draw in Paris there were few happy faces among the competitors in Group D. The appeal of a really attractive group was overpowered by the fear of an early elimination. None of the four teams is rated as an outsider. Spain, sixth-ranked in the world, are favourites, but Turkey (13th), Croatia (23rd) and Czech Republic (29th) will be tough opponents for the title holders – well emphasized by Turkey and the Czech Republic ousting no less a team than world bronze medallists Netherlands in the qualification. But at least the neutral spectators may look forward as Group D promises top encounters and thrilling results in the fight to reach the knock-out stage. And a small bonus beckons for those who get through in this group, having no doubt gained that extra stimulus of confidence for the second round.
The disaster that cost Spanish football its supremacy and ended a successful era happened two years ago. The then reigning World and European champions were eliminated in the first round of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – after two heavy losses to the Netherlands (1-5) and Chile (0-2). In the following European Championship qualification “La Furia Roja” (the Red Fury) showed they had recovered from the World Cup shock and dominated their qualifying group with former superiority. Spain celebrated nine wins in ten matches and finished in top position with a clear advantage over Slovakia and Ukraine. The only slight setback was a 2-1 defeat in Slovakia. Coach Vicente del Bosque later surprised when nominating his tentative squad without well-tested players for the mission to become the first country ever to win three successive European titles. Among others the 65-year-old ignored two players from FC Bayern Munich, Juan Bernat and Javi Martinez, as well as Fernando Torres of Champions League finalists Atlético Madrid and Juan Mata of Manchester United. He also has to make do without Chelsea striker Diego Costa (thigh injury). But the quality of his squad is undisputed, with the number of players from the Spanish top teams Atlético (3), Real Madrid (3) and FC Barcelona (5) complemented, among others, by legionnaires such as David de Gea (Manchester United), Thiago (FC Bayern), David Silva (Manchester City), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea FC) and Alvaro Morata (Juventus Turin).
Prognosis: Title favourites
The Czech Republic qualified for a European Championship finals for the sixth time in a row. The 1996 European runners-up superiorly purchased their ticket in tough Group A. They finished top with seven wins, one draw and two defeats ahead of also qualified Iceland and Turkey, and the sensationally beaten Netherlands. However, the results of friendly matches after the successful qualification dampened the euphoria slightly: no victory in the three encounters against Poland (1-3), Scotland (0-1) and Sweden (1-1). Particularly against Poland a few defensive shortcomings highlighted why they had finished with the most conceded goals (14) of all qualified teams. However, anticipation and confidence prevail in the team of coach Pavel Vrba, 52, who trusts Petr Cech (34/Arsenal) in goal and is still hoping Tomas Rosicky (35/Arsenal, thigh injury) will get fit in time. His tentative squad also includes three Bundesliga players, Berlin playmaker Vladimir Darida (25) and the two outside defenders Theodor Gebre Selassie (29/Bremen) and Pavel Kaderabek (24/Hoffenheim).
Prognosis: Chance to reach the round of 16
The great finish in the European Championship qualification has revived Turkey’s self-confidence. After completely failing at first in Group A, the team coached by Fatih Terim defeated their direct competitors on the home straight, thus ensuring not only direct participation as the best third-placed team but also a high aim: “We want to reach the final”, the coach announced. This immediate goal followed a proud series of victories, ended only with their last friendly in England. Up to this 2-1 loss Turkey had remained undefeated for more than a year, as since qualifying they also achieved two 2-1 victories over European Championship participants Sweden and Austria. But despite their enormous confidence, and the expected mass of supporters, the team have to perform to their limit in the first round in order to get through tough Group D. From the European Championship squad only Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer 04 Leverkusen), Nuri Sahin (Borussia Dortmund), Arda Turan (FC Barcelona) and Yunus Malli (Mainz 05) play in the four top European leagues -- Germany, Spain, England and Italy.
Prognosis: Chance to reach the round of 16
Though they reached their aim in the end, Croatia’s European Championship qualification was chaotic. Coach Nico Kovac was replaced by Ante Catic two rounds before the conclusion, and the first leg encounter at eventual group winners Italy was interrupted because Croatian fans threw smoke-bombs on the pitch. Exclusion from the European Championship then threatened. In the second leg at Split, played in an empty stadium, the home fans had carved an easily visible swastika into the grass prior to the match. Croatia’s punishment was further “ghost matches”, a deduction of points and a €100,000 fine -- which still allowed them to qualify for their fifth European Championship finals. The Croats now want to forget the negative headlines and attract attention with good performances. They have the talent, with their squad a rather impressive conglomeration of top players from the major European leagues. Among others, coach Catic may reckon with Tin Jedvaj (Bayer Leverkusen), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donezk), Mateo Kovacic (Real Madrid), Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Ivan Rakitic (FC Barcelona), Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus Turin).
Prognosis: Chance to reach the semi-finals
Sunday, 12 June, 15 hrs CET, Paris: Turkey vs Croatia
Monday, 13 June, 15 hrs, Toulouse: Spain vs Czech Republic
Friday, 17 June, 18 hrs, Saint Etienne: Czech Republic vs Croatia
Friday, 17 June, 21 hrs, Nice: Spain vs Turkey
Tuesday, 21 June, 21 hrs, Lens: Czech Republic vs Turkey
Tuesday, 21 June, 21 hrs, Bordeaux: Croatia vs Spain