Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Sweden
Ranked second in the world, Belgium are not only Europe’s best-placed team but have also earned a place among the top favourites for the European Championship title. The squad coached by former Schalke professional Marc Wilmots is considered the first candidate for the top position in Group E – which will be the ticket for a tough knock-out encounter. In the round of 16 the winner of Group E will meet the second-placed team of strong Group D with Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia. But first and foremost Belgium have to hold their ground against Italy, Ireland and Sweden in Group E. According to the world rankings Italy are their toughest competitors. The 1968 European champions hold 15th position in the FIFA ranking, far ahead of Ireland (31st) and Sweden (36th). Both latter nations ensured their participation in the play-offs, so having fulfilled their initial aim they now want to make their fans happy by not being eliminated in the first round.
Belgium reached the football summit in November 2015, when the country was registered at the top of the FIFA world ranking, thus rewarding itself for the extraordinarily good progress of the national team over the past few years. Though Argentina has replaced Belgium in first place in the meantime, the euphoria prior to the start of the European Championship finals is limitless – despite the unfortunate withdrawal of captain Vincent Kompany due to a thigh injury. Even without the Manchester City star, coach Marc Wilmot’s team possess an excellent mixture of European top players and promising talents. No fewer than eleven Premier League players are in the tentative squad with Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea FC), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool FC), Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele (all Tottenham Hotspur), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Christian Benteke (Liverpool), Romelu Lukaku (Everton) and Divock Origi (Liverpool). Thomas Vermaelen (FC Barcelona), Axel Witsel (Zenit St. Petersburg) and Dries Mertens (SSC Naples) are further international greats. If Wilmot is able to continue forming a unit from all these individual artists, Belgium should be capable of meeting the high expectations at home and abroad.
While Belgium have accumulated an almost inexhaustible source of talent over the past years, their group competitors Italy still worry about their juniors – and thus about the future. Though they were European finalists four years ago, their defeat by Spain in the final was followed by the catastrophic elimination in the first round at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – behind Costa Rica and Uruguay. Since then teams such as Belgium, England and France have overtaken Italy in all areas. However, national coach Antonio Conte led the four-time World Cup champions into the European Championship finals as group winners leaving Croatia and Norway behind. The coach ignored former greats such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli when nominating his tentative squad, but stuck to his 38-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus Turin) and the experienced Thiago Motta (33/Paris St.-Germain), Andrea Barzagli (35/Juventus Turin), Riccardo Montolivo (31/AC Milan) and Daniele di Rossi (32/AS Rome). Juventus Turin boast the largest block of squad players with seven. He also nominated three Premier League players: Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham United), Graziano Pellè (Southampton FC) and Matteo Darmian (Manchester United).
Prognosis: Quarter-finals possible, to get further Italy will have to revive their reputation as a tournament team
Ireland are celebrating their third European Championship participation. But contrary to the tournament four years ago, in France the team should also inspire – perhaps as much as their well-travelled and particularly noisy supporters. Zero points from three matches and a 1-9 goal tally was the Irish team’s shattering record at the 2012 Europeans. The fans celebrated anyway, belting out the Irish folk song “Fields of Athenry”, but this time they are hoping for a better result by reaching the knock-out stage with their new system of play. After their 1-0 victory over World Cup champions Germany in the qualification, the second leg in the play-offs against Bosnia-Herzegovina was the big highlight. Jonathan Walters of Stoke City scored both goals for the 2-0 win, leading Ireland into the finals after a 1-1 draw in the first leg. The tentative squad is led by players from the English Premier League, but coach Martin O’Neill has also nominated legend Robbie Keane (35/Los Angeles Galaxy). Since his move to the North American Professional League MLS the attacker has recorded 77 goals and 35 assists in 114 league matches. The goalkeeping position could be a problem: Shay Given (40) has not been chosen for Stoke City for some time, Ireland’s number one Darren Randolph (29) is only sitting on the bench at West Ham, as is David Forde (36) at Millwall FC.
Prognosis: Ireland will not survive in the strong group despite their fighting spirit and fan support.
His comment ‘I came as a king and left as a legend’ has gone down in football history. But a few weeks after leaving Paris St.-Germain, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is returning to France, and on no account wants to butcher the reputation he has earned in the past few years. The striker enjoys the status of national hero in Sweden also – and consolidated it in the play-offs, when he shot his country almost single-handedly into the finals against Denmark. One goal during the 2-1 victory, two goals for the 2-2 draw – Ibrahimovic was again unstoppable. Verbally too: “I have sent the whole of Denmark into retirement”, he said after the play-offs. In the group stage he and the Swedish team had managed only third place behind Austria and Russia. Since Sweden had failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the exceptional attacker is fired up for his probably last major tournament. Besides the capabilities of the 34-year-old, the Swedish hopes are resting on the new generation: The tentative squad includes six players who won the U21 European title last year.
Prognosis: Further than the round of 16 would be a surprise
Monday, 13 June, 18 hrs, Saint-Denis: Ireland vs Sweden
Monday, 13 June, 21 hrs, Lyon: Belgium vs Italy
Friday, 17 June, 15 hrs, Toulouse: Italy vs Sweden
Saturday, 18 June, 15 hrs, Bordeaux: Belgium vs Ireland
Wednesday, 22 June, 21 hrs, Lille: Italy vs Ireland
Wednesday, 22 June, 21 hrs, Nice: Sweden vs Belgium