Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland
Their fellow group members are taking a back seat and acknowledging the world champion’s role as favourites. And for the German team, there is only one target –as an intermediate stop on the way to the final they obviously have to top Group C. Poland, who battled their way to their first ever win against Germany in Warsaw in qualifying, is seen as being a candidate for the runners-up spot. Ukraine, joint EURO 2012 hosts with Poland, will aim to be in the running when the last 16 berths are decided. More likely would be a ticket as the group third-placed team. Northern Ireland, which has qualified for a European Championship or World Cup for the first time since 1986, is considered to be a rank outsider. Winning a point would be success in itself.
Germany’s fans have raised the bar high for “Jogi’s lads”. And the national team’s players have also set themselves an ambitious aim. Two years after the World Cup triumph in Brazil, they will try to add a fourth European Championship title. It would make Germany the outright record European Championship winners with four titles (previously in 1972, 1980, 1996) and go one better than Spain (1964, 2008, 2012). Germany however did not have it all their own way when qualifying for the finals. After a 2-0 loss in Warsaw (October 2014) and the 1-0 defeat in Ireland (October 2015), they only clinched top spot ahead of Poland in the final run in. The national team has also been none to impressive in friendlies as they have lost four times in the past two years (against Argentina, USA, France and England) – and have dropped from the world No. 1 to fifth. Joachim Löw’s team no longer appears to be as strong as it was at the World Cup in Brazil.”We’re strong but not unbeatable,” explained the national coach. There is still a lot to do to get the team on the right track. But not everything went smoothly before the 2014 World Cup and Löw and his crew still managed to get the team to peak at exactly the right moment. Preparing for major tournaments was always one of the big strengths of the Germans. However, it also has to be revealed that a statistic speaks against Germany becoming the new European champions. The German eleven has lost on both occasions when they got to the European Championship final as world champions (1976, 1992).
The Ukraine has qualified for the European Championship finals for the first time but they are still not a newcomer to the tournament. Four years ago, the east Europeans participated in the tournament as co-hosts. Disappointingly they exited at the group stage also because they were not awarded a perfectly good goal in the 1-0 defeat against England when John Terry spectacularly kicked a ball that had crossed the line back upfield. In the opening Group C match against Germany in Lille, the big star of Ukranian football will be sitting on the bench. Andriy Schevchenko, the former world class striker, is head coach Mykhaylo Fomenko’s right hand man. The former Bayern player, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, is in the squad but, at the age of 37, is no longer a first choice. Talking about the duel against Germany, he said: “For us it will determine which way the European Champs will go. The tournament is highly important for us and our fans.” The 67-year old Fomenko can fall back on a solid defence. In the qualifying group, Ukraine came third behind Spain and Slovakia but never conceded more than a single goal in any one match. In the play-offs, they overcame Slovenia.
Prospects: last 16
Robert Lewandowski was the top-scorer in EURO 2016 qualifying with 13 goals. The Bayern Munich striker is the undisputed star of coach Adam Nawalka’s Polish team that will attempt to post its best ever European Championships result. It however will not be too difficult as Poland has failed to chalk up a single win in the continental finals. Their appearance as hosts at EURO 2012 turned out to be a disaster as they were knocked out after the preliminary phase when finishing last in the group – and they were also eliminated from the 2008 competition at the same stage after coming bottom. This time around most experts are expecting Poland to come second as “Lewi” and the “White Eagles”, which also includes the former Dortmund player Jakub Blaszczykowski and the current Dortmund player Lukasz Piszczek, showed their class for instance when beating World Cup winners Germany 2-0 in the EURO 2014 qualifying in October 2014. They finished the group matches in second place one point behind the Germans. “My wish is for Poland and Germany to advance to the next round,” said Lewandowski, the team captain. “It would be a major achievement if we were also to reach the quarterfinals. We’re certainly good enough,” continued the star striker. “Whether we really do have a golden generation is something that has to be seen. If things go well, then a lot is possible for our team,” declared Tomasz Waldoch, the former Schalke player.
Football in Northern Ireland lived for a long off the memories of better times. The national team has contested the World Cup finals on three occasions – in 1958 it reached the quarterfinals, in 1982 they beat hosts Spain in the preliminary group stage and then in 1986 marked their last appearance accompanied by the green and white army of Northern Irish fans. Now Northern Ireland, who will be cheered on by the whole of Great Britain, will compete for the first time at the European Championship finals. Pat Jennings, capped 119 times, one of the stars of the glory days, feels coach Martin O’Neill’s team will have their work cut out in France: “The tournament won’t be a stroll in the park but when the lads go out and fight, like we did against Spain all those years ago, they’ll be difficult to beat.” In qualifying, the tenacious Northern Irish players, who mainly play in the lower English leagues or at Scottish clubs, showed just what they are capable of. They won the group with six wins and only lost to Romania. Greece, the 2004 European champions were beaten twice.
Prospects: no further than the group stage or the last 16 at the latest
Sunday, 12 June, 18.00 hrs, Nice: Poland – Northern Ireland
Sunday, 12 June, 21.00 hrs, Lille: Germany - Ukraine
Thursday, 16 June, 18.00 hrs, Lyon: Ukraine - Northern Ireland
Thursday, 16 June, 21.00 hrs, St. Denis: Germany - Poland
Tuesday, 21 June, 18.00 hrs, Marseille: Ukraine – Poland
Tuesday, 21 June, 18.00 hrs, Paris: Northern Ireland – Germany