The Tournament kicks-off tonight in Saint-Denis with France - Romania
The Euro 2016... Some have been waiting for this moment all their lives, others weren't expecting to particpate. France, in its case, has been waiting for 2 years to finally host 23 fierce competitors in its 9 arenas spread out across the country. Actually, France has been waiting for 6 years and the announcement of the winner of the hosting competition, that was brought down to a fight between 3 countries: France, Italy and Turkey. In the end, the French clinched the victory over Turkey, for one vote. 13 months later, the competition is about to begin, with unclear favourites, many doubts and injuries, and most of all 24 teams: a first in the Euros' history. Before kick-off at 9.00 p.m tonight, here is a summary of the teams involved, the Blaugranas taking part in this edition and a few predictions as for who should go all the way.
Group A (France[host], Switzerland, Albania, Romania)
Blaugrana: Jérémy Mathieu was initially part of the squad, but had to withdraw due to an injury. He was replaced by Lyon's Samuel Umtiti
France is a relatively big country in football, therefore the French team doesn't need the protection of a Pot1 privilege for the host of the competition in order to go far in said competition. Yet, Les Bleus have been quite lucky in the draw, having to face Switzerland, Albania and Romania. For obvious reasons, the games still have to be played and the outcome of the group is not 100% certain. But given the circumstances, it is hard to imagine the French host kicked out of its own tournament by the 15th, the 22nd and the 42nd nations in the FIFA rankings. With enchanted fans, eager to get some entertainment in a heavy context (terrorism and social issues), France are the logical favourites of their group. But who to come with them? Out of the 6 groups, 4 teams ranked 3rd will go through: can Albania or Romania be one of them? It seems unlikely, although they are the kind of team perfectly able to go against the odd, as it fuels their motivation. Nontheless, let's go for France and Switzerland to go through.
Predictions: France (1st-qualified), Switzerland (2nd-qualified), Romania (3rd), Albania (4th)
Group B (England, Wales, Russia, Slovakia)
No Blaugranas in this group
Roy Hodgson and England played the youth card in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with, in the end, an elimination in the group stage. Since that moment, the team aged a little, some new additions have been made (Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Delle Alli, Nathaniel Clyne, John Stones...) and the whole squad seems more prepared. They came out first in their Qualifiers group, unbeaten, and appear as the favourites in this Group B. But Wales won't make it easy for them, and Gareth Bale is well decided to bring the Welsh people to the top, with the help of class players like Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen or Ashley Williams. The perfect outsider for the perfect upset. Beware of Slovakia though, Marek Hamsik, Vladimir Weiss and Miroslav Stoch have many tricks up their sleeves and aboslutely no fear. As for Russia, they're quietly preparing for the big event in the motherland: the 2018 World Cup. With no pressure other than growing up to be ready on the D-Day, the Russians are still very dangerous, in spite of the few injuries that hit them (Denisov, Cheryshev and Dzagoev). Danger is near for the Englishmen, but the confidence they've built for the past two years and their young talents eager to taste high-level competition should enable them to go through. Between Wales, Russia and Slovakia, it will be a hard battle to accompany Hodgson's men.
Predictions: England (1st-qualified), Wales (2nd-qualified), Slovakia (3rd-qualified), Russia (4th)
Group C (Germany, Poland, Northern Ireland, Ukraine)
Blaugrana: Marc-André Ter Stegen (Germany)
A loss against Slovakia in a friendly close to the Euro 2016 kick-off won't be enough to rule out Germany from the list of favourites. The World Champions are back at it again with a solid team, although they suffered once again some important losses in their ranks (Gündogan, Rüdiger and Reus are out). Still, with the likes of Götze, Müller, Özil, Kroos, Hummels or Neuer, Joachim Löw has got at his disposal a team in its prime, with a lot of experience and confidence, two decisive criteria when entering an international competition. They are the clear favourite of this group. For second place, Poland has got the pole. Their attacking line (Lewandowski, Grosicki, Milik) and their interesting trio of goalkeepers (Szczesny, Fabianski and Boruc) make them a solid outsider. As for Northern Ireland and Ukraine, it is the unknown. France is not a great memory for Ukraine, who lost the right to participate to the Brazil World Cup because of a French earthquake named Mamadou Sakho in the Playoffs' 2nd leg (0-3). Still, the Ukrainian collective is a force to be reckoned with and they invested their base camp in Aix-en-Provence with excitement. For Norther Ireland, it will be a tough one for their first final phase ever. The lack of experience at that stage (despite the presence of players like Jonny Evans, Roy Carroll and Steven Davis) will be a problem to deal with quickly in order to have a chance. Supposedly the weaker team of the group, they can only surprise Europe.
Predictions: Germany (1st-qualified), Poland (2nd-qualified), Ukraine (3rd), Northern Ireland (4th)
Group D (Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic, Turkey)
Blaugranas: Ivan Rakitic (Croatia), Arda Turan (Turkey), Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta (Spain)
It is the group every Barça fan should follow closely, as it almost regroups the whole of the Blaugranas involved in the tournament (Vermaelen apart). Moreover, it is certainly one of the toughest group of the competition, with the four teams virtually capable of going through to the next stage. Spain, in chase of a third consecutive win in the Euros, will have a tremendously competitive start to their challenge, and the obligation to raise up their game as soon as the whistle blows. With the recent experience of Brazil 2014, during which Vicente Del Bosque's men were knocked out in the group stage after losing to Netherlands (1-5) and Chile (0-2), the Spaniards are warned. And they seem to have fully recovered from this bad experience. Without Diego Costa, Del Bosque goes back to a 4-3-3 system with a false 9, destined to put the emphasis on movement and short passing. The roster is talented, and eager to prove the fall of Brazil was just an accident. They will have fierce opponents willing to kill the king. Croatia, who were already in Spain's group in 2012, will seek revenge. Led by the magical duo Rakitić-Modrić, they have some serious arguments, supported by young talents like Kovačić or Duje Čop. Czech Republic isn't a shy opponent either. For what could be Petr Čech's last Euros, the Czech are willing to show what their worth. An experienced team with a common past, precious in those high-level competitions. Some might argue they're an ageing team. But before another generation takes over the likes of Plasil, Rosičky and others, there is a great chance to silence the sharp tongues. Turkey would be the equivalent of the jack-in-the-box of the group: an unpredictible but hugely talented team, led by Barça's Arda, and some young gems like Leverkusen's Çahlanoglu, Özyakup and Semih Kaya. In the very capable hands of head coach Fetih Terim, Turkey could be one of the big surprise of the 2016 edition.
Predictions: Spain (1st-qualified), Croatia (2nd-qualified), Turkey (3rd-qualified), Czech Republic (4th)
Group E (Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Republic of Ireland)
Blaugrana: Thomas Vermaelen (Belgium)
Here is the beloved group of death. This group where anything can happen, with a favourite but very dangerous outsiders. If Belgium were 1st of the FIFA rankings at some point - without having been further than the quarter-finals in the World Cup - they're not the incredible squad the whole of Europe fears. Nonetheless, they are equiped with lethal weapons: Hazard, Mertens, Nainggolan, Lukaku, Carrasco and De Bruyne. An offensive feast that could provide some spectacular games to the viewers of group E. With Thibaut Courtois in goal, the Red Devils have all the ingredients to make a great campaign. They just nead this extra bit of luck and determination, to play as one and crush anything that moves. Because the slightest mistake could result in a disappointment. Especially with 2006 World Champions Italy. They're never as dangerous as when they look harmless. Antonio Conte's squad has got a few notable players missing (Marco Verrati, Claudio Marchisio) but they still have top class players in the roster, like the Juventus All-Star defence Barzagli-Chiellini-Bonucci, or Lazio's Antonio Candreva. Not to be underestimated, Italy looked weakened, but they're always - almost, 2010 in South Africa excepted -present when the time comes. Sweden will be dangerous too. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic willing to prove he can still be among the best players in the world, the Swedish team has got a powerful leader. Megalomaniac at times, but deadly in front of the goal. His recent performance against Wales is proof. A few talents have emerged in the shadow of now ex PSG star, like Celta's John Guidetti, but they are still timidly taking over. This could cause Sweden to succumb in the most decisive moment. In the case of Ireland, with the oldest goalkeeper of the competition (Shay Given, 40 years old), experience is their middle name. With 11 players aged 30 or more, they have the wisdom and calmness necessary to face the heated atmosphere of the Euros. But will Robbie Keane (35) will be able to remember his good old days in Tottenham to surprise the opponents' quick defenders? Or will it be to hard for Martin O'Neill's men to beat the odds? Time will tell.
Predictions: Belgium (1st-qualified), Italy (2nd-qualified), Sweden (3rd-qualified), Republic of Ireland (4th)
Groupe F (Austria, Portugal, Hungary, Iceland)
No Blaugranas in this group
Once again, a very well balanced group with no clear favourite but many talents, and a few surprises in sight. Although Austria dominated their group in the Qualifiers, finishing first and unbeaten, in front of Russia and Sweden, they're still very inexperienced at this stage of the competitions. They had missed out on the 2012 edition, after co-hosting the Euro 2008 with Switzerland. Since then, a new generation has taken over, and is led by one of the most talented full-backs/multitasking midfieldes in the world: David Alaba. Around him, a few established talents as Marko Arnautovic, Premier League Champion Christian Füchs and Zlatko Junuzović. Marcel Koller's science of the game helped the team create a real collective spirit. Austria are a quiet force that could go far in the competition, and surprise the bookmakers. They still have to get out of the group, which won't be easy. Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo showed against Estonia that they were not participating just for fun. Fernando Santos, the responsible for Greece's great run in the 2014 World Cup, took over an old squad that was worrying its fans. The result is a first place in the Qualifiers with the fourth best defence of the competition. Not exactly the quality we expect from players like Quaresma, Ronaldo, Moutinho or Nani, it shows the good mix Portugal are pulling out between a very solid and experienced defence with a younger and unpredictable midfielder. And the star, Cristiano Ronaldo. Since 2004 and the lost final against Greece, he never had the opportunity to lift a major trophy with the national team. This time he can at least go through to the quarter-finals. Beware of the surprising players of Iceland, whose names are probably amongst the hardest to pronounce in this year's competition. Yet, they're a good team, that could surprise more than one, especially in a group so opened. Mainly playing in Sweden, some Iceland players have exported to more "tropical" European country, like Sigthorsson who plays in French Ligue 1 (Nantes) or Alfred Finbogasson in Germany (Augsburg). A strike force that proved to be efficient, with 17 goals in 10 games in the Qualifiers. Their best asset could be the relative lack of knowledge about them from part of other teams. Finally, Hungary clearly stands out as the underdog. Their qualification is already a great achievement, as they overcame Cristian Eriksson's Denmark in the Playoffs. Led by left-footed ace Balasz Dzudszak, alongside local legend Zoltan Gera (37 years old) and young ace Adam Nagy, Hungary will use their enthusiasm to threaten their three opponents. Difficult to predict.
Predictions: Austria (1st-qualified), Iceland (2nd-qualified), Portugal (3rd-qualified), Hungary (4th)