With Euro 2016 kicking off on Friday, here are a few things to look out for in the opening set of fixtures:
France v. Romania – Friday 10th June
The tournament opener will be France’s first competitive match since their World Cup quarter-final defeat to Germany two years ago. While the hosts have been building nicely, opening night will bring a degree of pressure that could either see Les Bleus flourish, or see them struggle.
Added to the fact that they are both the host and the current tournament favourite with most bookmakers, is the intriguing detail that France have won the previous two tournaments they hosted – Euro 1984 and World Cup 1998 – both in fine style. In both of those victories France had a leader on the field who was treading the path to greatness (Platini and Zidane respectively) along with a considerable supporting cast. Do the class of 2016 have the same?
Those with a keen eye may have noted that the shirts worn by France in their home 1998 World Cup win were of a deliberately similar design to those they wore in their home 1984 European Championship win, bringing with them the luck needed (in the mind of the superstitious anyway) to win it all. The 2016 shirt bears little resemblance, being the standard Nike design. Those of a superstitious nature may feel this is a notable change in return for the Nike dollar.
After a controversial build-up with perpetual arguments over the reasons for the absence of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, it will be a relief to coach Didier Deschamps to get the action underway. If France are to keep their fans’ optimism buoyant and begin to build the all-encompassing home support in the way they did as the 1998 World Cup progressed, then a good start is vital and a win over Romania would leave them in a strong position.
My Prediction: France 3-1 Romania
WGF Prediction: France win by 2 goals
Albania v. Switzerland – Saturday 11th June
A tournament debut for Albania and a fixture that is almost an Albanian-Kosovan derby. There are Swiss-born payers in the Albanian side, and several Albanian or Kosovan-born players in the Swiss side. There is even a fraternal clash, with a Xhaka brother on either side (Taulant for Albania, Granit for Switzerland). For lovers of narrative, this fixture has it all.
My Prediction: Albania 1-2 Switzerland
WGF Prediction: Draw
Wales v. Slovakia – Saturday 11th June
With England and Russia to come, a good start is important for both teams. It could well be a tale of two talismans: Gareth Bale and Marek Hamsik. Both are far and away their respective team’s best players with a lot resting on their shoulders. Both will also be the focus of opposing tactics. Can Bale continue his fine form for club and country that has seen Real Madrid reach Europe’s pinnacle once again, and seen him drag his country to a first tournament Finals in 58 years?
Wales, impressive in qualification, have been rather less so lately. Slovakia, on the other hand, seem to be on an upward trajectory and could be the surprise package of the group. In danger of having been almost forgotten about amidst the intrigue of the other group fixtures, they may have a significant say in the way the group turns out. But Wales have Bale, so I’m hedging my bets on this one.
My Prediction: Wales 1-1 Slovakia
WGF Prediction: Slovakia win by 1 goal
England v. Russia – Saturday 11th June
The two principal teams in the group, by past reputation anyway, go head to head from the start. For the winner, there is the chance to see a likely path to progression. For the loser, two eminently tricky fixtures await with the pressure piling high – especially if it’s England with neighbours Wales up next.
England have some impressive attacking players, with the vigour and fearlessness of youth in many cases. What they don’t appear to have is a coherent system to bring the best out of them. Russia have been very hit and miss for years, but will carry a threat.
My Prediction: England 2-1 Russia
WGF Prediction: England win by 1 goal
Turkey v. Croatia – Sunday 12th June
This is a rematch of the dramatic quarter final in Euro 2008 which Turkey eventually won on penalties. It is Turkey who are currently rated quite highly on recent form but Croatia are no mugs themselves and have some hugely impressive talent in their side. Another close encounter is on the cards. In a group also containing Spain and the Czechs – arguably the toughest and most closely matched group in the tournament – if either side were to win this one they would be in a very good position going forwards. If there is a loser, then road ahead will be a troubled one.
My Prediction: Turkey 1-0 Croatia
WGF Prediction: Draw
Poland v. Northern Ireland – Sunday 12th June
Poland are the form in Europe over recent times. In Northern Ireland they face an opponent who qualified very impressively but may find this level a step too far. But if the Irish are to cause a shock, then their opener may well be the best bet, with spirits and optimism high. And if we;re discussing teams in form, no country in these Finals is on an unbeaten run to match that of Northern Ireland currently. They last lost a match a good 15 months, and some twelve matches, ago. If they can extend that run a little further then they will be well on their way. And yet there is that nagging feeling personified by the lethal Robert Lewandowski. With him leading the attack, Poland are surely the favourites for this one, but perhaps not as significantly so as many might expect.
My Prediction: Poland 2-0 Northern Ireland
WGF Prediction: Poland win by 1 goal
Germany v. Ukraine – Sunday 12th June
After an up and down qualification and some less than impressive pre-tournament friendlies such as the 3-1 home loss to Slovakia last week, Germany could do with a solid start to the tournament. As reigning world champions, expectations are of course extremely high. A similarly stuttering opener against a useful, if not overly dangerous, Ukraine side could lead to some doubts appearing.
Germany’s squad is somewhat short on firepower with only three named forwards and two of those, Mario Gotze and Leroy Sane, really being attacking midfielders. There is only the Besiktas striker Mario Gomez as a real striker, although Lukas Podolski is named amongst the midfielders. It is in midfield and defence that Germany are strong, but they will need to find sufficient up front if they are to go deep into this tournament. A positive start would help greatly.
My Prediction: Germany 1-1 Ukraine
WGF Prediction: Germany win by 1 goal
Spain v. Czech Republic – Monday 13th June
Spain, imperious for so long, stuttered and stumbled to an early exit in Brazil two years ago. But in the European Championship you have to go back to 2004 to see Spain struggling. After going out in the group stage that year they have won the two following tournaments.
A three-peat is a real possibility but they can ill afford to crushing start akin to that in the World Cup when the Dutch humiliated the then reigning champions. One of the teams to knock the Dutch out in the qualifying group this time around? Czech Republic.
My Prediction: Spain 2-0 Czech Republic
WGF Prediction: Spain win by 1 goal
Ireland v. Sweden – Monday 13th June
The Zlatan show comes to St Denis as Sweden take on a functional and unspectacular Ireland side who may be without their record goal scorer, the seemingly ageless Robbie Keane. Big tournament opportunities for big Zlatan are surely few and far between now and with Belgium and Italy lying in wait, a win over Ireland is surely a must if he and his fellow Scandinavians are to progress.
My Prediction: Ireland 0-2 Sweden
WGF Prediction: Ireland win by 1 goal
Belgium v. Italy – Monday 13th June
One team is ranked highly. The other less so. One with a recent sense of expectation. The other with the weight of history on its shoulders. It is the Belgian Red Devils who sit highly on most ranking systems, while the Italians recent form and just-enough-to-get-by qualification has left them languishing.
This intriguing opener could be the making of the impressive crop of Belgians and could leave Italy struggling before colliding with Zlatan and Sweden in their next match. On the other hand, you always have that overriding feeling that Italy usually find a way.
My Prediction: Belgium 1-1 Italy
WGF Prediction: Belgium win by 1 goal
Austria v. Hungary – Tuesday 14th June
A belated return to tournament football for two of the game’s historical powers. It may be a long, long time ago, but these Central European neighbours were once pivotal in the development of the game and the spread of a sophisticated style of play through Europe. Looking back even further there is the Empirical connection between the two providing more than enough narrative for their opening match.
It is Austria’s reappearance that is possibly the more exciting, heralding as it does the arrival of a new era with some impressive talent led by Bayern Munich’s David Alaba.
My Prediction: Austria 2-0 Hungary
WGF Prediction: Austria win by 1 goal
Portugal v. Iceland – Tuesday 14th June
A much anticipated tournament debut for hipsters’ favourite Iceland. But they face Cristiano Ronaldo plus 10 other Portuguese in what promises to be a stern test of their credentials. If they can get through this one intact, or without taking a morale sapping loss, then there is real hope of progression given their remaining fixtures.
My Prediction: Portugal 2-1 Iceland
WGF Prediction: Portugal win by 1 goal
Most Anticipated Match for Footballing reasons:
Portugal v. Iceland – as a certified hipster, I’ll be growing my beard, wearing my best checked shirt, and cheering on the boys from the far north in their much anticipated tournament debut. It’s a fairy-tale story no matter what happens from here, but just imagine if their team ethic got one over the individual brilliance leading the Portuguese line?
Most anticipated match for beer reasons:
Belgium v. Italy – I’ll be enjoying this clash with the assistance of a classic bottle of Delirium Tremens beer; 8.5% of hoppy heaven, and one of the finest brews known to man. Up against that will be a nice cool Nastro Azzurro from Italy, replete with the Azzurri blue.