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Euro 2016 won’t begin until early June, but it’s already becoming one of the major talking points of European football. That’s because the draw for the group stage took place this past weekend, and we now know where the 24 teams will be placed and who’s playing who. Here’s a group-by-group look at the draw and some of its implications.
Host nation France is the top team in Group A, and the draw was fairly friendly to the hosts. Romania, Albania, and Switzerland will round out the group. Albania is in the conversation as arguably the worst team in the competition, and Romania, while slightly more capable, looked far from threatening during the qualifying stage. Switzerland appears likely to finish second in the group and has the strength in midfield to give France a very tricky match. But in all likelihood, Group A will see the hosts advance first with the Swiss in second.
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Group B is certainly one of the most interesting, given that it features pretty strong quality from top to bottom, as well as one of the most enticing match-ups in any group. England, Russia, Wales, and Slovakia comprise the group, and there isn’t a weak team in the bunch. A few months ago, England and Russia may have been viewed as something close to co-favourites, but after England breezed through qualifying with 10 wins in 10 matches, the Three Lions will be expected to win the group. Russia and Slovakia are both strong, consistent sides (the Russians being superior), but the real intrigue comes from Wales and their exciting duo of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. It’s probably a long shot for the Welsh to advance, but you’d better believe those two in particular will give England fits. It’s likeliest England, and Russia will move on, but don’t be surprised if Wales or Slovakia is plays a significant role.
Defending World Cup champion Germany will head up Group C. While they’ll be the clear favourite, it’s not a particularly easy group. Poland, Ukraine, and Northern Ireland will join the Germans, and of the three only Northern Ireland looks slightly in over its head (though the team performed quite well in qualifying). Ukraine is a team that’s been improving over the course of this decade, and Poland actually managed to beat Germany in qualifying. Germany will almost certainly take first, but the battle for second place will be thrilling. This is another group that could produce one of the four best third-place finishers.
Group D is one of the more balanced groups, featuring Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, and Croatia. La Roja will be favourites and with good reason, but this is not the same Spanish side that dominated European and world football for the better part of a decade. Each of these teams could advance, and frankly each has at least an outside chance to come out on top. But Spain is the presumptive winner, and Croatia is probably the most complete squad beyond the Spaniards, boasting a strong collection of tough, veteran players.
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Unquestionably the most difficult group, Group E will be an absolute thrill to watch. Belgium—number-one in the FIFA world rankings—tops the group, but Italy, the Republic of Ireland, and even Sweden can be very challenging for the favourites. No one knows quite what to expect from the Italians this time around, but they’re never an easy out; the Republic of Ireland looked quite strong (and beat Germany) in qualifying, and will likely bring a lot of enthusiastic fan support to France; and Sweden, behind the deadly Zlatan Ibrahimovic, can beat anybody on a given day. There are no sure things in Group E. While Belgium will remain the favourite, any two (or three) teams could advance.
Group F features Portugal at the top, and it’s hard to make much sense of the rest of the teams, including Austria, Iceland, and Hungary. On paper, it may look like the weakest group, both because Portugal is a slight level beneath the other top seeds and because the supporting teams—or at least Austria and Iceland—are relative newcomers. Austria was sensational in qualifying, and Iceland showcased a shockingly high-powered offense (to the tune of 17 goals in 10 qualifying matches). Hungary, meanwhile, looks like the weakest team of the batch. Expect Portugal to be more dangerous than their ranking, as this will be the last major tournament for Cristiano Ronaldo in his prime (or at least near his prime). Beyond the top team, Austria and Iceland should closely contest the runner-up position, but on pure quality Austria looks the likeliest to advance.