EURO 2016: Can Loew’s men scale the heights?

The current trends generally indicate a level-playing field in European football. With very little to choose between the teams, at least the prominent ones, picking A winner is not a simple task. Here are my predictions for EURO 2016.

German players, along with coach Joachim Loew (foreground), train at Stade Camille Fournier in Evian-les-Bains, France. Germany, the World Cup champion, is one of the top favourites to win EURO 2016.   -  REUTERS

France's coach Didier Deschamps looks on as his players limber up before an exhibition training session in Biarritz, ahead of EURO 2016.   -  AP

Belgian national coach Marc Wilmots speaks to Christian Benteke (left) during a training session in Lausanne, Switzerland.   -  AP

With the pace of Harry Kane (left) and Jamie Vardy (right), along with Rahim Sterling and Danny Welbeck, one can expect to see England bomb ahead on the counter, says the author.   -  Getty Images

Modern day football makes playing pundit or predictor a very difficult job, and trust me when I tell you that no one likes to eat a humble pie. I recently came across an article online where the football editor of one of England’s leading dailies wrote a rather long apology of sorts for condemning Leicester City to relegation in his pre-season preview. We all know how that ended! So, here’s a disclaimer — if you’re reading on, I’ve gone with my gut on a few predictions that could well be turned on its head as the tournament progresses, and I suggest you keep this piece away once the action begins. If my calls do hit the bull’s-eye, I will be prompt enough to say ‘I told you so’ in my next column! >Read: EURO, an enjoyable epidemic!

 

THE FAVOURITES

Germany: They may have been beaten by the Republic of Ireland in a qualifier and Slovakia in a recent friendly, but at the end of it all, they are world champions and will always be favourites to win this. With no Miroslav Klose, they may lack a traditional centre forward, but have enough options in attack to dabble with. I’m not certain how much Joachim Loew would use Mario Gomez, but the 30-year-old could be exactly what Germany needs ahead.

Die Mannschaft’s midfield is laden with creativity and this is the area that I feel will dictate results for them. I’m not even going to tell you what players like (Mesut) Ozil, (Toni) Kroos, (Bastian) Schweinsteiger and (Mario) Gotze bring to the table.

Rounding them off at the back is sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer, who has able help in (Jerome) Boateng and (Mats) Hummels. Personally, I can’t see too big a weakness in any department. Loew usually shuffles between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 and I feel he will use more of the latter as it lets his players express themselves better. They are joined by Northern Ireland, Poland and Ukraine in Group C and I don’t really see a struggle.

Also the fact that only two countries have held the World Cup and European title together — France (World Cup in 1998 and European title in 2000) and Spain (2010 and 2012) — will surely motivate Loew’s men who, I feel, are strong enough a team to win the honour.

 

France: For a moment, just keep aside the fact that they are hosting the tournament and would have an advantage before running your eye through the squad. This team could well be playing on Mars and still be favourites! Didier Deschamps has a squad laden with talent and it’s all about how he chooses to use them. I mentioned Germany’s midfield earlier in the piece but take a look at what France have —Kante, Pogba, Matuidi and Payet. If you haven’t seen Pogba’s assist for Giroud’s goal in the friendly against Cameroon a few days ago, you have denied yourself a gift.

I’m sad to see Karim Benzema miss the bus owing to an off-field incident (there’s always one with France!) but Deschamps wouldn’t be sweating too much given he has Martial, Griezmann, Giroud, Coman and Gignac to choose from.

The one department that does look a little dodgy is the defence, and to be more specific, the full-backs. Evra (35) and Sagna (33) could struggle to cope with pace and it will be interesting to see whether Deschamps takes a gamble with younger options.

Les Bleus know a thing or two about home advantage having won the Euro Championships in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998 as hosts, and 2016 could be no different. Bobby Robson famously said, “If we’re sitting together in my house, who is more comfortable: you or me?”

Belgium: This one is a bit of a bold call, but if you’ve seen this Belgian team on paper you wouldn’t really disagree about them having what it takes to go all the way. Rival managers will kill to have the squad that Marc Wilmots has at his disposal. But tournaments aren’t won on paper and Belgium will have a tough task despite their star cast. They haven’t really impressed in major tournaments and against big opponents but I have a feeling this could be their time.

For all the names they possess, I think this Belgium team will rely heavily on the class of Kevin de Bruyne, who will play in the No. 10 role. He has Hazard beside him and Witsel behind. It will be interesting to see who Wilmots throws in as the lone striker. Lukaku gets my vote. The Everton striker, however, will have to stave off a fight from Benteke and Origi.

I wouldn’t be fretting over my defence too much if I had Courtois in goal and Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghen around. That said, Belgium will surely feel the absence of Kompany, who has been really unlucky with injuries.

What does make the task tough for Belgium is that the group they are placed in comprises Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden, all tough competitors. This side has constantly been hailed as Belgium’s golden generation and the pressure of living up to the tag could just take them all the way.

>Read: An unnecessary bloated distortion

THE DARK HORSES

Italy: From being crowned the best in the world in 2006, Italy have had quite a fall from grace, failing to get beyond the group stages in the 2010 and 2014 editions of the World Cup. The quality of the Serie A too has been dwindling. But for all things that are wrong with the Azzurri, they are a force you would be stupid to discount.

Everyone talks about Italy’s defence being their strength. But this time around, I think their ace is not anyone on the field. Antonio Conte is a shrewd manager and one who could swing this Italy side’s fortunes around. He possesses great tactical nous and is inspirational in equal measure. He showed proof of that in masterminding Juventus’ return to power when they won three successive League titles under him.

Talking of Juventus, Italy’s defence is picked up from the Serie A champions where Buffon, in goal, is supported by the trio they call BBC — Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini. The worry is the attack. Pelle hasn’t really got much playing time at Southampton and his spot could be taken by Zaza.

England: They are forever associated with failure despite having some ridiculous talent but I genuinely think that this English side may just be the bunch that turns the corner.

Roy Hodgson has assembled what I think is a smart side that possesses flair. Vardy and Kane have been on fire for their respective teams in the Premier League and were battling each other toe to toe in the race to the golden boot. Dele Alli is another one who could definitely make a big difference.

With the pace of Kane, Vardy, Sterling and Welbeck, one can expect to see England bomb ahead on the counter. Their opponents during the qualifiers haven’t been of the highest breed but it will encourage England that they were the only team to win all 10 games on their way to France.

However, the three lions would do well to be wary of complacency and the best example can be found in their last two friendlies. Hodgson’s men came back from 2-0 down to beat world champions Germany 3-2 but only days later lost to an experimental Holland side.

THE DARKEST HORSE

There surely is no such thing as the ‘darkest horse’ and this ‘first’ has been created to accommodate Spain. While keying in this column, the thought of where I should have Spain consumed more time than you can imagine. They have done some astonishing things in world football, but in the recent past, their form has been indifferent and as much as I love the team, I have kept the bias aside to introduce them here. They are gunning for a third consecutive European title, but in all honesty, don’t look like a side that could do it.

Spain’s biggest challenge will be to find able replacements for players like Xavi, Alonso and Villa, who were the key to the team’s success in more ways than one. It will need everyone to do more than they usually would if they are to make it a historic three. Don’t get me wrong, Spain still has the flair and style that most countries can only dream of. It’s how they choose to use it that will make the difference.

As a writer, this could very well be my Leicester City moment. But should Spain manage a third in a row, I’ll be more than glad to be proved wrong!

>Read: Time for new stars to emerge