Here we go; another summer of minute-by-minute drama, spectacular goals and battles between the greatest teams in Europe. Yes, it’s that time again that the European Championships return to decide which country will be the conquerors of the continent, who is the best at kicking a ball around from the 24 who have qualified. It promises to be a great tournament, with the best players, managers and countries all going toe to toe for our entertainment, to make their nations proud. History will be made whatever happens, but there is little doubt that this will be the best, and most competitive, championships in years, possibly decades, that is the expectation. With 51 matches in the space of just 31 days, this promises to be a golden month for European football, with a spectacle of players, skills, goals, kits, fans, landscapes and shocks to supply our needs for a whole year condensed into one tight package of pure joy. Before it all starts, though, to build up the expectation and atmosphere, we all need to get clear our predictions, as it’s one of the traditional highlights of the whole tournament. Everyone has their own opinion on how the tournament will pan out, and this week it is time to chip in to the debate with my own predictions. So who do I think will win Euro 2016? Without further ado, let’s get into it…
Well, let’s start in Group A, where the action will begin next Friday night, shall we? Between this set of four sides, it seems like it should be a formality as to who will finish on top, and that will be the hosts France. There is little doubt that our neighbours across the channel will cruise through a group seemingly low on quality, with their opponents being the unremarkable, perennial group stage qualifiers Switzerland and two slightly fortunate Eastern European underdogs Romania and Albania. The only real challenge for Didier Deschamps’ men will lie in their final game against their mountainous, politically neutral neighbours in the Swiss, by which point they should have already qualified with 6 points and their battle will be rotating their squad correctly.
With the likes of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Laurent Koscielny and Hugo Lloris making up a solid Champions League quality spine to Les Blues’ starting line-up, there should be no issues for the French with their eye-catching, quick tempo passing style of play against considerably less expensively assembled sides with far fewer world class talents. Albania and Romania both may be tight-knit squads with plenty of underdog spirit and heart, but unless they can reproduce a Leicester City-like shock, I predict them to keel over and become the victims of the French in the opening week of the tournament. Following that, I would tip the Swiss to follow the French automatically into the round of 16, as despite it being an easy prediction I believe it is the most realistic one, as they have the experience of constantly reaching international tournaments and the pedigree of always turning out respectable performances. The quality of Yann Sommer, Stephan Liechtsteiner, Granit Xhaka and Breel Embolo should guarantee their qualification.
3) Romania (through as 3rd place team)
Onto Group B next, where we find old faithful (disappointments) England, matched up with underperformers Russia, minnows Slovakia and the closest of rivals in Wales. Similarly to Group A, here it seems another certainty that the top seeds, our Three Lions, cannot mess this up (but you never know, this is England we are talking about here) and will surely win the group. Roy’s boys simply have to do this; otherwise there will be a public outcry for the team’s heads. Their first hurdle of a Russian side with only one player plying his trade outside his home country shouldn’t prove too difficult, as the world’s largest country’s squad seems strong in terms of depth but lacking of any serious stars to it. Maybe Igor Akinfeev and Roman Shirikov might lay claim to roles as first names on the team sheet for manager Leonid Slutsky, but honestly they wouldn’t exactly waltz into the sides of either England or Wales.
Past that, Slovakia seem an opposition bereft of any serious fight to push England for the whole 90 minutes, as the likes of Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel can’t carry the rest of the team of nomads for the whole game. Believe me, I’ve been Slovak boss on Football Manager 2016, and I doubt it was my managerial faults that led to them performing well against slightly smaller opposition but failing to live up to expectations against similarly skilled or stronger teams. It should be good seeing them have a good go at Russia, England and Wales, but the Slovakians should fail. Onto Wales next then, who I predict might just pip Russia, a country over 800 times the size of it, to second place in the group because of their really commendable spirit and desire as a side to keep going, whether or not they have the superstar talent of Gareth Bale or not. They aren’t just a one man side, but they also can’t be defined as a great side either, they rely on a range of different talents to see them through, and it is quite unpredictable which of those will turn up or not each game. I personally think that Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ashley Williams will all have great tournaments as a bi-product of their consistently game-changing performances in the last few month of the BPL season. It will take others to support them, but I think Chris Coleman has the ability to drag that out of his troops.
3) Russia (through as 3rd place team)
Joachim Löw’s Germany are an interesting proposition, and despite their inconsistencies at friendly and qualification level, I would say that without a shadow of a doubt they will top Group C. Up against the Polish, Ukrainians and Northern Irish, Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos and Manuel Neuer shouldn’t need to hit top gear, but may need to break out the repertoires we all know they are capable of to secure wins when games are tight. Their nearest challengers for me should be the red and white-sporting Poles, who have built a side tough to beat with Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Wojciech Szczesny forming the building blocks. Poland always have the ability to turn up and grab a result off of the big boys, but they have to all believe that they can do it. Proven last time as hosts, this is a side capable of failing to live up to expectations, but this time I think they will do it.
So who will pinch third place in the group, and quite possibly a round of 16 spot? In my opinion, I can see Northern Ireland just nabbing the spot, purely because of their great qualifying form and complete upturn in results over the past year or so, which has led to a newfound culture of self-belief and pride, rather than constant renewal of disappointment. Yes, they might not have the strongest squad ever (in fact I think it is only a Championship-leading standard of squad) but what they lack in raw talent they more than make up for in self-motivation and yearning to push themselves to their very brink for eternal glory for their nation. However, I believe that to qualify they would have to beat one of the three teams, and realistically that would only be by a single goal margin, probably meaning they miss out on a RO16 spot on goal difference. While Ukraine have an impressive collection of Shakhtar Donetsk players, I don’t think they all have the same unrelenting craving for that 3rd place spot, and that is why they might just let a big opportunity pass them by.
3) Northern Ireland
Next we come to the return of the two-time defending champions to again fight it out for their crown; yes it’s Spain and Group D. Vicente Del Bosque’s troops return to a battle which they thought they had finished four years ago in an entirely different state to which they approached it last, this time as beaten, battered, even embarrassed veterans of a poor World Cup in 2014, compared to a triumphant, dominating group before. Luckily enough for their scars, the threats of Croatia, the Czech Republic and Turkey shouldn’t carry much salt with them by my reckoning. Firstly (in order of schedule), the Czech Republic will pose an interesting threat to the three points, but one which will likely fail in the second half as the stereotypical Spanish passing game will outlast most opposition in the whole tournament, as only the best will be able to counteract it. Petr Cech, Theodore Gebre Selassie (who I rate very highly) and Tomas Rosicky always seem to be consistent performers for their country, and it is up to them to lead their countrymen into battle as best they can, aiding the more inexperienced of the squad. I think this is more of a transitional tournament for the Czechs, possibly the last for the likes of Cech and Rosicky, but they will make the most of the opportunity, that is for sure.
Following them, Turkey could prove to be tough customers when it comes to being beaten, as they are a well set-up side with plenty of attacking flair, but little end product, as last week’s England friendly taught us. Besides Burak Yilmaz, who has settled for a slower tempo Chinese league, Arda Turan and Hakan Calhanoglu, there is little to shout about for the Turks, and that in the end I think will result in a disappointing performance from them, however much they try to prevent it. I think that if you have Turkey as your sweepstake side, you might as well strap yourself in for a bumpy ride full of goals, but not possibly all for the side you want, so don’t build your hopes up. On the other hand, I predict an exciting tournament for a constantly entertaining Croatia side, who admittedly (and surprisingly) are without ex-manager Niko Kovac, who I thought did an extremely good job in his two years in charge. He did leave behind him a rich legacy of in-form and top-level players, though, with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Darijo Srna leading the line. They are always an eye-catching side, with their red and white checkerboard kit always one of the highlights of the competition for me, especially when paired (unfortunately not this time around) with the Dutch Oranje fans. Croatia will be my underdog side this tournament, and I believe they can change perceptions across the continent.
3) Czech Republic (through as 3rd place team)
For our penultimate group stage offering, we have the so-called ‘group of death’ of Euro 2016 of Group E, comprising the continental range of fiery Italy, new-age Belgium, sleeping giants Sweden and the prosperous Republic of Ireland. Many people say that this is the most difficult to predict of the six sets in terms of how it will pan out, and I’d have to agree as all four definitely have the quality to qualify for the next round, and all can be outstanding on their day. The trouble is for these sides, their days can vary a lot these days, they all seem to struggle for consistency. To get a winning formula in an international tournament, you have to start stringing results together, and that seems tougher than ever for all of these four. But it is by no means unachievable.
For me, Belgium seem the most likely side to stand a chance of coming out the other side of this group unscathed, as they possess the greatest amount of first-team, match-winning talent of any of the four. Think of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco and Marouane Fellaini (ok maybe not) and you have a set of players who could score or set up a goal in the space of a few moments, and will likely lead the scoring and assisting charts by the end of the tournaments.
Whilst Belgium have experienced a complete upturn in results over the past decade, the opposite has sadly occurred to the Azzurri (Italy), who have gone from World Champions to not even favourites for their group in the Euros in the space of just 10 years. They’ve had two group stage World Cup exits, a quarter final at Euro 2008 and a final four years ago where they were completely blown away by Spain. So not such a great decade for the Italians, and this tournament doesn’t promise to be much better for them. However, they do have a number of solid, internationally proven performers at the back in Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, as well as top midfield options with Danieli De Rossi and Thiago Motta, who should all be able to drag their country through on accounts of grinding out results when their country needs them. Against them, I don’t feel the Swedes will have enough strength in depth past Zlatan, although they might just squeeze a decent enough result against ROI to see them through in 3rd place. As for the Republic of Ireland, particularly after seeing their performance against minnows Belarus earlier this week, I don’t think they will have the talent to match their clearly driven managerial pairing to get a result against any of these three great sides, leaving them bottom of the pile.
3) Sweden (through as 3rd place team)
4) Republic of Ireland
To conclude our groups, let’s make this quick and simple. I’m saying Portugal will top Group F, purely on the basis that their performance against England the other day impressed me enough to prove that they can adapt their game plan to edge close games as well as turning it up a gear to punish sides like Hungary and Iceland. Cristiano Ronaldo should prove a big player in this stage of the tournament, possibly bagging the most goals, and their toughened base of Rui Patricio and Ricardo Carvalho should prove good enough to keep out the opposition. After them, I’m tipping Iceland to nudge Austria out of second place for what might be the only place in the round of 16 after Portugal in Group F. Yes, they might not have the most experienced or talented squad ever, but they show a lot of passion for the cause to represent their small volcanic island of a nation, and can definitely put in performances above expectation when it matters to them. They might just be the 1-0 experts in this tournament, the immovable objects like Greece back in 2004; although I don’t think they can ever replicate the kind of string of results as the Greeks. Yes, Austria have David Alaba, Marko Arnautovic and Christian Fuchs, but I don’t believe they have the all-around telepathy to link match-winning moves together at vital points. After them, Hungary should prove the whipping boys of this group, having to prove everybody wrong to get anything out of the tournament.
Round of 16
Switzerland vs Poland – Poland WIN
Could be a very tight game between these two red and white-adorned sides if my predictions pan out the way I hope, possibly going to extra-time and penalties. However, I can see Poland getting through this encounter as their all-around strength seems more obvious, particularly up front with Robert Lewandowski getting the support he needs from a pretty decent midfield of the Poles. A 2-1 or 1-0 seems the most likely result if this game comes to fruition, as Switzerland will toil for the match, but in the end deliver another half-way or so exit in an international tournament.
Spain vs Sweden – Spain WIN
A match-up between two nations with entirely different approaches to their widely accepted styles of play; pitting the tiki-taka brilliance of Spain against the direct, yet equally reliable route of the Swedes. Such an unequal battle seems like it will end in a convincing win for one of the two, much more likely to be the Spanish, unless one radically adapts their strategy. So I’d go for a 3-1 or 2-0 to Spain, with their as yet unconquered play (on the Euro stage at least) will once again prove impregnable, with Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique containing Zlatan and the likes of Iniesta, David Silva and Alvaro Morata profiting at the other end.
England vs Romania – England WIN
Such an unlikely coupling of sides appears as if it should have only one likely victor; Roy Hodgson’s England. Not much is known about the Romanians, but it is common knowledge that they are a hard side to break down, especially in tournament football, as their unheard of (and sometimes unpronounceable) players can put in real shifts to push their side closer to a result. This time though, I believe England will have the confidence, especially after having won their group, to triumph here, as our workmanlike style will beat sides in the ilk of Romania fairly easily, as we showed in qualifying. However qualifying is not tournament football, so the likes of Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Gary Cahill should watch out for a surprise or two and learn how to counteract them to run out winners.
Portugal vs Italy – Portugal WIN
I believe that in this high-quality game for a round of 16 match-up, there might just be a surprise on the cards, although you might not call it that as both sides are fairly similar in quality these days. Yes, the Italians are usually a very good tournament side, but this time I think their steady ride to the latter stages of the competition might just be thrown off of the rails by a fairly strong Portuguese outfit. I just feel that the combination of Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho and a (for once) in form Nani should just overcome the Italians, who lack raw talent such as Andrea Pirlo, Mario Balotelli and Claudio Marchisio that is required to win such tight games, like they did against England four years ago. If it’s any consolation, I think Italy could take this one to penalties, but they should fall against the Portuguese confidence and bravado, epitomised by their captain Ronaldo.
Germany vs Russia – Germany WIN
Seems a clear result; Germany 99.9% likely to beat a constantly faltering Russian side in the midst of a lack of exported talent. Expect great squad players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Gomez and Andre Schurrle to make appearances in this one and help their side to a comfortable win, probably wrapped up by 75 minutes or so. Russia don’t have the game plan or natural fitness to keep up with the Germans for 90 minutes, and I don’t expect them to challenge the reigning World Champions in this one. 3 or 4-0.
Belgium vs Croatia – Belgium WIN
Seeing how I definitely rate Croatia right now, I predict them to have a really, really good go in this one and to be leading in at least one moment of the game, as they have the explosive talents of Modric and Rakitic ably backed up by Ivan Perisic, Vedran Corluka and Danijel Subasic in goal. However, the criminally blessed Belgians also have bags of ability in their ranks, with Messrs Vertonghen and Alderweireld alike at the back pinging passes out to Moussa Dembele and Radja Nainggolan, who in turn can create chances for Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and a hopefully revived Christian Benteke. This one is another that has the potential to go all the way, and I think that any moment of individual brilliance will have to decide it. Who it will come from is anyone’s guess.
France vs Czech Republic – France WIN
Even with Petr Cech, Pavel Kaderabak, Tomas Rosicky and Jiri Skalak (who we all on the south coast will be rooting for) I don’t think anyone feels that the Czech Republic have anywhere near enough big name players to carry any weight of expectations into games. While this may help them in the group stage, going under the radar, I think they will definitely come unstuck against upper-echelon opponents such as France in this case. The talents of Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann should easily dispose of any inferior opponents, and I think this will be the case here. A 2-0 or 2-1 will be the order of the day for the French camp in this match.
Wales vs Iceland – Wales WIN
Yet another match-up of two similar nations in terms of stature on the world stage recently, but one that this time could be altered just depending on the turnout of one sole man; Gareth Bale. We all know he can change games in a split second, and in many ways that is Plan A for the Welsh this summer, their trump card for every match. While it won’t always prove right, I believe that in a tight game such as this he will prove the difference. Iceland’s incredible team spirit might just meet its match, and for Wales it could be a history-defining moment in their footballing story. This is one potential match that should really deliver on its promise.
Poland vs Spain – Spain WIN
A seemingly easy to call match, especially at such a late(ish) stage in the tournament. Vicente Del Bosque’s men should definitely get the result they require in a match-up like this, potentially a morale-boosting thrashing on a score line of 4-1 or so, especially if the Polish experience injuries and suspensions in their previous matches.
England vs Portugal – England WIN
Very interesting proposition this one. If it does turn up, it could a match of the tournament contender, as on the continental stage, rather than the bi-national poor man’s friendly showpiece we experienced this week, the pressure would really be on. This is when our most exciting players come to fruition, a stage that England should revel in not shirk, with Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy possibly proving the difference between the two sides. If we can maintain performances across the park, I think we could just edge this one 2-1 or so. A lot of this depends on the ability of Walker/Clyne and Cahill/Smalling to handle Ronaldo though. He cannot be shut down, but we can definitely silence him and therefore his side.
Germany vs Belgium – Germany WIN
A real mouth-watering derby in prospect here, with the fast-paced, keep-ball German tactics meeting a similarly attacking and useful style of the Belgians in a clash of the European titans. Let’s put it this way, I think Germany win almost all of the vital head-to-head match ups, Manuel Neuer vs Thibaut Courtois, Thomas Mueller vs Eden Hazard, Jerome Boateng vs Jan Vertonghen, Toni Kroos vs (Fellaini?!) Moussa Dembele and Mario Götze vs Romelu Lukaku. Maybe most importantly, the Germans without a shadow of a doubt win Joachim Löw vs Marc Wilmots, and for that reason I believe that the Germans will triumph on the tactics board and on the pitch, where all the planning is left for determination.
France vs Wales – France WIN
Seems a definite. I believe in the ability of Patrice Evra or Lucas Digne (yes, that just exemplifies the strength in depth of the French) to negate the threat of Gareth Bale for the Welsh, therefore forcing Chris Coleman into a change that he is so far too inexperienced for, especially in competition. The French should clean up in what looked like a very unlikely match up five years ago, on a score line of 2-0 or so.
Spain vs England – Spain WIN
This looks very much like a rerun of the type of match England played against Italy just four years back, when we were totally out passed and outclassed for 120 minutes and somehow hung on to once again fail on penalties. Now, I’m not saying the actors to this play are the same, nor are the props or setting, but I feel the English weight of expectation will once again carry too much on our backs, breaking our confidence and resulting in a potential lesson in football by the Spanish, who adopted the sport we created and have changed it to suit them. It might just be another pin gouged into the English voodoo doll by the footballing gods for failing to adapt to the times. Maybe I’m dreaming that we will even make it to the semi-finals, but what we need in this country is some self-belief and fearlessness. So come on boys, let’s do this (and walk straight into the Spanish trap)! At least we’ll stay long enough to find everything in our hotel this time…
Germany vs France – Germany WIN
Now this will most likely be the absolute highlight of the tournament for all fans, partisan or not. This might not turn out like the infamous 7-1 semi-final (with Brazil instead of France) just two years ago, but it will make just as much noise on twitter, that’s for sure. A meeting between the two biggest historic forces on the economic, political and sporting scales in Europe (actually being good at all unlike England) is sure to be a truly memorable match for all. My heart says France, my head says Germany, and I think this time my head wins. I just personally believe that the toned-down and introverted confidence of the Germans will prove more effective than the stereotypically self-centered ego, bordering on arrogance of the French, who will crumble under the weight of their own belief. Joachim Löw can handle his troops in a much more Fergie-style (Man United not the Black Eyed Peas) way, caring but firm at the right moments, when compared to Didier Deschamps, who is as yet unproven on this stage, especially at handling tough situations (Benzema anyone?). Germany to win in extra time.
Spain vs Germany – Germany WIN (European Champions)
So, the culmination of all of my predictions would be this; a final showdown between the two arguably best teams in European footballing history. Löw’s World Champions Germany against Del Bosque’s two time European Champions and dethroned World Cup winners, a game pitting two of the most successful and quietly charismatic managers in footballing history against each other to decide a victor in 2016. It really would be an unmissable spectacle. That’s not forgetting the players; Mueller, Götze, Neuer, Boateng and Kroos against Iniesta, Morata, De Gea, Pique and Fabregas, all world class talents worthy of the title of champions (great five a side teams as well). I personally believe that Germany’s midfield is the strongest in the whole competition, with a line-up of Kroos-Khedira-Özil-Mueller and replacements of Schweinsteiger, Julian Draxler and Joshua Kimmich the perfect blend of experience and promise. However, I also believe that the Spanish defence seems the strongest on paper of all 24 sides, encompassing a back four of Alba-Ramos-Pique-Juanfran and replacement in the calibre of Azpilicueta, Bartra, Bellerin and San Jose. So deciding who will turn out champions on the night seems to come down all to the strikers, who then will have to beat Neuer or De Gea which is no mean feat in itself. So would you have the pace and energy of Götze or the slightly more attacking and daring Morata? Do you prioritise undebatable links with the midfield or out-and-out goal scoring prowess? Patience in creating chances, or creating as many great openings as possible? Personally, and it’s just my opinion, but I would go for the former. Götze proved himself last World Cup, and while he isn’t first choice at Bayern Munich, he would walk into any side in England, France or Italy. I’m backing the Germans to finish off the job in this final, putting all of their critics to bed by becoming double winners for the first time in their history as unified nation. What an achievement that would be, and what a conclusion to an undoubtedly outstanding and unmissable tournament it might just turn out to be.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!