Day 3, Sunday, June 12th:
Poland v. Northern Ireland (Group C):
Yet another team making their Euro Cup debut, and it should be a quick first appearance for Northern Ireland. They’re not going to scare anyone in attack. They do have Southampton stalwart midfielder Steven Davis as their captain and former Man U (current West Brom) defender Jonny Evans.
Poland, on the other hand, is one of the darkhorses of the tournament. Will they win it? Almost certainly not, but they have the talent to make a run. It starts with Robert Lewandoski, who is one of the most feared goal-scorers in the world and netted 42 for Bayern Munich this season. Arkadiusz Milik will most likely play alongside Lewandoski and he is also a legit goal-scoring threat. Fullback Lukasz Piszczek is also highly-rated.
Prediction: Poland 2, N. Ireland 0
Germany v. Ukraine (Group C)
The reigning World Champs are absolutely a contender here but they come in to this tournament in worse shape than they were two years ago. Captain Philipp Lahm has retired from international duty. Long-time midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger looked older than his 31 years in a pedestrian first season at Man U, and may have lost his starting spot here. Mario Gomez, who missed most of the previous two seasons with injuries before playing this year in the Turkish league, is expected to start at striker. The only “new blood” that can be expected to contribute is 22-year-old midfielder Julian Draxler.
All that aside, they still have the world’s best goalkeeper, experienced center-backs in their primes, Toni Kroos controlling the middle, Mesut Ozil providing creative attacking, and Thomas Muller, one of the world’s best goal-scorers. They’ll be fine.
Don’t expect much resistance from the Ukraine (insert Seinfeld quote here). The entire team plays in the Ukrainian league with the exception of winger Yevhen Konoplyanka, who plays for the Europa League champs, Sevilla, in La Liga.
Prediction: Germany 4, Ukraine 1
Turkey v. Croatia (Group D)
This is an intriguing match-up. Croatia is legit and they are one of the darkhorse teams that has a long but real shot to go deep in this tournament and possibly even to win it. The roster is almost entirely a mix of guys in their primes that play for big clubs in top leagues, and some young up-and-comers currently playing for Dinamo Zagreb, the top Croatian team, and most likely on their way to the big leagues.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are two of the finest midfielders in the world and Mateo Kovacic may be on his way to joining them. Mario Mandzukic is a solid striker leading the line, and both fullbacks are very good.
Turkey doesn’t always make it into the big tournaments, but when they do, look out. They finished 3rd in the ’02 World Cup and 3rd in the ’08 Euro Cup, the last time they played in a major tournament.
Arda Turan is the star and captain for the Turks, even if he’s just a sub for mighty Barcelona. Hakan Calhanoglu is another attacker to watch, especially on free kicks. Left-back Caner Erkin just signed to move from the Turkish league to Inter Milan last week, so he is a talent to be aware of also.
Prediction: Croatia 1, Turkey 1
Day 4, Monday, June 14th:
Spain v. Czech Republic (Group D)
All the talk about Spain will be about their flame-out in the ’14 World Cup, but this team is still awesome and is right there with France and Germany as a favorite to win this thing. No team in the tournament will be harder to score against than Spain. Some would argue that David De Gea has surpassed Germany’s Neuer as the world’s best keeper. They have the great center-back duo of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, and four world-class fullbacks to choose from for the two starting spots there.
There is some question about how many goals they can score, but Andres Iniesta and David Silva are still two of the best midfielders in the sport, and Alvaro Morata should be the striker. He’s not elite, but certainly on par with the strikers France and Germany will run out. Late-blooming 29-year-old Nolito is expected to start in his first major tournament with the national team.
This Czech team is solid but toeing the line between “experienced” and “old”. If they had a different draw, they would have a decent chance of advancing, but Group D is probably the toughest in the field. Also, they have to face Spain with starting center-back Marek Suchy suspended and their captain, longtime Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky, will play but he missed the entire EPL season with injury and is 35 years old.
Prediction: Spain 2, Czech Republic 0
Ireland v. Sweden (Group E)
Groups D and E are definitely the most intriguing, and these two teams are expected to battle it out for third place in this group, which possibly means a berth in the knockout stage.
Ireland’s staring line-up is almost entirely comprised of middling Premier League players, but that’s better than a bunch of teams in this tournament can offer. They really have no standout players. Shane Long is a fairly capable striker and Glenn Whelan is probably their best midfielder.
Ireland’s team certainly has more depth of talent than Sweden, but where Ireland lacks a star, Sweden has one of the biggest in this tournament: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Even at 34-years-old, he is still a physical freak and one of the most feared strikers in the world. His presence alone should make Sweden at least slight favorites in this game. Marcus Berg will play alongside Ibra and is also (though to a much lesser extent) a goal-scoring threat.
Ireland’s main questions are in defense and at goalkeeper, so they could have a tough time dealing with Ibra in this one.
Prediction: Ireland 2, Sweden 1
Italy v. Belgium (Group E)
This is one of the best match-ups of the entire group stage. But this is not your father’s Italy squad. Many have said this is the worst Italian team to arrive at a major tournament in decades. Andrea Pirlo appears done at 37-years-old and wasn’t picked for this team. Mario Balotelli’s career has gone completely off the rails and he wasn’t even considered for a spot. Probably their best midfielder, Marco Verratti, is out with an injury. And there just isn’t much of a younger generation of Italian talent that has come through the pipeline.
All that being said, they’re still probably in the top third of teams in this tournament. Their strength is absolutely in goal-prevention. Gianluigi Buffon, at 38, still mans the goal, and his Juventus teammates, Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, form a fantastic center-back tandem in front of him. But it’s shocking to see the lack of talent in this midfield, and Graziano Pelle is probably the best of a middling group of strikers.
As for Belgium, they are starting to earn the dreaded “enigmatic” tag. So much talent on the roster, but they’ve never put it together to add up to the sum of their parts. In particular, striker Romelu Lukaku and attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne come into this tournament in great form and looking always dangerous to create goals. My Chelsea boy, Eden Hazard, is looking to rebound after a really poor club season.
The one area you could point to as a weakness at the ’14 World Cup was at fullback, and that hasn’t changed at all. It’s maybe even worse, because captain and center-back Vincent Kompany is out with an injury. That means one of the natural center-backs that they play at fullback will have to move inside. It’s just tough when you get little to no speed or offensive contribution from your fullbacks.
This tilt has particular interest for Chelsea fans. Italian manager Antonio Conte will take over at Stamford Bridge once this tournament concludes, and both Lukaku and Belgian midfielder Radja Nainggolan are rumored to be moving to join him next season. And, of course, there’s always Hazard and keeper Thibaut Courtois to track and root for.
Prediction: Belgium 1, Italy 0