Euro Cup 2016 – Days 1 and 2

The Euro Cup is back!  The second-best soccer tournament there is, after the World Cup, of course.  This time it’s in France and the field has been expanded to 24 teams, from 16.    The 24 teams are divided into six groups of four teams.  The top two from each group, along with the four 3rd-place teams with the most points, will advance to the knockout stage.

There’s some very small countries that have managed to find their way in and, of course, some of the best teams in the world.  But those “best teams” all come in with some vulnerabilities, so there is a chance that this thing could get crazy with some upsets and maybe a surprise winner in the end.

Day 1, Friday, June 10th:

France v. Romania (Group A)

The hosts start the tournament and, I predict, will also end it as the champs next month.  Germany are the reigning world champs and Spain has won the past two Euro Cups, but I think the French have a team that is as complete as any in this field, plus the home-field advantage.  That’s why I like them to take their first major tournament since they won the Euro Cup in 2000, right on the heels of their ’98 World Cup triumph.

No team in the world can match the group of midfielders of France.  They have attacking midfielders that can put the ball in the goal (Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial, Dimitri Payet, Kingsley Coman).  They have holding midfielders than can stop the opposition in their tracks and then distribute up the field (N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye).  And then they have a guy that can do all of the above, plus some more, in Paul Pogba.

There are some questions about the defenders, but they do have guys with experience back there, plus a strong keeper and those holding midfielders that can shield them to some extent.

They also are missing their striker, Karim Benzema, due to a suspension.  That leaves the so-so Olivier Giroud to lead the line.  But, again, they still have goal-scoring punch with those attacking midfielders, and Germany and Spain have striker questions of their own.

As for their opponents in this first game, Romania shouldn’t give them too much trouble.  They have just two players that currently play in top European leagues: captain and center-back Vlad Chiriches and goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, both of whom play in the Italian Serie A.

We can fully expect Romania to cede the middle of the field, and ball possession, to the fearsome French midfielders and hope to exploit the aging defenders on the counter-attack.  We can also expect it not to work.  But, maybe we’re in for a topsy-turvy tournament.

Prediction: France 3, Romania 0

Day 2, Saturday, June 11th

Switzerland v. Albania (Group A):

One of the cool things about following this sport is that you end up learning things about these countries and the world that have nothing to do with soccer.  For example, apparently there’s a huge Albanian immigrant population in Switzerland.  Who knew, right?  Most of them fled there as refugees during the post-Cold War ethnic strife in the 90’s.  As a result, there are actually a bunch of guys on the Swiss team that were born in Albania, and a bunch of guys on the Albanian team that were born in Switzerland.  How do they decide which country to play for?  Well, the guys who play for Switzerland are the better ones.

There’s actually even two brothers going against each other in this one: Granit and Taulant Xhaka, who were born in Switzerland to Albanian parents.  Granit is one of the best Swiss players (and he recently signed with Arsenal).

This is Albania’s first appearance in a major tournament.  Meanwhile, Switzerland has been disappointing over the last couple years, so don’t count out the Albanians here.

Prediction: Switzerland 2, Albania 0

Wales v. Slovakia (Group B):

Two countries making their Euro Cup debuts.  Each has appeared in one World Cup though, with Slovakia in 2010 and Wales way back in 1958.

Wales’s (and Real Madrid’s) Gareth Bale is maybe the world’s best player to never appear in a major international tournament.  That ends here.  All eyes will be on him, but this team has a bunch of solid players that are familiar to Premier League fans, notably Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies, and Ashley Williams.

Key players for Slovakia: Marek Hamsik is a two-way midfielder while Martin Skrtel, the long-time Liverpool center back, will patrol the back-line as he captains his national team.

This game could be a bit of toss-up and could go a long way in determining a berth in the knockout stage.

Prediction: Slovakia 2, Wales 2

England v. Russia (Group B):

Ah, the English.  They’ve never won this tournament and won their only World Cup way back in 1966.  They flamed out of the ’14 World Cup in the group stage.  But, make no mistake, this group is a real contender in France this month.

Wayne Rooney is still the captain and a fixture in the starting line-up, but they are not relying on him like they have in the recent past.  Since the disaster in Brazil, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy have emerged as two of the top goal-scorers in the Premier League, and they will feature prominently, even if Vardy can’t crack the starting line-up out of the gate.  Dele Alli was the Young Player of the Year in the EPL, and he could play a key role as well.

The center back duo of Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling leaves something to be desired, and England has a history of big expectations with small results, but this could be a coming-out party for the next generation of English players, even if they don’t go all the way for the title.

Meanwhile, from a quick glance you would think Russia would be the easy pick to finish second to England in this group, but maybe not the case.  They’ve been decimated by injuries to three starting mid-fielders in the run-up to this tourney, and that could definitely open the door for an upstart Slovakia or Wales to beat them out.

Still, Russia should be very well organized defensively, as their coach, who also coaches the reigning Russian league champs CSKA Moscow, will run out three of the four defenders and the goalkeeper from his CSKA side for this team.

Prediction: England 1, Russia 0

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