First up we have hosts France, who take on Switzerland, Albania and Romania.
Few countries maximise home advantage to quite the same extent as France, Les Bleus having conquered the last two major tournaments held on Gallic soil. Didier Deschamps captained them to the most recent of those victories, lifting the World Cup in 1998 following a 3-0 final win over defending champions Brazil. The 47-year-old will hope to blaze a similar trail this time around, but will have to do so without talismanic frontman Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid striker now excommunicated from the side for his involvement in an alleged plot to blackmail Mathieu Valbuena. Though team spirit might be aided, the lack of a world class centre-forward in Benzema’s absence abounds as the primary caveat to France’s status as pre-tournament favourites. The French public will be hoping Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial can compensate by carrying their stellar club form to the international stage.
Odds: 16/5 (favourites)
One to watch:
Kingsley Coman: He might only have five senior caps to his name so far but Bayern Munich’s Coman is one France player to keep an eye on this summer. Still just 19, the exciting wide man has already played for French champions Paris Saint-Germain and Italian giants Juventus. Although currently behind the aforementioned Griezmann and Martial in terms of the starting wide berths, Coman will be ready to seize his chance to impress on home soil when it finally arrives.
Euro 2008’s co-hosts benefit from a youth development program that has produced a steady stream of promising players, many of them from immigrant backgrounds, such as Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who is of Kosovar extraction, as is new Arsenal midfield signing Granit Xhaka. England made rather light work of them in qualifying, however, and it required a rescue job from coach Vladimir Petkovic to haul the Swiss through to this summer’s finals. They reached the round of 16 at the last World Cup and should be capable of doing likewise this time around, but few will fear them as a knockout opponent. France demolished them 5-2 in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup finals, after all.
One to watch:
Yann Sommer: The 27-year-old goalkeeper has slipped quietly into the void left by Diego Benaglio’s international retirement following the 2014 World Cup. Although not especially tall for a keeper at 6-foot, he commands his penalty area, has excellent reflexes, is calm and self-assured. He has missed only two games in his two seasons at Borussia Monchengladbach and helped them to two successive top four finishes. Played in the first eight of Switzerland’s 10 Euro qualifiers, keeping three clean sheets
Best known for their gloriously attacking 1994 World Cup quarterfinal side, Romania haven’t played like that in some time. As such, perhaps it wasn’t much of a surprise that, when they needed a manager in 2014, they looked to the man behind that spectacular summer. Anghel Iordanescu, 65-years-old and now a member of the Romanian Senate, was summoned out of retirement, and the gamble paid off. The Tricolorii, who had reached only one international tournament since their run to the last eight of Euro 2000, qualified unbeaten, and no team in Europe conceded fewer than the two goals they allowed. Mind you, no qualifying team scored fewer in 10 games than the 11 they mustered, either.
One To Watch:
Florin Andone – After scoring 21 goals for Cordoba this season, the 23-year-old is hoping Euro 2016 will serve as his decisive push to stardom.
Not only have Albania never qualified for a major international competition, but they also have only made it to two minor ones. The 1982 Under-18 and the 1994 U-16 European Championships constitute the full extent of the Black Eagles‘ tournament experience. But the senior side has bucked that trend under Italian manager Gianni de Biasi. He is known as a shrewd tactician and has been instrumental in the development of young players such as goalkeeper Erit Berisha and defender Elseid Hysaj, both of whom play in Serie A. Upon qualification, during which they beat group winners Portugal, the entire team was awarded Albania’s highest civilian award, the ‘Honour of National Order’.
One to watch:
Ermir Lenjani: The 26-year-old, freewheeling wing-back is entering the final year of his contract with Rennes. A fine showing in France may land him a move to one of Europe’s big leagues.
Group A looks like a relatively free pass to the round of 16 for France, but the fight to finish second is much more difficult to predict. Each of Switzerland, Romania and Albania will fancy their chances, but I think Iordanescu’s men will power through.