It’s somewhat of a tradition for Germany to breeze through the qualification stages, struggle through a few pre-tournament friendlies and reach the semi-final stage of the competition. This time around, Die Mannschaft endured a turbulent qualifying campaign and lost more than a couple of friendlies suggesting that the road won’t be too easy for them. Nevertheless, they are being considered as one of the favourites to lift the trophy on July 11th.
Germany under Joachim Löw have demonstrated that their biggest strength is their creativity in the final third. Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Ilkay Gundogan are capable of threading that final ball to instinctive finishers such as Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez. Toni Kroos and Jerome Boateng are among the best playmakers in the world in their position and simply put, no other team is as capable of dominating the game from midfield as Germany do. Löw has previously experimented with a three-man backline on occasions and we could see Germany’s fluid 4-2-3-1 transform into a 3-4-3 when in possession.
Defence remains a bit thin especially with Mats Hummels missing the first game against Ukraine. Liverpool FC target Jonas Hector is the only true full-back in the squad although Benedikt Höwedes, Joshua Kimmich and Emre Can are capable of deputizing. World Cup heroes Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose have not been adequately replaced, while Manchester United midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger was a shadow of his former self during his first year in the Premier League.
One to Watch:
In a team of several world-class players it’s tough to choose one particular player. Rather, it’s the combination of these players which makes Germany such a formidable team. At a push, off the back of a terrific season, Mesut Ozil is my pick for one to watch. The silky baller was one of the best playmakers in Europe this year and could be the key to Thomas Muller achieving his Golden Boot ambitions.
On the back of what was a pretty impressive qualifying campaign in which they finished just one point shy of Germany, Poland were able to outscore every other side in the qualification stage with the help of Robert Lewandowski, who had scored 13 goals to equal the record of most goals scored in the qualifying stage. At the moment, Adam Nawalka’s side are performing better than they have ever been, in their history; calling the Poles the ‘dark horses’ of the tournament will not be an overstatement.
Captain Lewandowski is one of Europe’s best strikers and is Poland’s star man. He was awarded his second top scorer award in Germany for his invaluable 30 league goals which helped Bayern Munich to the domestic double. His strike partner Arkadiusz Milik has also had a fantastic domestic campaign with Ajax (21 goals) and has shown tremendous development in the last year. Further, midfield general Grzegorz Krychowiak and experienced defender Lukasz Piszczek are vital players at their clubs and are just as important to Poland’s campaign as the striker duo. Irrespective of how far they progress, Poland’s possession game and clever use of overlapping full-backs will make for some entertaining viewing.
Left wing-back Maciej Rybus was impressive in qualification but will miss the tournament through injury. With no direct replacement for him in the squad, opponents could capitalize by concentrating their attacks down their right flank. Krychowiak’s midfield partner – whether Empoli’s Piotr Zielinski or Crakovia’s Bartosz Kaputska – are both inexperienced and may not replicate their club form at the top level. All in all, the Polish are a potential force to be reckoned with. The side carry great pedigree through the spine of the team and on their day could give any other side a run for their money.
One to Watch:
This has got to be Robert Lewandowski. The striker scores goals for fun for club and country. He’s dynamic, clinical and is as threatening in the air as he is with the ball at his feet. One thing worth pointing out his the importance of his strike partner Milik. Not only is the young frontman capable of goals, but is also an impressive link player and an important player for Lewandowski to feed off.
After finishing behind Spain and Slovakia in qualification, Ukraine will hope that their campaign in France turns out better than their last one in 2012, on home soil, when they had finished bottom of their group. A typical counter-attacking side – Ukraine – are more than capable of securing a spot in the knockout phases.
The side’s wingers, Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, are absolute engines and provide Ukraine’s main goal threat as well as being their main creative outlet. A very experienced backline also allows them to play comfortably on the back foot as will most likely be the case against Germany and Poland. Teenagers Oleksandr Zinchenko and Viktor Kovalenko could provide some much needed pace and ideas to complement the 37 year old duo Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Vyacheslav Shevchuk’s leadership and composure.
Team morale could be low as the domestic Shakhtar Donetsk – Dynamo Kiev rivalry has caused a rift in the dressing room. Taras Stepanenko, Oleksandr Kucher and Andriy Yarmolenko were all involved in a brawl in the last Ukrainian derby and sent off for unsportsmanlike conduct. Their unwillingness to make amends has soured the national team’s ability to gel. On the field, the lack of a proven goal scorer could be troubling for manager, Mykhailo Fomenko, as Konoplyanka, Roman Zozulya and Yevhen Seleznyov have all had erratic seasons domestically in front of goal.
One to Watch:
Heavily linked with a move to the Premier League, Andriy Yarmolenko has been ripping it up for Dynamo Kiev this season, scoring 16 goals in 32 games from the right wing, and will cause enormous problems for any defence he faces this summer. A bag of skills and pace, he makes watching football entertaining.
As the biggest surprise in the qualifying phase, Northern Ireland topped their group ahead of Greece, Romania and Hungary to make their first appearance in a major tournament since 1986. They are also the most in-form team in Europe (unbeaten in 12 games) and the ‘minnows’ tag may suite them well in France.
It is tough to find a player whose form for club and country vary so vastly like Kyle Lafferty. The Norwich striker has struggled in the Premier League and was subsequently loaned out, only for him to score 7 goals in qualifying and create history with his country. Lafferty will surely be the player Northern Ireland’s group rivals will look out for. Tactically, coach Michael O’Neill favours a crowded five man midfield and claims his key to success is to “outrun the opposition” which could work very well against Germany and Poland’s possession based football.
A cruciate ligament injury to Chris Brunt’s will force O’Neill to field Craig Cathcart or Lee Hodson at left-back with both failing to convince in the friendlies before the tournament. Ultimately, lack of squad depth and reliance on a single system may mean a last placed finish in the group considering their opponents’ superior squads.
One to Watch:
He’s the man on fire, and with 25 league goals for Wigan this year, Will Grigg is Northern Ireland’s player to keep an eye on this summer. While at risk of being outperformed by the song he has become famously associated with, Grigg showed last season that he does have the potential to rack up the goals and the travelling fans will be hoping he’s on song in France over the coming weeks.
Expecting Germany to progress from the group is the easiest part of this group. The real competition I see is between Poland and Ukraine. Northern Ireland have shown through qualifying that they have the potential to compete, I do think that this particular draw has given them little chance of progression, unfortunately. As mentioned, Poland have the squad to go a long way in this tournament and at 50/1 they aren’t a bad shout for a little wager.