In the last few years Belgium have managed to shed their ‘dark horse’ label. This is because many of their previously fledgling talents have emerged as world stars, playing talismanic roles in their respective clubs. In fact, there hasn’t been that many talismans in one place since Jackie Chan and the lads went hunting them in the animated series.
Belgium stormed through qualification losing just once to Wales. Gareth Bale was the difference that day. Film buffs will know him as the hipster extra from Planet of the Apes.
FIFA has recognised Belgium’s strength and ranked them 2nd in the world but that, as with much of FIFA’s dealings, is to be taken with a fistful of salt and probably some kind of tribunal or hearing.
Despite that, the likes of Hazard, Kompany, Courtois, Fellaini (ahem), Lukaku and de Bruyne have created a team spine that can legitimately win trophies. One issue could be that Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany will be watching their progress from a television studio. It’s a shame for Belgium because the absence of his leadership and all-round stability leaves their defence considerably weaker. However Belgium fans can take solace that Alderweireld has had an superb season with Spurs.
No longer a young side with no tournament experience, this Belgium side has reached the quarter finals of a World Cup and bar the aforementioned primate inspired blip, have qualified for this tournament in impressive fashion with an impressive 24 goals scored.
One to watch: Kevin de Bruyne. Despite appearing to have only a handful of pigments to his name, de Bruyne has lit up the Premier League this season and scored 5 en-route to Euro 2016 qualification. His movement and eye for goal can cause problems for any team. De Bruyne is one of the best midfielders in the world at the moment and Euro 2016 could be the stage where he truly comes of age and makes a certain Mr. Mourinho rue the day he sold him for peanuts and broken promises.
Ah Italy, the out an out tournament team. Currently ranked 12th in the world, the Italians always seem to enter major tournaments with some kind of issue or scandal that threatens to derail their chances. But inevitably they power through and make a nuisance of themselves in the latter stages. However the World Cup in 2014 was a stark reminder that reputation counts for nothing. Italy were pipped to qualification by Costa Rica and Uruguay. Conte will be looking to gloss over that by going out on a high before taking the reigns at Stamford Bridge next season.
Italy seem to have a an aging team for every major tournament and although it’s something of an oxymoron, it’s no less true now. This year they have managed to temper experience with an element of youth however a comfortable balance seems some distance away yet. Although they qualified undefeated and top of their group the Italians looked more than a little goal-shy.
They won by a single goal against Malta home and away and only won scored more than two goals on one occasion throughout qualifying; that was against Azerbaijan. The experienced spine of Buffon, Chiellini, Motta and de Rossi is blunted by a goal-shy list of forwards. It says a lot when your centre-back (Chiellini, 2) is your second highest scorer. If the likes of Immobile and Pelle can find form, Italy could be a threat, otherwise, they’ll likely flounder. Marco Veratti will be dearly missed.
One to watch: Gianluigi Buffon. It may be seen as an odd call to list a goalkeeper as one to watch but I don’t care. Buffon is a living legend of the game and at 38 is still operating at a level which would make Simon Mignolet’s eyes water. This could well be his final tournament for Italy and the Juventus man will be looking to go out with a few heart-stopping saves and you can best there won’t be one single hair out of place on that beautiful head!
If comical flags were a determining factor in who won football tournaments, Ireland would be utterly dominant. Sadly that is not the case and Glen Whelan continues to exist.
The Boys in Green face a veritable final in their first game against Sweden. A win could set them up for progression to the knockout rounds even if Italy and Belgium decide that they want to play to their paper potential. Of course that all depends on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but we’ll get to that.
Irish striker and captain Robbie Keane comes into this tournament nursing an injury that almost saw him miss out on a spot in the squad. The Tallaght native scored 5 goals en route to qualification and leads the Irish scoring charts. However the form of Shane Long is arguably more important. Long has gained a cult status in Ireland since blasting past Neuer in the Aviva in October. His stock is swiftly rising and he’ll be Keane to impress. I’ll see myself out.
Puns aside this is an Ireland team lacking in quality. But there is a desire and a team strength that could see them upset the likes of Italy.
One to watch: Shane Long.
Odds: 100/1 (Stranger things have happened, ever heard of Leicester City?)
We’re all thinking it. Without Zlatan this Sweden are up a certain creek sans paddle. Should he get injured their hopes of qualification essentially end. They’ll need to keep a tight eye on potential back injuries after he carried them into the tournament with 11 of their 19 qualifying goals. This will be his swan song in the international stage and the taekwondo black-belt will be looking to go out with a flourish.
Much like Jon Walters, he can’t play alone and it would be remiss of one to ignore his teammates. The Swedes had a tough qualification, initially eking out decent draws against Austria and Russia before crumbling against them in the return games. Wins against perennial whipping boys like Moldova and Liechenstein secured them a place in the playoffs against Denmark. A game in which the scoreline amusingly read SWE – DEN. They scraped thorough this to find themselves in one of the most tightly contested groups in Euro 2016. It doesn’t look good for the Swedes and if Ibrahimovic doesn’t show up then they should start looking into vineyard tours now because they won’t be progressing.
One to watch: Emil Forsberg… No I’m joking it’s Zlatan.
Odds: 100/1 (Add a zero to that if Zlatan gets injured)
Belgium to dominate, Ireland to surprise, Italy to stagnate, Sweden face demise.
*Odds from PaddyPower