The now 24-team tournament kicks off in just a few hours when hosts France take on Romania.
Fifty-one matches will take place over the next month as Europe’s best nations compete for the trophy currently held by Spain.
An international tournament often means disappointment and anticlimax for England’s supporters but there is a slightly more optimistic and more importantly, realistic expectation from their young side.
Roy Hodgson’s men should progress from Group B and at least reach the quarter-finals. My prediction that they will face Portugal – the team they lost to on penalties in Euro 2004 and the World Cup 2006 – at this stage again doesn’t bode well for the pessimists but I’m hopeful that it will be a case of third time lucky for the Three Lions. Then they’ll lose to Spain in the semis.
I’ve predicted the pathways post-group stage so I can be told how horribly wrong I was on July 11th. I’ve also mentioned some players or teams I think will be successful, trying to avoid the obvious candidates where possible. They still rear their ugly heads despite my best efforts at being a ‘football hipster’.
TEAMS TO LOOK OUT FOR:
Wales could find themselves in the quarter-finals if Gareth Bale and co produce the sort of form that got them to France in the first place. For that to happen, Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey will need to provide the service from midfield with Ashley Williams controlling matters in defence.
Croatia has a strong looking side with the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric in midfield. They may, however, come unstuck in the round of 16 where they could face Belgium and their ‘golden generation’.
Robert Lewandowski’s Poland side could conceivably end up facing Spain in the quarter-finals if they manage to beat Ukraine to second spot in Group C. The Poles have Grzegorz Krychowiak marshaling the midfield while Piotr Zielinski – regularly linked with Liverpool – might be able to showcase his talents. Bayern Munich’s Lewandowski shouldn’t have to shoulder all the goalscoring responsibility with Arkadiusz Milik alongside him. The Ajax forward scored 21 goals in 31 league appearances this season.
PLAYERS TO LOOK OUT FOR:
England’s Dele Alli could very well continue his meteoric rise having been at MK Dons in League One just over a year ago. The Tottenham midfielder had a superb season for his club – who were challenging for the title with three games to go – and is capable of surprising his opponents on the international stage.
Olivier Giroud has his critics at Arsenal but the French forward looks a certainty for the target man role. The supporting attackers and midfielders, including set-piece specialist Dimitri Payet should ensure Giroud gets plenty of chances throughout the tournament. France’s path to the semi-finals is favourable, which adds further credence to Giroud being a serious candidate for the Golden Boot.
Croatia will be looking to their three Italian based forwards for the goals they need to progress. Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic is likely to start as the lone striker with support on the wing from Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic. Fiorentina’s Nikola Kalinic will probably have to settle for a place on the bench but his impact could also be telling. Blackburn fans might not remember Kalinic too fondly having signed for £6m in 2009 only to score seven league goals in 44 appearances over two seasons. But since leaving Ewood Park, the Croatian has rediscovered his goalscoring touch with 37 goals in 86 games for Dnipro before a move to Florence last summer where he’s scored 12 in 33.
It’s hard to go against the favourites, France. Their squad is packed with attacking talent (Giroud, Martial, Griezmann, Payet, Matuidi, Pogba, Conan and Gignac) that is capable of turning matches on their head. Les Bleus have suffered injuries to their defence and look weak – due to age – in both fullback positions but the home support help compensate that.
Current World champions, Germany, will fancy their chances but their recent form has been stuttering at best. They too have weaknesses in defence but the experience of 2014 and German efficiency in major tournaments means they’ll be a strong outfit.
Current holders of the last two European Championships, Spain, suffered a come down in Brazil two years ago. But they seem to be lining up in a similar way to the side that brought them success from 2008-2012. Diego Costa was horseshoed into the side during the last World Cup and it really didn’t suit both parties. Now a new group of players (De Gea, Bellerin, Koke, Thiago, Morata, 29-year-old Nolito, 32-year-old Soriano and 35-year-old Aduriz) are looking to establish their own history on the international stage.
As mentioned, Giroud (14/1) could be the man to score the most goals due to the service he should receive and the possible run to the final. Aside from the Frenchman, Thomas Muller (7/1) is Miroslav Klose II when it comes to international tournaments and Cristiano Ronaldo (8/1) is the best player at the tournament. Lord knows a lot of Portugal’s play will go through the understated, shy, modest, Real Madrid forward.
For the outsiders, you can pick one of Belgium’s attackers. Romelu Lukaku (20/1), Eden Hazard (40/1) or Michy Batshuayi (100/1) could be worth a punt as they’re likely to at least reach the quarters. Ricardo Quaresma at 175/1 could benefit from his teammate Ronaldo being double-marked. But if you’re feeling really lucky then look no further than Northern Ireland’s Will Grigg who we’re repeatedly informed is on fire and leaving defences terrified. At 500/1 he’s ten times more likely to win the Golden Boot than Leicester were to win the Premier League. Just saying.