As Euro 2016 is just around the corner, I take a look at the four teams which will battle it out in Group E of the Championship. Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Republic of Ireland will face each other in group E, knowing that only the top two of the group will qualify for the last 16 of the competition automatically.
Belgium dominated their Euro 2016 qualifying group, after topping the group with only one defeat in 10 games. Their only defeat came to the hands of Wales, after Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, scored the only goal in the match. Premier League midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard shined for their country, both scoring a combined 10 goals in the qualifying tournament. Although, they faced countries such as Wales, Israel and Cyprus in the qualifiers, which for such a high quality squad Belgium posse, expectations weren’t high, as their country were already expecting their side to overcome these fellow European countries comfortably.
Belgium have one of the strongest squads on paper in the tournament, and manager Marc Wilmots’ only challenge seems to be picking the perfect starting eleven, when their opening game of Euro 2016 commences on 13th June. More significantly in defence, after the loss of first-team centre-backs Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts, the solution seems to be the pairing of Jason Denayer and Thomas Vermaelen, where Vermaelen certainly, will give some crucial experience to this young side.
I expect Belgium to qualify whether it is through first or second place in the group stage. The spine of their side with Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku shows Belgium’s capability in this tournament, and with that in consideration, I expect them to overcome countries of Sweden and Republic of Ireland. On the other hand, although Italy seem underdogs because of their rejuvenated side, but for one, I won’t be counting them out, and Belgium’s toughest match of the group stage, and the game which will decide if they top the group or not, will be against the Italians. Belgium are becoming one of the strongest sides in Europe, but are yet to show exactly what they’re made of on the big stage. Is this the tournament which proves they are one of the strongest countries in the footballing nations?
Group prediction: 1st
Key player: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
After seven wins, three draws and no defeats, Italy eased their way to qualifying for Euro 2016, with an unbeaten run of 10 games. They may have strolled through without losing, but with the likes of Azerbaijan, Malta and Bulgaria they faced, a 3-1 victory was surprisingly their biggest win of the qualifying stages. Other results included an opening 2-0 win in Oslo, against Norway, and they continued with three slender 1-0 victories over Bulgaria, and Malta home and away, with also 2-1 home wins over Norway and Azerbaijan.
Italy have gone unusually under the radar in their chances to win this year’s Euro Championships. This could be due to the missing Claudio Marchisio, Marco Verratti and Andrea Pirlo who have been the heart of the Italian midfield for previous times. Italy also don’t seem to have that star man who they can rely on to score goals coming into this tournament. The main option in the forward department, will be Southampton striker Graziano Pelle, who reached double figures for his Premier League side last season. Compared to previous forwards such as Francesco Totti, Alessandro del Piero, Filipo Inzaghi and Gianfranco Zola, the current crop does feel like a step down. Earlier this week, former Italy centre-forward Luca Toni, also claims his country are missing a ‘striker who play at a high level’, which could have a big impact on how successful Euro 2016 could be for Italy.
The loss of mastermind Marco Veratti in the midfield due to injury, and the decision not to take the legend of the game, Andrea Pirlo; could cost Antonio Conte’s younger than usual side. However, the team have bags of potential with the likes of Matteo De Sciglio, Alessandro Florenzi and Stephan El Shaaraway. And they have every chance to upset more of the supposedly stronger sides in the tournament like Belgium. Although, any chance of attempting to stake their claim on the Euro Championship this year, could come too early for the Italians.
Group prediction: 2nd
Key player: Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
Sweden concluded the Euro 2016 qualifying group in third place, after Russia nicked second spot by two points ahead of them. Sweden were fortunate enough to have a second opportunity to qualify for Euro 2016, with a play-off qualifier, against rivalry country Denmark. The highly contested game was edged Sweden’s way in the first-leg, after a 2-1 win at home. Sweden then travelled across to Denmark, knowing a draw would be enough to send them to France for the Euro’s. After Swedish captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored two superb goals, Denmark’s late rally to pull it back to a 2-2 draw wasn’t enough, and as a result, Sweden went through on a 4-3 aggregate victory.
Sweden manager Erik Hamren has chosen an experienced squad, in a predicted to be challenging group, for his side. Till, they will heavily be relying on talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is being tipped to light up this tournament with goals. If the Swedish star turns up at the Euros, his country could well be the surprise package of the whole tournament. With an experienced back four, and play-maker Kim Kallstrom just infront of the defence, as well as Marcus Burg who for the third consecutive season has been a prolific goalscorer in the Greek Super League, alongside Ibrahimović leading the line, Sweden could surprise a few.
In my estimation, Sweden have not had the luck of the draw. But they have the potential to succeed their countries expectations in this competition, Belgium and Italy just seem too strong for Sweden to beat. However, if Zlatan Ibrahimovic starts against Republic of Ireland, the 6ft 5ins leader could be the difference out of the two sides, which will place Sweden in third. This will happen if they are one of four out of six strongest finished sides, out of the countries who finish third in their group. Whether they’re lucky enough to reach the last 16, shouldn’t prove to be much of a benefit, as they will most likely come up against France, who will be too strong in my estimation for Sweden to go much further in the competition.
Group prediction: 3rd
Key player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Republic of Ireland
Similar to Sweden, Republic of Ireland qualified for Euro 2016 via the long route, by completing their qualifying group in third place. After finishing three points ahead of Scotland, they managed quite a successful campaign, including a shock 1-0 win over Germany. Ireland lost just twice throughout the 10 games, which was worthy of play-off match, against Bosnia and Herzegovina. A late Edin Dzeko equaliser denied Republic of Ireland a first-leg away win, but the Irish made no mistake back in Dublin, with a double from Jonathan Walters, securing Ireland a spot for the Euro Championships.
Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill, was forced into making some difficult decisions for his 23-man squad, after a number of players who were in contention to be picked were sidelined with injuries. Players such as Robbie Keane and James McCarthy who have been vital to the side in the qualifying stages, have been risked by Martin O’Neill to be a part of his squad. The ex-Aston Villa boss has plenty of Premier League experience throughout the line-up, especially with players like Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Glen Whelan and Shane Long. Some potential key members of the squad could be in-form Ciaran Clark and Robbie Brady who have endured recent star performances for their country. O’Neill will also be hoping for the return of clinical finisher Robbie Keane, who suffered a calf injury in training, before their defeat to Belarus last Tuesday. Keane has been their leading goalscorer in the Euro 2016 qualifying group, with five goals from nine games, and his country will be hoping for more of the same from their skipper this month.
Republic of Ireland’s chance of success seems to be slim, especially after a disappointing result going into the tournament against Belarus. Earlier this week, Ireland faced a Belarus side who finished fourth in Group C of the Euro qualifying, and bounced back from their failure with a 2-1 friendly victory in Ireland. Although, captain Robbie Keane missed out as well as midfielders James McCarthy and Harry Arter due to injury. Assistant manager Roy Keane slated the side publicly, and rumours are that the team spirit of the camp is in tatters. I can’t see any way out of this daunting group for Republic of Ireland, and even before facing giants Belgium and Italy, I expect Zlatan Ibrahimović to put Ireland to the sword early on, which I predict will result them to be bottom of the group.
Group prediction: 4th
Key player: Shane Long (Southampton)