Group E: Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden
A lot has been already said about the Eden Hazard-led (in the absence of Vincent Kompany) Belgium side. About a golden generation of footballers in their mid-20s, who have made Belgium one of the best footballing nations today.
EURO 2016, according to pundits, is the time for them to finally win a trophy and carve out a name in the history books. Standing in their way will be Italy, which knows a thing or two about history. The 2006 World Cup winner and EURO 2012 finalist might not have same aura of its predecessors, but the Azzuris know what it takes to win.
Then there is Zlatan Ibrahimovic in what should be his last big tournament representing Sweden. And the men-in-green from Ireland who are well capable of packing a punch themselves. No wonder Group E has earned the reputation of being the ‘Group of Death’ in this EURO.
It was ranked the best team in the world for most parts of the past year and coach Marc Wilmots has with him a squad that clearly looks like the best in EURO 2016.
The headache for the coach will be selecting his forwards from an array of talent. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku look all set to play, but they face good competition from Divock Origi, Yannick Carrasco, Christian Benteke and Dries Mertens.
In Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Moussa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini, the Red Devils also have an incredibly industrious set of central midfielders. The only chink in the armour is the loss of defender Kompany through injury. But in Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen, the team has ample cover.
Having a talented squad is one thing. Winning a trophy is another. Wilmots’ side has been sluggish in the pre-season friendlies with a draw against Finland and a come-back victory against Switzerland. The Red Devils will need to shift gear come EURO.
Antonio Conte’s ever-reliable ‘Italian defence’, comprising Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, has to come good again if Italy is to progress to the latter stages of the competition.
The injury-plagued side, with no Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio in the centre, will be reliant on veterans Thiago Motta and Daniele De Rossi to anchor the midfield. The versatility of Alessandro Florenzi makes him the ideal candidate for the right-back or the right-wing-back position depending on what formation Conte employs, while Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne provide width and pace.
The team’s first choice striker Graziano Pelle was good in patches for his club Southampton, but will need to up his game for the Euro.
Coach Erik Hamren has preferred playing the classic 4-4-2 formation in most matches leading up to the tournament, with John Guidetti partnering Ibra. The latter is still one of the best players in the world and will be very crucial if Sweden is to progress.
Veterans Sebastian Larsson and Kim Kallstrom along with Oscar Hiljemark and Pontus Wernbloom offer great resilience if not creativity in the midfield.
Defence is an area of concern as Andreas Granqvist is not the quickest of centre-backs. He will most likely be partnered by the young Victor Nilsson Lindelof.
Republic of Ireland
The team is not an underdog. A very balanced, hard-working side, it can cause problems to most teams in the world and Ireland should be quietly confident of its chances.
Through Jon Walters’ and Shane Long’s pressing, Ireland’s game right at the top is good. Wes Hoolahan offers the creativity, while Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy are the very embodiment of midfield marshals.
The defensive partnership of Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady has been good leading up to the season.
Verdict/Prediction: The Belgium side has too much quality in it and should ease through the Group stage. Italy knows how to win and one can expect the side to scrape through to the next round. Don’t write off Republic of Ireland though.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet and Jean-Francois Gillet.
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Jason Denayer, Jordan Lukaku, Thomas Meunier, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Ciman and Christian Kabasele.
Forwards: Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele and Radja Nainggolan.
Attackers: Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco.
Goalkeepers: Buffon, Marchetti and Sirigu.
Defenders: Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Darmian, De Sciglio and Ogbonna.
Midfielders: Bernardeschi, Candreva, De Rossi, El Shaarawy, Florenzi, Giaccherini, Sturaro, Thiago Motta and Parolo.
Forwards: Eder, Immobile, Insigne, Pellè and Zaza.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND:
Goalkeepers: Shay Given, Darren Randolph and Keiren Westwood.
Defenders: Seamus Coleman, Cyrus Christie, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh, John O’Shea, Shane Duffy and Stephen Ward.
Midfielders: Aiden McGeady, James McClean, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler, Stephen Quinn, Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady and Jonathan Walters.
Forwards: Robbie Keane, Shane Long and Daryl Murphy.
Goalkeepers: Andreas Isaksson, Robin Olsen and Patrik Carlgren.
Defenders: Ludwig Augustinsson, Erik Johansson, Pontus Jansson, Victor Lindelof, Andreas Granqvist, Mikael Lustig and Martin Olsson.
Midfielders: Jimmy Durmaz, Albin Ekdal, Oscar Hiljemark, Sebastian Larsson, Pontus Wernbloom, Erkan Zengin, Oscar Lewicki, Emil Forsberg and Kim Kallstrom.
Forwards: Marcus Berg, John Guidetti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Emir Kujovic.