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Saturday, 11 June 2016

Vive la France: Euro 2016 Hits The Pitch
Who will hoist the coveted Henri Delaunay Trophy?

Outside of the FIFA World Cup, there is no other football championship that can produce as much excitement as the UEFA European Championship.  Yes, not even the Olympics brings as much excitement and media attention to the sport as the Euro does.  And we will see this direct comparison in a span of months with #Euro2016 underway now and #Rio2016 beginning in August.

The #Euro2016 field is one of a kind...namely the first time 24 teams have qualified for the event.  UEFA is taking a page out of the FIFA event handbook in increasing the number of nations competing in this continental championship.  Can you believe that as recent as 1992 this event only invited 8 teams to compete?  Luckily 1996 saw the expansion to 16 teams and, twenty years later, we see another expansion upping the field to the current 24 team format.

Before we dive into the preview and predictions for Euro 2016, here a few quick facts about the championships:
  • 53 nations entered Euro 2016 qualification, with Gibraltar competing for the first time.
  • The expanded field for 2016 will welcome the debut of 5 nations: Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales. 
  • Spain enter the event as the first-ever back-to-back champions, claiming the title in 2008 and 2012.
  • Spain and Germany lead the way with championship performances, each hoisting the trophy 3 times.
  • 2016 will mark the 3rd time France has hosted the European Championship.  They hosted the first ever event in 1960 and again in 1984.
  • Only 3 nations have hosted the tournament and gone on to win: Spain (1964), Italy (1968), France (1984).
  • The 2020 Euro Championship will not have a host nation, nor automatic host qualifier.  Instead the event will be hosted by 13 cities throughout the continent.  Major European cities like London, Munich, Rome, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg have won hosting rights.  Non-traditional host cities will include Baku, Brussels, Copenhagen, Budapest, Dublin, Bucharest, Glasgow and Bilbao.
The Opening Ceremonies of blog writing have now taken place and been put to bed.  The excitement, the cheers, the roar of the crowd (or readers) has begun to rise and the anticipation for the preview is at epic proportion.

Let's head to the pitch for a full group by group preview and playoff predictions:


Group A

The host nation has already kicked off the tournament as of press time, surviving a tough opening championship match vs. Romania (winning 2-1).  France (#17 FIFA World Ranking) is the leading contender to win this tournament.  France are making their 9th Euro appearance and already have two titles under their belts (1984, 2000).  And who was the last host nation to win a European Championship?  Yup, that would also be France back in 1984.  Although history appears to be against them.  Since their home nation victory, only one home nation has even made the finals and that was Portugal in 2004 (l. to Greece).  Add in recent Euro results for France: a QF loss in 2004 , last place group result in 2008 and a QF loss in 2012.  Odd piece of trivia fact for you though, in 2004 and 2012 France lost in the QF to the eventual champion (Greece, Spain).  So does France make the QF once again at home and repeat the home history of winning the title or do they suffer a QF loss once again and create luck for whomever can defeat them?  Time will tell.  One thing is for certain, their Group A competition should not scare them too much.  Romania (#22) did play a great opening game against them but still suffered a defeat.  While Romania looked strong, one could argue the closeness of the game was more about France playing tight and nervous for an opening home game than Romania outplaying them.  Romania did not suffer a loss in qualifying though, winning 5 matches and tying 5, and only conceded a qualifying low 2 goals in 10 games.  Not exactly an ideal result mind you but still enough to earn second in their group (1 point behind Northern Ireland) and automatic qualification.  Switzerland (#15) is in a similar boat where they probably can't go a full 90mins with France, they still have a strong enough game to contend for a knockout stage berth.  Switzerland can score goals and has a strong offensive attack that will put pressure on France and probably be enough to out-fire Romania.  Both results should be enough to push them through.  But what about Albania (#42)?  Well, welcome to the Euro Championships Albania...we hope you enjoy your first-time as it will probably be a relatively short one.  Sure everyone wants to see upsets...just maybe focus on some of the groups below to find them.

Projected Standings:  1.  France  2.  Switzerland  3.  Romania  4.  Albania 

Group B

England (#11) dominates the headlines for Group B with the Three Lions being overwhelming favourites to win the group.  England was the only nation to put together a perfect qualifying campaign, going 10-0 while scoring 31 goals and only conceding 3.  To say they were dominating is almost an understatement.  And while the friendly results leading into Euro 2016 may have been less than ideal, the group stage draw certainly should not give them much troubles.  The big test, and perhaps overall game of the group stage, will come vs. Wales.  Gareth Bale and his Welsh teammates will take the pitch for the first time at a Euro championship and of course draw Great Britain rivals England.  Wales (#26) put together a strong qualifying campaign, conceding only 4 goals.  The problem here could be scoring though.  They only scored 11 goals in 10 games and are they relying too much on Bale?  What if he gets injured or finds foul trouble in a game?  Who does Wales have to step up then?  With England and Wales drawing all the attention, the real advantage could fall to Russia.  Not many people are talking about the Russians.  Russia (#29) can score, shown with their 21 goals in qualifying, but also have one of the best goalies competing in France.  While they may not yield lots of press and attention, Russia could easily give both England and Wales a run for the group lead.  The final Group B team will be debuting Slovakia (#24).  Based on FIFA rankings, Slovakia should finish second in this group.  Slovakia made a surprise second place finish in their qualifying group, behind Spain but ahead of Ukraine, to make their first Euro championship.  Unfortunately for the Slovaks, the time spent in France will more than likely be a short one as finding any points on the field against their group competitors will be a tough one.

Projected Standings:  1.  England  2.  Russia  3.  Wales  4.  Slovakia

Group C

The current FIFA World Cup title holders, Germany (#4), headline Group C and are not only the overwhelming favourites to win the group but also a strong contender to replicate Spain's feat a few years ago in holding World Cup and Euro titles at the same time.  And why not?  Germany is one of the strongest and most experienced nations competing.  They have made the SF round in 2012 and lost the final in 2008.  Germany also is tied with Spain for the most Euro titles with 3 (these include the West Germany wins in 1972 and 1980 of course).  The Germans should get some tight competition in their group stage matches though from some very familiar, and close, competition: Poland and Ukraine.  Poland (#27) is the team to be wary of.  They scored a qualifying high 33 goals in 10 qualifying games and had the second best goal difference of +23.  Don't forget as well Germany and Poland were placed in the same qualifying group, with both nations winning at home, so these two will be very familiar with one another.  Ukraine (#19) will be making their second Euro appearance but first as a qualifying nation, having competed in 2012 as a co-host nation with....fellow group competitor Poland.  Ukraine did pick up an opening match win 4 years ago (vs. Sweden) but failed to find momentum in back-to-back losses, just missing the knockout stage.  They won their spot in France besting Slovenia is the qualifying playoff.  The final spot in this group belongs to debuting Northern Ireland (#25).  Northern Ireland surprised many by winning their qualifying group ahead of Romania, Hungary, Finland and Greece.  While the qualifying group win may be impressive, replicating a similar upset feat in France will be more difficult.

Projected Standings:  1.  Germany  2.  Poland  3.  Ukraine  4.  Northern Ireland

Group D

Enter two-time defending Euro Champions Spain!  Spain (#6) is fresh off a disappointing World Cup performance in Brazil and will be looking to right the ship and make amends to their fans while competing in a championship they have dominated for the past 8 years.  This is not the same Spain team though.  Many are fully expecting a similar disappointing result in France.  But don't think this will come in the group stage.  Sure there is a high probability of upset potential but Spain should still win this group,  although that final Euro tune-up friendly loss to #137 ranked Georgia does cause some concern.  The real drama will involve the other three nations trying to battle to not only top spot but trying to advance in second or one of the coveted lucky third-place finisher spots.  Watch out for Turkey folks!  If any nation in this group could trip up Spain, Turkey could make it happen.  If Turkey (#18) can pull out the 3 points in their opener vs. Croatia, the momentum and confidence could carry over to a surprise result vs. Spain.  They pulled the big win over the Netherlands in qualifying, cementing their spot as the top third-place team and earning automatic qualification, avoiding the playoff round.  Croatia (#27) is a team many expect to also give a run to the current titleholders.  Croatia is an interesting team to look at.  They have competed in the past 3 Euro championships but have only advanced past the group stage once (2008).  Time is ticking on a nation once considered a dark horse title contender.  They can score though, finding the back of the net 20 times in 10 qualifying games.  The Czech Republic (#30) are also an interesting nation to watch.  The Czech's won their qualifying group over Iceland (and Turkey...AND Netherlands).  The problem with the Czech's is while they may score a few goals...they also allow quite a few.

Projected Standings:  1.  Spain  2.  Turkey  3.  Croatia  4.  Czech Republic  

Group E

Quick, who is the highest ranking FIFA nation competing at Euro 2016?  Yup, you guessed it...Belgium?  Sure enough the tiny nation of Belgium comes to France ranking #2 in the world (behind Argentina) and, on ranking alone, should be a favourite to claim the title.  But can they live up to their lofty ranking?  Six years ago the nation was ranked #66 in the world...and now here they are as title threats.  Fresh off a QF appearance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Red Devils have the game to go far in France.  The draw gods certainly did them a favour, handing them a very winnable group schedule.  Italy (#12) and Sweden (#35) are going to be interesting to watch, both with potential to advance but with equal potential to flame out early and disappoint.  Both nations have played in the previous four Euro Championships, with Italy coming up just short in the 2012 final vs. Spain.  In fact, other than Spain's back-to-back titles, Italy is the only nation to make 2 Euro finals in the past 20 years, losing both unfortunately.  And what about Ireland (#33)?  The Irish will be making their 3rd ever appearance and will be looking for a better result than 2012, where they lost all 3 group stage matches and were only able to find the back of the net once.  Worth noting, in 2012 Italy and Ireland were also in the same group, Italy won the group stage match 2-0.

Projected Standings:  1.  Belgium  2.  Sweden  3.  Italy  4.  Ireland

Group F

This is Portugal's group for the taking.  It is hard to imagine a situation where superstar stud Cristiano Ronaldo does not lead his nation to the top of this group.  Portugal (#8) has been to a Euro, coming up short in what many call the greatest upset in Euro history losing to Greece at home.  Add in three past SF appearances, including four years ago, and history seems to align with the "A Seleccao".  The knock on Portugal will be, aside from their experience and talent being unmatched, they were not superior looking in qualifying (including a loss to Albania).  So don't cancel out the other three nations competing just yet.  Austria (#10) has been red hot the past few years, dominating their qualifying group with a +17 goal difference picking up 9 wins and 1 draw (vs. Sweden) while quickly rising to a Top 10 FIFA ranking.  Their last appearance was as host in 2008 where they failed to advance past the group stage, but this is a much different team.  Mark it down now folks, Austria is the #TwineTime dark horse pick of #Euro2016.  Iceland (#34) is making their Euro debut but the tiniest nation here (with only 330,000 people) could provide the biggest upsets (just ask the Netherlands).  Iceland allowed only 6 goals in 10 qualifying matches while scoring 17.  That kind of goal differential will certainly be a key to success if they are to advance to their first-ever knockout stage.  And don't forget Hungry (#20).  Welcome back...it's only been what...10? 20? 44 years since we last saw you here!  Hungary finished with a mediocre qualifying record, finishing third in what many regard as one of the weaker qualifying groups in Euro history.  They did however win when it mattered most, taking both playoff games to eliminate Norway and qualify.  The Hungarians will be making their third Euro appearance, with the best result being 3rd back in 1964.  Experience sides with Portugal on history alone but, in a group with three unknowns and upsets bound to happen, Group F could become a shoot-out.  This group has two nations ranked in the Top 10 in the world and three nations ranked in the Top 20.  In fact, #TwineTime makes the call now that the 3 teams that qualify from this group all make the QF round!  And one WILL make the SF!  How do you like that for upset potential?

Projected Standings:  1. Portugal  2.  Austria  3.  Iceland  4.  Hungary


Round of 16

Poland def. Switzerland
Iceland def. Spain
England def. Croatia
Portugal def. Sweden
Germany def. Wales
Belgium def. Turkey
France def. Italy
Austria def. Russia


Poland def. Iceland
England def. Portugal
Germany def. Belgium
Austria def. France


England def. Poland
Germany def. Austria

EURO 2016 CHAMPIONSHIP:  Germany def. England - The World Cup champions continue their run of football supremacy and claim another title.  This team is just too strong and too good not to win this title.  I feel for England though who will finally reach a Euro final only to be denied the championship.

What do you think?  Agree with the #TwineTime predictions?  Disagree?  Who do you have winning #Euro2016?  Who are your upset or dark horse teams competing?  As you can see above, I think our Group F nations of Portugal, Austria and Iceland will all go far...with Iceland coming through with the biggest Round of 16 upset only to see Austria boast the biggest upset of the tournament in eliminating home nation France in the Quarterfinals.  Maybe I am crazy?  Maybe not?  Let's see how it plays out on the pitch.

Enjoy the action everyone....

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