Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Euro 2016 Group C Preview


Michael: In Group C, we find one of the heavyweights of European football, alongside a nation which had good results in the past but went into meltdown for a decade or two, a rising nation besieged by war, and an underdog who likes to bloody noses. Will the heavyweights prove their worth, or will avarice and injuries undo them? Will a country, once praised for attacking football, find their promising current generation provide new memories to go alongside those of old? Will a team find refuge in audacity, and turn a nation at war into one which fights for success on the football pitch? And will the underdogs, gone from the world stage for thirty years, pick up where they left off, with shock wins over bookies favourites, or will they find football has marched on too far in their absence?

There’s only one way to find out!





Group C



Jon: Right, I’m figuring that I’m a lucky mascot right now. Not only do Wales qualify but I go and move to Northern Ireland and what happens? First qualification for a tournament in 30 years.



Michael: Have you ever considered the delights of a Glasgow summer?


Jon: How do you tell the difference between summer and winter?


Michael: It goes above freezing once in a while. (What a joke to tell in the middle of a heatwave!)


Jon: Anyway…



Northern Ireland





Joao: Northern Ireland won its group with 21 points, one point above Romania, and five points Hungary. Greece, originally the group’s highest ranked team, finished bottom with only 6. Northern Ireland was a pot 5 team, one of three that managed to qualify to Euro 2016, and the only one that won its group (the other two were Albania and Iceland).


Jon: You can say Qualifying Group F didn’t look a hugely strong one – after all, though there were a lot of good teams in there none of them, even Greece were particularly scary. But for Northern Ireland, a team that’s rarely been close to qualifying in thirty years to top the group… that’s some achievement and one that’s emphasised the value of putting team ahead of individual stars. I mean, you look at that team and if you’re a modern football fan who’s grown up with the emphasis on star players and big teams you fancy it to be middling in the groups at best; the best known players in the side are former (or current) Man United squad players, a West Brom defender and a useful Southampton midfielder. But in a tight group a good striker can make all the difference and Kyle Lafferty’s run of superb form coupled with an obdurate defence was enough to top the group. The key to stopping them will be containing Lafferty but, like so many other teams we’ve seen, there’s a tenaciousness there (only one loss during qualifying) that means they’re going to be a tricky proposition for most teams.


Michael: Kyle Lafferty. What a man. A journey man player who played for Rangers, English lower league sides, Palermo and in the Swiss leagues, and was once called “too uninhibited even for an Irish man” by a Serie A supremo! He is to long term contracts what Glasgow City Council are to protecting historic buildings, and yet, put him in an Irish strip, and he turns into Maradona. The Northern Ireland team is seemingly like Popeye’s spinach to the man from Enniskillen, and he is their second top scorer in history (with sixteen goals admittedly, this is still Northern Ireland we’re talking about).


Also, Will Grigg is going to the Euros!


Gav: I don’t know, Will he?


Michael: Very funny. He’s been in fine form, at League One level, scoring a whole bunch of goals. 


Jon: WOOOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOOOH, WILL GRIGG’S ON FIRE! Ahem, sorry.


Michael: That damn song! Will it ever go out of my head. Not since I made the error of telling Mandy about it and she swiftly found it on Spotify to tease me.


Joao: Northern Ireland’s next three opponents will be much stronger than Romania and Hungary. By the way, Northern Ireland lost the head-to-head against Romania, with a 0-2 defeat away and a 0-0 draw at home. Their first opponent will be Poland. In the 2010 World Cup qualifiers Northern Ireland finished above Poland and got a 3-2 home win and a 1-1 away draw in head-to-head. The second opponent will be Ukraine. Northern Ireland managed to get two 0-0 draws in Euro 2004 qualifiers, but they still finished bottom of their group, without scoring a single goal in 8 matches! Finally, the last opponent will be Germany, that destroyed them in Euro 2000 qualifiers with two defeats, aggregate score 0-7.


Michael: We could point to key players, like Steven Davis...


Gav: Of Southampton!


Michael: And Gareth McAuley in defence, but that would be to miss the point of the Northern Irish team. They don’t have superstars, or even a Gareth Bale. Lafferty, for all the praise here, is your typical journeyman footballer, as far from a Real Madrid European Cup winner as its likely to be. But when you blend these disparate forces together – a West Brom defender, an SPL midfielder, a man from the Australian league – and blend them together, we find a team who play as a team. We also find a team who play well above their own individual capabilities, as seen by a year long, twelve game undefeated run in international football.


Gav: And they have Steven Davis!


Michael: Are Northern Ireland one of your picks to win because of Davis?


Gav: Yes, he’s just that good!


Michael: So, Davis or Bale? Who’s the best?


Jon suddenly perks his ears up.



Gav: He’s injured isn’t he?


Michael: No, he’s the captain.


Gav: Davis is great when surrounded by very good players. Bale is great under any circumstances. So Bale? No matter how hard Davis works, he’s still passing and winning the ball for Northern Irish players.


Michael: Aye, but Davis has helped turn Northern Ireland into a twelve game undefeated side. Northern Ireland! Undefeated!


Gav: True! Northern Ireland to win the Euros!


Michael: Common sense suggests the other three in the group having too much for the plucky Northern Irish. And yet... history suggests they struggle against sides they are thought they could beat, yet raise their game considerably for the big nations who should beat them. So perhaps we’re due another one of those times, where they lose comfortably to one of Poland or Ukraine, draw the other, then shock the Germans in the final game for a stunning last sixteen spot? They won’t win the tournament, but they’ll fight for every ball longer than possibly some of the more talented sides. It’ll be tough, but like many other minnows, the possibility to have a tournament to live forever in the mind is there. Of course, so is the chance to have one to forget. After so many home troubles, and issues over unity in the past, this is a united team supported,according to polls, by over 70% of the Northern Irish public. There is a togetherness, and a harmony, which promises much. Carpe diem!




What the Experts Say


“Despite a history of pulling off big results -- Northern Ireland have beaten the likes of Spain, England and West Germany in their time -- it would be a big ask to progress from a fiendish-looking Group C. Expect one result that raises the eyebrows but a respectable early exit.” Nick Ames, Northern Ireland return to tournament football, ESPN.co.uk 29 May 2016



“The key is not to be beaten in the first game. I’m not expecting to be in the tournament on 10 July but, equally, I’m also hoping I’m not going home on 23 June either. We are the type of country no one wants to play. The expectation of Ukraine and Poland is that they should beat us, a tiny country. I was interviewed by Polish media back in Belfast and one guy was almost insulting, saying: ‘But you’ve got players from Fleetwood?’ I said we have but we won our group. These are things which won’t be underestimated by the opposition. We have to turn that into our favour.” Michael O’Neill, to Andy Hunter, Michael O’Neill unites Northern Ireland with Euro 2016 campaign to come, The Guardian 23 May 2016


Previous – N/A
Recent – N/A
Don’t mention – Bad results a decade ago.
Do mention – Their unbeaten streak, beating Greece home and away
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 1.



Michael: Northern Ireland won’t be on many peoples tips to make the last sixteen, but if they are underestimated by the other teams, they might provide a shock or two.


Joao: Fifteen of their 23 players weren’t even born when Northern Ireland played the 1986 WC.


Michael: Bloody hell!


Germany




Jon: Before we start, let us pause to pay tribute to the New Pirlo. By which I mean Michael’s favourite player who he’s undoubtedly going to nominate for Golden Boot, Player of the Tournament and probably President of UEFA too. Ladies and gentleman, Mr Thomas Muller


(By Steindy (talk) 14:25, 27 June 2011 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, )


Michael: Ladies and gentleman, Germany brings to not just a footballer.  


To call him a footballer is to call the Empire State Building a collection of used building materials. 


To call him a footballer is to compare Krakatoa to a stove fire, the Andes to a steep incline, and the Marianas Strait to the shallow end of the kiddies pool at Munchkinland. 


What we have here is a myth, a monster, an unstoppable beast.


I give you the game changing, free scoring, the next big thing, the beast incarnate, the conqueror, the anamoly, the one in twenty-one and on...


Sorry, I got distracted there and started talking up Brock Lesnar. But the gist is much the same. 


Thomas Muller IS the best European player currently playing. Never mind Ronaldos, Pogbas, or past their prime Iniestas. Despite all the problems Germany have, they have a midfield of all the talents, and in Muller, THE talent to go far despite structural defects would crush lesser sides.


He has ten World Cup goals in two tournaments, but no Euro goals yet.




Michael:  He was also pretty much the only star to take Scotland seriously in the qualifiers, and scored four goals in our two games.  Bloody world class players...


Joao: Germany won its group with 22 points, one point above Poland that they’ll now face again in Euro 2016 group stage. They weren’t as strong as they use to be, they actually lost the head-to-head against Poland (0-2 defeat away and 3-1 win at home) and they also lost the head-to-head against third placed Ireland, other Euro 2016 participant (1-1 draw at home and 0-1 defeat away). 18 of their 22 points came from defeating home and away the bottom teams Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar.


Michael: Bottom teams.... *and* Scotland. The hits just keep on coming.


Gav: Hey, Michael, remember when Valeri  Qazaishvili scored to exclusively, singularly, wholly and individually knock Scotland out of the Euro qualifiers?




Michael: *sobs*


Muller aside, the World Champions have a strong team here. The last sentence feels oxymoronical, to be honest. 

They have injury issues – poor Reus, missing another tournament to injury – especially in defensive areas, and the usual question marks over a back four which has been the difference between Germany being World Champions in 2014, and Germany being World Champions in 2010 also, as well as Euro champions for 2008 and 2012. In the two Euros, Germany walked in as one of the favourites, but their swashbuckling style was undone by the first world class defence they met. Spain, and Italy, respectively. 


In 2014, what changed was that the Germans, while still attack minded, could also turn surprisingly pragmatic when need be. There was times during the Quarterfinal with France when they reverted right back to the Germany of old, scoring early and hanging on, but it got the job done, and their ability to switch from attack to pragmatism to attack again was an approach change that won them the World Cup.


Joao: Compared to the 2014 World Cup winning squad, there are fourteen players left: goalkeeper Neuer, defenders Howedes, Boateng, Hummels and Mustafi, midfielders Schweinsteiger, Kroos, Gotze, Ozil, Schurrle, Khedira and Draxler, and forwards Muller and Podolski. Gómez missed the 2014 World Cup but was in the 2012 squad, and in 2010 and 2008 too. The remaining eight players will be having their debuts in a major tournament.


Michael: Up front, they don’t have many goals, though they have returned Mario Gomez after a brief hiatus from the national side. Their defence (Hummels, Howedes, and the problem areas) doesn’t look particularly strong, especially when compared to the other members of the big four. What they do have a class goalkeeper.


Gav: ter Stegen?



Michael: Hahahaha no. If Germany want to do anything, they’ll keep the Barcelona man far away from the team. I meant Manuel Neuer, a man swiftly approaching 200 games for Bayern Munich, holder of the annual IFFHS’s World Best Goalkeeper award since 2013. With Buffon now approaching forty, Neuer is probably the best goalkeeper at the tournament.


There’s also the midfield, which allows for a lack of an out and out striker. Khedira, Ozil, Schurrle, Muller, Kroos and associated others. They have “formal” roles, but you might easily see them clearing the ball from their own box, as scoring a screamer down the other end. There’s a sort of fluidity to the German approach, where the midfielders could easily be strikers, or defenders, or in their own area, or roaming.


Jon: It still seems wrong to someone of my relatively advanced age that Brazil are still attempting to be a joyless, efficient bunch and the Germans are casually one of the most entertaining international sides in recent memory. They go to South America where, it should be remembered, no European side had won a World Cup before and pretty much stroll to victory by not only winning the tournament but providing one of the all-time great international performances by hammering Brazil 7-1 in their own backyard in a World Cup semi-final. These things are not supposed to happen that deep into major tournaments. I had to watch the BBC’s late night repeat to make sure I’d seen what I thought I’d seen. Turns out it was even better than I thought…


Michael: I have that match on tape, and frequently rewatch those five minutes of the first half whenever I feel down. That was special. Thank you, Germany. 


Anyhow, it seems like the perceptions of the international teams of the world when Jon’s generation were kids, and when I got into football (there’s a twenty year gap there, I was a late bloomer visa vie football interest) are all topsy turvy. Back then the Italians were defensively sound but with class midfields and forwards and a verve which could be turned on like a tap. The Spanish were wonderfully attack minded but full of holes at the back and temperamental. The Dutch were free scoring but racked up Semifinal and Final losses. The Germans were dour but effective. Nowadays, the Germans have become the Dutch, the Spanish have become the Italians, the Italians have become the Spanish and the Dutch the Germans. This is how my dad can have memories of Total Football, and, bar flashes (Spain 1-5 Holland, Czech Republic 3-2 Holland) I’ve seen less Total Football and more the total thuggery of 2010 that even the much missed and recently departed Cruyff deplored. For someone like me, who came into football around 2003 full time, I’ve always associated swashbuckling devil may care attack philosophy with the Bundesliga sides like the great Werder Bremen of a decade ago, or the modern Dortmund, or Bayern Munich in full flow, or the German national side, ever since Philip Lahm smashed in the opening goal at the 2006 World Cup a mere four minutes into the tournament and woke up an entire nation to the new German way of doing things.


Jon: You lucked in on the first German side you were exposed to, basically.


Michael: Yeah, well, I lucked out with the bloody Brazilians. And the Dutch.


Anyway, they fairly cantered through qualifying, despite a few sloppy results, particularly against the Irish.


Joao: Their first opponent will be Ukraine. Germany eliminated Ukraine in the 2002 World Cup playoffs. The next opponent will be Poland that Germany already faced in Euro 2016 qualifiers. Germany won the race by winning the group, but Poland would have won a head-to-head. Qualifying matches and matches at a final stage are totally different things though.  Germany defeated Poland in their first Euro 2008 match, it was Joachim Low’s debut in an Euro match, and it was also Poland’s debut. The last opponent will be Northern Ireland. Germany faced them in Euro 2000 qualifiers and defeated them twice, with an aggregate score of 7-0.


What the Experts Say




“The evolution of the German team under Joachim Löw in the last few years was based on having the ball as much as possible. They preferred a style reliant on possession and a strong midfield. These days, however, a lot of teams are not all that bothered with having the ball. They leave the passing game to their opponents and focus on quick counterattacks.As a result, the international game has seen the renaissance of the traditional centre forward, and with it the return of Mario Gomez after an absence of almost two years. Often injured and written off by many as a technically limited one-dimensional striker, Gomez is back after a strong season at Besiktas that saw him win the honours as the leading scorer in the Turkish league as well as the championship. Gomez is a proper No9 in the era of the false 9, a man who brings the sledgehammer when all else fails.
Christopher Biermann, The Guardian, 5 June 2016



Previous – Winners 1972, 1980, 1996
Recent – Finalists, 2008
Don’t mention – Group Stage exits in 2000 and 2004, Muller single handily KOing Scotland (because it would be mean).
Do mention – 7-1, the World Cup, a strong midfield.
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 2. (As seen in the 2012 Euros, Klose was expecting to come on the pitch, when Gomez scored. His coach told him to sit down, and instead of huffing, he did, and cheered the man staying on the pitch on. There’s been a togetherness to the side for a long time now...)



Michael: They start as joint favourites alongside the Spaniards and the French. Will their flaws in defence once again prove fatal, or will they win another title on the bounce? I’d have the Germans starting out as the favourites, myself.



Poland



Michael’s Note – With awful eye to hand co-ordination skills, though double checking was done, I apologise in advance for any spelling errors in Polish names below.



Jon:  Should be draw a veil over Poland’s qualifying campaign? Otherwise we might summon Grumpy Michael again with the power of his Paddington Bear Stare. And I mean, we haven’t even got round to talking about the Republic of Ireland yet…


Michael: Actually, despite some grumbling in other quarters, I’ve no issues with the Polish qualifying. They were clearly the form side in our group, and fully deserving of qualification. Now, if only some complete idiot hadn’t run on the pitch for a selfie with Lewandowski at Hampden, increasing the length of the injury time and costing the Scottish an equaliser...




Gav: I blame Victor Kassai myself.



Joao: Poland finished second in its group with 21 points, one point behind group winner Germany and three points above third placed Ireland. They were also the best attack in Euro 2016 qualifiers, with 33 goals scored. 15 of these goals were scored against Gibraltar though; excluding these matches, their impressive 3.3 goals scored per match becomes 2.25. Their most impressive result was defeating World Champion Germany, it should give them confidence when they face them again in Euro 2016.



Jon: I like a draw with a sense of mischief to it and Poland in this group amuses as much as the England-Wales draw does. Even allowing for their sprees against the mighty Gibraltar,  Poland were free-scoring with Lewandowski and Milik’s combined total of 19 goals being more than most teams managed in their entire qualifying campaign. It’s a credit to them that they ran Germany so close for top spot in the group and only lost once (away to the Germans, funnily enough) in their entire campaign. Fundamentally they’re a better side than when they hosted the tournament and the game against the Germans at the Stade de France on 16th June has looked a must watch from the moment the draw was made.


Michael: I can’t believe it, by the way. Mandy has played that song to Sarah and she started dancing. I’m doomed.


Jon: WILL GRIGGS ON FIRE!


Michael: In 2012, I said the Polish said showed promise, but was worried that an early exit would dent their growing confidence. Well, they exited early!  And then missed out on the World Cup. But in the past four years, an evolution has happened. More than nearly any other team playing at the Euros, the Polish have seen a nearly entirely different team grow up since 2012.


It’s easier to start by mentioning who is still in the twenty-three. Artur Boruc and Wojciech Szczesny are still around, with the Tyton dropping out for Lukasz Fabianski, despite his own penalty heroics and the former Arsenal man’s, less than brilliant Euro 2012. “Chesney” as he was once known by Brentford fans,  had a season at Roma on loan, where he helped rehabilitate his reputation with some fine displays for the Italians, after a few eccentric seasons in London. Even then, he’s still got the odd howler in him, and an ability to rile up the opposition. Mind you, Boruc was no shrinking violet either, and he raised his game at Bournemouth for some vital wins over Sunderland and Manchester United which helped keep the coast side underdogs in the Premier League. Despite trying out all three goalkeepers in games recently, Fabianski was the trusted keeper for the second half of the qualifying campaign, and feels like he ought to be the trusted one again.


In defence only two players remain. Jakub Wawrzyniak then played for Legia Warsaw, and, via a short stay with Amkar in Russia, now plays for Lechia Gdansk. He has a habit of being called into play for crucial games, including their wins over Germany and Ireland in the qualifiers. There’s also Łukasz Piszczek, the only one of the big three from 2012 still at Dortmund.



The rest are newcomers to major tournaments, with Kamil Glik of Torino being a stand out. He has a fellow Serie A defender in Thiago Cionek of Palermo, a Brazilian naturalised in 2011 after years playing at Jagiellonia.


But how did Poland transform a shot shy midfield and attack into one of the more free scoring sides in Europe? Mostly, by replacing the entire midfield and attack! Again, swiftly, here are the three who survive from 2012: Lewandowski, Grosicki and Błaszczykowski. Elsewhere there are exciting young talents, and older players who’ve gotten their chance in bigger leagues and proven their worth. Blaz is now at Fiorentina, having found it difficult to break into the Dortmund main team, and while the 2008 Polish footballer of the year is now thirty and past his prime, the right winger has found himself providing steel to a youthful midfield when called upon. He has come back from an increase of injuries in recent years – including rupturing his cruciate ligament in 2014.


But the new stars, and by new I mean ones the world didn’t see in 2012, are the ones to grab the attention here. Grzegorz Krychowiak has won the Europa League twice in a row with Sevilla, and his “thou shall not pass” Gandalf approach to the defensive midfield role reminds one of a younger Polish Roy Keane. There’s also Zielinski, promising in Serie A, and currently punting himself around the top clubs of Europe for a big money transfer. Karol Linetty, who I’ve not seen, is highly spoken of, and there’s the teen Kaputska of Cracovia, who scored on his international debut, and has already recived the inevitable comparisons to Messi and Ronaldo, poor lad. Two goals and six caps before the age of twenty in a decent international side is no mean feat, however.


Up front, Robert Lewandowski needs no introduction. He scores for fun.  He’s won the Bundesliga four times. He’s probably scored ten times in training in the time its taken for you to read this. Arkadiusz Milik is less known in comparison. Having turned down a money move as a teen to Tottenham Hotspur to focus on his football education, Milik spent time learning his craft in the Bundesliga as a teen before exploding onto the Eredivisie this season with Ajax, with a combined 24 goals in 39 games for club and country. Not used as much as the Bayern hit man, he can be lethal with his chances.


It appears, having seen them play in Scotland’s group, that these players are better than the men they replaced (with all due espect to the likes of Wasilewski, Brozek, Murawski and co) and this team should easily do better than any Polish side has ever done at the Euros before.


Since no Polish side has even won a single game at the Euros before, breaking that personal best shouldn’t be too hard!


Joao: Poland couldn’t win a single match in Euro 2008 or Euro 2012, and finished bottom of its group both times. Can they do better this time? The first opponent will be Northern Ireland, an opponent that Poland couldn’t defeat in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers (2-3 away defeat and 1-1 home draw). The second opponent will be Germany. Although Poland defeated Germany in Euro 2016 qualifiers, they were defeated by Germany in the group stages of Euro 2008 (0-2, in Poland’s Euro debut) and before than in the 2006 World Cup (0-1). The last opponent will be Ukraine, which defeated Poland twice in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers (1-3 at home and 0-1 away).


Experts View



“Lewandowski is the unquestioned team leader and by far the country’s biggest star. At the time that Adam Nawalka was appointed, the centre-forward had his critics, notably because he did not score as many goals for Poland as he did at club level. But the new coach stuck by his striker, made him captain and declared: “I have to re-organise the style of team play to make the most of his potential and skills as a finisher.” Lewandowski had struggled leading the line in the past, but now he has help from Milik, either as a slightly withdrawn second striker or from an attacking midfield role. The partnership has worked well, with Lewandowski the tournament’s top scorer in qualifying with 13 and Milik chipping in with six goals and six assists. For the team to be successful, the quick wide men, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki, will be expected to create the goalscoring opportunities.The team’s biggest problem is in defence. There is a question mark over who can play alongside the experienced and solid Glik at centre-half.” Dariusz Kurowski, World Soccer Poland preview, 5 June 2016


“Poland are no longer a counter-attacking team and Nawalka puts great emphasis on high and low pressing. It is extremely important for him that his team are close to the opponent and react quickly when they have lost the ball – to reorganise and to rebuild. “Organisation of play,” is one of Nawalka’s favourite phrases. Poland like to keep possession: pass it around, build the attack carefully and then, often, play the ball out on the wing to deliver it into the box.” Tomasz Wlodarczyk, The Guardian 4 June 2016




Previous –Group Stage 2008, 2012
Recent – See Above
Don’t mention – Ivica Vastic’s penalty in 2008.
Do mention – Free scoring.
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 4.




Michael: You can get a rough sense for teams before a tournament. Poland feel like a side which sweeps to the quarterfinals before coming undone against a top nation. I think they’ll win fans, and even have some overexcited pundits call them dark horses, before the end comes.




Ukraine


Jon: I’m deeply tempted to cut and paste here about teams that got through qualifying with the virtues of mean defending and being great away from home…


Anyway, they were pipped for an automatic qualification spot by Slovakia on the last round of matches, but then when you’re level on points you’d rather not be playing Spain as Ukraine had to. A 2-0 win at home meant their qualification over Slovenia in the playoffs was fairly straightforward.


Joao: Ukraine finished third in its group with 19 points, eight points behind group winner Spain and three points behind second placed Slovakia. They had to play a playoff against another third placed team, Slovenia, and they advanced with a 2-0 home win and a 1-1 away draw.


Michael: The Spain game was another one of those Ukrainian ones where they did everything but put the ball in the damned net (see also, England vs Ukraine, 2012), but they landed on their feet in the playoffs (unlike poor old Denmark), and even they couldn’t screw up then, with a professional axing of Slovenia.


Jon: That said… I know this has been called a group of death but I’m not entirely convinced of it. There shouldn’t be too much here to trouble a very good German side and obviously Lewandowski, Milik and Blazczykowski have the potential to cause any team trouble but… I’m honestly not seeing that Ukraine will be a major threat to either of them. Yarmalenko is good, but not that good and it’s hardly as if Ukraine’s form makes them a daunting prospect.


Michael: Has it been called the group of death? It looks like a straight forward Euro group to me: one giant, two roughly equally middle ranking nations, and one outsider. If the Irish get thumped as one might fear, a draw between Ukraine and Poland could see the top three all going through on four points at least.  (This is assuming Germany got points from Ukraine or Poland, of course...)


I’ve been called out in the past for a seeming bias against Ukrainian sides. So, there’s the steel of the aging but still class captain Tymoshchuk in midfield, alongside the explosive Yarmolenko (still at Dynamo Kiev) and Konoplyanka of Sevilla. Exciting youngsters Zinchenko and Kovalenko might do well if they get a chance, and the spine of the team once more comes from the duo of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev. There’s question marks over the goalkeeper Pyatov, who hasn’t had the most convincing of European seasons, and there is the feeling that the defence, especially, has aged. 


Also, there isn’t much in the striking department, so short of a purple patch, they will be reliant on their midfield, old and new. Last time they picked the wrong midfield for two games and went out.



Here’s the thing. Through a long time posting on Bert Kassies’s Coefficient website, I’ve spoken online to a whole bunch of friendly Ukrainians and people sympathetic to the Ukrainian national side. Including some folk who’ve gone through things none of us in cosy little suburbia in UK-land have to worry much about. Despite having a comme ci, comme ça relationship with the Ukrainian national side, I do want them to have a good tournament to raise a smile on some faces. However, there are underlying tensions in the squad. We’ll skip the politics here (though it’s the big unavoidable elephant in the room) and focus on the fact that Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Kiev’s rivalry exploded last month in a derby which saw three red cards, and Yarmolenko, the poster child for all that is good about the once vibrant and positive future of Ukrainian football, try to injure one of his international team mates!


No matter that they’ve since made up, apparently, that’s the kind of underlying tension which can flare up at the wrong time in knockout tournaments.


It's a very politic group though. There was obviously the Solidarity struggles in Poland, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the current situation in Ukraine, and, well, I can see where this analogy is going. The Germans, the Irish, and the Poles all seem in better positions now than they were, however, so lets hope the Ukrainians join them. 


Now, Jon, here’s some fear for you. The runner up of Group A meets the runner up of Group C in the last sixteen. Which means there is the chance of Switzerland vs Ukraine.


Jon: Noooooooooooooo!


Michael: The sequel no one wanted.


Joao: Ukraine was very good at defeating teams that couldn’t make it to Euro 2016 – seven wins and one draw against Belarus, Luxembourg, Macedonia, and Slovenia in the playoff, but they couldn’t win a single match against teams that qualified – one draw and three defeats. Their first opponent will be Germany, which eliminated Ukraine in the 2002 World Cup playoffs (1-1 home draw and 1-4 away defeat). The second opponent will be Northern Ireland. In the Euro 2004 qualifiers Ukraine got two 0-0 draws against Northern Ireland and they were both eliminated. Finally, the last opponent will be Poland that co-hosted Euro 2012 with Ukraine. In the 2014 World Cup qualifiers Ukraine defeated Poland twice, 3-1 away and 1-0 at home.



Expert view


“Fomenko has an all-or-nothing approach to man management. Players who he trusts are deeply confided in; those who have fallen out of favour are 90% certain to find a place in the starting XI, and perhaps even the squad, off limits. Marko Devic, the naturalised Ukrainian who was born in Serbia, is a prime example – the striker had an impressive 2014-15 season with Rubin Kazan in Russia but was culled after he refused to play in a friendly against Cameroon that had been organised for the day of his wedding. Devic no longer features in the team despite Ukraine’s glaring lack of options up front.”
Artem Frankov, Ukraine preview, The Guardian 5 June 2016




Previous – Group Stage 2012
Best – See Above
Don’t mention – The war
Do mention – Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev’s impressive seasons.
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating  - 9



Michael: They could crash early or be a surprise package – I feel they’ll be in the middle, nabbing one of those third place spots and going out in the last sixteen. There’s just a complete sense of understandable gloom over Ukrainian football. It’s depressing. Four short years ago, we had co-hosts with a young exciting side in the wings, waiting to take over from the faithful old dogs, and a quintet of clubs (Kiev, Shakhtar, Metalist, Dnipro, Chernomorets) showing variable progress in Europe. The big two soldier on – Shakhtar got a Europa League semifinal this season – but to see all that promise destroyed due to non-football reasons, I feel much like someone who saw the great Yugoslav side of the early 90s undone...




Managers



Michael:  Mykhaylo Fomenko took charge of Ukraine after Euro 2012,  and took them within an inch of the 2014 World Cup, losing 3-2 on aggregate to the French. He had a comfortable path to the Euros, via Luxembourg, Belarus, Macedonia and Slovenia, really, but it’s the sort of path teams like Ukraine have screwed up time and again Europe, and there was never any point in which Ukraine looked like they might have come undone in their qualifying route. Jogi Low is well known by now, for all his positives, negatives and eccentricities. I bet Kevin Kuranyi, when he took the huff around 2008, didn’t think Low would STILL be the German manager now. Talk about throwing your career away. Adam Nawalka appears to have transformed Poland since he took over in 2013, and Michael O’Neill could walk on the water of the Lagan after his transformation of Northern Ireland. He won the BBC Coach of the Year award at the last Sports Personality ceremony, to a standing ovation from his peers and fans alike.  His FA is so happy, they’ve locked him into a contract for the next four years, no matter what happens at the Euros.


Joao: Mykhailo Fomenko became Ukraine’s coach during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, and he also had to play the playoffs after finishing second in his group, and he also won the first leg of the playoffs 2-0 at home, against France. But then a 0-3 defeat in the second leg eliminated Ukraine. It was Ukraine’s first defeat with him in charge, they’d only lost once in the qualifying group, at home against Montenegro, but that was right before he arrived. This qualifying cycle had more defeats than the previous, but a happier ending.


Adam Nawalka arrived to a team that had just finished fourth in its 2014 World Cup qualifying group, before that finished bottom of its Euro 2012 group despite co-hosting it (and so being exempt from playing the qualifiers), and before that finished fifth in its 2010 World Cup qualifying group.In brief, in six years Poland only won six matches, four of them against hopeless San Marino. Now, with Adam Nawalka in charge, they won six of their ten Euro 2016 qualifiers. That’s a huge improvement!


Michael O’Neill became Northern Ireland’s coach before the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, and the team that he inherited had just finished fifth in Euro 2012 qualifiers, with only 9 points in 10 matches. His first campaign wasn’t successful; we can even say that the team regressed a little bit, since it was fifth placed again, this time only with 7 points in 10 matches. But two years later there was a huge improvement, he went from only winning once in 10 matches to only losing once in 10 matches, and the points were tripled from 7 to 21! Before joining Northern Ireland he qualified Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League, the first time (and so far only) that an Irish team went so far.


Joachim Low is the current World Champion, and this will be his fifth major tournament in charge of Germany and the third Euro. In the other two he was a beaten finalist in 2008, and in 2012 he was a semi-finalist. He surely has an excellent set of players that makes it easier to get these results, but a lot of teams have the same conditions and they often can’t create a strong team – that wasn’t his case with Germany.


Players to watch:




Jon: WILL GRIGGS ON FIRE, YOUR DEFENCE IS TERRIFIED!


*Everyone dances, Michael despairs*


Michael: Kaputska, Kovalenko, MULLER, Baird.


Jon: Andre Schürrle might not start after an inconsistent season but his pace and goal threat mark him out as a danger (I hear that Muller’s not bad too). Kyle Lafferty’s the obvious pick for Northern Ireland though Connor Washington’s worth keeping an eye on for a potential breakthrough. Blaszczykowski is the key for the Poles with Rybus and Wzsolek injured and limiting their options. Michael’s picked the potential Ukranian superstar so in a team with limited attacking talent I’ll go for the obvious superstar Yarmolenko.


Gav: Steven Davis. I thought you two knew your football but clearly not…


Joao: Goalkeeper Neuer has played every minute of every game over the last three major tournaments. Defender Boateng played every minute of every qualifier. Forward Muller was the team’s top scorer with nine goals in nine matches.


Midfielder Norwood and defender McAuley played every qualifier. Forward Lafferty scored 7 of his team’s 16 goals.


Fullback Piszczek will be playing his third Euro for Poland. Midfielder Krychowiak played every minute of every qualifier. Forward Lewandowski was the qualifiers top scorer with 13 goals.


Wingers Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka are among Europe’s finest. Goalkeeper Pyatov only conceded five goals in twelve qualifiers, if he can keep these numbers in Euro 2016 Ukraine’s chances look good.


Game to watch:



Michael: Poland v Ukraine could be a shootout for qualification. Plus, co-hosts in 2012, together in the qualifiers for 2014, and then here at Euro 2016, it feels like Ukraine and Poland have been joined at the hip internationally in recent years. Ukraine don’t tend to lose to Poland either...


Jon: Has to be Germany vs Poland, just for the potential fun of it and the bidding war after Lewandowski’s run out of Germany for scoring a hat-trick.


Gav: Northern Ireland vs The Rest of the World. Basically, Northern Ireland are the team to watch this tournament.


Michael: Going to do a Greece 2004?


Gav: Yes!


Michael: I hear bookies slashing those 5000-1 odds as we speak...








Predictions:



Gav:


1. Steven Davis

2. Germany

3. Poland

4. Ukraine



Michael:
1. Germany

2. Poland

3. Ukraine

4. N Ireland



Jon:

1. Germany

2. Poland

3. Northern Ireland

4. Ukraine



Joao:
1. Germany

2. Ukraine

3. Poland

4. N Ireland



Germany is clearly the group’s strongest team – they should win it. Ukraine seems to be better than Poland; both seem better than Northern Ireland and worse than Germany. So, Ukraine should be second placed in this group. Poland should finally win a Euro match and won’t be last this time. They’ll be third. Northern Ireland seems to be the weakest team in its group, perhaps even the weakest team in Euro 2016 - but perhaps that’s too harsh. If they won their group and only lost once, they can’t be that bad. Anyway, better teams than theirs have already played Euros in the group stages and left after the group stages with three defeats.




Michael: And that was the group that...



Jon: Wait a second, Michael.



Michael: Yes?



Jon: Breaking news.



Michael: Oh?



Jon: WILL GRIGGS ON FIRE!



Michael: I walked into that one.



Gav: What is this Will Grigg?



Michael: Ah, ok. Will Grigg is a young striker who qualifies under the grandmother rule for Northern Ireland. He scored twenty-five goals at League One level to help promote Wigan Athletic. A Wigan fan, DJ Kenno, released a parody of an annoying 90s chart earworm, Freed from Desire, with the chorus changed to “Will Griggs on fire, your defence is terrified”. It became a Wigan fan chant, and has spread to streets, the internet, and at time of writing, the bloody UK charts Top Forty! Grigg got a call up to the Northern Ireland team, scored in the pre-Euro friendly, and found himself in the final squad. The Irish sing the bloody song too, he’s become something of a cult hero in quarters, and I swear if he gets on the pitch at all, you’ll never get the damned song out of your head. 



And that was the group that was.