Sunday, 5 June 2016

Euro 2016: Group A Preview




Euro 2016 Previews


The Panel


Michael S. Collins –  Owner of this blog, editor of The40p. First Euros were 2004, with fond memories of the Czech Republic v Holland game, still the finest game I've ever seen live.  I bring the ITV style discussion points. 


Jon Arnold – Author of The Black Archive: Rose, former Shooty Dog Scribblist, and with a growing fiction output. A polymath’s polymath, a Liverpool fan and music lover. He casts his eye over the world game, and provides the literally parts of the discussion. 


João Diogo Reis – Long time on the Bert Kassies’s coefficient forum whose views were a blog favourite back in 2012. 



And of course...


Gavin Mills – Lives in Estonia, and is a web designer. He really, really, really likes Southampton Football Club. This information might sneak in once or twice. 



Gav: I know nothing about world football. Pretty much all of the players that I will be mentioning wil no doubt have played football in England.


Michael: I wouldn’t worry. He’s sure to know more than ITV.

Have four years really passed since the last Euros? Blimey, you wind up a parent, and suddenly the time just flies. Mind you, our Gav did actually wind up a parent during the last Euros, which meant our attempts to play by play of the entire tournament got distracted by “aww, look at the baby pictures!”

Anyhow, last time out, me and Jon’s rambles seemed to get a nice audience, and as usual, neither of our national sides have qualified for this summer’s tournament.


Jon:  Ahem.


Michael: What?


Jon: Wales actually qualified.


Michael: You’re joking? How did that happen? 


Jon:  Gareth Bale combined with our unexpected discovery of a defensive coaching manual.  And hey, my wife’s Northern Irish so I’ve got two horses in this race now rather than the usual none. I can’t just relax and enjoy things now!


Michael: Oh, great. I’ll have to go and write these with Gav now.


Gav: Well, funny story here, I didn’t know the Euros were on, because I lost interest after Estonia didn’t qualify.


Michael: Hey, I hear Southampton players will be there, and some of them might even play!


Gav: Adam Lallana?


Michael: Actually, between Alderweireld, Pelle, Long,  Lovren, Forster, Boruc, Shaw, Ox, Bale, Baird, Cedric, Gardos, Clyne, Lallana, Davis, Fonte, Schneiderlin, and Delap, you could claim this Euros is actually a Southampton reunion tour! Even after the last minute edits to remove players who didn’t actually make it. 


Gav: (sniffs) I love the Euros!


Michael: So this is the first time the Euros have been expanded to twenty-four teams. This has seen a lot of criticism in quarters, who feel the tournament will be diluted as a result, and we won’t get to see nothing but world class games. Because, after all, England, Serbia and the Bosnians all sitting at home so we could endure Romania v France at Euro 2008 certainly upped the world class barometer. What’s the opening game this year again? 
 
I am highly in favour of the expansion. It has allowed teams like Iceland, Albania and even Wales to assume they had a chance, and they’ve taken it with both hands. Perhaps those teams will crash and burn in June, but maybe they won’t, and the tournament will be all the better for their entry. Certainly, it’s given us another tournament with Turkey, and they seem to bring excitement to every tournament they qualify for.


Jon: I like the principle of inclusivity, and not merely for nationalistic reasons.  It allows teams to actually dream of playing in a finals tournament rather than making up the numbers during qualifying. I mean, what realistic hope have the likes of Albania, Northern Ireland or Iceland had of making tournament finals? Even Wales only made their previous tournament due to Israel dropping out so in many ways this is a first for us too. It’ll be interesting to see if these teams bring some joy to the occasion or whether they become a touch inhibited on the bigger stage.

As for the dilution of the tournament… well, yes if you’re including more teams you’re lowering the entry bar by nature so the general quality of team will be lower. But then you have the opportunity for good players like Sigurdsson and Cana or great ones like Bale to grace a stage denied in the past to some magnificent players by their nationality. So we might get more flawed teams there but equally there are generations of Albanians, Northern Irish, Icelanders and Welsh who’ll be able to remember their national stars playing tournament football.  And fewer Bests, Litmanens or Rushes.

Ask me again when Bale’s injured pre-tournament with Wales coming home with no wins from three and Albania and Switzerland have proven to be a more effective form of Valium and I might have changed my mind though…


Michael: I suppose it’s quite depressing to be Scottish… 


Jon: You said it, not me!


Michael: <Paddington Bear stare> …and not even in the top 24 qualifying nations, a feat we shared with the Danes and the Norwegians. Still, it could be worse. We could be the Dutch. Now there was a fall from grace.


Jon: Yes, van Gaal heading to Manchester did both teams a power of good didn’t it? I’m half surprised that UEFA didn’t try and cobble together a ‘get the Dutch in policy’.  I’m devastated that the Netherlands won’t be there, I had a joke about their journey to France involving going past Luxembourg all lined up.


Michael: Which was?


Jon: That they’d be passing the Duchy on the left-hand side. 



Michael:


(By Jez Arnold (Tumbleweed) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)


Jon: Please yourselves! 


Michael: I’m still stunned the Serbs did so badly. Surely there’s an event horizon where there is just too much talent not to do well?


Jon: Still need to play like a team for five minutes. Anyway, shall we talk about the sides who’ve actually made it instead?



                                                                  Group A



France






Michael: Ever noticed the French are good at winning tournaments they host? Euro 1984, World Cup 1998... Euro 2016?


Jon:  Two out of two’s not a bad record is it? And that extends to the tournament being held next door too, with their Euro 2000 win. But then France have a bad recent habit of grumbling amongst themselves and sabotaging any hopes in recent tournaments. 


Michael: The 2010 World Cup, the 2002 World Cup, all great fun. The 2008 Euro was less fun (with a dire France/Romania game), but they still went out.


Jon: And it looks like it’s happened again now, with the whole ugly Benzema/Valbuena alleged blackmail scandal denying them their best forward at a home tournament. Strangely I think that France are handling that well for a change; it’s only going to upset the team if the issue’s hanging over it and it’s constantly being asked about. And that’d happen if France are less than scintillating and not thrashing every team in their path, then it’d become a vicious feedback loop of negativity.  So best to get it out of the way.



João : France was automatically qualified as hosts, but there’s no reason to think that they would have had any troubles if they had to play the qualifiers. They’ve qualified for the previous six Euro editions, even though the number of spots was only 16 between 1996 and 2012 or even just 8 back in 1992.
France won the last two tournaments that they’ve hosted, Euro 1984 and the 1998 World Cup. They hope to do it again.

The current squad hasn’t any player from 1998 left, but it has thirteen players from the 2014 World Cup squad: Lloris, Sagna, Koscielny, Mangala, Evra, Digne, Pogba, Sissoko, Matuidi, Cabaye, Schneiderlin, Giroud and Griezmann.

Others like Mandanda and Rami were part of the Euro 2012 squad, and others like Gignac were in older tournament squads, the 2010 World Cup.

Only seven players will be having their debut in a major tournament: goalkeeper Costil, defenders Jallet and Umtiti, midfielder Kanté, and forwards Payet, Coman and Martial.


Michael: I was originally going to say that despite everything, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some arrangement for Benzema to play, but then it was confirmed by the French FA have told him he’s not going at all. So it goes! 
 
Didier Deschamps is doing well though. Between the squad announcement fall out, and then calling his own fans for being “unfair” towards Giroud in the friendlies, he’s really in the front line for the Raymond Domenech Award for Diplomacy.

Also, the Benzema axe lead to some...curious comments we shouldn’t comment on (both in a legal and moral sense) from noted shy and retiring ex-footballer Eric Cantona, which might lead to future legal action.  Who knew the water carrier and the seagull worrier had issues?


Jon: On the other hand there’s a lot to be positive for with the French. Kante and Payet have both been key performers in magnificent seasons for their club.


Michael: Payet has been taking the Juninho route to free kicks of late, with a belter against West Ham, and a 90th minute stunner from an obtuse angle to win a  friendly against Cameroon last week. 


Jon: Similarly captain Hugo Lloris was involved in a fine late season title charge by Spurs and part of the most parsimonious defence in the Premier League.   


Michael: Until it met Newcastle. 


Jon: Dead rubber game, though. Martial may not be quite as good as his initial hype suggested (time will tell whether he eventually is) but his pace and game intelligence mean he’s a constant threat. They’ve got a very good crop of forwards, even without Benzema and Kingsley Coman’s an obvious tip for a breakout star after a series of excellent cameos for Bayern Munich.  Easy to say at this stage but I don’t see France having too many issues in the group stage and they’ve got the firepower and experience in defence to go close at home once again.


Michael: That Jon managed to mention five strong players without mentioning the talismanic Pogba suggests the French have talent in buckets. Indeed, on the verge of the 2014 tournament, my colleague did say that, on paper, it looked like the best French side since Platini and co. And they’ve improved since that World Cup, which started great, but seemed to peter out in the knockout stages. 


Jon: Pogba could well be the Platini or Zidane of this French side; a talismanic midfielder that the side’s build around is a feature of the better French teams. His form at Juve has justified the self-confidence that led him to exit Old Trafford over a lack of playing time – a fair number of United fans bemoaned his exit then; my suspicion is that they’ll be even sicker after this tournament.
 
Not sure I’d make that Platini call, but certainly I think the side of Euro 2000 (once Trezeguet and Henry had emerged to solve the 1998 World Cup winners lack of a forward of genuine quality - Stephane Guivarc’h isn’t as bad as generally thought, but winning a World Cup with him up front counts as ‘getting away with it’).


Michael: They had class players in defence. Then Sahko had his, well, unfortunate moment, and despite his name being cleared of doping, Deschamps felt it was unfair to dash someone else’s hopes who was already in the squad. Which, despite gentle criticism of him above, is fair enough, really, though perhaps after the tournament the French might have wished for their strongest central defender. Varane, another top defender, was injured. Barcelona’s Mathieu was injured, and so was the defensive midfielder Lass Diarra. Defensive replacements Samuel Umtiti and Adil Rami are no slouches, but we’ve suddenly gone from one of the finer defences at the tournament into one which might have an aging Evra (never the most secure of defenders) and Eliaquim Mangala in it. Against Cameroon, the Rami/Koscielny duo was caught out by  Aboubakar of all people,  and one clean sheet in the last six games suggests issues at the back.  As does the complete lack of any defenders in the box to catch out Choupo-Moting, who only had the aforementioned Evra to run at, a task he completed with ease. 

Mind you, against Russia, their top pairing of Sakho/Varane switched off at a free kick and allowed Kokorin a free header. 

Up front, with the absent Real Madrid striker, the figure of Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid may prove crucial. Griezmann has been sensational for Atletico both in the league and in Europe, recently scoring the goals which knocked the imperious Barcelona out of the Champions League.  Wanted by some of the biggest clubs on the planet, who knows how long Atletico will keep him, and a successful Euros will only add to the zeroes on any future contract or transfer. 

Anthony Martial is still in the beginning of his career when he has no fear and so goes for broke. It’s brought some nice goals for Manchester United – who really needed them – but at time of writing, he is yet to score for France.

On the fringes, I’d given up on Gamiero making a tournament for France, despite his efforts at Sevilla, but call me crazy, I could have see a call up for Hatem Ben Arfa, given his strong performances for high flying Nice this season. When he played for Newcastle, former player and idiot pundit Alan Shearer announced: “Nobody had heard of Ben Arfa before he signed for Newcastle!” Maybe even Alan Shearer will remember him after this summer? Niang of Milan has yet to really figure in the French plans, and a car accident injury in February came at the worst time. 


Jon: Ben Arfa’s an interesting one; proof that sometimes players need the right conditions to flourish and that the fixed impressions we have of player ability can be nonsense. 17 goals this season and an expiring contract has him apparently being lined up for a return to the Premier League with Liverpool having made an offer and Chelsea being interested too.  Worth watching his hat-trick against Rennes for an indicator of what he can do. 


Michael: As Ben Arfa isn’t going to the Euros, and you can all now call me crazy, let’s just call this free advertising for the lad. 

Any issues the French might have, must surely have been put to bed by a draw they couldn’t have put together better if they’d rigged it. 




They didn’t rig it, did they? 



Jon: It’d be disappointing for you if it turned out UEFA rigged every tournament.


Gav: Yeah, it’d suggest they really hate Scotland!


Michael: (grumbles incoherently) Will France win the Euros, Gav?


Gav: Definitely not. They have the host factor, but they don’t have eczema. 


João: It’s the third time that they’ll face Romania in their first Euro match, the others were in 1996 (1-0 win) and 2008 (0-0 draw).  In 1996 they reached the semis and in 2008 they lost the next two matches and couldn’t advance from the group stage.


This time, even if they can’t defeat Romania, it’s unlikely that they’ll lose the next two matches and fail to advance from the group stages – even because now there’s the safeguard of the best four third placed teams also advancing.

In the 2014 World Cup they were also in Switzerland’s group and they won 5-2. Things may be different this time, but when they face each other they may already have 6 points each and not having anything else at stake besides deciding who will win the group.


Michael: The French have a great group for them, in which I could easily see them winning three matches from three, and moving into the knockout rounds with massive confidence. However, they have the fire power to destroy group stage opposition, but the leaky cauldron defence which suggests to me that, come the dying embers of the tournament, they’ll come undone against a streetwise side with a stronger defence.

And even then, Romania have been tricky opponents for the French in the recent past, and there’s also another team, who have caused them bother in the much more recent past.
A newcomer to tournament football, in fact.



NOTE:



Michael: So it seems Ben Arfa made the standby list in case of injuries. That final 23 made quite a splash – nothing like a good old fashioned French getting pissed off about football.


Jon: Really? What’s up?


Michael: Giroud in, Lacazette out. On asked by French TV why he didn’t pick the highest scoring French man in Europe, Deschamps said (my French translation notwithstanding): “I have other people who can score”. From what I can see, French media, and fans online, are spitting blood.


Jon: Top diplomacy there!

In all honesty, though: Giroud offers something different and plays in the Champions League and in one of Europe’s top leagues. Lacazette... he’s done well in France. Bar PSG, the French league’s not of the same standard right now.


Michael: Arguably Gameiro offers something different, AND plays in Spain, AND has won 2 European titles, AND scores, AND creates assists. But Deschamps, for some reason has a peculiar blinker towards him.


Gav: Is Schneiderlin going?


Michael: He’s on the standby list too.


Gav: Well, that’s rubbish! Giroud is their best player then, mark my words.


(A few days later)


Michael: Gav!!!


Gav: Yes?


Michael: Breaking news.


Gav: Yes? *gets slightly excited*


Michael: Injury substitution. Ex-Pompey star Diarra out, Ex-Saint Schneiderlin in.


Gav: YESS!!!!!!!!!!!!


Michael: With all due apologies to Lassana Diarra. 



A snapshot of professional predictions



“France has a good team. The only thing I will say is we haven't played an official game for a long time, so that might be the question mark about the team at the moment.”
Thierry Henry, Sky Sports


“There is a lot of competition for places at Bayern, but he has been playing regularly. He is a very versatile player as well who can play in a number of positions."
Didier Deschamps on Kingsley Coman


“If I'm betting with my head, you normally get a great run from the home nations, with the exception of Poland and Ukraine last time out, but certainly the bigger countries that have had the tournament in their own backyard tend to do well, so I'd be looking at France.”
Niall Quinn, Sky Sports


“While France have one of the easier groups at Euro 2016, pitted against Albania, Romania, and Switzerland, and are likely to face one of the weaker teams in the Round of 16 due to playing the third-place finisher from Group C, D, or E, they could face Spain in the semi-finals, a team who should be too strong for them in most areas of the pitch.”
Outside of the Boot.com


“To judge what a richly talented squad France have, you only have to look at the quality of players who won’t make the cut.”
Fourfourtwo preview


“I don’t see France winning the tournament. It’s better to be realistic than to be disappointed. They don’t have enough leaders in the team. There are some big players at big clubs who can produce big matches but thats not enough. Whos the leader of this team  right now? It’s Didier Deschamps – and he’s the coach.”
Raymond Domenech, World Soccer (isn’t that a case of the pot calling the bouilloire noir?)



Michael: Given the Jekyll and Hyde nature of French football, where they either play sensational world beating football, or collapse in a pit of self-loathing, in-fighting, revolution and giant killings, its fair to say that the French will bring great entertainment to the Euros... one way or another.




Euro record – Winners, 1984
Recent – Quarterfinalists 2004, 2012
Don’t mention – Holland 4-1 France, Euro 2008
Do mention – The great Zidane injury time comeback of 2004. How Poseidon helped them beat Ukraine in 2012.
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating: 5 (when they’re good, they’re very good, but when they’re bad, it’s a sight to see...)




Albania







Michael: Ah, Albania. They’ve probably had the most chatter between me and Jon since they qualified. 


Jon: I just can’t see where the goals will come from.


Michael: In normal tournaments, the qualification would be the achievement here for one of the underdog teams in the tournament. And yet, as I was warned by a friendly French football fan when Albania beat his side last year, this Albanian side has some steel to it, and reminded him heavily of the Greeks circa 2004. 


Are we heading for another seismic shock?


Probably not. 


João: Albania had the shortest path to Euro 2016 (excluding hosts France), because they only had to play 8 matches, and one of these matches, in Serbia, wasn’t even played properly, Albania won it in court because of the pitch invasion.


With that win and their win in Portugal, plus two wins against Armenia and two draws against Denmark, they got 14 points, enough to finish second in their group, despite losing two of their last three matches, both at home, against Portugal and Serbia.



Michael: But I wouldn’t rule them doing far better than anyone expects. Given the natural expectation most seem to have is 4th, there’s a long way between that and winning it, of course. 


Jon: Lack of tournament experience and (for most of us in the country) lack of knowledge of this side mean that predictions are fairly daft. They lack tournament experience but it’s notable that their qualification was built on a mean defence and excellent away form (albeit helped by that infamous abandoned match in Serbia). 


Michael: Serbia annoyed me. Look at how much talent they have, and they can’t bloody win two qualifying games on a trot ever. But, we shouldn’t drone on about that game. 


Jon: They didn’t concede a single goal to home sides so it suggests that this is a side that’ll thrive on adversity and being underestimated. Unlikely to be thrilling but they won’t be pushovers either. The first goal in their games will be crucial.


Michael: The Albanians have an amazing number of youth players on the books of Serie A and Bundesliga teams. If this will mean big things in the long term future for Albanian football, or if there are a lot of Jack Harpers about, time will tell. Ignorance of most of the Albanian players will be quite evident here. Elseid Hysaj, who moved from Empoli to Napoli for five million Euros last summer, has been gaining praise as a rapidly improving attacking left back, and gaining playing time in the Napoli first team, so he could be a big star for the Albanians this summer. He had been a key part of the Empoli team who went from Serie B relegation candidates to securely midtable Serie A, and is still only 22. 


There’s also Cikalleshi of Istanbul BB up front, Taulant (brother of Granit) Xhaka, Memushaj, Lenjanin of Nantes and Kace in midfield, and the seemingly evergreen captain Lorik Cana in defence. There’s talent in the team.


Hmm, France vs a talented but largely unknown international side making their major tournament debut – have we got another Senegal on our hands here? Or are Albania, as another Frenchman told me, merely the “flavour of the month”? My inner gut feeling tells me those who think Albania will be over and out before their postcards get home might be in for a rude awakening. 


In 2012, I admitted a bias against defensive minded teams, only for Greece to be one of the great attacking joys of that tournament. (Seriously, their game against Russia, a joy to watch.) In 2016, I admit that, while the Albanians might be defensively minded, I have far more patience for “minnows” “punching above their weight” being defensive than the middle ranking or better nations. I’m a hypocrite. Or as Walt Whitman put it, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”.


João: It’s interesting that their first opponent will be Switzerland, when there are so many links between these teams.The most evident is Albania’s Taulant Xhaka facing his brother Granit Xhaka that plays for Switzerland. But there are many others in Albania’s squad with Swiss roots, like Arlind Ajeti, Aliji, Basha, Abrashi, Gashi... All these players played for Switzerland youth teams and now play for Albania. In the 2014 World Cup qualifiers Albania lost twice against Switzerland, and now they should lose again. The next opponent, France, shouldn’t be any easier.

Even if Albania reaches the last group stage match without points, they still have a chance to advance if they defeat Romania finish as one of the four best third placed teams. Arriving to this match above Romania would be important for Albania. These teams are defensive, more comfortable when the opponent has the initiative and they can essentially defend and try to surprise the opponent with counter-attacks.


Jon:  They’re liable to be stubborn, cussed opponents but the issue will be goals. For me they’ll make teams work hard but might need a little luck to find the necessary goals to get out of the group stage. Much like the next team in the group…




“This is a new experience for Albania but this doesn’t mean the team is going to France for a stroll. Albania now has an experienced team and its results over the past year speak for themselves. Albania has a lot of faith in the coach. The result of the first game against Switzerland will determine a lot.”
Fatmir Meneri, World Soccer


“After what may be forever known in bookmaking circles as The Leicester Incident, you won't find anyone offering 5,000/1 on Albania to win the European Championship this summer. But they may as well do. With a population of fewer than 3 million people and a football team that has never qualified for a major international tournament, odds of 500/1 actually seem a little tight-fisted. And yet, while they won't be lifting the trophy on July 11, there's every chance that they could bloody a nose or two before the summer is out. This is not a view that was easy to hold after 56 seconds of last weekend's clash with Qatar. That's how long it took Gianni de Biasi's side to concede a horribly preventable goal from a set piece that will certainly have been noted by watching scouts. But this team has it in their power to cause a shock. They beat Portugal in 2014. They beat France in 2015. They only need to beat one team in 2016 and they could take their place in the knockout stages.”
Iain Macintosh, Albania not to be underestimated, EPSN.co.uk 1st June 2016


“Speaking to journalists, captain Cana stressed that this was a dream that came true after a thirteen-year career as a player for the national team. “My dream becomes reality”, he said. “Albania will participate in a European event!” He added that he was confident on positive results against our rivals during the finals.”
Albanian Daily News, Euro 2016 Finals: A dream that comes true for Cana and Cikalleshi, 24 April 2016



Michael: You’ve got nothing to lose, Albania. Enjoy. 



Previous – N/A
Recent – Maiden tournament, 2016
Don’t mention – The drone. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it. Or Rashica missing out on social media.
Mention – a strong performance in beating Portugal and France in recent years.
Self-destruction Potentiality Rating – 3. (They may go out quickly, but it’ll be due to superior opposition, not infighting.)


Romania




João: Romania was the best defence in Euro 2016 qualifiers; they’ve only conceded two goals. They were also one of four undefeated teams in the qualifiers; the others were Austria, England and Italy. However, unlike the other three undefeated teams, Romania couldn’t win its group; they finished in second place with 20 points, one behind group winner Northern Ireland.


Romania missed the last four World Cups, and the last Euro. They may still have a few players left from their Euro 2008 squad, like Rat, but the vast majority of their squad will be debutants at major tournaments.The only players left from their Euro 2008 squad beside Rat are defenders Sapunaru and Moti, that haven’t played a single minute during the qualifiers.


Michael: This might be where I and Jon disconnect in opinions. Since I’ve been a fan, the Romanian national side has been a fairly functionary and dull one, belying some really nice attacking sides in the Romanian league, before everything went to financial hell over there. I’m sure Jon must have memories of the 1990s Romanian side of Hagi and all though.


Jon: *taps foot*.  Bringing up *that* Paul Bodin miss again? He’s only just been forgiven! 


Michael: I honestly completely forgot about that. I keep mixing up Wales and France crashing out to Romania and Bulgaria respectively. 


Jon: More seriously I recall them being terrible in Euro 96 and going home with one goal in three games and no points whatsoever. Romania’s best moments really came in World Cups in those years; topping their group in the USA and beating Argentina before unluckily succumbing on penalties to Sweden in the quarter-final, then topping their group again in 1998 ahead of England before narrowly succumbing to an excellent Croatia side. As well as Hagi and David Duchovny’s Communist twin brother Dan Petrescu they were blessed with some excellent supporting talent; Popescu, Dumitrescu and Raducioiu. It slightly salved the pain of Bodin hitting the bar when they proved to be one of the more entertaining sides in the US, but only slightly.
While the core of this side is, shall we say, getting on a bit, it’s another parsimonious side here who went unbeaten in qualifying and only let in a couple of goals, again none of which were conceded away from home. Advance notice: Albania-Romania is unlikely to be a thriller and the match to miss if your significant other isn’t too happy at your summer football OD.


Michael: I’m sure Sarah will find some way to enjoy it. Or demand Winnie the Pooh is put on the TV.
My biggest hope for Romania is that cult hero and complete nutter Moti gets to the tournament and does something spectacular. Scores a random hattrick, winds up in goal and saves a penalty, gets sent off for headbutting a referee...something, anything. In Cosmin Moti we trust!
 
They recently lost their first match in two years in a surprise goalfest against the Ukraine. 


Steaua Bucharest midfielder Nicolae Stanciu has three goals in four caps, and familiar right winger Gabriel Torje, after a profitable loan season at Osmanlispor  provides some talent to the midfield ranks. However, Alexander Maxim, who might have brought some maverick quality to midfield, pays for the disaster season Stuttgart had. I fully admit the Romanian side are full of talent I’ve undoubtedly spotted in the Europa League but made little impression. This could be a good thing though, as I tend to only remember world class or errors now I’m getting old and decrepit.


Elsewhere, Romania seem solid but unspectacular. So could well be candidates for the most solid but unspectacular tournament. Third place and a round of 16 exit, perhaps?


Jon: Also nice to see Razvan Rat returning from the 2008 vintage, though whether he’ll be capable of getting up and down the left wing in midsummer at his advanced footballing age any more will be fascinating. All things being even third place sounds about right; they’ve got Albania’s cussedness allied to a little more potential for goals. Third place sounds about right.


João: They wouldn’t mind to repeat their last result against France in a Euro, a 0-0 draw in 2008. Repeating their last result against Switzerland, a 1-4 defeat in the 1994 World Cup, wouldn’t be as pleasant though. Even if it happens, and they arrive to the last group match with few points or no points at all, defeating Albania may be enough to advance from the group stages. In their previous four Euro participations they always arrived to the last group stage match without a single win. Thrice they lost that third match and were eliminated, but when they won it, in 2000 (their only win in Euros history), they advanced to the quarter finals.


““The national team gave me so much,” he says. “It is all about the pride and joy you feel when you play for your country. It’s always immense to be among those selected and I enjoy every minute of it. Being here helped me stay focused and our results gave great satisfaction.”
Vlad Chirichies, to Emanuel Rosu, Vlad Chiriches: How defender bounced back from Spurs spell to lead Roma from the back, The Guardian 2 June 2016



Previous – Quarterfinalists, 2000
Recent – group stage, 2008
Don’t mention – An underwhelming qualifying record this century.
Do mention – A strong defensive backbone.
Self-destruction Potentiality Rating – 4 (but 11/10 if Moti gets to play)



Michael: I don’t think the Romanians want any predictions from me. I thought they’d get through the group in 2008!



Switzerland:







João: Switzerland finished second in its group, with seven wins and three defeats.They started with two defeats, at home against England and away in Slovenia, but then they won all the remaining games except away against England.


There are fifteen players left from their 2014 World Cup squad: goalkeepers Sommer and Burki, defenders Lichtsteiner, Schar, Djourou, Rodriguez, Lang and Von Bergen, midfielders Dzemaili, Behrami, Xhaka, Shaqiri and Fernandes, and forwards Seferovic and Mehmedi. Derdiyok missed the 2014 World Cup squads but he was in the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008. The remaining seven players will be having their debuts in a major tournament.



Michael: When we think they will be attacking, they bore the tournament. When we expect nothing, they go for broke. Can we jinx them and assume they will be dull and exit swiftly?


Jon: No, we’ll assume the worst of both worlds. That they’ll bore us all senseless and make at least the quarter finals. God bless the Swiss, they’ve been at the heart of what’s been a  decade long decent fantasy football strategy; pack the defence with them as they won’t concede too many. And Lichtsteiner and Senderos are still there after all that time, I swear they must have slowed the passage of time as I was convinced they’d be mid-30s by now…


Michael: With the genesis of Shaqiri and Xhaka, they did seem a bit more attacking at the 2014 World Cup. Admittedly, they went behind in two of those games. The exciting Embolo will surely add to their fire power. There's also Seferovic.
 
Sadly, Xhaka (Granit version) has just signed with Arsenal, so this may be the last tournament we get to see him at, before their injury virus consumes him. 


Jon: Really this group doesn’t look the most thrilling does it? 


Michael: You’re telling me. France/Romania, Romania/Swiss, Albania/Romania – elsewhere, we have the group of death (and yes, we managed to find one, even with 24 teams). This might be the Group of Sleep. But then, we said that in 2012, didn’t we? And Greece and Poland raised their games to provide some memorable ties, and one big giant killing in the form of Russia’s exit. There was also the Czechs, who were mostly dull, but still, can’t have them all. 


All of these matches will be 90 minutes though, so none, even if they are as bad as they sound on paper, can come close to the horror of the Swiss vs the Ukrainians from World Cup 2006. I’m still waiting on my compensation from the European Court of Human Rights after that one.


Jon: Have FIFA issued an apology for that game yet? Or are they marketing it to Guantanamo Bay as a form of will-sapping torture? A game so interminable that I swear ice ages passed during its course. Must have been the third most dispiriting night of Shevchenko’s career…

Anyway, now we’ve said all that expect a six dazzling games of technical virtuosity and at least six goals in each.


João: This will be Switzerland’s fourth Euro. In the first three they never managed to advance from the group stages and only won once. This time things can be a lot better. They’ll start against Albania, a team that will have a lot of familiar faces. Not only several Albanian players played for Swiss youth teams, there’s even, as I mentioned above,  the curious case of Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka facing his brother Taulant. Then they’ll face Romania, a team that isn’t much different from Switzerland in terms of Euro history – they too only won once.  The hardest opponent should be the last, France. They defeated Switzerland 2-5 in the 2014 World Cup. Even if Switzerland loses against France again, as long as they defeat the other two, like they did in 2014 against Ecuador and Honduras, they’ll advance from a Euro group stage for the first time.



Michael: Senderos is not going to the Euros, which probably ups Switzerlands chances.


Jon: Moment of silence for a fantasy football stalwart!


Michael: 2010, 2006?


Jon: Oh yes. Plenty of points, if sod all excitement. 


Michael: Given the Swiss have never left the group stage – a fact which astounds me – they could easily have their greatest ever Euros here. 




Previous – Qualified three times, never left the group stage
Recent – 2008, group stage.
Don’t mention – That match from the 2006 World Cup. Some of us are still paying for therapy.
Do mention – their youthful attacking midfield, with hope.
Self-Destruction Potential Rating – 7.



The managers




Michael:  Didier Deschamps takes charge of France for his second major tournament. Last time out his team started like a freight train and ended like me trying to run the London marathon. He seems to hold grudges and yet, France have so much talent going in, its hard to tell how much Deschamps actually does. He went into the World Cup not as one of the favourites (Argentina, Brazil and even the Colombians helped knock France down that list), but he does enter the Euros as one. Born in Treviso but with dual Albanian nationality, Gianni de Biasi’s five years in charge of the Albanians has certainly proved dividends already, and the wily former Torino manager may have further tricks up his sleeve. Vladimir Petkovic replaced Ottmar Hitzfeld as the Swiss manager after the 2014 World Cup, and his team sleepwalked to the Euros, in a weak group. He was known for his attacking line outs while at Young Boys and won the Coppa Italia for Lazio in 2013. As for Romania, they brought their 1990s manager Anghel Iordanescu back in 2014. 



Jon: The French manager’s job often seems to be to mostly about keeping order in the squad, as I said earlier I think Deschamps has made a good start by swiftly and decisively dealing with the Benzema issue. Fitness issues probably won’t be such an issue for France this time out; after all the the Brazilian climate and travelling won’t be an issue for them this time out.  De Biasi’s nous and organisational ability has already made him the most successful manager in Albania’s history (they’ve qualified!); he’s got some fine performances from a limited side (that win in Portugal!) but it’s a hell of a challenge to push them to compete with bigger nations. Iordanescu’s the old flame Romanian football can’t leave behind – he managed arguably their greatest ever team but failed to get them to tournaments in 2004 and 2006. So did Hagi et al make him look good or is he wilier than that? As for Petkovic… well if any Doctor Who fans are looking for a faintly irrelevant reason to support a team, go for the one managed by The Doctor himself.  He made their qualification process seem painless, comfortably  going through behind a dominant England, so things look good for him so far.



João: Didier Deschamps may have been playing friendly matches over the last two years, but before that, in the 2014 World Cup campaign, he only lost thrice in 15 official matches – against Spain in the qualifying group stage, then against Ukraine in the playoffs (a 0-2 defeat that he reversed with a 3-0 at home), and against Germany in the quarter finals. His career before joining the French national team had its highest point when he took Monaco to the Champions League final in 2004, and more recently he took Marseille to the Champions League quarter finals in 2012.

Gianni De Biasi is the Albanian manager since the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, where they were 5th in a 6 teams group, with 11 points, behind Switzerland, Iceland, Slovenia and Norway, and only above Cyprus. Qualifying Albania to Euro 2016 is by far the biggest achievement in his career.It’s unlikely that he’ll succeed in the next stage, the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, since Albania is in Spain and Italy’s group. 

Anghel Iordanescu hasn’t started the Euro 2016 qualifiers, the first three matches were with Victor Piturca in charge (7 points). He got another 13 points from the remaining seven matches and will now coach Romania in a Euro for the second time. The first was in 1996 and Romania finished bottom of its group with defeats against France, Bulgaria and Spain. He has happier memories of the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, where Romania reached the quarter finals and the last 16 respectively.

Vladimir Petkovic hasn’t impressive results with Switzerland yet, finishing second in the qualifying group, nine points behind England and above teams like Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino is what they’re supposed to do. Before joining Switzerland he had some interesting results in the Europa League, with Young Boys in 2011 and then with Lazio in 2013, where he reached the quarter finals, the club’s best result in a long time.




Players to Watch




Michael: One from each – Lenjani, Coman, Elvedi, my favourite mentalist Moti. 


Jon: Yep, Lenjani is the intriguing Albanian – a defender turned winger who excelled in an unfamiliar role. But as Michael’s picked him I’ll go with the guy on the opposite flank, Roshi. The Albanian counterattack depends entirely on his pace and creativity. Let’s dodge the obvious eyecatchign talents of Pogba for France and instead encourage some appreciation of Kante, who can quietly dominate games in the exact way Claude Makelele used to – win the ball, give it to those who can hurt the opposition and if there’s nothing on he’ll always be available for a return pass to maintain possession.  Nicolae Stancu has three goals in four caps for the Romanians, but might be held out by the aging but always fun Sanmartean. Seferovic should be fun for the Swiss, liable to either pop a goal in or get sent off quickly.


Note – João looks at the key players for each side.


João:  For France, Midfielders Pogba and Matuidi and forward Griezmann are France’s finest players, and there aren’t many more beside them with their spot in the starting XI secured.

Shaqiri was the Swiss team’s top scorer with four goals, and he also had five assists. The two fullbacks Lichtsteiner and Rodriguez are among Europe’s finest.

Goalkeeper Tatarusanu and central defenders Chiriches and Grigore were crucial for Romania’s impressive defensive record, and their tasks will be much harder from now on.

For Albania, goalkeeper Berisha, defender Cana and midfielder Xhaka. They were the only ones playing in every match during the qualifiers.



Pick of the group



Michael: The Swiss v France might be crucial for more than one if the cards fall a certain way, but Albania v France strikes me as a great David v Goliath encounter on paper. 


Gav:  Am I allowed to pass?


Michael: Not excited by the concept of a thrill a minute Switzerland v Romania game?


Gav: Not overly. I'll say Albania v Romania then.


Jon: For insomniacs, Albania v Romania promises the most successful cure since *that* Ukraine-Switzerland will-to-live-sapper in 2006. On the basis that it’s only game in the group which truly promises goals and excitement I’ll say France v Switzerland.


Michael: Beware, I think if you mention that game five times, it reappears, like Candyman. I’m sure there will be other dour sides in the tournament.


Talking of England...


But before we go there, here’s our scores on the door for Group A. Remember Euro 2012? I believe I had a 0% accuracy rating for Group A then. 


This time round:



Michael: 





1. France

2. Albania

3. Switzerland

4. Romania

I can’t look beyond the French, even though anytime I sim this tournament on PES, the French crash out in the group stages. Albania, I do feel, have a surprise up their sleeve – and even one might be enough for a round of 16 placing. I hummed and hawed about the other two, but feel the Swiss have enough fire power in them.





Jon:

1. France

2. Switzerland

3. Romania

4. Albania

Not sure any of these teams can really test what looks like a soft French underbelly though they have a shot at keeping a clean sheet against them. Ultimately I go with my standard law of footballing probability – which teams look as if they’ve got the goals in them to swing games. Watch this group be a series of scrappy 1-0 upsets now…





João:

1. France

2. Switzerland

3. Romania

4. Albania

In theory: France are this group’s strongest team and should win it. Switzerland should be able to get the second spot. Romania should be good enough to defeat Albania and finish third in the group. Albania is this group’s weakest team and should finish in the last place, probably with three defeats.





Gav:

1. France

2. Romania

3. Switzerland

4. Albania

Romania will finish 2nd as they have both players who have played for and players who have cut their teeth in the same division as the mighty Steaua Bucharest. And a lot of them probably played with Gardos [Southampton Romanian player] as he was also at Steaua, which makes them better than the average underdogs.



And that was the group that was.