With the domestic football season across Europe reaching its climactic final throes, the anticipation for Euro 2016 this summer is bubbling under quite nicely.
If we can quieten the little voice in our heads that nags us about potential injuries and loss of form, now is as good a time as any to place our bets on who will win the tournament; expect prices – particularly those of the favourites – to be squeezed in the coming weeks and months.
Here’s a quick overview of the main contenders:
You have probably already heard about France’s penchant for winning major tournaments on home soil, but if not prepare to be dazzled: they’ve won both of the last two events they have hosted (European Championship ’84 and World Cup ’98).
Punters love an omen, so already that’s a tick in the box, but many will note the quality that Les Bleus have at their disposal too. Antoine Griezmann – fresh from almost single-handedly knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League – will orchestrate matters alongside Paul Pogba, with Bayern’s Kingsley Coman and Manchester United’s Anthony Martial providing pace and guile on the flanks. Laurent Koscielny and Raphael Varane will keep things tight at the back, and all of the above will be prompted by one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Hugo Lloris.
This is before we’ve even factored in Dimitri Payet and N’Golo Kante, two of the Premier League’s most outstanding performers this season. No wonder the omission of Karim Benzema barely raised an eyebrow….
It would be foolhardy to bet against the three-time European Champions and current World Cup holders of course, and one look at their squad reveals a collection of players who are very much in their pomp.
The spine of the team reads Manuel Neuer-Mats Hummels-Jerome Boateng-Phillip Lahm-Toni Kroos-Thomas Muller, and when you add into the mix the likes of Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze you have the ingredients for one rather formidable cake.
It takes skill, bottle, luck and desire to win a major football tournament….and the Germans tend to have all four of those attributes in spades.
Spain have been the proud holders of the European Championship crown since 2008 following consecutive wins in Austria/Switzerland and Poland/Ukraine, and while this year’s renewal looks set to be their toughest assignment yet in terms of retaining their title they have all of the weapons they need to mount a successful assault.
Eight of their probable starting eleven will be sourced from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico – surely the three most pre-eminent club teams on the planet, and Vicente del Bosque will have the luxury of perming one from two of the best goalkeepers in world football in Iker Casillas and David de Gea. A nice problem to have, presumably.
There are question marks over their suite of striking options – a problem they have had in the past hence the invention of the ‘false nine’ role, with neither Diego Costa nor Alvaro Morata really convincing at the highest level.
But this is a Spanish outfit that have gone a calendar year unbeaten, so write them off at your peril.
Are England dark horses or genuine contenders? It depends on whether you’re a glass half full merchant or not, although there is the creeping sense that this is the best chance that a Three Lions side has had of claiming a major trophy in a long time….
Fifty years since their greatest triumph and 20 since their greatest hope of doing the business in the European Championships slid hopelessly into oblivion along with Gareth Southgate’s penalty, England finally boast a squad of players of whom the best are also the most in-form. The Spurs trio of Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane will form the spine of the team, while Leicester’s Jamie Vardy will no doubt terrorise defences with his old-fashioned form of forward play.
We cannot read too much into friendlies of course, but the last time Roy Hodgson picked his best available eleven his side defeated the world champions. That augurs well, but we know how the English relish flattering to deceive on the biggest of stages.
They have yet to really make their mark on major tournament play, but an examination of Belgium’s available personnel suggests that Euro ’16 could be their time.
Realistically, the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are a collective as good as anything that will be on show in France. Add in the solid Jan Vertonghen, the combative Radja Nainggolan and the reliably-creative Dries Martins and you have the epitome of a dark horse.
Plenty of punters will be prepared to take on that 12/1 price each way.
You would have to fancy Poland to qualify from a group that includes their old enemy Germany, Ukraine and Northern Ireland, and then if they can keep it tight at the back – and Robert Lewandowski finds the net with his usual unerring reliability at the other end – then who knows what they are capable of. Remember Greece in 2004?
Lukasz Fabiański will keep goal behind a back four made up of old war horses, while in midfield the likes of Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kamil Grosicki and Jakub Blaszczykowski will provide the ammunition for Lewandowski and his sidekick Arkadiusz Milik.
Poland are the archetypal outsider with a glimmer of hope, but as we’ve seen over the years in this tournament sometimes that is all that is needed.