The two-year wait for a major international tournament is finally over as nations from across Europe build up their hopes and descend on France for Euro 2016. The tournament, which has been expanded to accommodate a total of 24 teams, looks set to be the most exciting and unpredictable competition to date. With England, Wales and Northern Ireland all present for the finals in France, there is widespread optimism throughout the British Isles for the summer ahead.
That optimism is felt most by England, who are arguably at their strongest since the World Cup in 2006. A plethora of fresh young talent has emerged in the last 24 months, with Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy all cementing a strong case for England’s chances at the tournament. Those three combined with the trusted old guard of Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney, make for an exciting prospect with the young lions set to be unleashed onto the international stage. Credit must go to Roy Hodgson for an excellent qualifying campaign that has laid the foundations for potential success in France. A group containing Wales, Slovakia and Russia looks comfortable for England, but as we all know from Brazil two years ago, Roy’s boys cannot afford to be complacent.
Meanwhile, across the border, Chris Coleman’s Wales are fast becoming England’s noisy neighbours. An incredible qualifying campaign saw the Welsh finish second behind a well fancied Belgium side, who at the time of qualifying topped the Fifa World Rankings. Of course all focus sits on superstar Gareth Bale and there is no doubt that his form will hold the key to their chances. Wales are by no means a one man team however, with Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams and Joe Ledley forming an impressive spine. Boosted by Chris Coleman’s recent contract extension, it will be fascinating to see how Wales fare in their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.
The final representatives from the British Isles are Northern Ireland, who for a nation of their respective size, had one of the most impressive qualifying campaigns. Despite being out of favour at Norwich City, striker Kyle Lafferty’s form was crucial in qualifying, while Steven Davis and Jonny Evans will also be vital for Northern Ireland’s chances in a tough group consisting of Germany, Poland and Ukraine. Although tournament progression is unlikely in their first major competition since 1982, the presence of Michael O’Neill’s side in France this summer is unquestionably an incredible achievement.
Looking more broadly at the potential champions, Euro 2016 represents the most open tournament for some time. Current holders Spain have faded dramatically since the beginning of their domination in 2008, leaving a varied field of contenders for the title.
France are currently the tournament favourites. With the likes of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann in their ranks and the added advantage of being on home soil, the hosts are well placed to claim a third European Championship crown. World Champions Germany are also strongly fancied, but will need to improve after a string of poor results so far in 2016.
Also strongly fancied are Belgium and their ‘golden generation’ of talent, although the loss of influential captain Vincent Kompany will hinder their chances. Elsewhere, the ever reliable Italy and unpredictable Portugal may also fancy their chances of causing an upset. My tip for the tournament’s dark horse goes to Croatia. With an abundance of talent such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, they know what it takes to perform on the big stage.
But who knows, with a bit of good fortune maybe this fresh, young England side can give the fans something to celebrate.