We have learned a few important things coming out of the latest international break.
First, England is capable of beating quality teams like Germany, but it still has consistency issues to work on before the European Championship begins in June. Second, Leicester City continues to secure its spot at the table in the Barclays Premier League. It is now seven points ahead of Tottenham and can lock up the title by winning its next four games. And finally, El Clasico is never a dull game — Real Madrid eked out a 2-1 win over Barcelona in the final few minutes.
Seeing as this international break featured World Cup qualifiers and last-minute friendlies before the Euros, I thought this week I would preview the Euros. This year’s tournament in June will be the first time that 24 teams will play in the first stage. Divided into six groups, the top two teams in every group will advance to the next round, along with the next four best teams.
As the host, France has a relatively easy group with Romania, Albania and Switzerland in Group A. However, France has found itself embroiled in scandal recently, as blackmailing allegations were levied against star striker Karim Benzema by his teammate Mathieu Valbuena. Despite this, France has been playing well, and it would be very surprising if it did not advance. Prediction: France wins the group, and Switzerland advances.
Group B is made up of England, Russia, Slovakia and Wales. I think that this will be an exciting group, as this is the first tournament that Wales has made since 1958. A healthy Gareth Bale at midfield means that Wales could pose a threat. Furthermore, England is widely expected to do well, as it made it through the qualifiers without losing a single game. Slovakia has also done pretty well lately, although defender and captain Martin Skrtel has looked out of sorts. Russia has struggled since the World Cup, and I do not see it really posing a threat in this group. Prediction: England wins the group, and Slovakia advances. Wales could potentially be a third-place team to advance.
Group C is home to the current world champion Germany, as well as Poland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland. This is Northern Ireland’s first appearance in the Euro tournament. Expect the Northern Irish to be happy just to be there, even if the chances of them moving on are pretty slim. Poland should do fairly well thanks to its star striker Robert Lewandowski. Ukraine rarely poses a threat in the Euros, so I do not expect it to play a big role in this group. Prediction: Germany wins the group, and Poland advances.
Group D is made up of Croatia, Czech Republic, Turkey and Spain. Spain is the two-time defending champion of the Euro Cup, so it should pose a threat. Even though La Furia Roja played terribly in the World Cup and struggled at the beginning of the qualifiers, it seems to have recovered. Turkey had a good qualifying campaign and most notably defeated the Netherlands. Croatia seems to be struggling a little, as coach Niko Kovač was fired during the qualifying tournament. The Czech Republic has struggled in recent years, so it would be surprising if the team advanced beyond the group stage, even though it did win its qualifying group. Prediction: Spain wins the group, and Croatia advances. Turkey could advance on third-place finish.
Group E is home to Belgium — the current number-one team in the world, based on FIFA rankings — Italy, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland. Following a stellar World Cup campaign, Belgium has continued to defy expectations. Expect forward Romelu Lukaku, midfielder Kevin de Bruyne and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to prove themselves integral to Belgium’s Euro campaign.
Ireland’s hopes of doing well at the tournament have taken a small hit, following the injury of forward and captain Robbie Keane. Despite this, the Irish will be motivated to prove that they belong in the tournament. Italy is always a force to be reckoned with and will likely advance. I do not see Sweden doing well, as forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic is really its only key player, and it finished third in its qualifying group. Prediction: Italy wins the group, Belgium advances and Ireland advances based on third-place finish.
The final group, Group F, is made up of Austria, Hungary, Iceland and Portugal. I will be cheering for the Hungarians, but I find it very unlikely that they go through. Iceland is the big surprise here, as it qualified for its first-ever major tournament and finished second in qualifying. Portugal typically underwhelms in major tournaments because of a lack of depth behind forward Cristiano Ronaldo. Austria topped its qualifying group and should be able to get out of this group. Prediction: Austria wins the group, Portugal advances and Iceland advances based on third-place finish.
I will go out on a limb and say that I am picking Spain to win the Euro tournament once again. In the meantime, we can all focus on the exciting month of Premier League games that we have left. Hopefully, Leicester City will keep up the quality play and hold on for the title.