France look to make home soil count

For those still grieving the end of an incredible Premier League season, relief is imminent. Euro 2016 begins on Friday, and marks the start of a month of international football.

For the first time the competition has expanded from 16 teams to 24, creating more groups, fixtures and an additional knockout round. But who will emerge from this as the European Champions?

My personal favourites are France. They are hosting the tournament, and according to history, their national team always thrive on home support. The 1984 Euros and the 1998 World Cup, both of which were held in France, were also won by Les Bleus. In addition, the French team now boast a whole host of exciting young players looking to make their mark on the international stage. Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have all had excellent seasons for their respective clubs and will look to do the same for their country. The team as a whole look innovative and fast-paced, and with the crowds behind them, they will do well.

Germany as always will have a great chance. Many of the key players from the 2014 World Cup victory remain, and Thomas Muller is still in great goalscoring form. However, doubts have been raised over the Germans’ form, with recent losses over the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia. Die Mannschaft will be the ones to beat at the tournament, but these defeats will give other teams confidence.

In the year of the underdog, there are also a number of dark horses who could become surprise champions. After all, Greece shocked everyone to beat Portugal in the Euro 2004 final. Austria may not be able to take it this far, but they could surprise. The team were dominant in their qualifying group and feature league winning players such as Bayern’s David Alaba and Leicester’s Christian Fuchs. The group draw was also favourable for them, with Iceland, Hungary and Portugal making up the rest of Group F, making progress likely.

Croatia could also impress, with many of their key players plying their trade at the world’s best clubs. Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona, Luka Modric of Madrid, Mario Mandzukic of Juventus and Ivan Perisic of Inter Milan are all in excellent form and this could propel Croatia far into the knockout round. However first they must negotiate a tricky group stage featuring Spain, Czech Republic and Turkey.

Finally Wales could potentially impress in their first major international tournament in 58 years after a strong qualifying campaign, finishing two points behind Belgium. Gareth Bale can have an instrumental role in Wales’s progress and can finally make a mark on the international stage. The Welsh defence should also be solid, with only four goals conceded throughout qualification. Controversial though this may be, Wales have a good chance at beating England in their group game.

Moving on to England. Once again the Three Lions go into an international tournament surrounded by subdued expectation. This is Hodgson’s third international tournament and it finally feels like this is his team; a move away from the ‘‘golden generation’’ of English football, with only Wayne Rooney remaining from those disappointing days. Fans will look at the sharp attacking edge of this England team and feel hopeful. Kane and Vardy were the first and third top scorers in the Premier League this season, and with the youthful, creative Dele Alli and the experienced Wayne Rooney playing in behind them, goals can be expected. However, it will be at the other end of the pitch that will cause concern. England’s defence looks shaky, with the back four hardly inspiring confidence. England should get through the group stage and past the last-16, but will fall foul to more clinical opposition in the quarter-finals.

What is guaranteed is a month of drama, excitement and goals galore. Euro 2016 kicks off this Friday with France v Romania at 8pm on ITV1.

Nancy Gillen

Featured image: Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images Europe

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