France is a hot favourite to win Euro 2016 on home soil. Paul Pogba is a dominating, box-to-box midfielder. He roams all over the pitch and drags his teammates with him. The world is expecting Pogba and versatile attacker Antoine Griezmann to pave the way for the latest golden generation for “Les Blues,” but their back four concerns me. Raphael Varane, Jeremy Mathieu and Kurt Zouma are all missing out due to injury — and they will miss Mamadou Sakho’s tackling ability and passing accuracy. Leicester City star N’Golo Kante will need to be at his best in a defensive midfield role, supporting the back four and breaking down opposition attacks.
Even with Marco Reus missing the tournament due to an adductor injury, Germany is still a powerhouse. The Germans put in some ordinary performances since winning the 2014 World Cup, but “Die Mannschaft” is rock-solid at the back and the squad oozes with playmakers, including Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze and Toni Kroos. Thomas Muller will provide plenty of goals and assists, and 20-year-old Julian Weigl is a player to watch following a breakthrough season at Borussia Dortmund.
Having won the 2008 and 2012 editions of this tournament, Spain has a much different look. Gone are Xavi, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Juan Mata. It’s time for the new generation to step up. La Roja are banking on Koke to be the new Xavi and Alvaro Morata to be the new Torres. This time around, Spain is light at striking options. Torres finished the La Liga season on a hot streak and his omission is a curious one given his reputation for starring at major tournaments. Manager Vincente del Bosque would be foolish to start an aging Iker Casillas over quite possibly the world’s best keeper in David de Gea.
Belgium is loaded with stars all over the pitch. Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are as good an attacking trio as any in the world. Yannick Carrasco will be a player to watch after a fine showing for Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Final. Yet, Belgium’s undoing could be its defense. It will certainly miss the steadiness of Vincent Kompany, who will miss the tournament due to a thigh injury.
Portugal is less reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo and that’s a good thing for its hopes of repeating matching 2012’s semifinal run. There’s a growing supporting cast with Joao Mario and Andre Gomes ready to shine on the big stage.
THE DARK HORSES
Austria has produced its best team in quite some time. David Alaba is a versatile star for Bayern Munich. Left back Christian Fuchs was integral to Leicester City’s shocking everyone’s expectations and winning the Premier League. Marko Arnautovic is a flashy attacker and is somewhat of a Zlatan-like figure. A favorable Group F means Austria could reach the knockout stage for the first time in its history.
Switzerland is another underdog with the round of 16 in its sights. Newest Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka is a fantastic, all-around central midfielder and Xherdan Shaqiri can operate in a number of positions as a master creator, but they’ll need struggling striker Haris Seferovic to rediscover his goalscoring form.
Gareth Bale is the world’s most expensive player. He can singlehandedly tear defenses to pieces. Look for him score goals aplenty and lead Wales into the round of 16.
GOLDEN BOOT CONTENDERS
It starts with Portugal’s Ronaldo, who scores better than a goal-per-game ratio for club side Real Madrid. Germany’s Thomas Muller will certainly be in the mix and will benefit from the excess of playmakers around him. Morata is under tremendous pressure to deliver for Spain. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic are world class finishers, but their nations won’t go deep enough for them to seriously contend for top scorer honors.
My pick is Griezmann. Behind Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Luis Suarez, he might be the fourth-best player in the world. The 25-year-old Frenchman is threat from wide areas and through the middle. Griezmann is tremendously nifty and has underrated aerial ability. He will be desperate to deliver for his country after narrowly missing out of Champions League glory as Atletico Madrid lost to bitter rivals Real Madrid on penalties.
WHO WILL WIN?
Even without Reus, it’s hard to pinpoint Germany having any kind of weakness. The Germans have the experience and the pedigree. Their squad is jammed with talents who possess both the mental strength and ability to deliver under pressure.
By Sean Hartnett