With the draw on Saturday, Euro 2016 has taken a big step closer. Each of the 24 teams that will head to France next June now has a much clearer idea of the path standing between them and potential glory. For some just making it out of the group will count as a major success, and with 16 teams, including the four best third-placed teams, advancing, all will believe they have a chance.
Here’s a closer look at each of the six groups.
Group A -- France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland
The hosts could not have asked for a much better draw as they seek to replicate their previous success on home soil in winning the 1984 European Championship and 1998 World Cup. Romania and Albania are both functional but lack any real game-changing talent, as shown by the fact that the two teams combined to score a meager 21 goals in 18 matches in qualifying. Switzerland should be the biggest threat to France, and have real quality in Xherdan Shaqiri, yet they showed little in qualifying to suggest they can really trouble the major nations. France have more than enough to top the group, with only a potential ruction in the squad and, in particular, the ongoing legal saga involving Mathieu Valbuena and Karim Benzema potentially derailing them.
Prediction: 1. France, 2. Switzerland, 3. Romania, Albania
Group B -- England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia
For both England and Wales, there is one match that immediately catches the imagination. The battle between the two British teams in the second match of Group B will generate headlines aplenty back home, but both will have to guard against taking their eye off Russia and Slovakia. England are the team to beat in this group after finishing with the only perfect record in qualifying. While not boasting an outstanding generation of players, England should be good enough to top Group B. Beyond that, it could be a tight-three way fight to join Roy Hodgson’s side in the last 16. Wales, in their first major tournament in 58 years, are solid and have the match-winning talent of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale. Slovakia beat Spain on their way to qualifying, and have won 15 of their last 19 matches, but faded toward the end of their campaign. Russia, meanwhile, changed coach during qualifying with CSKA manager Leonid Slutskiy taking over on a part-time basis to lead a group heavy on experience but short on inspiration.
Prediction: 1. England, 2. Wales, 3. Russia, 4. Slovakia
Group C -- Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland
Poor Norther Ireland. Having superbly made it to their first ever European Championship by winning their group in qualifying, they have been given a nightmare of a draw. Germany have some weaknesses, and were certainly not flawless in qualifying, but they are world champions for a reason and have incredible talent at their disposal. They will not, though, envy a meeting with neighbors Poland, who scored a memorable win over them in qualifying. With Bayern Munich’s prolific striker Robert Lewandowski spearheading them, Poland should make it through. Ukraine, too, will hope to at least claim one of the best third-place spots with performers of the quality of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yaromolenko at their disposal. Northern Ireland may just have to enjoy the experience.
Prediction: 1. Germany, 2. Poland, 3. Ukraine, 4. Northern Ireland
Group D -- Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia
Spain will be seeking to win a remarkable third straight European Championship, and, although they are not at the level of 2008 or 2012, they still have enough talent to be considered one of the favorites to land the trophy. The struggle to find a reliable striker certainly shouldn’t inhibit them from progressing to the knockout phase, though they have been drawn into what could well be the most competitive of all the groups. Croatia have one of the best midfields in the tournament with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, and can also count upon Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic. Czech Republic finished top of a group in which Turkey finished third in qualifying, eliminating the Netherlands in the process. The Czechs are a solid outfit, but Turkey have the ability to surprise and appear to be finding form having won their last three qualifiers.
Prediction: 1. Spain, 2. Croatia, 3. Turkey, 4. Czech Republic
Group E -- Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden
Italy was the team from Pot 2 that no one wanted to be drawn alongside, and add in the Republic of Ireland and Sweden and this is another evenly matched section. Belgium will start as favorites and have the status of being the world’s best team, according to the FIFA rankings. However, that perhaps flatters them. While they possess huge talent, not least in Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, they are still less than the sum of their parts under coach Marc Wilmots. Although hardly eye-catching in qualifying, and with a desperate lack of talent up front, Italy should be competitive once the tournament arrives. Still, Ireland could pull off an upset, as they did when beating Germany in qualifying. For Sweden, everything rests on the performances of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Prediction: 1. Italy, 2. Belgium, 3. Republic of Ireland, 4. Sweden
Group F -- Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary
Portugal qualified with seven straight victories after former Greece coach Fernando Santos took over following an opening loss to Albania. Santos has made them better organized and harder to break down, but the age-old problems of a lack of a true quality striker and how to maximize Cristiano Ronaldo’s talents, while accommodating his lack of defensive effort, remains. Austria could be one of Euro 2016’s dark horses, having stormed through qualifying while dropping just two points. And in David Alaba, the Bayern Munich full-back who runs the midfield for his country, they have a true star. Despite appearing in their first ever major tournament, Iceland shouldn’t be underestimated, either. Hungary, though, although back on a major stage for the first time in 30 years, aren’t anywhere near the quality of their great teams of the past.
Prediction: 1. Portugal, 2. Austria, 3. Iceland, 4. Hungary