The opening day of Euro 2016 has arrived, and with it the kickoff of one of the most unpredictable European Championships in memory. With the largest-ever field of 24 teams, only eight will be eliminated from the group stage, meaning there will be plenty of chances for some supposed minnows to make a run into the knockout phase.
Conversely, the longer format may count against a surprise winner in the mold of Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004, giving the cream a better chance to rise to the top. Yet there is no flawless team in this year’s competition. And each favorite could be susceptible to potential pitfalls. Here’s what could transpire over the next 31 days.
All the contenders have issues that could hold them back. World champion Germany can lack ruthlessness, having not produced a reliable striker while it continues to be without convincing fullbacks. Like Germany, two-time defending European champion Spain has plenty of quality, but, similarly, has not yet found a solution up front. That could leave the hosts to take the trophy. France has not done itself justice at a major tournament in a decade and may lack the experience to handle the weight of expectation on home soil. Yet Didier Deschamps’ side oozes class from the midfield forward and can match the achievements of its counterparts in 1984 and 1998 by winning the big prize at home.
Golden Boot: Antoine Griezmann
It would be dangerous to look past Thomas Müller for top scorer in any tournament. The Bayern Munich forward has scored 10 goals in two World Cups and has a supreme ability to find himself in the right place at the right time in order to find the back of the net. Cristiano Ronaldo, too, will be a major threat for the Golden Boot and could well plunder enough goals in a group containing Hungary and Iceland. But if this is to be France’s tournament then Antoine Griezmann will surely have a big part to play. While he has not yet been prolific at the international level, he enters Euro 2016 on the back of his best season yet at club level, scoring 32 goals for Atlético Madrid. Even though he will start out wide rather than as the central striker for France, the 25-year-old will be his side’s main scoring threat in the absence of Karim Benzema.
Player of the Tournament: Paul Pogba
Continuing the French theme, Euro 2016 is all set up to be the tournament where Paul Pogba becomes a true superstar. Already with four Serie A titles to his name at Juventus, the 23-year-old has everything you could want in a modern midfielder. Dynamic, gritty and technically wondrous, it is now time for Pogba to become the talisman for the French team. Capable of doing a bit of everything, Pogba can be decisive in the final third of the field as he showed with 10 goals in Serie A last season and a sensational assist for Olivier Giroud in a warmup game against Cameroon.
Dark Horse: Poland
With a midfield featuring Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, among others, Croatia may be the obvious candidate for this section. However, it could be Poland that ends up making the greater mark on the competition. Four years ago, Poland was bitterly disappointing when co-hosting the European Championship, bowing out at the group stage. But they showed in qualifying for Euro 2016 that they have improved significantly since then, beating world champion Germany and scoring more goals than any other team. The side is, of course, led by Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski, who top-scored with 13 goals in qualifying. But there is more than just Lewandowski. Arek Milik fired 23 goals for Ajax last season, Sevilla’s Grzegorz Krychowiak is one of Europe’s best defensive midfielders, while Torino defender Kamil Glik has been linked to some of Europe’s biggest clubs. They should make it through a group containing Germany, Northern Ireland and Ukraine and could well make it to the quarterfinals, and perhaps even beyond.
Biggest Flop: Belgium
The highest-ranked team in the tournament, the world’s second-best team, according to FIFA, has all the talent to make it one of the leading favorites to take home the top prize. If the 2014 World Cup, Belgium’s first major tournament in 12 years, was too soon to expect a real challenge, then this should be their tournament. The likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are now experienced performers at a high level, and there is plenty of depth. And yet they still do not convince.
Although not helped by the fact that their recent production line of talent has cruelly failed to produce any fullbacks, the true problem appears to lie with coach Marc Wilmots. The former Belgium forward has yet to display the acumen to bring his immensely talented player pool together into a cohesive, coherent team. After exiting the 2014 World Cup with a whimper at the quarterfinal stage, it could be a similar story once again for Belgium’s “Golden Generation.”