The Road to UEFA Euro 2016: Group A (The "France is Gonna Blow This, Aren't They?" Group)
If you thought the football season was over, if you thought the magical campaigns that produced the comeback of Fernando Torres and the Cinderella story that was Leicester City had ended...well you were dead wrong friends. While club football is on break till the beginning of August, the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament is just around the corner, beginning ten days from now in France! Play the Final Fantasy music!
For those of you who don't follow football, or soccer as it's known is less civilized land (just kidding. Or am I?!), the UEFA Euro tournament is a competition that's very much like the more well known World Cup. The difference; only International teams from Europe are allowed to play, which thankfully saves us all from having to watch Jurgen Klinsmann make a mockery of the US squad on a big stage yet again. For over a month these European squads will compete in Group and Knockout stages, leading to what will hopefully be a dramatic conclusion as one of the teams takes their place as the kings of Europe. With all of that on the line, there was no way I could resist the urge to deliver six part preview of this competition. And I won't be doing it alone!
Because of how large the Euro 16 tournament is, I've decided to call upon four pals of mine to help me break down this shindig. As expected "Gamblin" Matt Mortensen is back as per usual, and he'll be joined by Northern Irishman Randall Morrison, West Ham United fan and Lords of Pain columnist Oliver and Lucha Underground enthusiast/...actually I'm not sure who Leaf roots for. Never the less he's also on board. Together we will bring you some analysis ranging from semi-decent to "holy crap these guys know their stuff", along with some memes, jokes and other stuff along the way. With that, let's begin with a breakdown of Group A, aka the Group That France Totally Paid UEFA Off to Get Into (note; no Randall this time folks. He'll be back for Group B!). I swear, that's the last joke about there being corruption in football throughout the rest of this series. Who am I kidding, it's totally not.
Matt: Gosh. How lucky were the host nations here? They have, what I believe, a debuting nation here in the Euro’s in Albania and what I feel is quite a bad attacking team in Romania. Switzerland are the only danger game for France not to come out of this group with 9 points. I'm actually quite looking forward to that game. The rest of the matches will be quite the yawn fest I think. I expect France to come out on top here with all 9 points. I think they have the best squad from top to bottom.
Cult: I can’t wait for Ollie to completely flip out about this squad just because his boy Payet is in it. It’ll be like my reaction whenever I see Junior Hoilett play for Canada, minus the fact that I never get to watch the Canadian National Football team. They’re quite bad guys.
Anyway, are we sure that the French didn’t pay someone off to get into this group? None of these other teams should challenge them or present any adversity, a good thing considering France’s recent history in International Competition (minus the 2014 World Cup) has involved them gagging like Chandler Bing in that episode where he gets trapped in the ATM vestibule with Jill Goodacre. I wouldn’t even put it past them to do it again here quite honestly; I’m not trusting France’s luck again until there’s apologies for both Zinedine' headbutt and the Thieren Henry handball (aka the greatest moment of Randall's life). Alas the rest of the talent in this group just isn’t there, so if karma is catching up with France it’ll likely be in the later stages. And hey, that gives me enough time to admire the work of Paul Pogba! You can never go wrong there.
Oliver: France have Payet. Dmitri Payet.
It’s a bit difficult to know fully what to expect from this French team – they’ve not done anything competitive for two years, have a coach who doesn’t seem to know who his best players are in Deschamps, and, like Arsenal, will probably find out that Olivier Giroud is as much use as a chocolate teapot on his own up front. But they have a shedload of talent shot through the rest of their midfield and strikeforce, and if Griezmann, Pogba, Cabaye et al all decide they’re up for it they could be on to a winner. Awful defenders, mind, and the loss of Varane will hurt them. They should ease through the group in first and then have a comfortable time of it in the last 16 against the third place team from group C, D, E, plus a guaranteed group runner up in the quarter finals which, unless one of Portugal or England cock it up, they should fancy themselves in. Semi-finalists, probably.
Ryan: It has been thirteen years since the French claimed a major honour - the FIFA Confederations Cup. Even then, it has been almost twenty - eighteen to be exact, since France claimed either a World Cup or European Championship. What was that honour? World Cup 1998. Where did they win it? You guessed it. France. After doing nothing of note for quite some time - despite always possessing many of the World’s top players - this sleeping giant of World Football might well wake again thanks to the noise of thousands upon thousands of home supporters. If I was Didier Deschamps, I wouldn’t dare play a defensive game. Though defenders tend to reach their prime at a later age, I’m quite concerned that they only have two defenders in their squad who are under thirty. There’s question to be asked about whether that defence has the legs to stop the likes of Muller, Vardy, Ronaldo, Bale… all players that they might just face in the latter rounds of the tournament. They should be safe in this group as I can’t think of anyone they may come unstuck against who isn’t called Shaqiri, though just to be sure, they should cater to their own speedy attackers. With Griezmann, Coman and Martial in their attacking squad - they have both youth and pace, something that could cause a lot of problems if they choose to use it effectively. The good news for Deschamps is the crowd will certainly let him know either way.
Ryan: I would write a critically-extensive paragraph that would come to the conclusion that I don’t see Romania doing particularly well at all in this tournament, though their manager Anghel Iordănescu looks like some form of Bond villain and thus I’m fearing for my life. I’ll leave it there.
Matt: Romania beat Greece 1-0 with 10 men and Northern Ireland 2-0. So that's something right? Wrong. I give Anghel Iordănescu’s men credit for only conceding twice in all their qualifying matches for Euro 2016 and their defence may be great, against Albania at least. But I don't think that's going to hold up against Switzerland or France. They have a good defence but it's their attack that is going to really hamper them. As good as they are on one side they have had a couple of boring 0-0 draws. My prediction is that they’ll finish 3rd. They’ll beat Albania and may push Switzerland but I don't think they can beat them. But hey, they did beat Argentina in a World Cup so anything is possible.
Cult: We’re two teams in and already the competition drop off is stiff. I’ll give Romania this much; they have a squad that has played together for awhile so the chemistry should be there. That’s pretty much where the positives end and to be frank that might be all the positives they need considering the rest of this Group. Look for them to compete for second place and for Ollie to frantically cheer on former West Ham player Razvan Rat. To be honest, I’d cheer for him to with that name even if he only played fifteen games for my club and did jack shit.
Oliver: Ah, Romania. Home of Georghe Hagi, Georghe Popescu, and presumably some people not called Georghe. Apparently they’re quite good now. Who knew? Vlad Chiriches may have been trash at Spurs, but he is apparently not so trash for his National team, who he leads valiantly into war this summer. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a guy called Vlad? Exactly, nobody. Nobody doesn’t love a guy called Vlad. Umm…third place in this group, probably? I’m not sure between them and Switzerland for second and third, to be completely honest – it’ll be a close one.
Oliver: I have been collecting the Panini stickers and all of the Albanian players look the same – stern, dark, brooding, and angry young men. I can’t say I know a lot about how they’ll play in France, but I imagine they will play with stern lines of four men, dark artistry, brooding long passes and an angry manager on the sidelines. I’m not even sure what they’re doing in the Euros, I mean, are they actually any good? Fairly sure they were the lucky beneficiaries of a default win over Serbia which has helped them get here. They’ll crash and burn at this stage, I suspect, although they might get third in the group.
Ryan: I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I know an awful lot about the Albanian Squad. I don’t. In fact, perhaps their most famous player has actually chosen to represent Belgium - Adnan Januzaj. Even then, he might even end up choosing to represent Kosovo, following their recent recognition. The fact that I’ve talked about a non-player for so long during this paragraph, which is SUPPOSED to be about Albania, tells you everything that you need to know about what I think of their chances. Though they have picked up some big wins over the likes of Portugal, Serbia and group mates France over the past couple of years (truthfully!), I just fail to see them progressing. France won’t let such a mistake happen again on their own soil! Meanwhile, the Swiss have a few players that possess some trickery! They might well be able to fend off Romania though. Third place. Woo. Go figure.
Matt: Agh. Albania. I nearly forgot about them. How could I do that? I mean they beat Portugal 1-0 away from home to kick off their qualifying process. As little as I'm rating them that is a very good win for this team. Their strength is clearly the midfield. But outside of that they don't have much going for them. They are a very inexperienced squad and they only have a handful of players who play in top leagues. Much like Romania I expect Albania to play quite defensively against Switzerland and France and play quite boring and hope for a 0-0 draw. I think they’ll put all their eggs in one basket and go all out against Romania and hope for the win and take that as a success if it happens.
Cult: The good news for Albania; this Group is weak (I don’t care how many times I’ve said it, this point needs to be hammered home!) and they’re loaded with a back end of dudes who have played in Italy’s highly competitive Serie A. The bad news; aside from Odise Roshie no attacking or midfield player has had more than 18 caps and no one on the club has scored more than three goals. If I’m from Albania, I take whatever this club gives me and treasure the fact that at least you made it to the dance. That’s more than Netherlands can say after all right?!
Cult: If there’s any club is this group that can give France trouble it’s this one. This is a Swiss team that has played together, has people that can score (Xherdan Shaqiri and Eren Derdiyok) and perhaps most importantly features talent that has played in high level competition on both an international and top league level. They also have this advantage; they don’t play France until the final Group Stage game, which means they should at least enter that game with three points, possibly more. At worst, I expect this team to be the second team out of this group, barring Romania rising to the occasion and stealing that matchup. In fact that’s probably the game to watch out for the most right guys?
Oliver: I love Valon Behrami. I mean, actual, proper, love. The funny thing about this Swiss team is that they have some great players – Xheridan Shaqiri is a creative hub, Granit Xhaka is a rock (haha!) in midfield, and they have a multitude of good, but not great, defenders like Johan Djourou. But they never seem to really put it all together and have a run in these tournaments. Like I say, I think it will be close between them and Romania for second in the group, and I might just be swinging in favour of the Swiss due to their talented individuals. That would be the first time they’ve ever gone beyond the group stages in a European Championships, and I could even see them reaching the quarters with a bit of luck in the round of 16, where the group C runners up await.
Ryan: Here’s a fact about this Swiss team. Over the past two years of qualifying, the only team that had defeated them was England - twice. Even then, the Three Lions had a one hundred percent record, so they certainly weren’t the only ones to come unstuck against my country. Granted, a group that included Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino is hardly the final boss fight from Mike Tyson’s Punch Out of challenges, though it was impressive that they picked up the win in the rest of their matches. In some ways, they are the anti-France. Out of their 27 man provisional squad, only five players are over the age of 30. Even then, when you compare France’s two defenders who are under that age, Switzerland have seven! There’s youth all over the field - even the four potential goalkeepers are no older than 27. I know there’s the age-old belief that you don’t win anything with kids, though even Star Players Shaqiri and Xhaka hold just less than 100 caps between them - and the older of the latter was born only eleven days after me (he’s 24). What you have here is a youth movement that has been going on for quite some time. These are not untested rookies, these are young spritely stars that KNOW what it means to compete at this stage. When you have that level of confidence, there’s always that worry that it will be shattered early on. Fear not though Swiss fans, for this team won’t face France until the third game of the group. With that in mind, I just can’t see this team going into that final match with nothing less than a lot of confidence and with six points already in the bag. Have no fear, only Federer.
Matt: Switzerland have never made it out of the group stage and that is why this is Vladimir Petkovic’s greatest test as manager. I haven't been impressed with their attack at all, I find it a bit hit and miss. But they have scored and won when they have needed to. Out of this group they are the only team to play a 4-4-2 formation which is going to restrict what they can do in attack against the other three teams that does play to their strength in defence. If they want to beat France and leave this group in first they are going to have to give as much ball to Xherdan Shaqiri as possible and hope he plays the game of his life.
Matt: For my money France have too much depth from top to bottom and they’ll finish on top with 9 points. I expect, comfortable but, boring wins against Romania and Alabania. 1-0 or 2-0 wins. And exciting back and forth game between them and Switzerland. A 1-0 or 2-1 win. Switzerland will get the same types of wins against Romania and Albania but lose to France. I expect them to finish on 6 points and Romania to finish on 3 points after beating Albania. So I can only see France and Switzerland progressing from this group.
Cult: France will take first, Swiss takes second and Romania sneaks into the Knockout stage with a third place qualifier. That should tell you how bad a couple of these other groups are!
Oliver: France first, Swiss second. No third place qualifier!
Ryan: If Switzerland vs. France was the first game of the group, maybe we’d be looking at a very different story, as one of Albania or Romania would have had the chance to claim some early points and jump ahead of their big-name rivals. I think the order though has sealed the fate of the teams though. I just can’t envision this group without picturing both France and Switzerland on six points apiece come their match. Who wins the game, AND the group out of those two? I think home advantage will favour France. It’ll be a close one though, a hard-fought 2-1.
And scene! Hope you all enjoyed part one everyone. We'll be back (with Randall) with Group B either tomorrow or Thursday with more football goodness. Till then, some unprovoked shots at Ronaldo!