The Road to UEFA Euro 2016: Group D (The “This Really Reminds Me of 1996” Group)
Get ready sports fans; today is going to be a busy, busy, busy one in regards to our massive Euro 16 preview. We’re one day away from the start of the tournament, which means we’ve got to bang out three more Group previews within the next twenty four hours. Luckily that’s exactly what we’re going to do, starting with Group D right here. Be warned though folks; you’re going to see a lot of references to the year 1996. Blame Oliver; he was feeling the year when he wrote his stuff I guess. You’ll see soon enough. Moses; meme time!
Matt: Spain finished top of their group in front of Slovakia and (SPOILER ALERT!) Oli's insane pick to win the whole thing in Ukraine. Get that man off the drugs people! They won 9 of their 10 qualifying matches and started off the campaign with a 5-1 win over Macedonia. They then lost to Slovakia 2-1 in their next game and then proceeded to win their next 8 games with a combined 17 goals for and 0 goals against. Outside of seeing their qualifying results I have seen absolutely squat in regards to their international friendly results so I don't know what their form is like in regards to that. They are going for their third straight Euro crown, but this isn't the same team as 2008 or 2012. They have lost a lot of key players. But in saying that this is one of the teams with the most depth from top to bottom in this competition, if not the team with the bigger depth. This may be the only time I do this in these previews but I'm struggling to find a weakness for this team. I think their back line is their strength. I may be a little worried about if they can score goals upfront though. Alvaro Morata will have to have quite a good tournament I feel, and I think he will. He's a really good player. Perhaps their goalkeeper situation is their weakness. Casillas is no longer a world class goalie. Perhaps he starts for them in qualifying but that's not what I'd be going. I'd be having David De Gea in goal from the get go. I think he will be their go to guy at some stage in this tournament and I'd be shocked if this team doesn't make the semis at worst.
Cult: I have no worries about Spain when it comes to this Group. When you can still roll out a Night of Living Dreams quality squad that features dudes like Koke, David Silva and one of my favorite players in the world Iniesta you know you don’t have to worry too much (especially in a one horse group like this). The issue is going to be going forward in the Knockout Stage, where there are two things I need to see before I can comfortably state Spain is a favorite to repeat as Euro Champions. First, have they gotten over that colossal collapse from the World Cup two years ago? Second, will they actually use David De Gea in net or will they once again go with aging captain Iker Casillas? For their sake I hope it’s the latter.
Oliver: Are Spain actually still any good? The last World Cup might have you thinking no, as would a patchy start to their recovery from that even which saw them drop points to Slovakia in their second group game. But this is a national side that has come a long way since losing a penalty shoot out to England at Wembley in 1996 and being tournament shoulda, woulda, coulda beens. They rallied from that to record an otherwise flawless group record, winning all their remaining eight group games to nil (they also conceded a goal to Macedonia in their first match), including two victories over Euro 2016 champions-in-waiting Ukraine. What’s curious is that over the past couple of years this Spain team has been gently shaken up and new blood introduced. Sure, you’ve still got your Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets and Ramos in there, but there’s also the emerging Morata, Nolito, Koke and Bartra coming through. It’s a squad in transition, yet still one stuffed full of high quality players from top to bottom. Can they become the first four time winners of the whole thing? Who knows? Can they make it out of the group as winners? Sure.
Ryan: Such is the strength of the Spain squad that many omissions from their final 23 would easily find themselves in other final squads if their nationality was different: take United duo Mata and Herrera for example! The big question for me is what are they going to do keeper-wise? Casillas is their captain but questions are asked these days about the goalkeeping legend's form, whilst De Gea is seen as one of the greatest keepers in the entire world. If Casillas remains as their keeper, it will seem as if it's based on merit - accommodating a place for the captain. Their defence is like a who's who of top defenders. Azpilicueta, Piqué, Bellerín, Ramos, Juanfran and Alba are amongst the picks, which will cause a selection headache for every game. Their midfield has a few proven names as well - as Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets and Silva are about as well oiled as an engine room as you'll ever see. I think Del Bosque made a huge mistake not bringing Costa or Torres though. The forward choices of Morata who hasn't had much International experience, Vasquez who is only just breaking into the Real Madrid team, Pedro who had a lukewarm season at Chelsea, and Aduriz and Nolito who I haven't even heard of, don't give me much fear. The midfield is full of creativity but will those created chances go to waste? I think they'll get through the group as they're going to VERY difficult to score against but I don't know if they'll have enough quality upfront to win the tournament
Ryan: Now this is a team that I really like. The Czechs face a very tough group, but they did in qualifying! They finished group winners with the likes of the Netherlands (who failed to qualify!) and fellow Group D team Turkey. In fact, they beat Turkey in qualifying so who says lightning won't strike twice? Much of the team gained their first caps after the team's unsuccessful World Cup campaign, as changes were ringed throughout the squad. For me, the most dangerous man for the Czechs is still Captain Tomáš Rosicky. Though he is getting on in years now, at 35, he still seems to really turn it up for his national team. I imagine that he is a great leader, as he seems humble in the sense that he is a bit-part player for Arsenal for Arsenal but still happy. I imagine that he manages to get that feeling to reverberate across the squad. Other than Cech and Necid, there's not a lot of big stars in the team but they seem to gel. That's what matters, just ask Leicester City.
Matt: The Czech Republic, what surprises packets they were for me. I never expected anyone other than the Netherlands topping this group. Not only did they not top it they didn't even make the Euro's! Meanwhile the Czech Republic finished ahead of Iceland and their group mates in Turkey. This is shaping up to be a very hard group stage to pick for me. I like the gritty and fire this team shows. It's very never die say attitude. In saying that, how can I put this nicely? I don't know if I'm allowed to swear but I'm going to, they are fucking atrocious down the back. Absolutely terrible. Leaf, Oli, Iken and I could probably be a better back four. They do have Petr Cech though in goals, but they can't seem to go a game without conceding a goal. And that's what they are going to need to do here. They let in 14 goals throughout qualification and didn't have a clean sheet the whole time. That's why I don't want to see them get out of this group because they won't be making it a step further. I can't discount any team in this group but I think this may be the worst of the four.
Cult: There’s not much I can tell you about the Czech Republic as most of their squad seems to play outside of the big leagues. What I can tell you however is that they have Petr Cech, Chelsea legend, one of the best keepers in the game today and someone who Matt Mortensen still doesn’t give enough credit to for helping Chelsea win that 2012 Champions League title. Even with their lack of goal scorers and a squad that seems just kind of there, this Group is just weak enough that Cech and Arsenal teammate Tomas Rosicky may just be enough to give their squad second place. It’ll be almost as surprising as the fact that neither guy is in FIFA 96. It just feels like they’ve been around that long.
Oliver: I’m never sure how good the Czech side actually is. My head always thinks they are very good, but I think that might be a Euro 96 thing stemming from their appearance in the finals there (how many Euro 96 references can I make in this group preview?). But are they actually? Outside of Cech and Rosický they seem to lack high profile players. To me, they lack goals, seriously – only one player has more than ten international goals in the squad, and that’s the 35 year old boy child Rosický himself. It’s not an inexperienced squad, but it is one that I think might just find themselves out of their depth.
Oliver: Umm…They have Arda Turan? I don’t know I’ve lost my ‘Gokhan Tore is going to sign for West Ham and show Chelsea what they missed out on’ talking point here. Hakan Çalhanoğlu takes a good free kick, mind you. And Oğuzhan Özyakup is supposed to be very good. That’s…all I know. They looked OK against England, but I’m not holding my breath for any shocks.
Ryan: Turkey qualified from their group by being the best third-placed team, and it's a format that I'm sure they'll be relishing again during the actual tournament! The Turks are a proven entertaining side at these tournaments. They reached the semi finals in 2008 and who can forget that 3-2 thriller with Germany in that tournament? They failed to qualify last time around as though they were once again a third place ranked team in qualifying, they lost in a playoff against none other than Croatia! Since 2000, Turkey seems to have found themselves in an alternating pattern of qualifying then not qualifying. Still, they really play with their heart on their sleeve. What you get from Turkey at these tournaments is attacking football that's up there with the best of them. Their weakness is undoubtedly their goalkeepers. Both Babacan and Kivrak have 28 caps between them - 16 and 12 respectively. Are they used to this level? Turan, Sahin and Inan are all tricky players who will cause problems in the middle of the park. Other than Spain, I don't think either of their opponents has as much quality in that area and I think that will hold the key to Turkey's success. I personally think they'll be third place again as they tend to leave themselves far too open at the back when they go attacking, but I would be stunned if history didn't repeat itself, for I see them qualifying from that position once more.
Matt: I have quite the soft spot for this Turkish side. They have been playing some very reasonable football. Good old England ruining everything but before Turkey lost to them they were on a streak of 13 matches without a loss. I'm glad to see, Fatih Terim, back in charge. That 2008 run was absolutely insane. They made the semis and only led for a TOTAL of 13 minutes throughout the whole tournament. 13 minutes. That's insane. Arda Turan is the true star of this team. Quite frankly probably the only one but he isn't the only good player that they have. Oghuzan Ozyukap is a great runner of the ball and I was quite impressed with him in qualifying how he put the team on his back and made everything come through him. Quite the leader. I'm intrigued to see how Hakan Calhanogl plays in this tournament. The little I saw of him play for Bayer Leverkusen I saw glimpses of a very good player. Could make a name for himself here. I think those three really need to fire. Outside of them I don't know if they'll be able to keep up with Spain and Croatia here. They have a good defensive core and have only conceded 6 goals in qualifying after they opened up with a 3-0 loss to Iceland. I think I'm letting my soft spot taker over here but I think this side will surprise a lot of people.
Cult: This is what worries me about Turkey; they don’t seem to have a keeper (the wonderfully named Volkan Babacan and Onur Kivrak don’t even have 30 combined caps between the two) and aside from Burak Yilmaz I’ve seen more scoring potential in Beavis and Butthead Do America than I do with this squad. The Turks do have a history of surprising people in the Euro though and, once again, this is a weak Group outside of Spain which means anything is possible. Keep an eye out for 18 year old Emre Mor here by the way. The young man only has two caps for Turkey in his short career, but he’s a recent signee of Borussia Dortmund and was courted by other huge clubs such as Ryan’s precious Manchester United. He must have some skill and seeing as Turkey has nothing to lose I say they let him loose. Maybe he’s the biggest thing since Oasis’ “Wonderwall”.
Cult: I guess if you had to pick a favorite to challenge Spain it would be the home country of NBA legend Bruno Sundov no? I’ll be honest; I’m not anymore impressed with Croatia than I was with Turkey or the Czech’s, but unlike those squads the Croatians actually have a few players that play with or against several of Spain’s top players regularly (midfielders Ivan Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and striker Duje Cop are the lucky four). That’s important familiarity to have when you’ll be going up against Spain in this Group, and it’s also helped that the squad also features players from top clubs in Italy and Germany as well. Throw that all together and Croatia should be the team to finish second. That said, I haven’t seen enough of the group to be confident in that choice and the fact that they don’t have a keeper with more than 21 caps troubles me. Much like Mars Attacks! I can see this being hit or miss.
Oliver: Remember 1996 (that’s three!)? When England were hosting this tournament, full of hope and joy, Gascoigne was in a dentist’s chair, Sheringham and Shearer were our SAS, and Darren Anderton was playing international football? Somewhere, deep inside that tournament, I fell in love with Croatia a little bit. In love with Šuker, Bilić (Super Slav!), Jarni, and Štimac. With red and white checked shirts, 5-3-2 formations and Zvonimir Boban. They weren’t flashy, especially, but there was something about them that I couldn’t help but adore. Oh man, what a team.
The funny thing is I think this Croatia team is actually better player for player, than that ’96 one. With Vrsaljko and Ćorluka at the back, Kovačić, Modrić, and Rakitić in midfield, and Mandžukić up front they have a terrific spine of players, and I fancy them in this group. Spain might prove an obstacle, but I’m not completely sold on them being as good as they once were, and I envisage tight, but winnable, games with the Czech Republic and Turkey. I feel there is a real class about this Croatian side with a sprinkling of stardust that might just carry them past all their rivals. Could they win the group? Certainly, stranger things have happened at a European Championships. Greece won it once. So did Denmark. But I think a strong second place will be their reward here.
Ryan: Personally, I don't think the Croats have the same quality that they used to, as their best players have simply retired or aged. Corluka, Modric and Srna are still there, along with Monaco shotstopper Subasic. On the whole, they're strong at the back but lacking a little up top. Other than the fact that the squad is made up of players who altogether play in seven different national leagues, I haven't got much more to say about the Croats. I think the quality of the other teams will see them end up in fourth place.
Matt: Has anyone had a more drama filled qualifying process than Croatia? I'd be hard pressed to find another nation. Despite all that they played quite decent and won 7 of their 10 qualifying matches and the other three ended in draws. Since Ante Cacic took over from Niko Kovac, Croatia have remained undefeated. Is that going to last? Not a chance. That streak could very well be overcome the first game against Turkey. I like the four danger men for Croatia in Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic and the way their games complement each other. As in the norm it seems one teams strength means its weakness comes from the opposite end of the pitch and it's no surprise that Croatia's weakness is their defence. Especially if they are going to give that stupid 3-5-2 formation another go. When teams mount pressure after pressure against Croatia they show how bad it truly is. They may be able to overcome that in the group stages but if they get out they would be looking at making the quarters at best. Will they get out? I seriously don't know about anyone in this group, well, except Spain.
Matt: Well Spain will finish on top for me here. That's where my certainty finishes. I can see the three other teams finishing 2nd-4th. Ugh. I'm going to go Turkey finish 2nd, Croatia 3rd and Czech Republic to finish in last place. Regardless of who finishes 2nd and 3rd I expect the 3rd placed team to qualifying for the next stage here.
Cult: Spain takes all three games to comfortably finish first. Meanwhile second place will be determined by whether Croatia can get four points prior to their final match against Spain. I say they barely do and squeak by Czech Republic for 2nd, leaving Cech and his squad on the outside looking in of the Knockout Stage. And yes, it will officially surpass Fight Night at the Joe ending as the saddest thing in recorded history. Well at least in the Czech Republic.
Oliver: 1. Spain 2. Croatia 3. Czech Republic 4. Turkey
Ryan: This is a strange group as I think all sides are quite light forward-wise, with stronger defences and midfields. Saying that, historically this normally means that there's more goals as a wider selection of players get themselves in forward positions to compensate! It's hard to look past Spain as the winners, and there's something about the Czech team that has me saying they'll be second. The Turks don't need to fear as they should have enough quality to be a third place qualifying team. Sorry Croatia.
And so it ends. We’ll be back soon with Group E girls and boys. Till then, one more reference to 1996. Because why not?