Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Euro Cup 16 Preview: Unpredictable as Ever

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

Live from the Palais des Congres in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, the Euro 16 draw took place Saturday to determine this summer's group stage opponents. Under a militarized and subdued atmosphere,  24 nations and their representatives sat side-by-side awaiting each other's fate.

A little over a month has passed since terrorists raided a concert venue not so different from this one, slaughtering innocents, while shaking the fabric of this city to it’s core. Slowly, but surely, Parisians have started to regain a sense of normalcy, with cafes once again full and laughter echoing through the sky.

Saturdays draw furthered that normalcy, bringing something we can all stand united for and passionate about.

For the first time, the Euro Cup has been expanded from 16 to 24 of UEFA's 54 member nations. While some purists have complained of a dilution of the tournament, anyone who saw the excitement in the eyes of teams like Iceland and Albania, had to be moved.

Having 24 teams also means the Euros will match the World Cup formats we witnessed between 1986 and 1994, with the four best third-place sides advancing alongside the top two in each group.

A larger field makes for more storylines for all of the world to see, and enjoy.

I would be remiss not to start with Germany, who will attempt to match what Spain achieved in 2010, Brazil in 2004 and the Germans themselves in 1972: holding both the world and continental titles at the same time.

Their road in Group A will not be easy, as they drew a tricky group that will be challenging to overcome. Poland come equipt with maybe the best forward in the game, in Robert Lewandowski, whose side already beat the Germans in qualifying; Ukraine, with two of the world’s brightest young wingers in Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko; and Northern Ireland, who will be making their first-ever Euro appearance, but shocked everyone in winning their qualifying group.

Spain will attempt to lift the cup for the third consecutive time
Spain come in a little under the radar, a result of their disastrous World Cup defense in Brazil, but defending European champions nonetheless. After already making international history by repeating, the Spaniards will look to further it with a sports fan's favorite-- the 3-peat.

Group B features a Croatian side led by the La Liga-based dynamic duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric; Turkey, is banking on uber talented, but unpredictable Arda Turan; and the Czech Republic, captained by Arsenal goalkeeper and international stalwart, Petr Cech.

The hosts, France, posses one of the world's deepest rosters with dynamic stars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann. The big question mark is the status of Karim Benzema, who was suspended indefinitely from the national team because of the charges brought against him stemming from the Mathieu Valbuena sex tape scandal. The federation has said that the suspension will remain as long as the case is not resolved, stripping the French of one of the world's best strikers. Luckily, Group C is pretty straightforward as Romania, Albania and Switzerland should all be battling just for second place.

England is the cream of the crop in Group B, coming off an extremely impressive qualifying campaign that saw them go undefeated with a goal difference of +28. The Brits will be chasing their first major trophy since 1966 with a very familiar foe to go up against.

Wales, who will make their Euro Cup debut, steadily rely on a singular megastar to push them through in each and every match, in Gareth Bale. Ironic, that one of the other teams with a similar philosophy, Portugal, are led by non other than Bale’s Real Madrid teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo. Out of the Portuguese’s shadow on one of the world’s biggest stages, Bale will set out to prove that he is much more than just a second fiddle.

Slovakia will again try to spoil somebody's party, just as they did in World Cup 2010, when they eliminated tournament favorite Italy. Russia rounds out the group, with the country investing massive resources into a side that will host World Cup 2018, and will do everything in their power to prevent an embarrassment.

Belgium features one of the youngest and most impressive squads in Europe
Group E is headlined by a side who have seen their international profile skyrocket over the last few years, in Belgium. When you stop and realize that Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are all 24 years old or younger, it is easy to understand why.

Unfortunately, they received the bad luck of the tournament matched up against the second seed most wanted to avoid--Italy. Manager Antonio Conte leads a rebuilt Azzurri who are looking to get back to the final as they did in 2012.  Sweden also joins the fray with the always entertaining Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in what is likely to be his final international tournament and Ireland, led by 35 year old Robbie Keane, who continues to age like a fine wine.

Group F features arguably the best player in the tournament in Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who once again will be expected to carry a nation on his tan sculpted shoulders. Now split, the former Austro-Hungarian empire will renew acquaintances, as Austria and Hungary attempt to capture glory days long gone by. Finally, there’s Iceland, with all 329,000 inhabitants, ready to put the geyser covered country on the map. This was no charity case, as “the cods” finished second in qualifying with shocking home and away wins over the Netherlands.

Overall, this tournament promises to be a welcomed distraction to the continent of Europe, who have suffered a tumultuous year dealing with terrorism, immigration and financial crisis. With the field being expanded, even more nations will get to take part in the patriotism and sense of community events like this deliver on..

And oh yeah, the soccer should be pretty damn good as well.

Tournament Schedule


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