Germany do it tough, but they find a way

Germany have progressed to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 after a shootout which saw four penalties missed and another three saved before Jonas Hector was able to slot home the winning penalty. His effort squeezed past Gianluigi Buffon, who guessed correctly but could not make the save. The contest was much anticipated, and when Germany attempted to match Italy by playing a three-man defence it was clear that it was going to be a very even game. The first half was intriguing, with the two sides feeling each other out. Germany were in control of possession, but the Italian defence were holding firm. The Germans were wary of Italy’s danger on the break, and the Italians were trapped inside their own half.

The game started to open up as the first half drew to a close, and Thomas Muller had a great chance when he received the ball in a brilliant scoring position. Toni Kroos passed wide to Joshua Kimmich, whose cross towards the middle found Muller in a great position. It was a brilliant chance, but the shot was weak and Buffon made an easy save. The Italians had a great opportunity moments later when Emanuele Giaccherini was played through by Leonardo Bonucci, but his cross was deflected away from Alessandro Florenzi by Jerome Boateng. Stefano Sturaro had a chance with a follow-up shot, but Boateng made another deflection to put the ball out for a corner. The second half eased back into the same slow rhythm of the first half, but Germany still had control and would have scored had it not been for some spectacular defensive work from Florenzi. Muller’s shot was past Buffon, but Florenzi deflected it away in mid-air with an outstretched leg. It was an incredible piece of defending, and it kept the scores even.

Mesut Ozil put Germany in the lead shortly after thanks to some good lead-up play from Mario Gomez and Hector. Gomez ran down the left wing before playing the ball through for Hector, who had pushed up the field well. The cross took a deflection from Bonucci to land at the feet of Ozil, who did not have much to do to beat Buffon. Italy were down, and the game looked very different. Germany played in the same way they had before, and they dominated possession, but now Germany’s slow build-up play looked like a bad thing for the Italians. They had to score, but they couldn’t get the ball. Gomez was brilliantly denied by Buffon after a perfect ball from Ozil played him through over the top. The Italian keeper pushed it over with his fingertips, and Italy survived. It still didn’t look as if they were good enough to score, however, and Germany remained in control. Then came the equaliser. The penalty came from nowhere, a rare mistake from Boateng with serious consequences. Florenzi put a cross into the box for Giorgio Chiellini, who had Boateng bearing down on him. Boateng’s arms were inexplicably raised, and Chiellini’s header did not miss them. The penalty was awarded, and Bonucci stepped up to take it. He stopped halfway through his run-up to leave Manuel Neuer flat-footed before drilling it past him into the bottom corner. Neuer guessed correctly, but it didn’t matter as the ball was too well struck.

Extra time was inevitable, and it seemed unlikely that either side would break the deadlock. Julian Draxler came close when his bicycle kick flew just over the bar, but that was the closest either side would get. Then came penalties. Lorenzo Insigne converted, as did Kroos. Then Simone Zaza stepped up. The Juventus striker was subbed on for the express purpose of taking a penalty, and he looked confident as he pranced in. He pranced in slowly, giving Neuer plenty of time to think, and he drilled his penalty into the stands. It was a horrendous effort, and it put Italy in a bad position. Then Buffon saved Muller, and it didn’t matter anymore. Italy took the lead when Ozil hit the post, but they were unable to capitalise as an exhausted Graziano Pelle rolled a weak effort wide of the post. Then Neuer made a brilliant save to deny Bonucci, who chose to kick the other way and found the German keeper ready to stop it. Bastian Schweinsteiger just needed to put it into the back of the net to end it, but his penalty was spooned over the bar and the shootout dragged on. Suddenly both teams had found their scoring boots, and the game rolled on until Neuer saved Matteo Darmian. The penalty was low to the right, and Neuer saved it brilliantly to give Germany the ascendency. Hector hit his penalty home, and Germany were through.

Bordeaux – Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux
Germany 1 (Ozil 65)
Italy 1 (Bonucci 78 pen) (a.e.t, Germany won 6-5 on penalties)
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hun)

Germany (4-4-2): Neuer – Howedes, Boateng, Hummels, Hector; Kimmich, Khedira (Schweinsteiger 16), Kroos, Ozil; Muller, Gomez (Draxler 71).
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini (Zaza 120+1); Florenzi (Darmian 86), Sturaro, Parolo, Giaccherini, de Sciglio; Pelle, Eder (Insigne 108).

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – Germany vs Italy

Germany vs Italy, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux


Match Log

Germany

Germany 2 (Mustafi 19, Schweinsteiger 90+2), Ukraine 0
Germany 0, Poland 0
Northern Ireland 0, Germany 1 (Gomez 30)
Germany 3 (Boateng 8, Gomez 43, Draxler 63), Slovakia 0

Italy

Belgium 0, Italy 2 (Giaccherini 32, Pelle 90+3)
Italy 1 (Eder 88), Sweden 0
Italy 0, Republic of Ireland 1 (Brady 85)
Italy 2 (Chiellini 33, Pelle 90+1), Spain 0

Top Scorers

Germany

2 – Mario Gomez
1 – Jerome Boateng, Julian Draxler, Shkodran Mustafi, Bastian Schweinsteiger

Italy

2 – Graziano Pelle
1 – Giorgio Chiellini, Eder, Emanuele Giaccherini

Team News

Germany

Germany put in a dominant performance to beat Slovakia in the round of 16, and Joachim Low is unlikely to make any changes to the team that won 3-0. There are no injury or suspension concerns, and Julian Draxler should keep his spot over Mario Gotze following a man-of-the-match performance against Slovakia.
Likely team (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Hector; Khedira, Kroos; Muller, Ozil, Draxler; Gomez.

Italy

Daniele de Rossi injured his hip in the game against Spain, and Antonio Conte faces a difficult task in replacing him. A like-for-like replacement is out of the question with Thiago Motta suspended, and Stefano Sturaro is likely to come into the team to replace the veteran midfielder. Sturaro is set to play on the right, with Marco Parolo shifting into de Rossi’s position in the centre. Antonio Candreva is still injured, and Mattia de Sciglio should hold his place as a result.
Likely team (3-5-2):
Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Florenzi, Sturaro, Parolo, Giaccherini, de Sciglio; Pelle, Eder.

Keys to success

Germany

The Germans were dominant in their 3-0 victory over Slovakia, and they will look to play with the same ruthlessness as they did in that game. They need to assert themselves early by gaining plenty of possession, and they will try to create plenty of opportunities up front by using the ball-playing skills of Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil. The Germans will need to be wary of the Italians ability to counter-attack, and they will try to keep as much of the ball as possible.

Italy

A key feature in Italy’s run to the quarter-finals has been Conte’s tactical nous, which has allowed the Italians to beat sides who look much stronger on paper. Italy took the Spanish by surprise when they started the game on the front foot, and they may try to take the game to the Germans instead of sitting back and absorbing pressure. They will need to be at their best defensively, and the all-Juventus back three will be looking to maintain their strong form.

Prediction

Italy surprised many with their tactics against Spain, and Conte may play a similar game when his side takes on the Germans. Germany will be looking to assert themselves in the middle through Kroos and Sami Khedira, and they should be able to get the upper hand. It will be difficult, but the Germans are in good touch and should go through. Germany 2-1.

Italy outclass sluggish Spain

It was billed as the game of the round, and Italy rose to the occasion at the Stade de France with an excellent performance. Giorgio Chiellini scored the first goal just after the half-hour, and Graziano Pelle scored his second goal of the tournament in injury time to seal the deal. The Italians were expected to sit back and absorb the Spanish pressure, but it was soon clear that they were going to play a much more active role in the game than first thought. Soon enough it was the Spanish who were forced to cope with the Italian pressure, and Pelle came incredibly close to scoring with a header from Alessandro Florenzi’s well-placed free kick. The ball was hit well towards the bottom corner, but David de Gea made an excellent reflex save to deny the Italians. They had another great chance when Eder headed the ball in the direction of Emanuele Giaccherini, whose well-hit bicycle kick forced a wonderful stop from de Gea. The ball bounced off the post, and Spain were lucky to survive.

Then came the goal. Italy received a free kick in a perfect scoring position, and Eder drove the ball in past the wall towards the bottom corner. It was a good strike, but de Gea was up to it and made the save, before sliding in to prevent Giaccherini from scoring from the rebound. The ball spilled loose, and Chiellini was simply too fast for Gerard Pique as he bundled the ball into the back of the net. It was a good goal, and it was the difference between the sides at the break as Spain were unable to make any kind of impact. The Spanish started the second half more positively, and Alvaro Morata had a great chance when his header was well saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Spain had most of the possession, but the Italians looked very dangerous on the break. Eder forced de Gea to make a great save when Pelle’s back heel left him one-on-one with the Spanish keeper, and Spain looked to be in a difficult position.

Spain threatened to take control time and time again, and with twenty minutes to go they had a string of brilliant opportunities. Lucas Vazquez looked to be through after some good work from Aritz Aduriz, but he was adjudged to be offside and Italy regained their control. Spain had control of possession, but they were not quick enough in attack to challenge the Italian defence. Andres Iniesta had a good chance with a volley but Buffon was able to save it. The Italian keeper was called into action again moments later when Pique forced a diving save with a shot from range, and Spain looked as if they could break the Italian defence. They couldn’t. Italy stopped the Spanish charge and took the heat out of the game, and Spain did not have enough life in them to put it back. Pique had a great chance after de Gea’s hack into the box found him in a good position, but Buffon dived well and made the stop. The game was all but over when Lorenzo Insigne’s cross field ball found Matteo Darmian on the right wing, and the result was confirmed when Darmian’s cross connected with Pelle, who was in a brilliant position and put an unstoppable shot into the back of the net.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
Italy 2 (Chiellini 33, Pelle 90+1)
Spain 0
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Tur)

Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Florenzi (Darmian 84), Parolo, de Rossi (Motta 53), Giaccherini, de Sciglio; Pelle, Eder (Insigne 82).
Spain (4-3-3): de Gea – Juanfran, Pique, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Silva, Morata (Lucas Vazquez 70), Nolito (Aritz Aduriz 46 (Pedro Rodriguez 82)).

Top 5
1. Eder (Italy)
Eder was in top form, creating plenty of problems for the Spanish defence with his pace, skill and ability to slip in behind. His free kick set up the first goal for Italy, and he provided plenty of headaches for Spain with his speed on the counter-attack. He had many golden opportunities, and made life very difficult for the Spanish.
2. David de Gea (Spain)
Italy created great chances from the beginning, and de Gea had a very busy night as he made some top-drawer saves. He was unlucky to concede the first goal after some great goalkeeping to deny both Eder and Giaccherini, and he could not have saved the second. He kept Spain in the match with some of his work after the first Italian goal, and he can hold his head high after a great performance.
3. Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
Bonucci was as solid as ever at the heart of the Italian defence, and the Spanish never really looked like breaking through him. He provided great leadership at the back and showed some of his skill on the ball with his excellent distribution. He had a good game and is in good form leading into a key clash with Germany.
4. Emanuele Giaccherini (Italy)
Giaccherini was lively from start to finish, pressing hard and putting plenty of pressure on the Spanish. He nearly scored on multiple occasions, and he was the first Italian player to get to the rebound after de Gea saved Eder’s powerful free kick. He nearly scored in a spectacular fashion with a bicycle kick, and his liveliness was a key reason for Italy’s victory.
5. Cesc Fabregas (Spain)
Fabregas tried very hard for the Spanish, and he had a good individual game at the heart of midfield. He created some excellent chances from set pieces and he was the player who looked most likely to create a goal for the Spaniards. He was able to find plenty of space throughout, and he was Spain’s most dangerous attacking force.

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – Italy vs Spain

Italy vs Spain, Stade de France, Saint-Denis


Match Log

Italy

Belgium 0, Italy 2 (Giaccherini 32, Pelle 90+3)
Italy 1 (Eder 88), Sweden 0
Italy 0, Republic of Ireland 1 (Brady 85)

Spain

Spain 1 (Pique 87), Czech Republic 0
Spain 3 (Morata 34, 48, Nolito 37), Turkey 0
Croatia 2 (N Kalinic 45, Perisic 87), Spain 1 (Morata 7)

Team News

Italy

Antonio Conte did not play a full strength side in Italy’s last group game against Ireland, and he should make at least eight changes to the side that lost 1-0. Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli will definitely retain their spots in the centre of defence, and they will be rejoined by Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini. Graziano Pelle and Eder will replace Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza up front, and Antonio Candreva, Daniele de Rossi, Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo should return in midfield.
Likely team (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, de Rossi, Giaccherini, Florenzi; Pelle, Eder.

Spain

Vincente del Bosque has not yet changed his starting line-up at this tournament, and he should keep the same team for the game against Italy despite a disappointing loss to Croatia. The only real selection question surrounds who will start at right back, with Hector Bellerin aiming to push Juanfran out of the job after the Atletico Madrid stalwart performed poorly against the Croats.
Likely team (4-3-3): de Gea – Juanfran, Pique, Ramos, Jordi Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Silva, Morata, Nolito.

Keys to success

Italy

Defence. The Italians are going to concede vast amounts of possession and territory to Spain, and they will need to be prepared defensively for a Spanish team who pass the ball around more effectively than any other side at this tournament. The back three of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli will need to hold firm if Italy are going to get anywhere, as the Italians will struggle to make up the difference should they go behind.

Spain

The Spanish will try and keep possession away from the Italians as they attempt to penetrate the formidable defence that Italy can call upon. Andres Iniesta had a rare bad game against Croatia, and del Bosque will be looking for him to step up and create plenty of chances for Nolito and Alvaro Morata up front. Morata has had a great tournament so far, and he will need to step up and make life difficult for his Juventus teammates in the Italian defence.

Prediction

This game is shaping up as the best of the round, and the winner will probably go in to the rest of the tournament as favourites. The Spanish should dominate possession and territory, but to win they will have to penetrate a defence which is experienced and incredibly difficult to beat. Spain have enough quality to do it, and they should win, but it will be very hard. Spain 1-0.

Experience wins out as Italy topple Belgium

It only takes one chance to win a game of football, and in the end one beautiful pass was all Italy needed to take out the highly-rated Belgians in Lyon. The second goal, scored in injury time by Graziano Pelle, was icing on the cake, and the game was all but over before Pelle’s well-hit volley passed a desperate Thomas Vermaelen to find the back of the net. Belgium started the game confidently, but they were slow in attack, and their attempts to find a target inside the box were comfortably thwarted by the experienced Italian back three of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. The best chances for Belgium had come from long shots, and they came closest to scoring when Radja Nainggolan’s effort nearly found its way past Gianluigi Buffon into the bottom corner. Before the goal, the Italians defended Belgium with nonchalance, sweeping away the crosses as they came and looking completely nonplussed when faced with some of the best attacking talent in Europe.

The turning point came just after the half-hour mark, and it came from nowhere. The Belgians had been slow and ineffective, but the Italians had had less of the ball and had also been wasteful in the final third. Passes were consistently finding the red shirts of Belgium, and Italy did not appear likely to score against a Belgian team who were dominating possession. Then Bonucci set up Emanuele Giaccherini with one of the best passes of the tournament so far. From inside his own half the centre back played the ball just over the head of Toby Alderweireld, who was unable to cut it off. It landed perfectly at Giaccherini’s feet, and with a brilliant first touch the central midfielder slotted the ball past Thibaut Courtois into the bottom corner. The Belgian keeper had no chance after his defence broke down, and the Italians had the lead. Their next job was to protect it.

The goal took the momentum away from the Belgians, and suddenly Italy looked the more dangerous side. Antonio Candreva’s shot from range had to be saved by Courtois, and the resulting corner saw Pelle miss a certain goal with his head. The Belgians survived, and Kevin de Bruyne had a chance when he found the ball inside the area. He had a shot, but it was blocked by Giaccherini. It was a highlight in an otherwise poor display by the classy attacking midfielder, who was in the wrong position from the outset and looked completely lost for the whole game.

The second half started with more energy, and Romelu Lukaku should have scored shortly after the break when Belgium spread quickly on the counter-attack. Lukaku found himself behind the defence after a nice pass from de Bruyne, but he could not convert when one-on-one with Buffon. The Italian captain was in a strong position at the edge of the box, and while Lukaku’s shot went past him it missed the goals by inches. A minute later Courtois had to make a wonderful save to deny Pelle, whose close range header was destined for the bottom corner before the Belgian keeper threw out a hand to stop it. Italy needed to take the sting out of the game, and they gradually did, forcing Belgium to attack patiently and allowing their defence to take control again. They thwarted Belgium every time they tried to counter, and had plenty of players booked as a result. Chiellini just stopped short of tackling Eden Hazard to the ground as the Belgian captain tried to get away. Dries Mertens had plenty of options open for him on the break, but Eder made sure he could not pass it off. Bonucci fouled Divock Origi when the young striker found himself in a strong attacking position. Belgium were forced to try and penetrate the perfectly organised Italian defence, and while chances fell to Origi and Marouane Fellaini in the dying minutes they could not get the ball into the Italian net.

In the end, none of it mattered, as a strong Italian counter-attack was too much for the Belgian defence. Candreva found himself one-on-one, but chose to cross it to Pelle, leaving the Belgian keeper out of position. Vermaelen tried desperately to stop the shot, but, like Belgium on the night, it was never going to happen.

Parc Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon
Belgium 0
Italy 2 (Giaccherini 32, Pelle 90+2)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois – Ciman (Carrasco 75), Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Nainggolan (Mertens 62), Witsel; de Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard; Lukaku (Origi 73).
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, de Rossi (Motta 78), Giaccherini, Darmian (de Sciglio 58); Pelle, Eder (Immobile 75).

Top 5
1. Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
Bonucci was brilliant throughout, and he was impenetrable in defence. His combination with Barzagli, Chiellini and Buffon was excellent, and when Belgium were sending crosses into the box early he was always there to block them. The pass that led to Italy’s first goal was incredible, and he had a wonderful game despite a booking for a professional foul late in the game.
2. Giorgio Chiellini (Italy)
Chiellini played a similar role to Bonucci in the centre of defence, and he made some key stops to ensure that nothing got through. He showed his experience when he fouled Eden Hazard to stop a Belgian attack, and while he was booked for the incident it did not really tarnish his individual performance. He was very good, and will hope to continue his form for the rest of the tournament.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Courtois was at the top of his game in goal, and he kept Belgium in the game on a number of occasions after the Italians opened the scoring. He had no chance of stopping the two Italian goals, but he saved a number of excellent Italian attempts and made an incredible save to deny Graziano Pelle’s header just after half-time.
4. Graziano Pelle (Italy)
A goal in injury-time was a just reward for Pelle, who was a massive problem for the Belgian defence throughout and managed to find plenty of open space inside the box. He should have scored just after Giaccherini when his header was slightly wide, and it took a special save from Courtois to deny another header from close range. He was in good attacking positions and was very dangerous.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
The Belgian defence was not particularly cohesive throughout, but Alderweireld was able to hold everything together for the whole game. He was caught out when Italy scored their first goal, but he had a flawless second half. He was forced to take a bigger role as the game progressed, and he was able to thwart most of Italy’s counter-attacks before they came to anything.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Final Prediction

Over the last few days I have previewed each group in-depth, looking at each team individually. With just one day to go before Euro 2016 kicks off at the Stade de France it is now time for me to pick the team who I believe will be crowned champions of the tournament one month from now. The round of 16 is not easy to pick, as it is completely dependent on which of the third-placed teams progress to the next stage. I believe that Ukraine, Turkey, Sweden and Iceland will go through as third-placed teams, but Romania and Slovakia could well be the teams that progress. This means that Switzerland play Poland, Spain face Sweden, England play Turkey and Austria come up against Italy. The other matches would be Germany and Iceland, Belgium and Croatia, France vs Ukraine and Wales vs Portugal. Spain, England, Germany, Belgium and France should all progress comfortably, leaving three very interesting games. Austria and Italy will be an excellent contest, but the solidity and experience of the Italians should prevail. Either way, it will certainly be a great game to watch. Poland and Switzerland will be interesting, but Poland’s one-two punch of Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik should be too much for the Swiss. Wales and Portugal are dependent on Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo respectively, and this will make for an interesting game. It may be close, but Portugal have better depth and more options and should progress.

This leaves quarter-finals between Poland and Spain, England and Italy, Germany and Belgium and France and Portugal. France and Spain should go through comfortably enough, and this leaves two brilliant contests. England vs Italy is an incredibly interesting match-up, and while the Italians are strong England are the better side and should go through. The other quarter-final would see the two top-ranked sides in this tournament play off, and it could be a classic. The Germans have not been in good form, but they always stand up at major tournaments. In the end, the Germans should win due to their experience, but Belgium will always be tough to see off. The first semi-final is between Spain and England, both strong, youthful teams who will be sure to provide a great contest. Ultimately the Spanish have more experience and a better side, and as such are more likely to go through. The English are on the rise, however, and should not be written off. In the other semi-final the Germans play the French. This is a tight contest, but I feel that the French should progress with a stronger side full of incredible talent. As such, I predict that France and Spain will contest the final of Euro 2016. A game between these sides would be very interesting, but in the end the French are the better side and should lift the trophy. The Spanish cannot be written off, but my final pick for Euro 2016 is France.

Champions: France
Runners-up: Spain
Semi-finals: England, Germany.
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Italy, Poland, Portugal.
Round of 16: Austria, Croatia, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Wales.
Group Stage: Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia.
Golden Ball: Paul Pogba (France)
Golden Boot: Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Best Young Player: Dele Alli (England)

This brings my Euro 2016 preview to a close, and I hope you have enjoyed it. Stay tuned over the next few months for articles on the Euros as well as coverage of the Premier League and the Champions League.

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – Group E

Group E

Team (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (2), Italy (12), Republic of Ireland (33), Sweden (35)
Fixtures:
Republic of Ireland vs Sweden, Stade de France, Saint-Denis
Belgium vs Italy, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon
Italy vs Sweden, Stadium Municipal, Toulouse
Belgium vs Republic of Ireland, Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
Italy vs Republic of Ireland, Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille
Sweden vs Belgium, Allianz Riviera, Nice

Belgium

Head Coach: Marc Wilmots
Captain: Eden Hazard
Previous Appearances: 4 (1972, 1980, 1984, 2000)
Best Finish: Runners-up (1980)
Qualified: 1st Group B
UEFA Euro 2012: Did not qualify

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), 12. Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), 13. Jean-Francois Gillet (Mechelen).
Defenders:
2. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), 3. Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), 5. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), 15. Jason Denayer (Galatasaray), 16. Thomas Meunier (Club Brugge), 18. Christian Kabasele (Genk), 21. Jordan Lukaku (Oostende), 23. Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact).
Midfielders:
4. Radja Nainggolan (Roma), 6. Axel Witsel (Zenit), 7. Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), 8. Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), 10. Eden Hazard (Chelsea), 11. Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), 19. Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).
Forwards:
9. Romelu Lukaku (Everton), 14. Dries Mertens (Napoli), 17. Divock Origi (Liverpool), 20. Christian Benteke (Liverpool), 22. Michy Batshuayi (Marseille).

Form Guide

Belgium got their qualifying campaign off to a flying start with a 6-0 win over Andorra, but consecutive draws against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales pulled them back down to earth. They recovered well with a 5-0 win over Cyprus, and a 1-0 defeat in Cardiff proved a minor setback as they qualified with a 4-1 win over the Andorrans.

Strengths

Belgium have had some exceptional talent come through in a very short amount of time, and with the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois coming through the ranks the Belgians have risen to an incredible level. The lack of experience that existed at the World Cup is no longer an issue, and the midfield of Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel, Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and de Bruyne is very strong. Up front Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are proven goalscorers, and with the experience of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in defence Belgium can go a long way in this tournament.

Weaknesses

The Belgians have a very strong side, but they have many injuries in defence and this is a serious problem. Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts are both missing due to injury, and the loss of Kompany’s leadership down back could cause further problems. Courtois has not been in particularly strong form in the Premier League, and if this rubs off on his performances at the Euros then the Belgians could concede a lot of goals. The attack is strong, but Lukaku was very quiet at the World Cup and this cannot happen again.

Star Player: Eden Hazard

Hazard began his career with Lille, and after showing exceptional promise early on in his career he has developed into one of the world’s best players. He led Chelsea to the Premier League title two seasons ago, and while his form has dropped off recently he is still an incredibly skilled player and could have a huge impact on this tournament.

Key Player: Thomas Vermaelen

Vermaelen has picked up over 50 caps for Belgium, and while he is no longer in Belgium’s first choice back four he will marshal Belgium’s defence in the absence of Kompany and Lombaerts. Vermaelen will replace Kompany as a leader in the heart of the defence, and if he is unable to play well and hold the fort then there will be issues.

Verdict

Belgium have a very strong side, and the potential is definitely there. Hazard and de Bruyne will form an incredible combination in the middle of the park, and while there are some concerns surrounding the defence the Belgians will be formidable opponents. They have picked up valuable experience from the World Cup in 2014, and they could go all the way.

Italy

Head Coach: Antonio Conte
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
Previous Appearances: 8 (1968, 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Champions (1968)
Qualified: 1st Group H
UEFA Euro 2012: Runners up

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), 12. Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain), 13. Federico Marchetti (Lazio).
Defenders:
2. Mattia de Sciglio (Milan), 3. Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), 4. Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), 5. Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham United), 15. Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), 19. Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus).
Midfielders:
6. Antonio Candreva (Lazio), 8. Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), 10. Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), 14. Stefano Sturaro (Juventus), 16. Daniele de Rossi (Roma), 18. Marco Parolo (Lazio), 21. Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), 23. Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna).
Forwards:
7. Simone Zaza (Juventus), 9. Graziano Pelle (Southampton), 11. Ciro Immobile (Torino), 17. Eder (Internazionale), 20. Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), 22. Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma).

Form Guide

Italy made it through qualifying without losing a game, and they sealed their spot at the Euros with a 3-1 victory over Azerbaijan in Baku. The Italians started well, and while they fell off in the middle they recovered with wins in their last four games to finish first. They were not dominant, but they were solid and are in good form.

Strengths

As is often the case with Italian sides the defence is very solid, and with Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli at the heart of the defence not much will get through. Gianluigi Buffon provides invaluable experience in goal, and his leadership will be important in a side which has undergone plenty of change in recent times. The Italians have added plenty of quality up front since their group stage exit at the World Cup, and fresh faces Eder, Simone Zaza, Lorenzo Insigne, Graziano Pelle and Ciro Immobile are quality options who could break out at the finals.

Weaknesses

The Italians were not dominant in qualifying by any means, and while the attack has been overturned it is inexperienced and did not really fire during the qualification process. The core of the side is very experienced but they have been around for a long time and are past their respective peaks, and the general lack of players at the pinnacle of their careers could hurt. The midfield is missing two key players in Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, and their absences could have a massive impact on Italy’s performance.

Star Player: Giorgio Chiellini

Chiellini has been at the helm of the Italian and Juventus defences for a long time, and he is a very solid player in the back half. He has plenty of versatility, and while he is unlikely to be needed at left back he has the potential to adapt midway through the game if needed. He has played 66 games in Europe, and his experience against the best in the world will be vital for Italy.

Key Player: Graziano Pelle

Pelle was called up to the national team at a fairly late age in 2014, and since that time he has not missed a beat, netting four times in 11 games. He was Antonio Conte’s main option in qualifying and his goals will be crucial in a team not known for putting the ball into the back of the net. If he cannot step up to match the rise in opposition Italy will struggle.

Verdict

The Italians are strong and experienced, but while there is plenty of new blood up front not much turnover has occurred from the unsuccessful World Cup campaigns in 2010 and 2014. Conte has had exceptional success as a manager, and he is sure to make an impact at his first major tournament as a manager. The side is solid and could go a long way.

Republic of Ireland

Head Coach: Martin O’Neill
Captain: John O’Shea
Previous Appearances: 2 (1988, 2012)
Best Finish: Group Stage (1988, 2012)
Qualified: 3rd Group D (defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina in play-offs)
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kieren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), 16. Shay Given (Stoke City), 23. Darren Randolph (West Ham United).
Defenders:
2. Seamus Coleman (Everton), 3. Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa), 4. John O’Shea (Sunderland), 5. Richard Keogh (Derby County), 12. Shane Duffy (Blackburn Rovers), 15. Cyrus Christie (Derby County), 17. Stephen Ward (Burnley).
Midfielders:
6. Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), 7. Aiden McGeady (Sheffield Wednesday), 8. James McCarthy (Everton), 11. James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), 13. Jeff Hendrick (Derby County), 18. David Meyler (Hull City), 19. Robbie Brady (Norwich City), 20. Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), 22. Stephen Quinn (Reading).
Forwards:
9. Shane Long (Southampton), 10. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), 14. Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), 21. Daryl Murphy (Ipswich Town).

Form Guide

The Irish started their campaign fairly well, pumping seven goals past Gibraltar and snatching a 1-1 draw against reigning world champions Germany. Despite this start they fell off and needed a 1-0 win over the Germans in Dublin to make their way through to the play-offs, where they met Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a 1-1 draw in Zenica they won 2-0 in the return leg to progress to the finals.

Strengths

The Irish have a frugal defence, conceding only eight times in twelve qualifying games. Only once did they concede more than once in a game, and with the experience of John O’Shea at the heart of the defence they should be in good stead. Martin O’Neill is spoilt for choice up front, with Walters, Shane Long and Robbie Keane all quality options. In the middle, Aiden McGeady and Glenn Whelan have plenty of experience, and with plenty of quality options all over the park the Irish are a strong side.

Weaknesses

Ireland lack world-class players, and the majority of their squad is confined to the lower levels of English football. The side is generally old, and many of the players who will be relied upon are past their prime and will not perform as well as they have before. There is plenty of depth throughout the squad, but there is no set starting combination and this inconsistency could prove to be an issue, especially if results do not go their way. Ireland did not perform last time they went to the Euros, and the group they have this time around is just as tough.

Star Player: Aiden McGeady

McGeady is one of the most experienced players in the Irish team, and he has plenty of big game experience with Ireland, Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Everton. He has played 55 games in European competitions, and his skill and poise on the wing has the potential to cause plenty of issues for opposing fullbacks.

Key Player: John O’Shea

If the Irish are going to do well then they simply need O’Shea, who has 110 caps worth of experience, to step up. In a defence that is by no means settled O’Shea, who has experience playing in the Premier League with Manchester United and Sunderland, will be invaluable. He has played 256 games for Manchester United and has plenty of experience against the world’s best.

Verdict

The Irish defence, led by O’Shea, will be tough to penetrate, and there is plenty of experience throughout the squad. Long, Keane and Walters are all good options, but the lack of continuity that could exist within the squad is an issue. The Irish are facing some excellent opposition, and even if Martin O’Neill brings out the best in his team they may still fail.

Sweden

Head Coach: Erik Hamren
Captain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Previous Appearances: 5 (1992, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Best Finish: Semi-finals (1992)
Qualified: 3rd Group G (defeated Denmark in play-offs)
UEFA Euro 2012: Group Stage

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Andreas Isaksson (Kasimpasa), 12. Robin Olsen (Kobenhavn), 23. Patrick Carlgren (AIK).
Defenders: 2. Mikael Lustig (Celtic), 3. Erik Johansson (Kobenhavn), 4. Andreas Granqvist (Krasnodar), 5. Martin Olsson (Norwich City), 13. Pontus Jansson (Torino), 14. Victor Lindelof (Benfica), 17. Ludwig Augustinsson (Kobenhavn).
Midfielders: 6. Emil Forsberg (Leipzig), 7. Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland), 8. Albin Ekdal (Hamburg), 9. Kim Kallstrom (Grasshoppers), 15. Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo), 16. Pontus Wernbloom (CSKA Moskva), 18. Oscar Lewicki (Malmo), 21. Jimmy Durmaz (Olympiakos), 22. Erkan Zengin (Trabzonspor).
Forwards: 10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris Saint-Germain), 11. Markus Berg (Panathinaikos), 19. Emir Kujovic (Norrkoping), 20. John Guidetti (Celta Vigo).

Form Guide

The Swedish faced stiff competition throughout qualifying from Austria and Russia, and losses to each of those sides ruled them out of automatic qualification. They were drawn to face Denmark in the play-offs, and after a 2-1 victory in Solna they confirmed qualification with a 2-2 draw in Copenhagen, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic netting twice to seal the deal.

Strengths

The Swedish have plenty of experience on the big stage, and since their first appearance at the Euros in 1992 they have only missed one tournament. Ibrahimovic, Andreas Isaksson and Kim Kallstrom all have more than 100 international caps, and the midfield is packed with experience, with Kallstrom, Jimmy Durmaz, Albin Ekdal, Sebastian Larsson, Erkan Zengin and Pontus Wernbloom likely to form an effective combination. The Swedish have players positioned throughout Europe’s top leagues, and this big game experience should come through in the finals.

Weaknesses

The Swedish are a fairly strong side, but they are over-dependant on Ibrahimovic for their goals. The midfield has plenty of players who can pop up with the occasional goal, but if Ibrahimovic is shut down the Swedish will struggle to score. There are many different defensive options, but Erik Hamren has not necessarily worked out what his best defensive front looks like, and this lack of a set defensive combination has the potential to cause issues at the final tournament.

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Who else? Ibrahimovic is a legend of Swedish football, and every time he joins a new club he brings success with him. Since 2003 he has only failed to win one league title (with Milan in 2011-12) and since moving to Paris Saint-Germain he has scored 110 goals in just 120 league appearances. He has found the net 51 times in Europe, and if Sweden are going to make a run in this tournament he will have to fire.

Key Player: Kim Kallstrom

Kallstrom has 127 international caps, and his work as a playmaker in midfield will be essential to Sweden’s success. If he is unable to provide plenty of opportunities for Ibrahimovic, Marcus Berg and John Guidetti up front then it will be exceptionally difficult for the Swedish to score, and his set piece ability will also come in handy. He has the experience to stand up under pressure, and the Swedish will be relying on him.

Verdict

The Swedish have a strong side, and experience at the highest level will not be an issue. They have plenty of ability as a team, but that was not necessarily realised in qualifying and they have been drawn into a tough group. Ultimately, if Ibrahimovic fails to fire it will be very difficult for the Swedish to score, and this could have a very serious effect on the team.

Prediction

This group is a strong one, and Belgium should progress comfortably despite the questions surrounding their defence. The battle for second will be intriguing, and in the end the Italians should prevail due to their strength all over the park. The Swedish will provide strong competition, but the Irish are unlikely to challenge with a comparatively weak side.
1. Belgium, 2. Italy, 3. Sweden, 4. Republic of Ireland.