The first of my Euro 2016 previews looks ahead at Group A, containing hosts France and their neighbours Switzerland, both favourites to go through. Meanwhile, Romania have won just one of their previous 13 European Championship fixtures, whilst Albania are making their major tournament debut.
- Friday 10th June: France vs Romania; Saint-Denis; 8pm (ITV)
- Saturday 11th June: Albania vs Switzerland; Lens; 2pm (BBC)
- Wednesday 15th June: Romania vs Switzerland; Paris; 5pm (ITV)
- Wednesday 15th June: France vs Albania; Marseille; 8pm (ITV)
- Sunday 19th June: Switzerland vs France; Lille; 8pm (BBC)
- Sunday 19th June: Romania vs Albania; Lyon; 8pm (BBC)
- World Ranking: 17th
- European Championships best: Winners (1984 & 2000)
- Previous European Championships played in: 8
- Manager: Didier Deschamps
- Captain: Hugo Lloris
How They Qualified
Obviously as hosts France qualified automatically so therefore have been playing just friendlies for the last two years. As a result, their FIFA ranking has fallen dramatically.
Star Man – Paul Pogba
Since being let go by Manchester United as a 19 year old, Paul Pogba has flourished into one of the best midfielders in the world, and as such there are now rumours that the Red Devils want him back. They are not the only club interested in Pogba, now 23, who has shone for Juventus over the last couple of seasons to catapult his price tag. Able to play a holding role or sometimes even just behind the striker, the Frenchman is hugely influential on the pitch and got eight goals and 12 assists (more than anyone else) as Juventus stormed to the Serie A title in 2015-16. Now aiming to send his country to glory too, Pogba has not actually scored for France for nearly two years, but will be wanting to end that drought during the tournament.
France are the bookies’ favourites, and they’re my favourites too. You only have to look at the calibre of players that missed out on their squad for the tournament (such as Hatem Ben Arfa and Alexandre Lacazette) to see how strong Les Bleus are. They’ve lost just one of their last eight matches, and the home support could prove key. They are slightly weak at the back, but Didier Deschamps has perhaps the most potent attack at the tournament at his disposal which is why I’m back the hosts to lift the trophy. Winners
- World Ranking: 22nd
- European Championships best: Quarter-Finals (2000)
- Previous European Championships played in: 4
- Manager: Anghel Iordanescu
- Captain: Vlad Chiriches
How They Qualified
Romania were one of just three unbeaten teams in qualifying, but could still only manage to finish second in Group F behind the Northern Ireland. They were though the only team to beat Michael O’Neill’s men, conceded just two goals the entire campaign and finished comfortably ahead of the other teams despite leaving it until the final game to secure qualification.
Star Man – Nicolae Stanciu
There are few big names in the Romania squad, with English fans perhaps knowing Watford goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon and former Tottenham defender Vlad Chiriches. But the key player is Nicolae Stanciu, who by playing in the number 10 role, is being touted as the next Gheorghe Hagi in his homeland. He is renowned for his play-making skills, and at 23 years old is Romania’s most highly rated prospect. In 2015-16, he scored 12 goals for Steaua Bucharest, but only made his national team debut in March. Stanciu has wasted no time making an impact though, netting four times in his first five caps.
Romania are quite a way behind France and Switzerland, but could have a good chance of qualifying for the knockout stage if they are able to beat Albania. They aren’t the strongest going forward, but as shown in qualifying their defence is tight, albeit in a relatively easy group. If they do make the last 16, they’ll likely face England, the team they picked up their only European Championship win against to date in 2000. The Three Lions should get revenge this time around though. Round of 16
- World Ranking: 42nd
- European Championships best: N/A (this is their first tournament appearance)
- Previous European Championships played in: 0
- Manager: Gianni De Biasi
- Captain: Lorik Cana
How They Qualified
Controversially. Albania finished second in Group I behind Portugal, actually being the only team to defeat Cristiano Ronaldo and co. However, they were awarded a 3-0 win over Serbia after their match was abandoned due to Serbian fans invading the pitch and attacking Albania players when a drone carried a pro-Albanian flag over the stadium. Without this default win, they would have finished third in the group and needed a play-off to qualify.
Star Man – Elseid Hysaj
In moving to Napoli for £5 million last summer, Elseid Hysaj became the second most expensive Albanian player of all time behind his captain Lorik Cana. The 22 year old is a defensively solid but attack-minded right-back who provides one of the better threats in the side. Whether he’ll get much of an opportunity to go forward is another matter, with the likes of Anthony Martial and Valon Behrami attacking down his flank. Hysaj will need to ensure he stays tight otherwise Albania could be on the end of a heavy defeat.
Will almost certainly not qualify in the top two (stranger things have happened), but as with Romania, could qualify in third if they pick up a win. I think that’s unlikely to happen though, and Albania could perhaps even finish with zero points. To qualify for the tournament though is a fantastic achievement for a country who weren’t favourites to do so or haven’t done so before. Now they’re here, they must avoid getting embarrassed. Group Stages
- World Ranking: 15th
- European Championships best: Group Stages (1996, 2004 & 2008)
- Previous European Championships played in: 3
- Manager: Vladmir Petkovic
- Captain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
How They Qualified
Switzerland finished second in Group E behind England. The Swiss themselves though still ended up five points ahead of third place Slovenia, showing that they qualified with ease despite not finishing top. They reached the tournament with one game to spare and did it in emphatic style, thrashing minnows San Marino 7-0. Incredibly, 14 different players hit the back of the net for Switzerland in qualifying.
Star Man – Xherdan Shaqiri
Of those 14 players, Xherdan Shaqiri was the top scorer with four goals, whilst he also got five assists to prove Switzerland’s most influential player en route to France. The 24 year old surprised everyone when he joined Stoke City last summer, and had a pretty average first season in the Premier League, netting just three times. However, he still has undoubted quality having been on the books of Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, and he never stops running, giving defenders nightmares with his magical ball skills – he’s even earned the nickname ‘The Alpine Messi’.
Are unlikely to beat France to top of the group, but play them in their final group game which could prove to be a decider. Still, not getting to the knockout stage would be a huge disappointment for Switzerland, despite the fact they’ve never reached it before. They are though growing as a footballing nation and, providing the other groups pan out in their favour, could make the last eight. Quarter-finals