Time to look ahead to Group C, which includes World champions Germany as well as tournament debutants and home nation Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, can Ukraine‘s team unite their country in a time of chaos? And are Poland really dark horses?
- Sunday 12th June: Poland vs Northern Ireland; Nice; 5pm (BBC)
- Sunday 12th June: Germany vs Ukraine; Lille; 8pm (BBC)
- Thursday 16th June: Ukraine vs Northern Ireland; Lyon; 5pm (ITV)
- Thursday 16th June: Germany vs Poland; Saint-Denis; 8pm (ITV)
- Tuesday 21st June: Northern Ireland vs Germany; Paris; 5pm (BBC)
- Tuesday 21st June: Ukraine vs Poland; Marseille; 5pm (BBC)
- World Ranking: 4th
- European Championships best: Winners (1972, 1980, 1996)
- Previous European Championships played in: 11
- Manager: Joachim Low
- Captain: Bastian Schweinsteiger
How they qualified
Germany finished top of Group D, but not as convincingly as you’d expect world champions to. They lost twice, to Poland and the Republic of Ireland, only ending up one point ahead of the former because Lewandowski and co dropped points against Scotland. It was only the second time in history that they lost two games in qualifying. The other? Before Euro 84, when (West) Germany crashed out in the group stages.
Star Man – Manuel Neuer
It’s not often that a goalkeeper is picked as a team’s star player, but the sheer brilliance of Manuel Neuer earns him that right. He may be facing competition for the title of world’s best stopper, but I my opinion the 30 year old remains number 1. Neuer comes into the tournament off the back of another impressive season at Bayern Munich, picking up the Bundesliga title and German Cup. In the league he kept 20 clean sheets (eight more than anyone else) and conceded just 17 goals in 34 games. At the 2014 World Cup, we saw Neuer excite the planet with his stunning saves and sweeper keeper style, making outrageous runs out of his box to act as another defender and put in tackles. On the way to glory in Brazil, Neuer let in only four goals in seven games (two of which went to extra time) to earn the golden glove. Will the outcome be the same in France?
It may not have been the most convincing qualifying campaign from the Germans, nor have they performed particularly well in recent friendlies. But make no doubt about it, when it’s tournament time, they turn it on. Perhaps the best performers in the world when it comes to the Euros and World Cup, they have reached the semi-finals of every major tournament since 2004. I think they’ll do so again in France, but run into the hosts who will knock them out. Semi-finals
- World Ranking: 19th
- European Championships best: Group Stage (2012)
- Previous European Championships played in: 1
- Manager: Mykhaylo Fomenko
- Captain: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk
How they qualified
Ukraine lost their final Group C match to Spain, meaning they had to settle for third place behind the reigning champions and Slovakia. Then in the play-offs against Slovenia, they won the first leg 2-0 at home to give themselves a comfortable lead before drawing 1-1 in the second leg with Andriy Yarmolenko netting a 97th minute equaliser. It meant Ukraine had won 3-1 on aggregate and were going to France!
Star Man – Andriy Yarmolenko
That man who got the aforementioned goal in the second leg, Andriy Yarmolenko also got four goals in the regular stages of qualifying. As such, he is Ukraine’s most dangerous threat out on the right wing in a 4-3-3 system that relies on pace and skill on the flanks. Yarmolenko has both in abundance, and also has a thunderous shot and is good in air. The 26 year old is one of the most talented players in Europe outside of the ‘big five leagues’, and is linked to the big clubs in every transfer window. After getting 13 goals and 11 assists (more than anyone else) in the Ukrainian Premier League in 2015-16, he might finally move away from Dynamo Kiev after the Euros.
There aren’t many big names in the Ukraine squad apart from the two wingers Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, who are key to their chances at the tournament. I personally can’t see Ukraine getting into the top two in this group, but should have enough to finish in third. Whether they’ll have enough points to get through to the knockout stage is different matter, but I’m predicting them to be one of two disappointed third place teams. Group stages
- World Ranking: 27th
- European Championships best: Group Stage (2008 & 2012)
- Previous European Championships played in: 2
- Manager: Adam Nawalka
- Captain: Robert Lewandowski
How they qualified
I’ve already mentioned how Poland were also with Germany in Group D qualifying, finishing as runners-up just a point behind them. They were only beaten once, by Joachim Low’s side, and scored an impressive 33 goals in 10 games – helped by 7-0 and 8-1 wins against minnows Gibraltar. These were the joint biggest wins in qualifying and helped Poland finish as the continent’s highest scorers.
Star Man – Robert Lewandowkski
No one else in Europe scored more goals in qualification than Robert Lewandowski who netted 13, and the Bayern Munich striker is undoubtedly one of the best strikers at the tournament. At 27 years old, he is in the prime of his career, so could well be a good bet for top scorer in France depending on how far Poland get. And to be honest, how far Poland get is dependent on him, as although there are other stars of the side such as Grzegorz Krychowiak and Arkadiusz Milik, Lewandowski’s form is undoubtedly key to the side’s hopes. Luckily for them, he is on a hot streak, having finished top scorer in the Bundesliga with 30 goals in 2015-16, being Bayern’s talismanic finisher as they stormed to the title.
There’s no question of Poland’s strengths going forward, and that alone should get them out of this group, albeit in second place behind Germany. I suppose that should be considered as an achievement for the Poles, who in their only previous two Euros have performed poorly to be on the first plane back home (well, apart from in 2008 when they were hosts). The round of 16 is probably as far as they’ll get, with a fragile defence vulnerable to better teams. Round of 16
- World Ranking: 25
- European Championships best: N/A (this is their first tournament)
- Previous European Championships played in: 0
- Manager: Michael O’Neill
- Captain: Steven Davis
How they qualified
No country had ever won their qualifying group from pot five, but Northern Ireland did just that to reach their first ever European Championship. It may have been a relatively easy group with none of the continent’s giants in it, but still a magnificent achievement for a country who have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup. They did it with a game to spare too, defeating Finland 3-1 to cue the celebrations.
Star Man – Kyle Lafferty
Kyle Lafferty’s club career has been nomadic to say the least. Since graduating from Burnley’s academy, the striker has played in Scotland, Italy, Switzerland and Turkey with little success. He can barely get a game for current club Norwich City, who loaned him out to Birmingham City in January where he was also rarely used – in total Lafferty made just nine club appearances in 2015-16. But the 28 year old seems to come alive with Northern Ireland, with whom he is most definitely first choice after an emphatic qualifying campaign. He netted seven times, more than anyone else in Group F, whilst only five other players in the continent achieved a higher tally. How much joy he’ll have in France is questionable though.
Unfortunately for Northern Ireland, they’ve been put in a group with the world champions and one of the hottest strikers in Europe. Michael O’Neill’s men showed in qualifying that they have perhaps the best team spirit in the whole continent, but that can only get you so far and they’ll probably find themselves outclassed in France. They’ve done brilliantly to get this far, but that’s unlikely to console fans. Group stages
- Northern Ireland