There is no doubt that Group E is the group of death. Belgium are the highest ranking side at the tournament, Italy were runners-up in 2012, whilst Sweden have the greatest footballer of all time (according to him), the only and only Zlatan. It seem’s there’s no such thing as the ‘luck of the Irish’, as the Republic of Ireland complete the group having been handed another tough draw.
- Monday 13th June: Republic of Ireland vs Sweden; Saint-Denis; 5pm (BBC)
- Monday 13th June: Belgium vs Italy; Lyon; 8pm (BBC)
- Friday 17th June: Italy vs Sweden; Toulouse; 2pm (ITV)
- Saturday 18th June: Belgium vs Republic of Ireland; Bordeaux; 2pm (ITV)
- Wednesday 22nd June: Sweden vs Belgium; Nice; 8pm (ITV)
- Wednesday 22nd June: Italy vs Republic of Ireland; Lille; 8pm (ITV)
- World Ranking: 2nd
- European Championships best: Runners-up (1980)
- Previous European Championships played in: 4
- Manager: Marc Wilmots
- Captain: Eden Hazard
How they qualified
Not the smoothest of qualifying campaigns from a team ranked second in the world, but Belgium still finished top of Group A on 23 points ahead of Wales. Their only defeat in 10 games came against Gareth Bale and co in matchday six, but Belgium went on to win their final four matches and ended with a goal difference of +19.
Star Man – Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne was the one (of many) that got away at Chelsea, and after a spell in Germany, returned to the Premier League last summer, as Manchester City snapped him up for £55 million. In a disappointing campaign for the Citizens, the 24 year old still greatly impressed despite having his season disrupted by injury meaning he only made 22 league starts. But in that time he managed to get seven goals and nine assists, as well as hitting the back of the net five times on the way to Capital One Cup glory. In a season when Eden Hazard disappointed, Belgium needed a ‘backup’ star man, and De Bruyne not only provided that, but became the permanent talisman, notching five goals and three assists in qualifying. Plus, having only returned from the sidelines in April, the midfielder is fresh going into the tournament.
Belgium face Italy in their group opener, which could well be an early decider as to who tops Group E. I think Marc Wilmots’ side should just about come out on top, and providing they don’t slip up against Ireland or Sweden, should progress as winners. However, this does mean they’ll probably face Germany in the quarter-finals who will end their hopes of lifting the trophy. But this young, exciting Belgium side is only getting stronger and could really challenge at the 2018 World Cup. Quarter-finals
- World Ranking: 12th
- European Championships best: Winners (1968)
- Previous European Championships played in: 8
- Manager: Antonio Conte
- Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
How they qualified
One of just four unbeaten teams in qualifying, Italy topped Group H by four points ahead of Croatia. From the outside, that looks like a stroll to qualification, but Antonio Conte’s men scored just 16 times with no real talismanic striker – no other group winner had scored less after ten games.
Star Man – Antonio Candreva
Leading the line for Italy is Southampton’s Graziano Pelle, which doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. For that reason, their main threat comes from the wing where Antonio Candreva is one of the key options that Antonio Conte has. The 29 year old comes into the tournament after getting 10 goals and three assists for Lazio in Serie A in 2015-16, whilst he also netted twice in qualifying. With no Andrea Pirlo in the squad, Candreva is his country’s new go to man from dead ball situations. He is well-known for his quality from free-kicks and penalties, and is also blessed with great pace and stamina. And if the midfielder is taking a shot, you don’t won’t to get in the way of such a powerful drive.
How much Antonio Conte’s imminent departure to Chelsea will affect Italy is hard to tell. They should make it out of this tough group, but then who knows? They have been known to go on and off the boil at tournaments – reaching the final of this competition four years ago before crashing out in the group stages of the 2014 World Cup. They’ve got a tight defence, but weak attack, making it even harder to predict their fortunes. Quarter-finals
Republic of Ireland
- World Ranking: 33rd
- European Championships best: Group Stage (1988 & 2012)
- Previous European Championships played in: 2
- Manager: Martin O’Neill
- Captain: Robbie Keane
How they qualified
Despite taking four points off world champions Germany in Group D, it wasn’t enough for the Republic of Ireland to make it into the top two ahead of Joachim Low’s side and Poland. They faced Bosnia-Herzegovina in the play-offs, drawing 1-1 in the first leg away before two goals from Jonathan Walters secured a 2-0 win the home second leg, meaning a place in France was theirs 3-1 on aggregate.
Star Man – Shane Long
Robbie Keane may still be in the squad and captain, but at 35 he’s not going to be leading the line. It’s a tough ask to follow in his footsteps, but Shane Long is more than capable of doing so after an impressive season with Southampton. The 29 year old netted 10 league Premier League goals on the South Coast, his best ever tally in a top flight season. He is one of Ireland’s most experienced players, having made 62 appearances and even wearing the captain’s armband on the odd occasion. Last October, he came off the bench to score the winning goal against Germany in qualifying. There isn’t much in the Republic of Ireland’s squad to scare their opponents in this group, but Long’s blistering pace might do just that – especially with the defences of both Italy and Sweden beginning to show their age.
The draw has not been kind to Ireland, but if they can beat Sweden in their opening game, they could definitely have a chance of getting through as the best third place team. If they’re still in contention by the time the final group fixture against Italy rolls around, they’ll know what result will bring qualification, which is an advantage not all teams have. Ultimately though, I think Ireland will fall short. Group stages
- World Ranking: 35th
- European Championships best: Semi-finals (1992)
- Previous European Championships played in: 5
- Manager: Erik Hamren
- Captain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
How they qualified
Like the Republic of Ireland, Sweden had to go through the play-offs in order to reach France after finishing third in Group G behind Austria and Russia. In their winner takes all tie against Scandinavian neighbours Denmark, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored three goals as they were victorious 4-3 on aggregate; 2-1 in the first leg at home, 2-2 in the second leg away.
Star Man – Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s hopes at this tournament would be non-existent. The fans know that, the team knows that, and above all Zlatan himself knows that. At 34 years old, he remains at the top of his game and is one of the continent’s most clinical finishers, scoring 11 goals in qualifying – a tally only Robert Lewandowski bettered. Ibrahimovic continues to tease journalists as to where his next club will be, but it’s looking increasingly likely to be Manchester United, who for no price whatsoever are getting a striker who netted a stunning 38 goals in 29 league games last season for PSG. If his incredible send-off by the Ligue 1 champions is anything to go by, he’ll get a rousing reception at the tournament from the French fans.
As much as he likes to think he can, Zlatan can’t do it all by himself, as shown in qualifying when his 11 goals could only help Sweden to third in their group. Their opening game against Ireland is key to their chances, and if they do make it through to the knockout stage, it will probably be as one of the best third place teams. The chance of that happening? I think Sweden will indeed finish third, but not make it to the round of 16. Group stages
- Republic of Ireland