With less than two months to go until the start of the European Championship, national team managers will begin formulating their plans and potential 23-man squad ahead of what promises to be one of the most intriguing tournaments in recent history. UEFA’s decision to increase the number of participants from sixteen to twenty-four will not only provide football fans across the world with even more tension, drama and excitement on the pitch to enjoy, but also allow more nations to immerse themselves in the experience of playing in a major international tournament. The likes of Wales, Albania and Slovakia are among those who have capitalised on the opportunity to qualify for Euro 2016, and although Coral may not consider themselves along the favourites, stranger things have been known to happen. Tournaments always have a habit of throwing up major upsets, particularly during the knock-out stages where a bit of complacency or an inspired performance can produce a result that nobody saw coming.
It comes as no surprise that the leading European nations have been installed as the strong favourites to triumph at Euro 2016, with hosts France leading the way in the latest odds markets. Les Bleus certainly have history on their side, with this summer marking eighteen years since they last hosted a tournament which they duly won in an infamous, yet controversial, 3-0 victory against Brazil at the Stade de France to lift the World Cup. Didier Deschamps, who was the winning captain that night, will hope to replicate the feat as manager, and while France have been through a period of turbulence in which public feuds and humiliating early exits from major tournaments threatened to tarnish their reputation, their current crop of players certainly have what it takes to mount a serious challenge. It is easy to see why France are considered favourites when they have the likes of Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane, Hugo Lloris and Antoine Griezmann at their disposal, but although question marks remain over the available of Karim Benzema following on-going investigations into blackmail allegations made against the Real Madrid striker, it will still be difficult to stop a France side that will spurred on by a partisan crowd across the country.
Germany and Spain are automatically backed to do well in every major tournament, such is the considerable depth in quality they have in all areas. This does not always guarantee success however, with both teams enduring contrasting fortunes at the 2014 World Cup; while Joachim Low’s side powered their way to the final where they beat Argentina thanks to Mario Gotze’s extra-time goal, Vincente Del Bosque’s team were left licking their wounds after a heavy 5-1 defeat against the Netherlands and shock 2-0 loss to Chile saw them exit the tournament at the group stage. It remains to be seen if Spain bounce back and recapture the level of football that saw them win three major tournaments between 2008 and 2012, while Germany always thrive on the big occasion through unerring professionalism and a level of quality that very few teams, if any at all, can match.
Major international tournaments always provide the opportunity for potential darkhorses to rise to the occasion and go all the way, and with the number of teams increased for the first time in European Championship history, there is more potential for an underdog to seize the day. Many would argue that Belgium are undoubtedly the team that all the favourites want to avoid, with Marc Wilmots the benefactor of a golden generation who have an abundance of talent and quality to cause real danger. Reaching the quarter finals of the 2014 World Cup is a sign of the progress that is being made in Belgium, and if the likes of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku are on top of their game, then there is no reason why the highest-ranked nation in the latest FIFA World Rankings can topple the big guns and return home from France victorious.
Previous shortcomings and disappointing campaigns has resulted in lowered expectations across England that the Three Lions can finally do themselves justice and end fifty years of hurt, but the latest England odds suggest that they are also considered one of the darkhorses to win Euro 2016. Impressive victories against France and Germany in recent friendlies were matched by excellent performances which highlighted the number of talented and in-form players that Hodgson currently has at his disposal. Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Ross Barkley were all notable performers in a team that looked extremely bright and full of ideas going forward, whilst also playing a fluid style of football that suited those who have been on top form for their respective club this season. Those who continue to ask the question “has Roy got it right this time?” will only receive the answer once the England manager has announced his 23-man squad that will travel to France, and while Coral have backed the Three Lions to do well this summer, Hodgson will have to get key decisions over who he takes and leaves out correct. England have performed admirably in the absence of Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere, but there are growing calls for both players to be included in order to give Hodgson the best chance of achieving the best possible result at Euro 2016.
Italy and Portugal find themselves ranked among the darkhorses once again, and while both teams have contrasting qualities, they have as good a chance as anyone else to mount a serious challenge. The former may not be quite the formidable force they once were during the days when Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro were plying their trade, but Antonio Conte’s side certainly have the one true hallmark that Italy have been famous for over the years – a superb defensive resilience which makes them incredibly difficult to break down. Conte, who will be leaving international management to take charge of Chelsea at the end of Euro 2016, may look to in-form strikers Stephane El-Shaarawy and Graziano Pelle to add the element of firepower they need to compliment a strong rearguard provided by Gianluigi Buffon and Leonardo Bonucci.
While Portugal may not be able to match Italy’s resilience in defence, having one of the best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo makes them dangerous opponents for anyone to face this summer. The Real Madrid star is enjoying yet another wonderful season in front of goal for club and country, and although he may need his international team-mates to stand up and be counted, he has the unerring ability to win games on his own. Fernando Santos appears to be opting for a combination of experience and youth at Euro 2016, and while Ronaldo undoubtedly carries the weight of expectation from an entire nation on his shoulders, it could be a tournament in which the highly-talented trio of Renato Sanches, Andre Gomes and Bernardo Silva announce themselves on the international stage.
Punters often look across the entire field to find a team that have the quality to rise like a phoenix from the flames, and while it take a big performance to stop one of the favourites or darkhorses from prevailing at Euro 2016, Poland could be the side that takes everyone by surprise. Adam Nawalka’s team are among a number of emerging nations who have really stamped their authority on the international stage, with a record of just one defeat in two years across qualifying and friendly matches illustrating the quality at their disposal. Kamil Glik, Lukasz Piszczek and Grzegorz Krychowiak will play big roles for Poland this summer, but their chances of glory ultimately rest on the shoulders of Robert Lewandowski who has developed into one of the most clinical strikers in world football. The Bayern Munich hotshot not only tops the Bundesliga scoring charts, but Lewandowski also finished the qualifying campaign as the highest scorer with thirteen in just ten games. There is certainly more to Poland’s game than just Lewandowski, but if they can remain tight at the back and provide their striker with the service he thrives upon, then Poland could be a team to look out for at Euro 2016.