Euro 2016 is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable major international tournaments in recent memory.
There is no clear-cut favourite to take home the 15th edition of the European Championships with Germany, Spain and host nation France all fancied to be celebrating on the winners’ podium at the Stade de France come July 10. However, the likes of Belgium, Italy, Portugal and perhaps even England are also in with at least a decent shout of upsetting the football giants of the present day.
With so many prestigious nations being represented at this year’s tournament, the presence of numerous world-class players from across the continent becomes an inevitability. Some of the bigger nations with better established domestic top-flights boast a wider array of top talent in almost every part of the pitch, whereas other countries – some with populations well below one million people – have one talisman who expected to carry the team almost on his own.
Besides discovering which nation will be added to the history books of the European championships, there will be plenty of underlying subplots in France. Can the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic guide Portugal or Sweden to a shock triumph? Could a declining Spanish team make it three titles in a row?
Teams will always be classified as favourites, dark horses or minnows among other terms before a ball has been kicked at any major tournament, making it easy to forget every team has qualified for a reason. While some individuals will make a greater impact for their side than others, here is the key player for every country participating in the Euro 2016 finals.
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24 Albania | Taulant Xhaka
Basel defender Taulant Xhaka, older brother of Borussia Monchengladbach and Arsenal bound Granit, will likely be crucial to Albania’s chances of progressing beyond the group stages. Manager Gianni de Biasi will have little choice but to instruct his men to to sit back and attempt to frustrate their technically superior opponents. This leaves Xhaka, one of the most technically gifted players in the squad, to play a key role in launching counter attacking opportunities from deep for the debutant nation.
23 France | Paul Pogba
It is difficult to overlook Paul Pogba as the star man for the hosts. The Juventus midfielder is widely regarded as one of the most complete footballers of his generation and his multitude of talents are vitally important to Didier Deschamps’ system. The ex- Manchester United starlet will line up alongside Blaise Matuidi and Lassana Diarra, forming an industrious yet dangerous trio in the middle of the park.
22 Romania | Vlad Chiriches
Despite approaching the peak years of his career, Vlad Chiriches has never truly won a starting eleven role at Tottenham or Napoli during the past three seasons. His status within the national side is remarkably more important than at club level, and the 26-year-old will be an integral figure in Anghel Iordanescu’s side. Defensive solidity and discipline can only go so far though and the Romanians will need more than a stroke of luck to reach the knockout stages.
21 Switzerland | Xherdan Shaqiri
Xherdan Shaqiri shoulders a tremendous amount of the creative burden in the Switzerland national team, much like his role at Stoke. His influence – which fails to shine through more often than he would like – will largely underpin whether the Swiss can finish above bottom of their group for the first time in four appearances at the European Championships. If the 24-year-old can produce some of his finest work, his team is more than capable of securing a place in the round of 16.
20 England | Wayne Rooney
While Harry Kane and Dele Alli have proven themselves as key figures in the new generation of the England national team, Wayne Rooney is the elder statesman tasked with leading by example if the new kids on the block fail to perform on the grandest of stages. The Manchester United star racked up seven goals during the qualifying stages and irrespective of whether he plays in midfield or further up the pitch, his output will be key to ensuring Roy Hodgson’s men suffer yet another premature exit form a major tournament.
19 Russia | Artem Dzyuba
If there is one glaring weakness in the Russian squad, it is a lack of natural goalscorers. Aleksandr Kokorin, Fedor Smolov and Artem Dzyuba comprise the three-man strike force Leonid Slutskiy is taking to the European Championships, and the latter is arguably the most reliable finisher of the trio. The likes of Alan Dzagoev and Oleg Shatov are often a productive source of creativity but there is no point in the Russians creating chances without an in-form deadeye striker to convert them into goals.
18 Slovakia | Marek Hamsik
Apart from Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik is probably the only player widely recognizable player in the Slovakia squad. But despite a lack of household names, Jan Kozak’s men certainly have the quality to spring a surprise or two in France. The Slovakians recorded a 2-1 victory over champions Spain during the qualifying rounds and although a dip in form is certainly cause for concern, the debutants are sure to pose a threat on the break – especially if their main man Marek Hamsik hits top form.
17 Wales | Gareth Bale
Simply put, Wales would not have come close to qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals without Gareth Bale. The Real Madrid ace notched up seven of their 11 goals in qualifying; subtract them, and the Welsh would have finished with as many goals as rock-bottom Andorra. However, Chris Coleman’s men also finished runners up with the tightest defensive record in their group – the challenge in France will be ensuring their superstar forward can put the ball in the net while his teammates concentrate on keeping it out of their own.
16 Germany | Thomas Muller
Even when not at full throttle, Germany is still comfortably among the favourites to add yet another major tournament to its trophy cabinet. Joachim Low’s men fail to produce the routine masterclasses that were so common just a few years ago, and yet few would be surprised if they backed up their 2014 World Cup triumph. In a squad brimming with top class players, Bayern Munich forward Thomas Muller will shoulder more responsibility than anyone now that Miroslav Klose is no longer be lurking in the penalty area for Die Mannschaft.
15 Northern Ireland | Kyle Lafferty
Northern Ireland tasted defeat only once during qualification, but with no genuine candidates to spearhead Michael O’Neil’s team deep into the competition, escaping from Group C looks virtually impossible. Norwich City forward Kyle Lafferty offers glimmer of goalscoring hope with seven strikes in nine outings en route to the finals, though finding the net in France is sure to be a stern test for the 28-year-old and his unfancied teammates.
14 Poland | Robert Lewandowski
Any side with Robert Lewandowski leading the attack is impossible to write off completely. The Bayern Munich striker is not the only big name in Adam Nawalka’s squad though, with Sevilla ace and 2014-15 La Liga Team of the Year member Grzegorz Krychowiak anchoring the midfield. Put these two on a pitch along with the likes of Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek and there is every chance the Poles could do more than just notch their first three points at the European Championships.
13 Ukraine | Andriy Yarmolenko
The Ukrainians’ strategy is built around a tight defence while utilizing the speed and directness of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko to generate panic among the opposition. This approach register 14 goals in ten games while conceding just four during the qualification stage, so it would be unwise to assume it is too rigid to reap rewards. However, for all his talents, Yarmolenko is unlikely to be able to drag his nation into the knockout rounds without significant assistance from his compatriots.
12 Spain | David de Gea
The two-time defending champions’ squad is overflowing with stars as per usual, but if Alvaro Morata and company fail to feed off the attacking genius of David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, only a solid back four will give them a chance of sneaking wins. Vicente del Bosque and his men will be relying on Manchester United custodian David de Gea to make the kind of saves that can be the difference between a claiming three points versus one. However, La Roja faithful will be crossing their fingers his tournament is not affected by the prospect of Real Madrid pursuing his signature in the summer.
11 Czech Republic | Petr Cech
Like his Manchester United rival, Petr Cech’s presence between the sticks is vitally important to his country – perhaps even more so. The Arsenal shot-stopper has played in three previous European Championships and will provide an assuring presence behind the defence. Unlike most other teams without superstar outfield players, the Czechs play a charming possession-based style of football under Pavel Vrba and would deserve admiration should they stick to their guns rather than reverting to more conservative tactics amid the pressure of the finals.
10 Croatia | Ivan Rakitic
A midfield duo of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic is reason enough to consider Croatia as dark horses should it progress to the round of 16. The latter has made the departure of Xavi almost unnoticeable at the Nou Camp, underlining his world-class quality at both club and international level. Having two of the best central midfielders in the business is certainly a drawcard, but unlikely to be enough to see Ante Cacic’s men make a splash in the deeper stages of the tournament unless others step up in France.
9 Turkey | Arda Turan
Facing Turkey is a troublesome prospect for any nation purely because of their unpredictability. With their qualification campaign seemingly in tatters after taking just a single point from their opening three fixtures, Fatih Terim’s men leaked just three goals in their last seven matches to book a place in the finals against the odds. Barcelona’s Arda Turan is the Turks’ clear talisman and will be central to their hopes of causing an upset in Group D.
8 Belgium | Eden Hazard
Eden Hazard has found some of his best form at the perfect moment – perhaps not for the Chelsea faithful, but certainly Belgium fans. The top ranked nation ahead of Euro 2016 boasts one of the most glittering yet unproven squads in world football, but this year’s tournament could provide the launchpad it needs convert the weight of expectation into raw confidence. Marc Wilmots’ best XI is up with the most formidable on the planet – it just remains to be seen whether they can make it click on the big stage.
7 Italy | Graziano Pelle
While Antonio Conte’s squad is far from short on quality, the incoming Chelsea boss faces the predicament of going to Euro 2016 without a reliable striker. The 46-year-old has elected to take Eder, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, Simone Zaza and Graziano Pelle to France, who boast a convincing tally for their respective clubs this season. Pelle is the most versatile option and contributed a respectable three goals in seven qualifying fixtures, meaning he will likely get the nod whether Conte deploys a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 system throughout the tournament.
6 Republic of Ireland | Seamus Coleman
For a team that took four points from Germany during the qualification stage, Ireland faces an enormous challenge in escaping Group E. Short on both prolific goalscorers and top-drawer playmakers, Martin O’Neill’s men are not expected to turn many heads in France. Full-back Seamus Coleman will be tasked with keeping tabs on world-class wingers while also offering width in attacking areas for the Irish – a big ask considering the 27-year-old is coming off the back of a turbulent campaign with Everton.
5 Sweden | Zlatan Ibrahimovic
For Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the unquestionable chief of the Sweden national team and any other side he plays for, really, this is his final chance to pull off the titanic feat of shooting his nation to glory at a major tournament. The Paris Saint-Germain striker is still one of the deadliest marksmen on the planet and if anyone could singlehandedly drive one of the less fancied competitors to the Euro 2016 crown, he is surely the one to do it. Even if the Swedes fail to progress from the group stage, Ibrahimovic is odds on to provide a handful of memorable moments in the form of goals, skills, words or all of the above.
4 Portugal | Cristiano Ronaldo
No player is under more pressure to perform at Euro 2016 than Cristiano Ronaldo. The 31-year- old is running out of time to convince the doubters he can be the same devastating force for both Real Madrid and Portugal. Ronaldo and his nation have so often failed to live up to the hype surrounding them at major tournaments, and while the skipper is certainly capable of carrying the team on his own, reaching the latter stages of the European Championships requires an immense collective effort.
3 Austria | David Alaba
Few defenders warrant a key status in any side, but then again, it would be downright disrespectful to classify David Alaba as nothing more than a fullback. The Bayern Munich ace has the versatility to deliver a first class performance operating in virtually any position on the pitch, though he is deployed in central midfield for his country. Marcel Koller’s men were undefeated in Group G and will rightly feel confident they can build on their qualification campaign should Alaba, Marko Arnautovic, Christian Fuchs and Zlatko Junuzovic continue replicating their club form.
2 Iceland | Gylfi Sigurdsson
The size of the smallest country to qualify for a European Champions drastically undercuts its potential to punch above its weight at this year’s tournament. Led by Swede Lars Lagerback, Iceland boasts few star names apart from Gylfi Sigurdsson and Eidur Gudjohnsen – and they barely qualify as household names. However, if the Swansea midfielder is allowed the freedom to utilize his invention and goalscoring talents to full effect, he could lead his side on an unlikely journey past the group stage.
1 Hungary | Balazs Dzsudzsak
While qualifying for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years is worth celebrating, Hungary is widely considered to rank among the minnows of Euro 2016. A narrow play-off victory against Norway hardly glosses over the fact Bernd Storck’s side won just four of their ten group games during the qualification campaign. While Hungarians continue waiting for the next Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Czibor or Sandor Kocsis to break into the national team, Bursaspor winger and captain Balazs Dzsudzsak is the finest player in the current squad – though perhaps not to the extent he could lead them into the knockout stages.
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