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.
24 Albania | Taulant Xhaka
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
21 Switzerland | Xherdan Shaqiri
20 England | Wayne Rooney
19 Russia | Artem Dzyuba
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
16 Germany | Thomas Muller
15 Northern Ireland | Kyle Lafferty
14 Poland | Robert Lewandowski
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
11 Czech Republic | Petr Cech
10 Croatia | Ivan Rakitic
9 Turkey | Arda Turan
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
6 Republic of Ireland | Seamus Coleman
5 Sweden | Zlatan Ibrahimovic
4 Portugal | Cristiano Ronaldo
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
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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