Euro 2016 is in full swing and the excitement is at fever pitch for the sporting spectacle of the summer.
The fans are camped across France for a riveting occasion to see their respective teams mix it up against some of the best around. The flags are billowing in the wind, the replica jerseys have all but been sold out and the chants are being brought to life. For many, expectations are high and so too is the anticipation of what promises to be a memorable tournament.
The usual favourites include France, Germany, Spain and England – whether or not those inclinations actually bear any fruit remains to be seen. The underdogs will hope to cause a few upsets and go as far as possible but it will be difficult, especially considering many players are coming off the back of a truly draining club season.
Club football can really take a back-seat for the next few weeks as nations do battle to decide who will be crowned the kings of Europe when the trophy is presented in the aftermath of the final on July 10th. Make no mistake, this is going to be a rip-roaring contest and although tensions are high in L’Hexagone surrounding safety and security measures, with the football in full flow across the land, the throngs of supporters can remember what it is all really supposed to be about.
Some of the globe’s most special talents are going to be on show for the majority of Euro 2016 and they are certain to produce lots of ole-inducing skills, breathtaking tricks and goals to set the atmosphere alight. We are all sure to have our eyes out for a handful of particular big names, so it’s time for us to take a look at exactly who the best players at the competition are.
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20. Kyle Lafferty (Northern Ireland)
Stealing seven goals in qualification was a big achievement for Kyle Lafferty and every single one of them were hugely important in paving a path to France for Northern Ireland. Supreme underdogs for the tournament, some have suggested that it’s a miracle they even qualified as it was the first time they have ever done so. Considering that, Lafferty’s conversion rate was all the more impressive.
The man himself is full of confidence and his words a few days prior to their opener against Poland revealed precisely that: “Not in a cocky way but I’m the centre of attention. The more I score, the more I want to do even better. The press I’m getting, the things people say about me, I love all that.” Indeed, it’s pretty clear just how pivotal the ex-Palermo striker will be for manager Michael O’ Neill – his team-mates need to provide the right deliveries if he is to give them a fighting chance.
19. Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine)
In recent times, Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka has been linked with a move to Premier League champions Leicester City and it’s little wonder he is held in such high regard by a team that has a philosophy for bringing in only genuine professionals who put the team ethos first because he has carried out that role with exceptional expertise in recent seasons.
A lightning-quick left winger, he carries one of Ukraine’s biggest threats and he should see plenty of the ball as they look to cause an upset or two along their trek to unlikely victory. His former club coach Unai Emery has questioned his ability to compete and there have been doubts over his defensive capabilities, but when he’s in full flight, he scythes through opponents in terrific style and without the shackles on he should regularly excite in France.
18. Shane Long (Republic of Ireland)
An arduous qualification phase saw the Republic of Ireland squeeze into only their third-ever appearance at a European Championship and it was one which was full of highs and lows. Undoubtedly their most prized of memories will have been Shane Long’s dramatic goal to topple world champions Germany at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. It gave them a massive boost and proved the ultimate turning point in their journey.
Long is the Green Army’s most dangerous player. Some have tipped Wes Hoolahan as their most inventive but it is Long who gets the goals. The Southampton striker is coming into the tournament off the back of a very good season in England with the Saints where he scored 10 league goals and it will be his pace and ability to hurt teams on the counter that could provide Martin O’ Neill’s men with their deadliest weapon.
17. Adam Nagy (Hungary)
The link between attack and defence, Adam Nagy bestows Hungary with a fresh sense of pride. A rising new star for the team, the youngster is seen as their bright, burning light ready to bring the national team to hitherto unexplored heights. A central defensive midfielder (who normally plays alongside a companion behind a front four), he’s integral to their shutting out of other teams but he can also pick a pass and add real tempo to their forages forward.
His interception skills will surely be called upon if they want to go far but he should come into his own the further they push. He has plenty of experience as a futsal player, so he is quick on his feet, knows how to read a game in the blink of an eye and has gained a tactical insight into the beautiful game that others might not have.
16. Renato Sanches (Portugal)
This time last year, few big-shot pundits knew too much about Renato Sanches. A developing player unable to force his way into Benfica’s first team, the Portuguese star wasn’t quite on the radar. That is, until “Bulo” forced everyone to pay attention to him as he took his chance to shine with Aguias, ultimately solidifying himself in the starting XI following a series of impressive displays. Indeed, his arrival shortly before the end of 2015 directly coincided with an upturn in fortunes which eventually saw the club win the league.
His driving runs, positive approach play and natural leadership make him a truly remarkable talent and anyone who has yet to familiarize themselves with him, will certainly have done so by the time the tournament comes to an end. His passing is world class, he can shoot from long range and he always gives his all. Mesmerizing.
15. Stephan El Shaarawy (Italy)
Italy are not quite the superpower they once were. Take a quick glance at their roster for this feast of football and it’s clear that while they have some delightful talents, they are lacking enough to make them serious contenders for the title. However, anything can happen in knockout football and one talent who could really burst into life for the Azzurri is Stephan El Shaarawy. A phenomenal footballer with bags of ability, he has never really hit the heights many would have liked him but this is primarily due to various injuries.
However, this can be the stage the 23-year-old needs to remind us all what we have been starved of in recent years. His trickery is second to none and he still has an electricity to his pace that can prove devastating for his marker, but it’s arguably his proficiency for tucking home long-range screamers that makes him a stand-out performer on his day. Feed him possession at the key moments and he could really hurt the opposition. Important.
14. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
With a difficult top-flight campaign in the blue of Chelsea now well and truly behind him, Eden Hazard has the chance to help Belgium become a force in Europe. A top player who knows how to win games, his confidence might have been dented a few weeks ago but the sprightly winger should come into his own as the tournament progresses.
Cutting through defences is something he does better than most and if he can truly recapture his swagger and build up his reserves of self-belief, we could well see him have a truly memorable time. After all, if he can play a part in deciding where the EPL title winds up despite experiencing dismal personal results, he can do anything. Alongside the captivating Kevin de Bruyne and the towering Romelu Lukaku, they will pack a real punch.
13. Gylfi Sigurdsson (Iceland)
A real whiz at taking free-kicks, Gylfi Sigurdsson can kill a game off in a matter of seconds with a perfectly placed shot from a dead-ball situation. He is the ace in the hole that his team so often plays at the key moments and we have his excellence to look forward to once again over the next few weeks. A technically gifted midfielder, his vision away from set-pieces will also be something to look out for.
The Icelandic star was their top scorer throughout qualification with six goals and while that might not be a monstrous amount, it goes a small distance to illuminating how gigantic a player he is for the team. Curling shots past despairing custodians (no matter how world class they often are) is his business and he’s going to do everything in his power to roll in the profits with a few swings of his boot. Watch out.
12. Emre Mor (Turkey)
He might have only recently played his first match for the national team (in fact, it was as late as less than two weeks before their Euro 2016 opener) but that should take nothing away from one of Europe’s rising wonderkids, Emre More. If anything, it should highlight just how impressive he must have been to warrant inclusion after being afforded such a short time to show the manager what he was capable of.
Mor is tipped for big things and is expected to produce lots of flair with his proactive wide play for Turkey this summer. The 18-year-old winger will represent Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga in 2016/17 having signed on the dotted line for them at the beginning of June which again shows us just how highly-rated he is by those in the know. Remember the name.
11. David Alaba (Austria)
Marc Janko might well have been Austria’s top scorer as they qualified as winners from Group G a full eight points clear of runners-up Russia, but David Alaba will be their man to watch, for sure. Pegged as a future Bayern Munich captain who has proven his loyalty and versatility by unselfishly playing across a variety of positions for Die Roten, Alaba is normally used as a left wing-back and has the potential to become a true great for his club. Will he experience a similar fate on the international scene?
Normally deployed as a more central figure under manager Marcel Koller who masterminded an unbeaten series of qualifiers, he has a more creative role and will probably want to get his name on the scoresheet a few times as Austria look to make a deep surge. He has panache, elan and more than a touch of veritable class, so we can’t wait to see him in action.
10. Granit Xhaka (Switzerland)
Many have dubbed this current crop of Swiss players as the country’s ‘golden generation’ of stars, but they will need more than an inspiring moniker to see them all the way to glory, especially considering how much the team have often flattered to deceive in the big tournaments. Nonetheless, there is excitement brewing that with talents like Granit Xhaka in the squad, Switzerland can go far.
Arsene Wenger finally convinced Xhaka to sign for Arsenal as he looks strengthen his side into a title-winning outfit. The creative midfielder made a name for himself at Borussia Monchengladbach and won the U17 World Cup as well as helping his team finish runners-up in the Under-21 Euros a few years back. He is an instigator of attacks and a visionary on the field so expect him to pull the strings intelligently this month, and maybe next.
9. Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)
He’s been on the continental scene for quite some time now, but some sections of the media are suddenly dubbing him the “Slovakian Gareth Bale,” It might not be the most accurate description of Marek Hamsik, but it’s pretty darn close because he is an attacking midfielder who can score some really important goals for his country. He was Slovakia’s top scorer in qualification and is Napoli’s fifth-highest goal-scorer of all time.
A nimble offensive star who possesses brilliant work-rate and industry, Hamsik has managed to successfully combine those austere traits with a real bent for slotting the ball past ‘keepers with regularity and control. If Slovakia are to be dark horses, then they will need the 28-year-old firing on all cylinders.
8. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)
He can seem oddly into his own persona at times with his self-obsessed penchant for referring to himself in the third person, as well as the fact he harbours quite an inflated ego but it would be difficult to deny his entertaining qualities. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic sticks to the football and does his utmost to channel his selfishness into exorbitant goals and displays of flashiness on the field, it’s easy to like him and it’s pretty clear the Euros will be yet another stage for The Zlatan show to delight countless audiences.
It’s difficult to ignore the argument that Sweden are a one-man show. “Ibra” devours the attention he gets and often spectacularly transforms it into energy to power his incredible motor. If he gets injured along the way, the Swedes will have a hard time trying to fill his place because he’s quite the irreplaceable star on their roster. Neutrals, too, will hope that doesn’t happen because he’s much loved in many quarters.
7. Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Can anybody produce an assist to a more regular standard than Mesut Ozil in today’s game? To give the Germany international his due credit, anybody would be hard pushed to find someone who can pick a pass better than him. He is a team-mate seeking aficionado who can turn a match on its head with a glance of his eyes and a flick of his boot – it’s astonishing to behold and though it happens regularly, it never loses its significance.
If Germany intend on putting an end to their longest-ever wait for a Euro title (it has been 20 years since they won the 1996 installment held in England), they will need to resolve their shaky defence and get their team playing better football as a team. More importantly, though, Ozil will need to be at the very peak of his powers.
6. Gareth Bale (Wales)
A two-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid and the star player for his country. Gareth Bale is doing well for himself these days. All things considered, the former Tottenham Hotspur wide-man has the hopes of a nation pinned on him. He is their go-to source of inspiration and their well of magic and invention. He can spark goals from nothing whether it’s from a well-converted dead ball or an arrowed strike from open play and he has the necessary tools to serve opportunities up for his Welsh team-mates, too.
He has insisted that Wales are not a one-man team, but it’s hard to deny the notion that they rely pretty heavily on him. After all, he netted seven of their total 11 goals in qualifying. Whether or not he wants to buy into that idea, it doesn’t really matter because he will continue to give his all regardless and watching him play will be a treat.
5. Paul Pogba (France)
A player who could be on his way to the Santiago Bernabeu ahead of the start of the new club season, Paul Pogba is certainly one of the best players in world football right now and the interest being shown in him from near and far is absolutely astounding. Following a fantastic season with Juventus we should all see more evidence of his genius as he aims to propel France to home glory with his dominant midfield displays of strength and class.
Alongside Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial. the French have one of the strongest and most intimidating squads on show, and if they can click correctly and hit their stride at the right moments, this could be Les Bleus’ tournament to lose. Pogba will add poise and balance to their midfield and will be the perfect link between attack and defence. En garde.
4. Jamie Vardy (England)
The Jamie Vardy story might well be coming to a cinema close to you in the very near future and it’s little wonder the Leicester City striker is destined for Hollywood after the late-blooming career he has had. Only a few short seasons ago, Vardy was playing Non-League football and now he’s a much sought-after Premier League-winning talent who the likes of Arsenal are chasing.
His fairy-tale rise has been well documented, but it’s not simply his recent impressions which make him one to watch because his style lends itself to a football philosophy that is very much in vogue right now. That’s right, he can be the counter-attacking spearhead England need if they want to win the Euros. He has the pace, strength, audacity and, most important of all, the experience to help the Three Lions execute a perfect counter-attacking plan.
3. Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Expected to fill his boots with a goal-scoring glut, Robert Lewandowski is arguably the best out-and-out striker in the competition. Having equaled David Healy’s admirable record of scoring 13 times in Euro qualification, “Lewy” played a crucial role in helping Poland qualify and will surely be among the goals when he takes to the field to fire his side to glory.
Some news outlets have suggested that the net-rattling machine could secure a big-money move to Spanish La Liga giants, and current Champions League holders, Real Madrid if he puts in an outstanding series of shifts in the red and white of his home nation, even though Bayern Munich have strongly stated that he is not for sale. Regardless, Lewandowski will light up the stadiums and he might just guide his team to the quarter finals and beyond.
2. Andres Iniesta (Spain)
As bold a statement as it might first appear, there is no-one at Euro 2016 who can pass a ball better than Andres Iniesta. There, we said it. The Barcelona midfielder is a pass master who seems capable of making the ball do whatever he wants it to. Producing pinpoint, cross-field passes, simple short touches or amazingly accurate through balls to set up the strikers – Iniesta has it all and he’ll look to put those strengths to great effect over the next few weeks.
Of course, he has won this competition before (twice) so he has the prior knowledge of what needs to be done to claim the famous trophy – indeed, it was his man of the match display which saw Spain overcome Italy on a final score-line of 4-0 back in 2012, so the reigning champions will feel confident with him in their ranks, no doubt. Expect a few mind-boggling performances from him (and perhaps a stunning goal or two, to boot).
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Undoubtedly the greatest player at Euro 2016, Cristiano Ronaldo will see this as his best chance of getting to the pinnacle of European football on an international stage. He has already done it many times at the club level, but the desire is certainly in the swashbuckling striker to go and achieve it with his fellow countrymen, too. It’s not going to be easy for him to do it alone, but if anyone can – he is the man.
Watching him in full flight is an absolute treat for the eyes. Whether he’s gliding past defenders with the ball glued to his boots or leaping into the air with authority before nodding the ball past a despairing ‘keeper, the former Manchester United winger is a majestic footballer who can conjure extravagance from nowhere. Simply one of the best goalscorers around, and if Portugal want to do well, they had better get “Ronnie” the ball.
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