EIGHTEEN years ago, a country famous for the Eiffel Tower, cheese, wine and romance saw the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly lift the coveted World Cup when France thrashed Brazil 3-0 in the final at the Stade de France in Paris.
Fast forward to 2016, the country is set to host Europe’s most prestigious tournament. France are the favourite as they have named a strong squad even though I was quite disappointed with some omissions.
Having won the Euro in 2000 as a player, Deschamps will be hoping to be the first French man to win the tournament as both player and coach.
It looks like an easy group for France but Albania and Switzerland are capable of surprising. Here are the previews of each team in group A:
THEIR first ever international tournament, Albania will surely be in for a baptism of fire. Led by Italian head coach Gianni De Biassi, the team has been on the up in recent years as they have been competitive in qualifying tournaments in the last five years.
Captained by the versatile Lorik Cana, the team knows that qualifying to the next round would be a bonus but they are realistic with their chances too. They had a terrific qualifying campaign as they finished second behind Portugal, surprising the likes of Denmark and Serbia.
The Eagles were tough to break down during the qualifiers as they only conceded seven goals in eight matches. The likes of Cana, Napoli’s Elseid Hysaj, Basel’s Naser Aliji and Cologne’s Mergim Mavraj will be the back four in this tournament with Taulant Xhaka, to be their shield.
The omission of winger Milot Rashica is a surprise as he had a pretty decent season with Eredivisie side Vitesse Arnhem. He would have been their trump card but looks like De Biasi is relying on organisation to frustrate opponents and quick counter attacks for goals.
Shkelzen Gashi, Bekim Bala and Sokol Cikalleshi will rely on long balls from the likes of Odise Roshi and Ermier Lenjani. The football may seem boring but teams should not take them lightly as they are capable of surprising anyone on their day.
No Karim Benzema, Kevin Gameiro, Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Valbuena – If I was a France fan, I would be livid but Deschamps seems to have a plan. While Benzema’s and Valbuena’s omission were expected because of a ‘Sex tape blackmail’ scandal, both Gameiro’s and Ben Arfa’s omissions were questionable as they were brilliant for their clubs.
They may not be starters in the French national team but having them in the bench would add some depth and strength to the team. Ben Arfa is capable of confusing opponents with his tricks while Gameiro’s movements can tire any opposition.
Then again, Deschamps will know his players better. With this squad, I’m sure France will continue with their 4-4-2 formation but with a difference. Instead of wingers, they will have attacking midfielders assisting Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann.
The sensational Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet will be the attacking midfielders. I’m only hoping Giroud will finish off their passes or crosses as the Arsenal striker can be pretty erratic.
The back four will feature Laurent Koscielny, Eliquim Mangala and experienced wing-backs Bakary Sagna and Patrice Evra.
Exciting side but can they win this group? Yes, they can. They just need to be focused and let their football do the talking. One of the favourites in my mind for the title.
Like Albania, coach Anghel Iordanescu knows attacking all out will not ensure qualification to the next round, so they will just sit back and try to punish teams on the counter-attack.
Once upon a time, Romania used to produce attacking talents like Adrian Mutu, Gheorge Hagi, Dan Petrescu and Adrien Llie but nowadays they are more defensive.
Defenders like Razvan Rat, Vlad Chiriches, Dragas Grigore were impressive in the qualifiers but their attackers didn’t hog the headlines.
Their insipid attack will surely worry the fans but for Iordanescu, defence is the best form of attack. He will rely on Gabriel Torje and veteran Lucian Sanmartean to launch quick attacks and Bogdan Stancu will be tasked to finish them off.
However, Stancu’s form with Genclerbirligi has been poor and to expect him to be clinical with fewer chances won’t help too.
Greece did it in 2004, so will Romania be able to do so? I don’t think so. Coming out from this group would be an achievement for them but that’s not going to happen with Iordanescu.
I believe that this team can do wonders. They were all selected based on form and I salute head coach Vladminir Petkovic for doing that.
Many questioned his decision not to select Gokhan Inler but lack of games with Premier League champions Leicester City saw him omitted from the squad.
Another notable omission was Diego Benaglio but Petkovic has other better goalkeepers in his squad. Marwin Hitz, Roman Burki and Yann Sommer are first choice keepers for their clubs and they are capable of being the first-choice goalkeeper for this team.
However, I expect Petkovic to select Burki as he had a dream season with Borussia Dortmund.
Defence though, might be their Achilles heel and Petkovic will be hoping for his keeper to perform wonders in the group matches. Johan Djourou and Fabian Schar were average in the Bundesliga and Timm Klose’s injury doesn’t help Switzerland’s cause.
Their midfield though is appetising. Granit Xhaka, will be leading the side and is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in world football right now. The new Arsenal signing is known for his aggressive plays and pinpoint passes, so Petkovic will want his star man to be at his best.
Defensive midfielder Gelson Fernandes will be the shield for Schar and Djourou while Fabian Frei and Xerdan Shaqiri will provide opportunities for the attackers.
If Petkovic wants experience, he would use Haris Seferovic or Eren Derdiyok in attack. He also has the option of starting Breel Embolo as he is exciting and capable of causing problems for the opposing defenders.
This is a young and exciting team and I’m expecting to qualify for the next round. Will they finish as group winners? They can if they want to but they will have to be at their very best against France.