Many see the Azzuris as the superpower in world football but Belgium has a world-class squad, Sweden has a superstar capable of winning matches on his own while Ireland has passion. Who will win it? These are my predictions.
This is the best time for their ‘Golden Generation’ to win something on the international stage. The absence of Vincent Kompany in defence is a blow, but Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are able replacements.
Having played his last Euro in 2000, Marc Wilmots knows this is the best time for the country to bag something. Even though some of his players had below par seasons with their clubs, they are capable of giving their best in red and black.
When you have talents like Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin de Bruyne, it’s best to just let these tricksters do the damage against the opposition.
Hazard and Mertens will probe from the wings while De Bruyne will be the playmaker. Behind them would be Nainggolan and Axel Witsel as they will be tasked to protect the backline and also spray the passes to the attacker. Romelu Lukaku will be the lone man up front but it wouldn’t be a problem for the big striker.
Thibaut Courtois, who didn’t have the best of seasons with Chelsea will be the goalkeeper.
I expect Belgium to finish top in this group as they have stronger squad than the other sides.
Their defence is strong but I’m not entirely convinced with their midfield as the absence of Claudio Marchisio would surely be felt.
This will be Antonio Conte’s last assignment with Italy before heading to Chelsea and he would surely want a grand exit. Known to be a strict disciplinarian, he will demand only the best from his players, and knowing the Italians they would surely do that.
Gianluigi Buffon, who seems to be ageing like a fine wine, will lead this side in goal and his three-man defence would be Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. The four of them have played week in, week out for Juventus and they also helped the Turin side to win the Serie A this season.
Alessandro Florenzi and Antonio Candreva will act as the wing-backs, while Daniele De Rossi and Thiago Motta will be the holding midfielders. Emanuele Giaccherini, Stephan El Shaarawy and Graziano Pelle will play up front.
The line-up looks solid but without Marchisio, who to me is one of the best holding midfielders in world football, the Azzuris will find it tough to play attacking sides.
Conte, though, will surely know what to do with his squad and might actually opt for the defensive Catenaccio style. If that happens, Italy will be tough to beat in this tournament.
Republic of Ireland
With Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane managing the team, this will be one side playing with lots of passion. Expect legions of fans to throng stadiums and ramp up the stadium with their chants.
The average age of this squad is 29.39 and most of the players are on the wrong side of 30. When you have ageing defence, a midfield that is not technically the best and an attack too reliant on a veteran striker, you know this team is in trouble.
But what they don’t lack is passion and that is what brought them to this stage. From Robbie Keane to Robbie Brady, this team has shown that they are no pushovers in the European stage.
Roy Keane has bashed the players for their lack of enthusiasm during friendlies and I expect the players to prove a point to him. In goal, Darren Randolph will be the first choice and he will be protected by Ciaran Clark, John O’Shea, Stephan Ward and Seamus Coleman.
In midfield, they will rely on Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy with Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan probing from the wings. With Jonathan Walters coming back from injury, I expect him to start in attack with Shane Long.
Keane, who is still not fully fit, will surely come back to the starting eleven once he is fit. His experience is key for this side and O’Neill knows he is capable of causing damage.
The Premier League pedigree is evident but at this stage, I doubt this team will go far. We will be entertained by the fans chants but not their game. It will be tough for Ireland to come out from this group.
Many people have asked me why I support Sweden. I fell in love with the 1994 World Cup squad that finished third in the championship.
Martin Dahlin, Henrik Larsson, Thomas Ravelli and Tomas Brolin featured for that side and they were phenomenal. This time around though, the team is centred on one man – Zlatan Ibrahimovic. We shall talk about the man later.
Andreas Isaksson is the main man behind goal and elsewhere Andreas Granqvist and Victor Lindelof, who won the Euro U-21 championship last year will be the centre-backs while Mikael Lustig and Martin Olsson will be the wing-backs. Lindelof is young but makes it up with his strength and intelligence, so I’m expecting him to impress in this tournament
Oscar Hiljemark and Kim Kallstrom will play in the middle while Emil Forsberg and Jimmy Durmaz will be the ones providing the crosses for John Guidetti and Ibrahimovic.
Knowing Ibra, he will want the ball at his feet and Guidetti too is comfortable with the ball so I expect the Swedish midfield to be versatile in their games. Possession or direct football, these players are capable of doing anything and Erik Hamren should allow them to express themselves.
This might be Ibrahimovic’s final tournament and I’m sure he wants to bring this unheralded side to the next round. It will be tough with Italy and Belgium there but this team is capable of surprising any teams when they are disciplined.