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The start of Euro 2016 is just over two months away, and with the current international fixture window a time for teams to fine-tune and iron out details prior to the club season run-in, there's no better time to examine the field of 24 and size up where each team stands.
The field can be split into three distinct categories–the contenders to win it all, those who have offered glimpses of an ability to compete and those who are long shots to replicate what Greece did in 2004 and win in stunning fashion.
Amid a series of high-profile friendlies across the continent, this is how the field of 24 is shaping up:
Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Croatia, England
Germany is beset by a very modern problem. It may be the world champion, it may have a side replete with great midfielders, and it may have rattled in 24 goals in qualifying, more than anybody other than Sweden and England, and yet it frets about the lack of a high-class striker. It was the reintroduction of the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose that gave Germany the spurt that took it to the World Cup on Brazil two summers ago, restoring the structure than gave it stability, but he has gone now and nobody has emerged in his place.
Thomas Muller did score nine goals in qualifying, mostly coming from a deep position, but, in the absence of any more convincing alternative, it seems likely Jogi Low will again field Mario Gotze as a false nine of Saturday’s friendly against England in Berlin. A game against Italy in Munich on Tuesday offers further chance for experimentation.
The ramifications of the Karim Benzema blackmail allegations rumble on but, other than that, the host France has only one major difficulty: a surfeit of high-class players. Without a qualifying series to refine Didier Deschamps’s thinking, it’s still far from clear who he will be forced to cut from his squad, never mind getting around to selecting the actual starting 11.
As a result it seems almost a side issue that Dimitri Payet, after a stellar season for West Ham, has been recalled to the national squad after a lengthy absence. There’s talk about a final chance of playing his way into the side as France faces the Netherlands in Amsterdam Friday and Russia in Paris on Tuesday, but, realistically, with the likes of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Morgan Schneiderlin, Yohan Cabaye and Lassana Diarra already established, he is playing for a place in the squad. The two games may also give an indication whether Deschamps prefers Olivier Giroud or Andre-Pierre Gignac at center forward (assuming the Benzema situation does not resolve itself).
Reigning European champion Spain offered signs towards the end of qualifying that it is rising again. Aritz Aduriz’s goal in Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Italy provided further evidence that he should be the main central striker as the 35-year Athletic Bilbao forward continues to enjoy his remarkable late flowering. Certainly the team looked more fluent with him rather than Diego Costa, who has always been rather lumbering for the national side.
The other alternative is Alvaro Morata, in fine form for Juventus, but he was used in a wide left role against Italy. There may be further experimentation against Romania in Cluj on Sunday, but come the tournament, it’s likely that the familiar midfield center of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas will return.
Italy itself progressed through qualifying with a familiar remorselessness, unbeaten in 10 games, without ever really dazzling. A pair of 1-0 wins over Malta hardly suggested great attacking freedom. Although there was some dabbling with a back four, it always seemed likely that Antonio Conte would deploy a back three in the tournament itself, and his use of it against Spain seemed to confirm that.
Security concerns have understandably dominated the build-up to Belgium’s friendly against Portugal, which has been shifted from Brussels to Leiria after the terrorist attacks that killed 31 people in the Belgian capital on Tuesday. This is arguably the greatest generation of players in Belgium’s history, but qualifying offered little evidence that Marc Wilmots has learned from the World Cup how best to arrange them. The most obvious issue is at center forward, where Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi are all fighting for one place.
Portugal, which faces Bulgaria Friday, must decide whether Cristiano Ronaldo is to be used as a central striker or on the flank cutting in in a 4-3-3.
There is arguably greater strength in midfield than Portugal has enjoyed for years, even with the likes of Andre Andre, Miguel Veloso and Joao Moutinho missing out this time, but the Ronaldo factor weighs heavy.
Croatia tried three different formations in beating Israel 2-0 in a friendly on Wednesday, none of them hugely convincing. It plays Hungary on Saturday and is likely to return form the back three to a 4-3-3, with the major concern being the balance of a midfield. The suspicion is that Luke Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic can’t all play together.
Can England really challenge? Fifty years on from its only success in an international tournament, there’s a weary resignation about the build-up, but England is unburdened by stars or the sort of celebrity players who demand selection, and that may play into the pragmatic hands of Roy Hodgson. He has pace in forward areas and in Eric Dier and Dele Alli, a pair of young midfielders used to playing together.
After a successful qualification campaign largely based around plugging away against resolute but defensive opponents, games away to Germany and at home to Netherlands offer an opportunity to test England’s abilities on the counter, which are likely to be far more relevant to how it will play in the tournament itself than the attritional proactivity of the past two years.
POTENTIAL TO COMPETE
Austria, Russia, Switzerland, Poland, Wales, Turkey, Ukraine, Sweden
Having played the same starting lineup in each of its last six qualifiers, Austria faces Albania on Saturday with few concerns other than fine-tuning, and that consistency itself is one of its strengths. This is a side that not merely is good at playing together but wants to play together–nobody is withdrawing with slight knocks.
Russia has also had a remarkable consistency of recent selection, with Leonid Slutsky selected only 13 outfield starters for the four games in which he resurrected its qualifying campaign. His problem is that this is an old squad–so old that there are legitimate concerns about whether it will stand up to the rigors of three group games in nine days. Friendlies against Lithuania and France are a chance to try to introduce new blood.
Switzerland faces Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina after an inconsistent qualifying campaign. There is a very strong core of players there, based around Xherdan Shaqiri, Grant Xhaka and Gokhan Inler, but there’s been little indication yet that Vladimir Petrovic has quite worked out a tactical system to get the best out of them.
Having beaten Serbia on Tuesday, Poland takes on Finland on Saturday with a fairly clear idea of how it will go into its first game in France, against Northern Ireland. Grzegorz Krychowiak will hold at the back of midfield, with Jakub Blaszczykowski on the right, Kamil Grosicki on the left and Arkadiusz Milik supporting Robert Lewandowski through the middle. All that remains to determine is the precise balance and who the other central midfielder is.
There’s no reason for Wales to panic, but, having lost to the Netherlands in November, a draw against Northern Ireland on Tuesday, secured only with a very late equalizer, is perhaps cause for some concern–although it was without Gareth Bale, who will also miss Monday’s game against Ukraine. This is a solid rather spectacular Ukraine and, while a 1-0 win over Cyprus on Thursday was far from thrilling, it did give a number of fringe players a run out. Something closer to a full-strength side may be anticipated for the visit of Wales.
The sense of Turkey as a coming force was enhanced by a 2-1 win over Sweden on Thursday, although the suspicion is that next week’s clash with Austria will be a tougher test of a side that finished qualifying with a charge. Sweden faces the Czech Republic on Tuesday looking, as ever, to prove it is more than just Zlatan Ibrahimovic and an aging midfield.
Iceland, Romania, Czech Republic, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Hungary, Albania, Slovakia
Iceland was perhaps the best story in qualifying as it maintained the form it had shown in narrowly missing out on the World Cup to eliminate the Netherlands. It has lost six of its last seven matches–including a 2-1 loss to Denmark Thursday–though, since securing its place in France. There aren’t too many options in terms of personnel, but a win over Greece on Tuesday might bolster confidence that must have been shaken by recent results.
Romania may lack of the stars of the past, but it had the best defensive record of any side in qualifying, so it was no great surprise to see it scraping by Lithuania 1-0 on Wednesday. Spain on Sunday is a test of whether it can also frustrate more vaunted sides.
Czech Republic impressed in qualifying, eliminating the Dutch, but Thursday’s friendly defeat at home to Scotland raised serious questions about its capacity to break down dogged opponents. An away game against Sweden on Tuesday, perhaps, is an opportunity to show that there is cutting edge as well as neatness to its midfield.
After an impressive start to qualifying Slovakia rather stumbled over the line, but recent friendly results suggest a side that is beginning to rediscover its form.
Robert Mak’s two goals from the right flank saw off Iceland 3-1 in November. A game against Latvia Friday and Ireland on Tuesday should be about polishing the 4-2-3-1.
Ireland’s qualification was the result of its traditional virtues of doggedness and energy. Friday's game against Switzerland then the Slovakia match are probably about practicing defensive shape, although they will probably offer confirmation that Robbie Keane’s time as a starter is over as well as giving some indication how large a role Martin O’Neill sees Wes Hoolihan having in France.
For Northern Ireland, going so close to beating Wales was further confirmation it is worthy of its place in France. Without a huge pool of players to from which to select, Monday’s friendly against Slovenia is less about issues of selection than getting the shape right–and working out who will replace the inured Chris Brunt at left back.
Hungary got through its playoff against Norway thanks to the unexpected emergence of the turbulent but gifted 21-year-old midfielder Laszlo Kleinheisler. Saturday’s game against Croatia feels as much about tracking his development as anything else.
Albania, meanwhile, goes to Austria with few ambitions other than proving its defensive resilience before a first ever appearance at a major tournament.