2016 UEFA Championship: Host France gets favorable draw
The 2016 European Championships draw was made in the Palais des Congres in Paris Saturday. UEFA president Michel Platini was not present—he is currently suspended from his duties by FIFA—but there was support for the Frenchman when footage of player-turned-politician helping France win Euro 1986 was met with applause in the draw auditorium. It was Platini who instigated this new-look Euros format: there are now 24 teams in the tournament, eight more than in previous competitions.
Of the debutant nations, Iceland might be the happiest: facing Portugal, Hungary and Austria gives the minnow (it has the smallest population, 320,000, of any European participant) a chance of reaching the knockout round. Harder to say the same for Republic of Ireland, who takes on world No. 1 Belgium and Pot 2 dark horse Italy. The best four third-placed sides will make it into the knockout stage as 24 teams becomes 16. Here is a breakdown of each group:
GROUP A (France, Albania, Romania, Switzerland)
Host France will kick off Euro 2016 against Romania, a team that somehow made it into FIFA’s top 10 earlier this year. It has been a difficult few weeks for France coach Didier Deschamps, with the French football federation this week confirming that his star striker Karim Benzema will not be considered for selection until an investigation into his role in a sex tape blackmail plot involving team-mate Mathieu Valbuena is resolved. The good news for Deschamps is that France was handed a manageable draw in Paris: it eased past Switzerland 5-2 at the World Cup in Brazil and despite losing to Albania 1-0 in a friendly earlier this year, will expect to finish top. The decisive match could be between Albania and Switzerland, sure to be a political affair with some Albanian-born players naturalizing to play for Switzerland: among them Valon Behrami (“I can’t believe it” was his reaction on Twitter) and Granit Xhaka, whose brother Taulant will be playing for Albania.
Pick for top two: France, Switzerland
GROUP B (England, Wales, Slovakia, Russia)
The one team Wales coach Chris Coleman wanted to avoid in the group stage was England. He didn't want a circus around one game and for his players to lose focus around the other two fixtures. His England counterpart Roy Hodgson may have thought along the same lines, not to mention the prospect of Gareth Bale running at a defense that is far from assured. That said, England won all ten of its qualifying matches and drawing Russia from Pot 2 is a bonus: coach Leonid Slutsky is rebuilding a side that nearly didn't make it after Fabio Capello’s spell in charge (something England know all about too). “I’m looking forward to the draw but I’m looking forward to the tournament even more, as England are going to win it,” said FA chairman Greg Dyke. Not helpful, and probably not true either. Slovakia is a dangerous outsider, having beaten Spain in qualifying.
Pick for top two: England, Wales
GROUP C (Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland, Ukraine)
World champion Germany may have looked fallible in qualifying—in fact it was beaten by Poland, who it faces again—but this group should hold few fears for the tournament favorite. Poland will also be happy. It faces debutant Northern Ireland in the opening game, but has one key difference to the team that lost 3-2 in Northern Ireland in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers: Robert Lewandowski, who scored 13 out of Poland’s 33 goals in qualifying and is currently tearing it up in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich. His partnership with Arkadiusz Milik could be a key factor.
Pick for top two: Germany, Poland
Group D (Spain, Turkey, Czech Republic, Croatia)
This is the toughest group to call, and also the strongest based on FIFA’s current world rankings. Spain is reigning European champion and though Vicente del Bosque is overseeing a change of generation throughout the team, with David de Gea close to usurping Iker Casillas in goal and the likes of Thiago Alcantara, Koke and Paco Alacer breaking into the side, it is still one of the strongest squads in France. Turkey was the Pot 4 side to avoid while Czech Republic, so strong in qualifying, is an impressive, attacking unit under coach Pavel Vrba and is a dark horse that should not be discounted. Croatia has the individual brilliance of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, two stars who will know the Spanish players very well, but there are doubts over the tactical acumen of coach Ante Cacic.
Pick for top two: Spain, Czech Republic
GROUP E (Belgium, Republic of Ireland, Sweden, Italy)
Ireland coach Martin O’Neill often bemoans the luck of the draw for his team after a succession of tricky qualifying groups. His reaction to drawing the number one team in the world, Belgium, and the Pot 2 side that everyone wanted to avoid, Italy, summed it up. “I thought I was going to enjoy the draw. I'm not sure I have done,” he said. The even worse news is that Group E is tougher than all the others for format reasons: the winners of Groups A-D face third-placed teams, but the winners of Groups E and F face runners-up. Meanwhile the runners-up of Groups D and E will face group winners (runners-up of other groups face other runners-up).
Pick for top two: Belgium, Italy
Group F (Portugal, Iceland, Hungary, Austria)
This is such an open group that everyone drawn in it will feel it has a chance of progression. Portugal is the top seed but so heavily reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo, that if he is anything less than 100%, it will suffer. Austria was outstanding in qualifying, beating Sweden 4-1 in Stockholm, and in David Alaba has the prototype of a modern versatile player who fits in to any position in Pep Guardiola’s Bayern side. For Austria, he plays in central midfield. Iceland has some sharp players and for striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, 37, the chance to finally play in a major tournament. Midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson scored six goals in qualifying.
Pick for top two: Austria, Portugal