Euro 2016 — a preview

Euro 2016 kicks off today. The host nation, France, will take on Romania.

The Euro tournament has long been my favorite soccer tourney because of its size. The World Cup nowadays includes 32 teams from all over the world, including continents where the play is inferior. Usually, only about half of the teams are worthy of attention, though the ratio was higher in 2014.

The Euros have been limited to 16 teams. The quality of European soccer is high enough that only one-quarter to one-third of the participants are inferior. In Euro 2012, only Ireland was hard to watch.

But now, inevitably, the field has been expanded to 24 teams. Ireland, not much better on paper than four years ago, looks strong in comparison to such minnows as Iceland, Albania, Hungary, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

One or two of the minnows will probably punch above punch above its weight. But we’ll be lucky if more half of the 24 participants produce quality soccer. And only partisans and junkies will be eager to view such matches as Albania-Switzerland, Wales-Slovakia, and Poland-Northern Ireland, to name three of the first seven Euro 2016 matches. Even I plan to pass on the first two.

The other problem with 24 teams is format. The field is divided into six groups of four teams. The top two teams in each group advance to the knock-out stage, but this yields only 12 teams. The remaining places go the four third place finishers with the best record. This drives me crazy.

I’ve been viewing so much NBA playoff action, Washington Nationals baseball, and Copa America (the Western Hemisphere’s version of the Euros) that I haven’t studied up on Euro 2016 as much as I would have liked. But that won’t stop me from previewing it.

The favorites, I’m pretty sure, are France (the host) and Germany (the defending World Cup champion). France has an outstanding goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, and its midfield-forward sextet is probably as good as any in the tourney — even in the absence of Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena, who apparently are banned because the former tried to blackmail the latter with a sex tape.

The question mark for Les Bleus is the back four. Among the eight candidates for playing time, only Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny inspires confidence.

Germany has played poorly in the run-up to the Euros, but I discount this. Looking at the squad, I see question marks at both fullback positions and at center forward. Maybe I should discount this too — these three positions were problematic during the last World Cup which Germany won.

Greatness in European football is established by following up a World Cup title with triumph at the Euros (or visa versa). This generation of German players may have the potential for greatness. Does it have the hunger?

Spain’s Golden Generation was hungry enough to win three straight big tournaments (Euro 2008 and 2012 plus a World Cup sandwiched in between). Spain looked jaded at the 2014 World Cup, and it’s an oldish team that comes to France this year.

There’s still plenty of quality though. The key, I think, will be finding a center forward who can score. There is no established one at the international level in the squad (unless one counts Chelsea’s Pedro; I don’t) and I doubt that Spain still has the overwhelming midfield talent to compensate.

Belgium under-performed at the last World Cup but still made the quarterfinals, losing by one goal to runners-up Argentina. This year’s squad looks better than the 2014 version, with the emergence of Radja Nainggolana and especially Kevin De Bruyne. If Chelsea’s Eden Hazard can regain top form, he and De Bruyne might form the best winger duo in the tournament.

Up front, the main options are a trio of strikers who play on Merseyside — Everton’s Romulu Lakaku and Liverpool’s Christian Benteke and Divok Origi. Michy Batshuayi of Marseille is another possibility.

Center back and captain Vincent Kompany is out due to injury. But Belgium should be fine with the Tottenham Hotspur duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen (both of whom were miscast as fullbacks at the last World Cup). Veteran Thomas Vermaelen, formerly of Arsenal and now a benchwarmer at Barcelona, is also in the center back mix. But will the fullback play be adequate?

With Italy, it’s often feast (a run to the finals) or famine (failure to make the knockout stage). Given the 24 team format, famine seems very unlikely. There might be a feast if the Azzurri can find a center forward who scores. However, the five on the roster have only 11 international goals among them.

England has a bright-looking young squad. Tottenham youngsters Harry Kane (age 22), Eric Dier (also 22), and Dele Alli (20) provide grounds for optimism. So does Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford (only 18) who seems to score with his first touch on nearly every big occasion.

The extent to which manager Roy Hodgson will relay on these youngsters (and on Rahim Sterling who is 21) isn’t clear, except, I trust, for Kane. Fortunately, Hodgson has capable veterans like Joe Hart in goal, Gary Cahill at center back, and, above all, captain Wayne Rooney wherever Hodgson deploys him.

Rooney is probably the key. He burst onto the international scene at the age of 18 at Euro 2004. Since then, he has been a disappointment in every international tournament England has participated in (England missed out on Euro 2008 and, to be fair, injuries and a suspension have played a role in Rooney’s lack of impact).

Rooney is past his peak now. However, his ball distribution skills coupled with his all action play still make him a special player, as his man-of-the-match performance in the FA Cup final demonstrated. If Rooney can deliver on the international stage this time, England might make the semis of a major tournament for the first time since 1996 and the first time on foreign soil since 1990.

The two Everton players on the England squad — John ( “Money can’t buy you”) Stones and Ross Barkley — don’t figure to play much unless injuries strike.

Portugal can’t be counted out of a deep run as long as Christiano Ronaldo is available. However, Ronaldo has also been a disappointment in international tournaments, and might well be worn down by the grind of Real Madrid’s European championship season.

As for the rest of the field, Croatia’s attackers and midfielders are among the most impressive in the tournament. Perhaps this will be a breakout tournament for one of both of midfielders Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan) and Matteo Kovacic (Barcelona’s bench).

Switzerland played well at the last World Cup. I’ve heard positive things about Russia and even Austria, which hasn’t done anything internationally in decades. However, I haven’t seen either team in action.

I do know that Austrian players are now making a mark at European clubs — e.g., David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City), Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City), Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham, where he ably deputized for Belgium’s Vertonghen). Fuchs and Arnautovic were among my 2015-16 EPL all-stars. Nearly every member of the Russian team plays in Russia, so I rarely get to see them.

Both countries I visited last month, Poland and the Czech Republic, seem to have respectable sides. The Czech are in a very tough looking group (with Spain, Croatia, and Turkey). Poland is with ancient enemies Germany and Ukraine (in a sense), along with Northern Ireland. In the new format, both could make the knockout round if Northern Ireland is as weak as they appear on paper.

Forgive the length of this preview. If nothing else, it has helped get me up for the tournament.

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