2014 World Champions Germany and Poland are the favorites in EURO 2016’s Group C and they are expected to take the top two places and advance to the next round.
Ukraine and Northern Ireland are the group’s underdogs – the latter more than the former. While Ukraine may challenge Poland and Germany to some degree, Northern Ireland are regarded as rank outsiders. The Northern Irish team nevertheless will be a hard nut to crack as they are renowned for their determination and strong, physical game.
The teams’ aims could not be more different. While the 1996 European Champion Germany is targeting the tournament win, Poland would be happy to get to the quarterfinals while Ukraine would be happy with a place in the last 16. There will Northern Ireland party with every goal and point they manage to score or win in the three group matches.
Ahead of the tournament, head coach Adam Nawalka’s Polish team seems to be the only team in a position to seriously challenge Germany – they play each other in the second group match on June 16. Beating Germany at home in the qualifying tournament gave the Poles a massive motivational boost. The 3-1 loss in the re-match was their only defeat in the last two years. Poland scored the most goals in qualifying (33) and the attack is the team’s biggest strength as Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich/13 goals) and Arkadiusz Milik (Ajax Amsterdam/6 goals) are class international acts.
The defense in the well balanced and experienced team is the weakest part. At the back however they are the second worst team of all participating nations after conceding 10 goals in qualifying. Using a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 system, Poland can count on a strong midfield and excellent attacking play down the flanks. Lewandowski, defender Kamil Glik (AC Turin) and Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla) are the team’s kingpins. The games against Germany and Ukraine (June 21) will be crucial to Poland if they are to have an easy time.
Talking about an easy time – it seems to be a sweet memory for Germany at present. Soon after the brilliant performance in Brazil and the happy end in the 2014 World Cup final against Argentina, head coach Joachim Loew’s team suffered a downturn – one that has been going on for two years without the Germans ever being able to fully counteract it.
Loew had to begin a rebuilding process after key-figures as Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker all retired. He also is facing an injury crisis as team captain Bastian Schweinsteiger (Manchester United) and central defender Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund), who will join Bayern Munich next season, are struggling to recover in time. Loew emphasized he wanted to wait for Schweinsteiger to get back to fitness as he faces a leader problem if the midfielder is not ready for action. His experience and leadership qualities would be sorely missed – and that despite many world class midfielders such as Sami Khedira (Juventus), Mesut Oezil (Arsenal) and Toni Kroos (Real Madrid).
However the loss of several World Champion players could turn out to be an advantage as Loew has had to call upon new faces and fresh minds. Mario Gomez (Besiktas Istanbul) is back in top form and could replace Klose as a spearhead. But Loew has many other possibilities as his team is able to use several different systems like 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-1-1 (2). Mario Goetze seems back in a better frame of mind after a disappointing season at Bayern Munich. Andre Schuerrle (VfL Wolfsburg) is much-improved while keeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jerome Boateng and striker Thomas Mueller (all Bayern Munich) have been playing at a consistently high level and are vital to the team.
Like in Brazil, Loew is trying to create a special team spirit by choosing the appropriate squad members. “The team”, said the 56-year old German, “stands above the individual.” After winning the World Cup, Loew has made no secret of his intention to win the major European tournament as Germany’s last victory came 20 years ago. Pundits and fans have full trust in Loew’s ability to get things moving in the right direction.
Many are not sure whether Mykhaylo Fomenko will get his team on the right track. After all Ukraine’s head coach has to deal with a totally different situation as the country is stuck in a political crisis which has also influenced its national team. To say it clearly: Under these circumstances it was a surprise that Ukraine managed to qualify at all having losing five previous play-offs for major tournaments. Things came good in 2016 when they won the two-legged play-off against Slovenia. The curse seems to over.
“The tournament in France is the most important event for our country and our people,” Fomenko pointed out. Now dreams are growing that the team could make it into the next round by either finishing ahead of Poland or as one of the best four group third-placed teams. Pundits regard the team as an unknown quantity, many things could happen from elimination at the group stage or giant-killers.
Opponents know what to expect: Ukraine’s football team prefers a defensive game basically within a 4-5-1 system. The team relies on a strong physical game and its two top stars are striker Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kiev) and midfielder Yeven Konoplyanka (Sevilla).
For Northern Ireland, the European Championship finals are seen as being an adventure. Team and coach Michael O’Neill are loving the underdog role. For the team made up mainly of second and third division players, the three group games are like a final and expectations are non-existent despite the wish not to lose all of their three games without scoring any goals.
Playing three games on a high level will be a challenge for an inexperienced but determined team that has an unbeatable will, is very strong physically and has the ability to play many tactical systems such as 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1, 5-3-2 and 4-5-1. If there is any star in the team at all it might be striker Kyle Lafferty (Birmingham City) who scored seven goals in the qualifying games.