EURO 2016 Group F looks hard for betting fans, as Austria, newcomer Iceland, and playoff qualifier Hungary are all inexperienced teams which have the potential of mixing it up, and Portugal always seem good on paper but fail to live up to expectations in crucial duels.
Nevertheless, Portugal, which are arguably the weakest of the top seeds in six groups, will be reasonably pleased to stay in Group F, boasting much more strength than the three dark horses from the qualifying campaign.
In the FIFA world rankings released on June 2, Portugal stood at 8th, Austria at 10th, Hungary 20th and Iceland 34th.
Built around superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal topped the 5-team qualifying group composed of Albania, Denmark, Serbia and Armenia with seven wins and one loss.
The only defeat in the opener to Albania led to the replacement of coach Paulo Bento by Fernando Santos, who had achieved minor miracles over four years with Greece, not only qualifying for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup but also reaching the knockouts both times.
Santos, 61, a well-versed tactician keen on solid defense, steadied the Portuguese team and collected seven straight wins to finish top. The pragmatic coach also guided his team to victories over Argentina and Italy, the two opponents Portugal had never beaten in 40 years.
Although Portugal is tough to break down, it comes at a cost with few goals at the other end. They only managed to win by one goal margins, finishing the qualifying tournament with 11 goals scored (five by C. Ronaldo) and five conceded. They have to rely on moments of magic to score. In a sense, the team is solid rather than spectacular.
The problem waiting to be solved by Santos is how to strengthen the attacking power centered by C. Ronaldo who might be tired after playing all out to help Real Madrid win the UEFA Champions League at the end of May.
C. Ronaldo, 30, said that one of his remaining targets in football is to lift a trophy with his country. He had scored six times in the previous European Championships. Euro 2016 might be his last chance to win a major tournament in his prime.
Furthermore, C. Ronaldo has smashed the national team’s all-time goalscoring record and in France will overtake Luis Figo to become the most capped player in Portugal’s history.
With the tournament’s best player in their ranks, plus a healthy mix of experienced campaigners, such as midfielders Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, and new talent including 18-year-old Renato Sanches, hopes are high that Portugal can continue their impressive Euros record. In six appearances, they reached the semifinals on four occasions, going on to contest the final on home turf in 2004, and never failed in the group phase.
Any Portugal preview begins and ends with C. Ronaldo whose form will decide how far the team will go.
Austria, a dark horse in the qualifying campaign, surprisingly dominated a group including Russia and Sweden, with nine wins and a 1-1 draw at home with Sweden. In the near-perfect run, Austria scored 22 goals and conceding only five.
Star forward Marc Janko from Basel, 32, netted seven goals in the qualifiers. He is the current top scorer of the squad which also features players like Leicester City defender Cristian Fuchs, Stuttgart midfielder Florian Klein, Bremen midfielder Zlatko Junuzovic, Dynamo Kiev defender Aleksandar Dragovic and Bayern Munich left back David Alaba.
Alaba, 23, plays as a playmaker in Austria’s midfield instead of a defender in Bayern Munich.
The majority of the squad now play for German clubs, and goalkeeper Robert Almer from Austria Vienna is their only domestic-based player at Euro 2016.
Austria had never qualified for the European Championship before, except the Euro 2008 as a co-host. In March they reached an all-time high of 10th in the FIFA rankings.
Austria can switch quickly from defence to offense — one of the two teams in qualifying averaged fewer passes before taking a shot. The strong central axis, Dragovic-Alaba-Janko, is supported by speedy players on both wings.
Center-back Dragovic is key to the Austrians’ organization. He was the reason they were able to compensate for Alaba’s absence in both qualifiers against Russia, with Austria winning each tie 1-0.
Austria coach Marcel Koller, 55, took rein of the team in 2011 and his biggest achievement was giving Austria self-belief.
Austria will be looking for their first win at a final championship, only managing a draw in Euro 2008 against Poland. They have more chances to follow Portugal as the runners-up to advance.
Iceland, the darkest horse in the qualifying campaign, finished second in a group which the Czech Republic won with six wins, two draws and two defeats. Swansea striker Gylfi Sigurdsson scored six times to lead the team to the European Championship. Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson and Nantes’ Kolbeinn Sigthorsson also made great contributions.
A nation with a population of barely 330,000, Iceland became the smallest country to qualify for the Euros. A well-organised defence kept six clean sheets in the qualification, including twice against the Netherlands.
Iceland, a traditional minnow, will appear in a final tournament for the first time in history.
The success derived from the tight framework and team ethic constructed by former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback, who reaped the benefit of an early-2000s government plan that built artificial pitches across the country so that Icelanders could play longer than for the five months a year the climate allows.
Iceland can produce quite a few surprises and will probably fight for second place in the group with Austria. But they lack strength in depth. Injuries to key players could derail them.
Hungary, also a dark horse in the qualifying campaign, finished third in the group, behind Romania and Northern Ireland. Widely viewed as one of the weakest teams in the qualifying tournament, Hungary beat Norway 3-1 on aggregate in the playoffs to advance.
It’s been a long wait to see Hungary at a major tournament — their last World Cup appearance came in 1986, and it has been 44 years since their most recent participation in a European Championship.
Hungary’s strength mostly comes from the high team spirit, forged by former coach Pal Dardai before he was replaced by Bernd Storck in July 2015. A lack of genuine star names contributes to a feeling of unity.
Their football has been less than exciting. Hungary have little chance to survive the group unless they can pinch points from Austria and Iceland.