Euro 2016 week one: The must-watch games

Date published: Friday 10th June 2016 8:17

Wayne Rooney Football365

You’re obviously going to watch every minute of the European Championship, but for those of you with other commitments (family, work, weird non-football-supporting friends), we’ll bring you five games in every round of group stage fixtures that you really can’t afford to miss. No excuses, you hear me?

 

France vs Romania

When is it?
Friday June 10, 8pm.

Why so interesting?
It’s the first game of the tournament – what’s wrong with you? After England’s population has passed comment on a bizarre opening ceremony and touted David Guetta as a microcosm of ‘the problem with youth’, we’ll all settle down to watch the first of 51 matches. Fifty-one!

Thing to look out for?
France is in untypically upbeat spirits over the fortunes of its football team, with realistic hopes of matching their hosting triumphs in 1984 and 1998. Yet supporters of Les Bleus are notoriously fickle (or inconstant, to those looking to learn the language). Should things begin badly, don’t be surprised to hear boos and catcalls for the omission of Karim Benzema for his role in a very modern footballing controversy.

Which player to watch?
I wrote here about why this tournament is so fascinating regarding the future of Olivier Giroud. If Arsene Wenger has not already run out of patience with his striker, an impressive tournament could see Giroud’s status within Arsenal’s squad rise once again. Likely to be picked from the start and flanked by Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet, Giroud must impress straight from the off. With Andre-Pierre Gignac and Anthony Martial waiting in the wings, Didier Deschamps will be quick to change a plan that isn’t working.

What will happen?
Romania will be happy to keep the game scoreless for as long as possible, relying on set-pieces as their best chance of success. Their defensive record in qualifying was superb, but France will eventually break down their resistance and score two unanswered goals.

 

England vs Russia

When is it?
Saturday June 11, 8pm.

Why so interesting?
We’ve spent the last two weeks reading about Germans ‘wimping out’ of potential terrorist atrocities, England player carrying around a furry lion, one of the coaches having some names scribbled on a piece of paper and the will-he-won’t-he saga to which the answer is ‘Maybe, maybe not, but you’ll have to wait and see’. Not that we’re desperate for the football to start, but…

Thing to look out for?
Roy Hodgson’s starting XI and formation, for starters. Never (and by that I mean ‘I can’t remember’) has England’s line-up and shape been so unknown so close to the start of a major tournament. It’s not even an insult, either. Hodgson’s task is made so difficult by the mix of international experience and domestic form that runs like a vein through the squad.

So, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond or 4-1-3-2? Jack Wilshere? James Milner? Jamie Vardy? Raheem Sterling? Jordan Henderson? Adam Lallana? We don’t even know where captain Wayne Rooney will be playing, or whether that even matters as he’ll probably just go where he fancies, casually passing the ball long and into touch before remarking: It’s nice to hear your own fans booing you.”

Which player to watch?
The boy Dele Alli. He can pass, he can dribble, he can shoot; he’s only just turned 20. There is something of the Paul Gascoigne in Alli, in that he is equally likely to do something stupid as magical. “He’s just a cheeky chappie,” says Karl Robinson (a story relayed here by Dave Hytner). “He’s a little so-and-so.” For Gazza-mania during Euro ‘96, read Alli fever in Euro 2016. The only certainty is that whatever the ending, the journey will be well worth watching.

What will happen?
Newsflash: Russia really aren’t very good. They finished eight points behind Austria in qualifying, with their two-point lead over Sweden due in part to a 3-0 awarded win against Montenegro when the match was abandoned at 0-0 with 20 minutes to go. With Igor Denisov and Alan Dzagoev both injured, this could be England’s easiest group game. What do you mean I’m too scared to make an exact predictio…

 

Turkey vs Croatia

When is it?
Sunday June 12, 2pm.

Why so interesting?
If we work on the assumption that Spain will win Group D, Croatia and Turkey will both be aiming to hang onto their coattails and face a probable fixture against Belgium or Italy in the second round. Both countries will also need to improve on their qualifying records, where they dropped 22 points in 20 matches combined. Croatia are the most obvious contenders for the ‘dark horses’ tag.

Thing to look out for?
Turkey’s aggression. Fatih Terim’s team kicked seven bells out of England in the recent friendly, and that is unlikely to be toned down for a match in which four of Croatia’s midfielders (Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic) enjoy time spent with the ball at feet.

Which player to watch?
Any hour spent watching Luka Modric run with and pass a football could never be wasted. A player cam focused only on his individual performance in central midfield is a form of footballing porn. Any excuse to spy on such beauty should be taken greedily. Bookmakers are offering 50/1 on Modric in the top assists market, and that makes me feel a bit naughty inside.

What will happen?
Croatia will be hampered by the pressure upon them to perform, and will labour to a draw against a Turkey side built in the exact opposite of their image. Burak Yilmaz will score a surprise opener before Mario Mandzukic and Modric combine to save the day.

 

Ireland vs Sweden

When is it?
Monday June 13, 5pm.

Why so interesting?
Ireland are desperate to atone for their desperate showing at Euro 2012, the worst tournament performance since Charlie Adam’s mum entered him into Dundee’s most beautiful baby competition in 1986. With Martin O’Neill signed up for an extra two years, Irish eyes need to see a dramatic improvement. With Belgium and Italy to come, defeat to Sweden would leave O’Neill’s side already on the brink.

Thing to look out for?
There is a suspicion that the group stage might be a touch defensive, with coaches realising that four (and even possibly three) points should be enough for a third-place qualification. However, in Group E – the Group of Death – there is little point Ireland and Sweden playing out a low-scoring draw in their easiest fixture. The prize of three precious points might just encourage both sides to play expansively, particularly in the second half.

Which player to watch?
Yes, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He might have turned his forename into a brand and possess an ego the size of Scandinavia, but there is no doubt that Ibrahimovic is box office on the pitch. Between Wales, Portugal, Iceland and Sweden, Euro 2016 does a good line in the ‘one-man team’ cliche. Sweden are comfortably the most deserving of the tag.

What will happen?
Ireland score first and occasionally threaten to add a second, before Ibrahimovic’s brilliance eventually hampers them. The game ends 1-1, with both sides swinging metaphorical punches in the last 15 minutes.

 

Belgium vs Italy

When is it?
Monday June 13, 8pm.

Why so interesting?
The countries ranked first and seventh of all European countries in FIFA’s world rankings aren’t just in the same group, but meet on the fourth day of the tournament. The feeling is that Belgium and Italy are countries heading in different directions. Marc Wilmots’ Red Devils are aiming to make good on their ‘golden generation’ tag, but Italy have a squad many view as wholly (Emanuele) uninspiring (Giaccherini). It’s easy to forget that Antonio Conte’s squad reached the final four years ago, and Chelsea’s new manager will be looking to bow out in style.

Thing to look out for?
Italy’s defensive quartet of Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli might just be the best in the tournament. Belgium’s attacking quartet of Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku might just be the best in the tournament. You don’t need to ‘look out’ for anything; the most obvious qualities of these two sides should punch you square on the jaw.

Which player to watch?
Can only be De Bruyne, who might just be the best attacking midfielder in the world. With Hazard to the left of him and Mertens or Yannick Ferreira Carrasco to the right (a weird remix of Stuck In The Middle With You), the hope is that De Bruyne is given a free role to act as playmaker behind Lukaku. If that sounds sexy, it’s probably because it is.

What will happen?
It isn’t hard to envisage Italy trying to keep it tight against their best opposition in the group, and in truth both sides might take a draw before kick-off. Yet if Belgium can score an early goal, we could witness a fascinating contest as Italy are forced to push for an equaliser while Wilmots’ side look to hit them on the break.

 

Daniel Storey

 

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