|(Pic : 101greatgoals.com)|
The 58 year wait to see Wales in a major international football tournament is almost over.
Even getting there was a major achievement but now there'll be an expectation that they don't embarrass themselves, get out of the group stages and use the uncertainty of the knockout stages to cause upsets.
The tournament has expanded to 24 teams from 16 so this is more like a mini World Cup than the over-and-out tournaments of the past. Considering the density of top national teams in Europe, I don't think that will really impact the quality of the tournament itself.
|Our best hope, but also our biggest weakness?|
(Pic : Wales Online)
Best case scenario is 5-7 points in the group, but that means the playing at their absolute peak and it has to start with a win against Slovakia on Saturday. 4 points might be enough to get out of the group as one of the best third-placed teams, 5 should ensure it – a win and two draws. It's doable, but more difficult than it looked when the draw was made in December.
Wales's strength is there's absolutely no pressure on them and they have two bone fide superstars in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, with Joe Allen underrated at Liverpool and Ashley Williams capable of playing at a higher level. There's a bit more discipline with this side too.
The Welsh weakness is a lack of a top quality striker and an over-reliance on Bale to get goals. The problem hasn't been producing top quality players, it's that we tend to produce them in one or two positions at a time and haven't had a team with a fuller complement of genuine top-drawer players since the ill-fated 1990-1994 team. If Craig Bellamy was only a year or two younger....
My gut instinct is that Wales can get out of the group and, if there's a kind draw, might be able to get to the quarter finals. It's looking like Germany in the last-16 we qualify in third place, Austria if we finish second (which is probably a better opponent than winning the group – Ukraine, Turkey, Switzerland). So second place should be the aim.
However, I don't think there's been enough preparation (due to Gareth Bale's involvement in the Champions League Final). Sadly, my head's saying Wales will go out at the group stage as Slovakia, Wales and Russia will take points off each other. England should have no problems getting out of the group (and will probably beat Wales next week), but I doubt they'll go much further.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Germany – They had a bit of tough time in qualifying (by their standards) but they usually turn up in the tournaments themselves. As reigning world champions they'll be most people's favourites I'd imagine and the squad is as strong as its ever been – though a few of the established stars : Schweinsteiger, Mertesacker, Podolski – are starting to show their age. I'd expect them to get to the semi finals at least.
France - As hosts you would expect France to do well anyway, but they'll really want to put on a show after what's been a tough 18 months in the country. They have a number of players who'll be looking to shine : Olivier Giroud, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann. They're going to be in the easier half of the last-16, so I'd expect them to be semi-finalists too.
Italy - Got to the final in 2012 and are overdue a success at European level, their last win coming in 1968. They were unbeaten in qualifying in what was a relatively hard group. They were thumped by Germany in March, but when they get their act together they always perform well at the highest level.
Portugal – Is this Cristiano Ronaldo's last serious chance at winning a European championships? They have one of the easiest paths out of the group stages, but have a fairly tough path to the final, possibly facing Belgium, England and Spain. The quality's there.
Possible Underdogs/Dark Horses
|Austria have often flopped at big tournaments, but this|
time they might cause a few surprises.
(Pic : goal.com)
Iceland – In a season which has saw Leicester City win the Premier League, Iceland will probably be the surprise team. They punch above their weight and beat the Dutch twice in qualifying and got wins against the Czechs and Turks. They can certainly get out of their group.
Switzerland – They haven't had a particularly good run of form at the moment, but on paper they have a strong squad. They're capable of performing against the big teams - and would have to take points of France in the group stages - but it depends on which Switzerland turns up.
Austria – Going through a spell similar to Wales, though with more tournament experience and better form. One of the better performers in qualifying, managing to get out of a tough group at a canter. We will have to pay close attention to how they'll do as they'll be Wales' main challengers in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Poland – They normally cave at big tournaments, but they have some top quality players established at high-ranking clubs – notably Robert Lewandowski, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Lucasz Piszczek. They flopped four years ago, but something tells me they can do something significant this time around.
Potential Flops and Whipping Boys
|Are Belgium all hype?|
(Pic : footyheadlines.com)
Belgium – Deservedly ranked as one of the best sides in the world, but as they've shown a few times - including against Wales in qualifying - they're capable of flopping hard. Perhaps the hype has got to them a little bit, but you would still expect them to get to the latter stages....and fall short.
Spain – They cruised qualifying but are a shadow of the near invincible 2008-2012 side and this is probably a last hurrah for the current generation of players. I still expect them to go far, but not win it.
England – You know the story. They'll get a few good results together, someone will establish them as "the next great hope", then they'll go out on penalties in the last-16 or quarter finals.
Republic of Ireland – They're going to get hit hard in the "Group of Death". I don't think they'll disgrace themselves, but I'd expect them to ship at least 2 goals a game.
Albania – An unknown quantity and the only reason they're there is because they were awarded a 3-0 bye against Serbia due to rioting. They did manage to pull off a shock or two in qualifying so it's not as if they don't deserve their place, but I'm expecting them to have the worst record overall....so watch them win the bloody thing.