There’s always at least one so-called surprise package in every international tournament. Whether it’s a World Cup or European Championships, a previously unheralded team will upset the apple cart and at the very bloody the noses of some bigger names. Think Cameroon in World Cup ’90, Croatia in ’98 or South Korea in 2002. In the Euros, the underdogs have even managed to win it a couple of times, with Denmark and Greece stunning the continent in 1992 and 2004, respectively.
With the European Championships in France just around the corner, there’s a bigger chance for the smaller teams to impress. An expanded qualification and tournament means that the likes of Albania, Iceland and Northern Ireland will get to rub shoulders with holders Spain and world champions Germany. We all know that – along with hosts France – those two are amongst the favourites (and many are whispering about England as potential dark horses), but which teams are well placed to provide a shock or two and, who knows, maybe emulate the Danes and Greeks? Here are a team from each of the groups that it’s worth keeping an eye out for.
Switzerland – Group A
The Swiss have been touted as a team due to make an impact on a tournament for a few years now, but it’s never quite worked out for them. Maybe Euro 2016 will finally be their time? Switzerland’s real strength is in the middle of the park, where Watford’s experienced Valon Behrami and new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka provide the steel and diminutive, barrel-chested schemer Xerdan Shaqiri provides the silk. In addition the hard running full backs Stephen Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez will provide plenty of threats out wide, the main problem for the Swiss will be finding someone to finish the chances. Both Haris Seferovic (the likely first choice) and Eren Derdyok are erratic, so maybe this is the chance for Basel’s quicksilver young forward Breel Embolo to make his mark on the big stage.
While France look nailed on to top Group A, Switzerland will fancy their chances of dispatching Albania and Romania. If they can get a good start, that confidence could see them arrive unexpectedly in the competition’s later stages.
Slovakia – Group B
Slovakia have already been dismissed as cannon fodder by many, but a 3-1 win over an admittedly experimental German side in a recent pre-tournament friendly shows that they are not a side to be underestimated.
Napoli’s midfielder Marek Hamsik is Slovakia’s captain and talisman, and boss Jan Kozak has finally got him playing as well for his country as he does for his club side. It could be argued that if you stop Hamsik you stop Slovakia, and while there may be a grain of truth to that there is other, less well known, talent in the team. Ex-Chelsea youth player Miroslav Stoch will provide plentiful skill out wide, and young attacking midfielder Ondrej Duda could make a name for himself. Their main issue may be up front – their squad contains only two out-and-out strikers; Adam Nemec and Michal Duris, who have only 10 international goals between them. At least one of those men will have to pull something out of the bag for Slovenia to go far, but stranger things have happened: remember how the unheralded Angelos Charisteas helped fire Greece to glory back in 2004? With pace on the flanks and Hamsik a goal threat from midfield, Slovakia will certainly do more in France than just make up the numbers.
Poland – Group C
Can you be underdogs if you can count upon one of Europe’s most fearsome and inform strikers to spearhead your team? That’s the question you can ask of Poland, who will be counting on Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski to fire them to some glory in France. Unlike Slovakia with Hamsik, they shouldn’t be too reliant on the man who may be a Real Madrid player by the tournament’s end. Lewandowski may be Poland’s most reliable source of goals but he’s far from the only one – Ajax younger Arkadiusz Milik has been making waves in the Eredivisie and plundered 21 goals last season. He already has 10 goals for his country and is likely to partner his more famous colleague up front for the Poles.
Thankfully there’s more to Poland that just the front two – commentator’s nightmare Jakub Blaszczykowski should provide pace and delivery from the flanks and Sevilla’s underrated hardman Grzegorz Krychowiak will bring plenty of bite in defensive midfield. Creativity will be supplied by a trio of youngsters; Piotr Zielinski (22), Karol Linetty (21) and Bartosz Kapustka (19), all of whom will be flying the flag for the new generation. Questions remain at the back, where Poland possess three keepers equally adept at breathtaking saves and shocking howlers in Fabianski, Szczesny and Boruc, but the firepower of Milik and Lewandowski could see Poland go far.
Croatia – Group D
Croatia’s latest generation may not match that of Prosinecki, Suker et al that shocked the watching world at France ’98, but the Balkan country is still a prodigious producer of footballing talent. Their greatest strength lies in midfield where Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic will put aside club differences to pull the strings. There’s plenty of skill elsewhere, too. Young Mateo Kovacic may struggle to get in the Real side but his lack of games might mean he’s fresh for the tournament, and goalscoring midfielder Ivan Perisic is always a threat.
At the back, Vedran Corluka and Domagoj Vida provide plenty of experience and have abilities that complement one another, while the veteran Darijo Srna and attacking full back Sime Vrsaljko will help provide a threat out wide. The man looking to benefit from the skilful midfield and delivery out wide will most likely be Juve’s Mario Mandzukic, a high-end, high-class lone forward. He has able deputies in the form of Nikola Kalinic and forgotten ex-Leicester man Andrej Kramaric. Croatia are outsiders but have quality all over the pitch and will fancy themselves even in a tough group with the Czechs, Turkey and holders Spain. If they can get their midfield clicking into gear they won’t fear anyone.
Republic of Ireland – Group E
The Ireland team may not the most skilful squad in France but there are few who will beat them when it comes to endeavour and work rate. Arguably their biggest man remains Robbie Keane, but the captain and talisman is 35 now and though he is never lacking in enthusiasm, his legs may not be up to troubling world class defenders anymore. Keane may well be used as an impact sub from the bench, with Southampton’s Shane Long starting up front.
Long’s finishing is sometimes erratic but on his day he can trouble any defender, and if ageing schemer Wes Hoolahan can create chances then Ireland could have some good days in France. They will be hoping the understated midfield duo of James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan can provide a solid base for the aforementioned Hoolahan – as well as Derby’s Jeff Hendrick and, if he can find the form he lost years ago, Aiden McGeady – to make chances. McCarthy and Whelan should also help shield a defence which might give up chances. The fullbacks, Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady, are better attacking than defending, while none of Ireland’s centrebacks should fill anyone with much confidence – first choices John O’Shea and Richard Keogh are both the wrong side of 30 with their best days behind them.
That’s not to be too pessimistic, though. In Martin O’Neill they have a wily old manager who will, at least, make his team hard to beat. They will be well organised, industrious and hard working. Opponents will underestimate them at their peril. Team spirit counts for a lot, and Ireland have that in spades.
Austria – Group F
Austria may be the only side at the finals to use a left back as their key midfielder. That isn’t a criticism, it just highlights the versatility and consistent excellence of Bayern Munich’s David Alaba. He’s the left back for the Bavarian side but plays an attacking midfield role for his country. He’s not manning the middle of the park on his own though, he’s surrounded by quality in this Austrian side. Mainz’ hard-running defensive midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger will provide graft, German-born Martin Harnik and Stoke’s Marko Arnautovic will provide skill, unpredictability and a goal threat from the flanks. Ahead of them the experienced Marc Janko will be hoping to carry a 20-goal season for FC Basel through to the summer tournament.
They look solid at the back too, with Spurs’ Kevin Wimmer, Dynamo Kyiv’s Aleksandar Dragovic and Watford’s Sebastian Prodl all competing for the two centre back spots and Christian Fuchs (the captain) set to bring the good vibes from Leicester’s title party over to France.
Austria are in a fairly simple group along with newcomers Iceland, a Hungary side likely to be amongst the poorest in the tournament and a Portugal team too reliant on a potentially unfit Cristiano Ronaldo. Not only will they be confident of qualifying, it’s not unreasonable to think they will win the group. And from there, who knows?
Who do you think will be the surprise team(s) of the tournament? Who could pull a Leicester City and shock the established order?