Ben Lyttleton attempts to answer the question of who the real Euro 2016 favourites are, in a wide-open field.
Is this one of the most open European Championships in history? The extended format gives the smaller teams greater chances of reaching the knockout rounds while the lack of one truly outstanding team means there is no obvious favourite to lift the trophy in Paris next month. Here are some varying ways to pick your favourite, based on different criteria:
Belgium's national football team midfielder Eden Hazard smiles during a press conference
Image credit: Reuters
If the FIFA rankings were totally reliable and every team beat the lower-ranked team, we would end up with Belgium, ranked behind Argentina in second in the world, as winners. But what else would happen? Here is a breakdown of the some of the more surprising results based on the FIFA rankings:
In Group A, Switzerland (ranked 15) would finish top ahead of France (17). In Group D, the under-rated Czech Republic side (32) would finish bottom. Sweden, at 35 the second-lowest ranked side in France (ahead of only Albania, 42), would finish bottom of Group E. Of the third-placed teams to make it into the knock-out round, Poland (27) and Ireland (33) would miss out.
Things get more interesting at the quarter-final stage, with Spain beating France, Portugal (8) beating England (11), Austria (10) beating Switzerland and, in the tie of the round, Belgium beating Germany (3). In a repeat of the Euro 2012 semi-final, Spain (6) would beat Portugal in one semi-final, while Belgium gets past Austria in the other semi. Belgium win the final against Spain. Could it really happen?
Based on qualifying results: England
Image credit: AFP
England were the only team to have a 100% qualifying record and so based on the qualifying campaign, would romp to victory in Paris next month. Who would be runners-up? Austria, in fact, who with nine wins and one draw were the second-best qualifiers. The only other team to win nine of their 10 games were Spain, who lost once on the way to France.
The best attack in qualifying belonged to England, who scored 31 goals in 10 games, and the best defence to Romania, who only conceded twice in a shot-shy group containing Northern Ireland, Hungary, Finland, the Faroes and Greece.
Based on recent finals: Spain
Spain ready to start title defence, Alba warns of 'difficult' group
Spanish teams have the best record of not losing finals in recent years. Taking into account the last 10 years of finals in the Champions League, Europa League and major tournaments at senior level, Spanish sides have only lost two of 13 games, and those two matches were against other Spanish teams. The all-Spanish finals were in the Europa League, in 2007 when Sevilla beat Espanyol on penalties, and in 2012, when Atletico Madrid beat Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao in Bucharest.
Spanish sides have won their last five Champions League finals – including the last three, of course – and the last two Euros finals against Germany (1-0, 2008) and Italy (4-0, 2012). The question for Spain is whether they can reach the final two. Once they get to that stage, the result seems never in doubt.
Based on game-changers from the bench: France
France's Anthony Martial (L), in action with Scotland's Callum Paterson (C) and Jack Hamilton.
Image credit: Reuters
It’s a squad game these days and a tactical shift could make all the difference. So, who has the best options in their 23-man and is not afraid to utilise them? You could argue Roy Hodgson has some in-form players like Jamie Vardy and Raheem Sterling, though as he doesn't seem to know his starting XI, or formation, it’s hard to second-guess who will be on the bench and how they will be used. Sporting Lisbon coach Jorge Jesus, a pundit for Portuguese TV during Thursday’s friendly win over Portugal, said of Hodgson: “The coach was very quiet. It seemed like he was at the opera.”
Belgium winger Yannick Carrasco-Ferreira changed the Champions League final with his introduction from the bench last week but the concern in Belgium is that Marc Wilmots lacks the savvy to make the right changes at the right time. Germany have Julian Draxler and Leroy Sane to call upon if required, and youngsters like Josh Kimmich and Julian Weigl point to a bright future. But for sheer talent on the bench, it’s hard to look beyond the hosts France. With Dmitri Payet likely to start up front, no defence will want to see Anthony Martial or Kinglsey Coman coming off the bench for the last half-hour. The young pair have been compared to Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, who started the 1998 World Cup on the bench and ended up scoring crucial penalties in the quarter-final win over Italy.
Based on the final going to penalties: Czech Republic
Russia's Oleg Ivanov and Czech Republic's Tomas Rosicky in action
Image credit: Reuters
You’d imagine Germany would be the favourites for this title, but West Germany lost one shoot-out in their history: against Czechoslovakia in the 1976 final. That was when Antonin Panenka won the trophy with the delicate chip down the centre of goal; showing strikers that kicking down the middle was a third option to select, and giving goalkeepers an extra fear of humiliation. No German team has ever lost on spot-kicks since, but also forgotten is the Czechs’ sensational record from 12 yards. They have won their two subsequent shoot-outs – beating Italy 9-8 in the 1980 Euros’ third-place play-off and France 6-5 in the Euro 96 semi-final. Not only have the Czechs won three out of three, they have also scored all 20 penalties they have taken, a 100% record that knocks Germany’s 93% record into touch.
Based on experience: Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill before the game
Image credit: Reuters
The average age of the Ireland squad in France is older than any other team: 28 years and 10 months, pipping Russia by six months. Interestingly, England’s is the youngest at 25 and 10 months. When it comes to average number of caps per player, Ireland come a narrow second, with 42 caps, just below Spain’s average of 42.6 caps. England’s 23.2 is greater only than Romania and Albania.
Based on coach’s salary: England
Image credit: PA Sport
This one is difficult to verify although two publications, France Football and Finance Football, have both alleged that Roy Hodgson will be the highest-paid coach on duty in France. France Football suggests that Germany’s Joachim Low is the second-highest paid, while Finance goes for Antonio Conte, with Turkey’s Fatih Terim in third.
If it was down to players’ earnings, then there would be a clear winner: Portugal, courtesy of the €67 million (£53m) that Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly earned last year. According to France Football, that puts him way ahead of the next European players in France, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (€28m) and Gareth Bale (€25m). How about a Portugal-Sweden-Wales 1-2-3? Now that really would be a surprise…