Euro 2016 Preview – Who will win, who surprises, and my Pre-Tourney XI

Annnnnd we’re back. Sorry for the hiatus everyone; I know that I was dearly missed and can’t imagine the deep, dark recesses of the Internet you’ve been forced to visit in my absence. I also know that among our legions of loyal fans and readers there are at least 3 or 4 who will read a soccer post. With Euro 2016 starting today, that makes it the perfect time to make my first post in a few weeks.

First, a quick bit of background on the tournament. Euro is a national team tournament that’s set up similarly to the World Cup with an extensive qualifying process, a 3-round group stage, and a single elimination knockout stage. The differences are that it consists only of teams from Europe and only has 24 teams qualify as opposed to the World Cup’s 32. Easy enough, right? Let’s get to the fun stuff.

Who will win?

Everyone seems to think that it’ll come down to France and Germany, and for once, I agree with everyone. They are the two most talented teams and if they play anywhere near their potential then they should only lose to each other. That’s not to say there aren’t other good teams, but the two mentioned don’t have any of the lingering question marks that plague the rest of the field.

Spain is always dangerous, but is in a weird, between-generations rut and again lack a real focal point up front. Italy will be a tough out just because their defense is so damn good, but their 3 best midfielders are all hurt. Conversely, Belgium is loaded in attack and midfield but is weak at the back. Portugal has the best player in the tournament but the supporting cast, while talented, remains unproven. Even a team like England could surprise some people if they unshackle the younger generation, but they are just so awful at staying out of their own way.

The point is that none of these teams can match France or Germany for overall talent or depth. I think the Germans still maintain a slight edge over the French, if only because they’re 3 or 4 years ahead of them in their developmental cycle. German stalwarts Muller, Neuer, Boateng, Hummels, Kroos, Khedira, and Ozil are all firmly in their primes, where as French stars Pogba, Griezmann, Martial, and Coman are all under 24 and just starting to scratch the surface of their enormous potential. France do have some very good, very experienced players such as Matuidi, Evra, Lloris, and Payet in the supporting cast, but if they’re going to win the young bucks are going to have to do it for them and I’m worried that they may still be one tournament cycle away from being ready to be the best in the world.

Prediction: Germany

Should we expect any surprises?

It will be really hard to talk me into anyone besides France or Germany walking away with the trophy, but there are some nontraditional teams worth talking about that can potentially make some noise.

Austria

That’s right. Austria. You probably met this with a smirk, but let me just rattle off some of the dudes that you didn’t know were on this squad. Sebastian Prodl. Christian Fuchs. Aleksander Dragovic. Marcel Sabitzer. Marc Janko. Zlatko Junuzovic. Marko Arnautovic. Did I forget anyone? Oh yea, David fucking Alaba. More on Alaba later, but that’s a pretty decent lineup right? They also benefit from a decent draw so they should expect to be through to the knockout stage, and once you’re there anything can happen.

Poland

The Poles have a slightly more difficult road to the knockouts than these other two, but they also have something that the other two don’t: Bob Lewandowski, Attorney at Law.

Don’t get me wrong, the Poles have a solid all-around squad with players like Kuba Blazcykowkwyzcycyzsokowski, Krychowiak, Lukas Piszczek, Arkadiusz Milik, and Kamil Glik, but this opinion is based solely on the battering ram striker that’ll be leading their line. Lewandowski is one of the best goal scorers in the world, and this game is, and always has been, about getting buckets. He’s the kind of guy who can have 3 touches all game and then win it with a brace in the last 10 minutes. Not a bad guy to have in your team.

Switzerland

The Swiss got a nice draw in Group A, having only to get past Romania and Albania to advance to the knockout round. Beyond that though, they actually have a solid squad and a starting XI with a surprising amount of talent.

Lichtsteiner, Djibouti, Schar, and Rodriguez is a stout back line and Xhaka and Shaqiri will provide creativity in the midfield. If 19-year old Man United target Breel Embolo can turn this into his coming out party then the Swiss could make a nice little run.

Euro XI

GK – David De Gea – Spain

A lot of people may cry for Neuer or Buffon here, but this is neither an in-game keepy-uppy contest nor a lifetime achievement award. This is a who’s the best shot stopper in the world contest, and right now the answer is King Dave of House De Gea, First of his name, Stopper of shots, keeper of Clean Sheets, and Warden of the Posts.

Seriously, as a United fan I’ve had a first row seat to watch his development over the past 4 years from an occasional liability to a certified match winner. The man has won our Player of the Season award 3 times running. Big deal, you may argue. United have been shite these last 3 years so that’s not saying much. And while you’re not wrong, if you haven’t watched week in, week out you don’t know just how much worse it could’ve been without Dave between the sticks. We had the best defensive record in the league this season with a back 4 of Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, and a hodgepodge of Academy lads at fullback. That alone might be the biggest testament to Dave’s ability.

RB – Juanfran – Spain

“Football is like a piano: you need 8 men to carry it and 3 who can play the damn thing.”

-Abraham Lincoln

Actually this is a Bill Shankly quote (Google him) but I feel like it holds fairly true. Juanfran is one of the 8 carriers. He’s coming off another near flawless season with Atletico where he barely put a foot wrong and is one of the few high profile fullbacks who are still recognized for defense more than offense. The guy just has a knack for being in the right spot at the right time. Thunderbolt shot that the keeper can only parry? Juan will be there to clear. Bad pass in midfield where 75% of fullbacks these days would be caught out? Fran is right where he should be to break up the counter.

He’s won’t do anything that will blow you away and isn’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest, but he is really damn good at the game.

CB – Jerome Boateng – Germany

Boateng is one of those guys who will blow you away. He’s the biggest, fastest, and strongest and is arguably the best CB in world football right now. He had a relatively pedestrian season by his standards but when you watch Bayern play you can understand why. They possess the ball for 70% of the game, so for 70% of the game Boateng is just chilling, providing an outlet if necessary, switching play when required, and then BOOM!, Bayern will lose the ball and the break is on. Boateng is almost always defending on the break in 1v1 or 2v2 situations, which is a little different than a CB who gets to sit in the middle of two banks of four and clear crosses all game. I just think about it like this: if I had to pick 1 guy to defend with my life depending on it, there’s not too many people I’d pick ahead of this guy.

CB – Georgio Chiellini – Italy

It’s nearly impossible to pick just 1 of the 3 Juventus center backs that double as Italy’s spine in the national team, and Andrea Barzagli and Christian Bonucci are both more than worthy of this spot. If you asked the question of who’s the best to three different people you’d probably get three different answers, so the selection simply comes down to preference. The cop-out move would be to pick someone like Sergio Ramos or Chris Smalling, but I feel like you’d be remiss to have any kind of European All-Star team without atleast one Italian representative on the back line. Chiellini leads the group in both FIFA rating and number of times bitten by Suarez so he gets the nod. Can’t ignore stats.

LB – Ricardo Rodriguez – Switzerland

Very probably should be Jordi Alba based solely on talent, but Alba also has a reputation for being quite a cunt, and since this is my team that’s grounds for dismissal. There’s no room for cunts in this team.

Rodriguez put in another solid season as Wolfsburg’s left back and was a standout player even as the squad had a relatively disappointing campaign. He’s big, fast, disciplined at both ends of the pitch, and has a killer left foot. If the Swiss are going to make a run in this tournament Rodriguez will be a big reason why.

CDM – David Alaba – Austria

The most versatile player in the world, and still only 23. Alaba could probably be world class at any position on the pitch if he practiced it full-time. One of the guys at TheRinger.com did a great piece on him the other day that covers this pretty well, and rightfully discussed how it’s not uncommon to see Alaba as the highest man up the pitch one moment and then be the deepest defender the next. Its truly remarkable, and while there are other players who do a decent imitation, nobody looks quite so comfortable or does it quite so well as David Alaba.

CM – Luka Modric – Croatia

Modric is a metronome, one of those guys like Xavi or Scholes who dictates the tempo of the entire game. He’ll one touch a through ball on the 23rd pass of a possession, or execute some close control instead of clearing on the edge of his own box to relieve some pressure, but it always seems like he makes the right play for the moment. He won’t physically dominate a game but all the best teams have a guy like him.

CM – Paul Pogba – France

The first name on the team sheet. Although Pogba is only 22, he’s already one of the most complete, dynamic players in the game. He’s the Lebron of soccer: 6’3, 185, 12 goals, 14 assists, 3rd in Serie A in dribbles per game, 65 chances created, 3.5 tackles/interceptions per game. Even those numbers don’t do it justice though. Just feast your eyes on the future:

Again, he’s only 22. Pogba can have a game breaking impact at any time and in any area of the pitch. He’s where soccer is headed, and my only hope is that some young American lads see him over the 10 years and think, huh, that’s pretty cool, maybe I could do that. Is it too late to recruit Lebron Jr or Bryce Maximus??

LW – Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal

Ronnie is arguably entering the twilight of his career and is now deployed centrally rather than out wide, but there’s no arguing that he’s still the best player in the tournament. He contributed 55 goals and 15 assists in just 53 appearances en route to leading Madrid to another Champions League title, and totaled 16 goals and 4 assists in those 12 Champions League appearances. That’s outrageous. Whoscored.com rated him at an 8/10 for the season. There’s probably 3 or 4 guys in this tournament who could drag their team to the final and Ronaldo is definitely one of them.

ST – Robert Lewandowski – Poland

See above. Simply put, Lewandowski is the best finisher in the tournament. Zlatan might have something to say about that, but 42 goals in 52 games speaks for itself.

RW – Thomas Muller – Germany

Der Raumdeuter. The Space Interpreter. The term was coined by Muller to describe the position he plays and it’s no coincidence that it sums him up perfectly. Muller plays in and amongst the defense as well as anyone on the planet and has the uncanny ability to pop exactly when and where he’s needed. He seems to be even better when he pulls on the Nationalmannschaft shirt, with 10 World Cup goals to his name already and 32 total in 71 appearances for Germany. Keep your eye on him for the Golden Boot.

Reserves

GK – Manuel Neuer – Germany

D – Chris Smalling – England

D – Sergio Ramos – Spain

M – Radja Nainngolan – Belgium

M – Iniesta – Spain

F – Gareth Bale – Wales

F – Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Sweden

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