The European Championships are the Dark Horse tournament

By | June 9, 2016
Denmark celebrates its unlikely Euro 1992 victory

Denmark celebrates its unlikely Euro 1992 victory

According to reports at the time, some of its players were already enjoying their summer dips when Denmark was suddenly thrust into Euro 92, after Yugoslavia’s disqualification.

Generally expected to bow out in the group stage, the Danes eventually won the tournament, and cemented their place in the annals of footballing history.

Championship runs, like Denmark’s, are highly improbable.

However, over the last fourteen tournaments, the European Championships have had a greater number of different winners than any other of their continental counterparts (9 to exact). Furthermore, Euros have a knack for unearthing spunky dark horses that not only reach the semifinals and finals (think Czech Republic in 96, and Russia and Turkey in 2009), but also go on to lift the trophy, like the aforementioned Danes, and Greece in 2004.

Until Leicester City won this season’s Premier League title, Greece’s accomplishment was arguably the greatest upset in modern football.

For me, the possibility of having an outsider reach the latter stages of the tournament, and potentially lift the Henri Delaunay trophy is what has made the European Championships the most appealing of all footballing tournaments. And while we have yet to see whether it was wise to expand the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, its allure has not faded.

Critics of the expansion will readily point out that the new format has made it easier for the big guns to progress to the knockout stages. That is true, but apart from the rare slip-up, heavily favored teams tend to survive their groups, regardless. What the expanded field does offer is the prospect of more than one dark horse throwing a wrench into the plans of the established European superpowers.

And that’s something most of us will be looking forward to.

 

The Contenders

France

Les Bleus have won the last two tournaments they’ve hosted: the European Championship in 84 and the World Cup in 98. Those two teams were stacked with talent, and included two of the world’s best players, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, respectively. But their successes were certainly a testament to the importance of playing at home.

France’s current crop is equally as talented as the ones that lifted those trophies, with the only difference being that Didier Deschamps boasts an even deeper squad, with two bonafide superstars in Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann.

The hosts’ only weakness is their backline, which lost Raphael Verane to injury and Mamadou Sakho to a failed drug test. Still, with the, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi providing an inexhaustible wall ahead of it, only the best teams will breach the French defense.

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Germany

Success in France would mean that the World Cup winners would become only the third team to win a World Cup and a European Championship, back-to-back (France and Spain being the two others), and one would be a fool to bet against a team that has found terrifying consistency under Joachim Low.

With 14 World Cup winners among the 23 selected for the Euro, many of them starters, Germany’s greatest advantage is familiarity. There have been some questions about Low’s recent tactical tinkering, but it’s unlikely that the coach will deviate much from the formula we witnessed in Brazil, with a solid back-four and a defensive midfield tandem providing the foundation for Mezut Ozil, Toni Kroos, and co. to build on with their creativity.

There are questions about Germany’s full-backs, especially given Antonio Rudiger’s untimely cruciate ligament injury, as well as Philipp Lahm’s retirement from international duty. Yet, that was one of the issues brought up before the last World Cup when it became clear that Low would be employing Benedikt Howedes as a makeshift left-back, and we all know how that turned out.

 

Dark Horses

Portugal

A disastrous participation in Brazil reinforced the belief that Portugal is a team reliant upon the exploits of Europe’s best player, and hindered by a misfiring supporting cast. And to be fair, little has been done to completely dispel that notion.

Nevertheless, since taking over from Paulo Bento, Fernando Santos has reinvigorated the national team by blending experience with youth, and establishing a system that relieves some of the Ronaldo-dependency, but also emphasizes defensive cohesion.

An older Ronaldo may also be a blessing in disguise. Without the explosiveness of the past, Portugal’s talisman is less likely to try and win games on his own, and will look to defer to his teammates, more often. That will allow younger talents, such as João Mario and André Gomes, to showcase the skills that have turned them into hot commodities.

 

Croatia

Since its independence, Croatia has churned out a remarkable number of gifted players, which has inevitably led to lofty tournament expectations. Euro 2016 is no different; especially considering the team’s depth in midfield.

Plying their trade for the world’s two biggest clubs, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic form the core of the current team, but Croatia’s midfield riches don’t end there. Marcelo Brozovic is coming off a good season with Inter Milan, and asserted himself as one of the up-and-coming box-to-box midfielders in Europe. Modric’s club teammate, Mateo Kovacic, may not have won Zidane over at Real, but he’s an undisputed talent who could use the Euro  to prove he was worthy of the pricey transfer to the Champions League winners.

Along with a battle-hardened, Mario Mandzukic, leading the line, the Croatians may just have enough goals in them to get through a difficult group that includes Spain, Turkey, and a surprisingly good Czech side.

 

Flops

Belgium

Belgium’s Golden Generation has finally come of age, but the most expensive squad at Euro 2016 has yet to deliver the kinds of performances that match the hype surrounding the team.

Of course, those could come at any time. The Belgians have a formidable squad, with a number of players capable of turning a game on its head at a moment’s notice. The problem is that the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Yannick Carrasco are just as capable of being ineffectual as they are of being game changers, and one doubts whether Marc Wilmots has found a way getting the best out of his players on a consistent basis.

Vincent Kompany’s absence is also a tremendous loss. While Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen are terrific center-backs who will benefit greatly from having played a season together at Tottenham, they lack their captain’s leadership, which is essential in a big tournament.

 

England

For the first time in many a tournament, the English have reason for optimism. With most of the old guard gone – Wayne Rooney, remains – Roy Hodgson has been able to blood new talent.

Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Adama Lallana and Daniel Sturridge are only some of those who have helped transform England into the dynamic team that steamrolled through the Euro qualification campaign. But apart from Switzerland, the English faced mediocre opposition, at best.

Russia and Wales will offer a much tougher challenge that will test the physical and mental composure of England’s players. That should be a cause for concern. Hodgson has a lot of talent at his disposal, but experience is at a premium, and the burden of expectations could weigh heavily on young shoulders. It is also not hard to imagine that rash decisions could haunt England in the form of cards. I’m pretty sure you can bet money on Dele Alli seeing red.

 

Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny

 

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