So, the European Championships start on Friday night and of course we are all incredibly excited. A build up that has been somewhat overshadowed by terror threats, awful weather and general disbelief that 3 home nation sides will be competing will tonight turn into a passion for our countries once again as they compete for the second biggest trophy in international football. Tonight all theories start becoming wildly inaccurate, all the hyped nations begin underachieving and someone, from somewhere, will become a huge surprise. Although if you paid attention it probably wasn't too surprising...
In 2004 we were "treated" to the one true surprise this tournament has offered in the 21st Century, a dour affair that proved that football is very much just about winning. Credit to the Greeks, but no one ever wants to see that sort of underdog win again. Not that there really is any other sort of underdog. Or is there....
Croatia enter this tournament with one of the most exciting attacking line ups in the tournament and a pretty average defence. With the talents of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in central midfield they boast two of the greatest passers of the ball in the modern game, supported ably by Mateo Kovacic. Not bad if three of your starting line up won either the Champions League or the double this year. Up front, striker Mario Mandzukic has been quiet since leaving Bayern Munich but has the ability to score plenty of goals and will probably be looking to move back into the limelight with a good tournament. Ivan Perisic will be providing many of his chances, with the skilled wide-man having left a dent in Wolfsburg's attacking prowess since departing to Italy. With such an exciting attacking line up there is no reason for them to sit back and defend deep and, because they are from eastern Europe and boast very few Premier League players, everyone has forgotten they exist. I like the look of that team, I love the look of that kit and I hope they put on a show at this summer's spectacle.
My less show-stopping option for the Dark Horse category is Austria, who have quietly assembled a very useful squad. Axel explained why Julian Baumgartlinger is one to watch, but the man who made his name at Mainz will be joined by his more illustrious stars David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic in France. Alongside a couple of household names, Austria have a very impressive solidity and the squad which got them to the finals might not be world beaters but can certainly be Euro-Worriers (if I coined that I am claiming copyright). If they win it it'll be more Greece (goal stopping) than Grease (show stopping). You get the idea, I'm done with terrible jokes.
My favourites for the tournament are the hosts and, I believe, with good reason they have slipped into front-runners with the bookies too. After a reasonably barren spell they are back on home soil, somewhere they traditionally do well (hello 1998, 1984), and they will be hoping to emulate the stars of old. For Thierry Henry see Antione Griezmann, a young star who will likely go on to grace the very best teams of world football. For Marcel Desailly see Laurent Koscielny, a leader at the back with something to prove. And for Zinedine Zidane you could quite possibly see Paul Pogba, the big name star the whole world wants to court but in the end will become a Real Madrid legend. Probably. I could go further, but Oliver Giroud and David Trezeguet were next and you will never catch me blaspheming by mentioning those in the same breath (except to point out that I won't mention them in the same breath). This France team has the ability, the temperament, and the big match experience after the World Cup quarter finals, to go all the way this year. Watch them crumble in the round of 16 now after all that...
Germany and Spain will be keeping their eyes on the prize, although stories of David de Gea and associates have today blown any tranquillity in that camp, true or not. Germany are lacking that spark that they had 4 years ago in my opinion, with much of the tempo and speed taken out of the team by the ageing squad. The retirement of Klose and Lahm was untimely, the injuries to key players unfortunate and the selection of Lukas Podolski over Julian Brandt plain odd. This could be Löw's last tournament, but I'm not sure he will go out with another trophy. For Löw in Germany read del Bosque in Spain, where another European Championship could be beyond the grasp of the reigning champions. Never rule these sort of teams out, especially given Germany's uncanny ability to be incredible in nearly every tournament, but I can see this potentially being a semi final trip for both.
With this being the biggest and, oddly, the weakest field in some time it could come down to some of the lesser lights of European football to lead the way. England, Italy and Portugal have long lost their lustre of European greatness (although England are my secret tip to go a long way) so it is with an eye to the expanded competition that countries such as Poland, Belgium and Iceland look to spring a surprise. Although Belgium have a roster of talented players they are yet to really gel as a squad, much like the early noughties England team, whilst the Lewandowski inspired Poles could be ones to watch if their main man decides these are the three weeks he can be bothered for (Lewandowski has the infuriating trait of disappearing for months then scoring 300 goals in a month and winning the golden boot). Iceland could be the plucky contenders we all love to watch, with plenty of mid-range players and a country obsessed with football to please. With a weak group and some early confidence they could be the team to watch.
In all there are plenty of reasons to watch the Euros, unless you're Scottish... With the Republic and Northern Ireland, alongside Wales, all competing alongside their Lion-hearted neighbours there is sure to be national pride at stake, especially with England and Wales lining up in the same group. Everyone will be keeping an eye on Will Griggs in the hope he doesn't burst into flames, Gareth Bale will continue pretending he isn't the Welsh Ronaldo whilst secretly hoping to be considered the Welsh Ronaldo and James Milner will keep us all on the edge of our seats. Maybe.
Whichever nation you will be cheering on this summer, we wish you all the luck in the world. Unless you're playing England, in which case I hope your star player misses a crucial penalty for once instead of ours....
Enjoy the Euros!