Euro 2016 Preview - Group A: France, Albania, Romania, Switzerland
The biggest gala in European Football kicks off on the 10th of June with hosts France facing off against underdogs Romania in a Group A encounter. The quadrennial tournament, which will last a month, will feature 24 teams for the first time in its history. As a result of this expansion to 24 teams, this tournament will also feature national teams which have historically struggled to qualify for major international football tournaments, such as Albania, Northern Ireland, Wales and Iceland.
There are also some traditional European footballing superpowers such as Netherland, the Winners of the 1988 edition, and Denmark the title holders in 1992, who failed to qualify for the tournament.
With the countdown to the tournament having begun, now is the perfect opportunity to take a look at the teams and how they shape up in their respective groups, starting with Group A.
Group A – Albania, France, Romania, Switzerland
Group A features hosts France who will be looking to use the home support to their advantage as they undertake the unenviable task of becoming the first host nation in 32 years to get their hands on the Henri Delaunay Trophy. France have plenty to be hopeful of though, for it was France who were the last host nation in 1984 to win the competition.
Standing in their way are Albania, Switzerland and Romania. None of these three teams have ever made it to even the semi-finals of the competition in the past editions. The biggest challenge for France is expected to come from Switzerland, having some excellent young players in their ranks, who have already made an impact for their clubs. Romania will rely on their sturdy defence to carry them through to the knockout rounds, while Albania, the weakest team in the group on paper, will no doubt tell their detractors that the game is played on the pitch and not on paper.
Here is a more in-depth look at each of the teams in Group A.
Albania are playing their first ever major football tournament and while that is a cause for celebration in itself, in truth it's hard to see Albania celebrating much, once the tournament gets underway. Albania lack the overall quality to really make a mark in the tournament and they should be making an early exit. Their head coach Gianni De Biasi prefers to set up his team to be defensive and to play a high pressing game.
Napoli defender Elseid Hysaj, who is one of the most sought after young right-backs in Europe, is going to be key for Albania if they are to win points. Helping out in defence will be Mërgim Mavraj, who plies his trade in the Bundesliga.
In midfield Albania will rely heavily on the work rate of Taulant Xhaka, the brother of Granit Xhaka, to protect the defense. The system that Albania play requires a hard working striker to chase down long hopeful balls and in Sokol Çikalleshi they have such a striker.
Most of the squad lacks the experience that comes from playing in the top domestic leagues around Europe and while Albania will look to set out to ensure that they are tough to breakdown and score against, the squad lacks the creativity and the goalscoring threat to cause much problems for the opposition defences.
An early exit from the tournament is on the cards for Albania.
Of the four teams in Group A, France have the strongest squad, at least on paper and should advance to the knockout rounds of the tournament. Even though France will be without two of their galacticos, the injured Raphael Varane and the out of favor Karim Benzema, the French squad still boasts of plenty of stellar names. Midfielder Paul Pogba and winger Antoine Griezmann are expected to lead the way for Les Blues in this tournament.
In addition to these two star players, the 23 man squad also boasts of many English Premier League stars such as midfield general N’Golo Kante and playmaker Dimitri Payet, who besides being an excellent passer of the ball, is also a set-piece specialist. His freekicks will be worth keeping an eye on during the matches. Olivier Giroud is expected to lead the line in attack and be the main goalscoring threat, while in Hugo Lloris, France have a very reliable custodian in goal.
The hosts seem to be weaker when it comes to defence and both their fullbacks, Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra, could struggle in the speed department. Varane’s quality in the heart of defence will definitely be missed.
The squad has too much quality to not be a threat in the latter rounds of the tournament and given the home support they will enjoy, its hard not to count France among the big contenders for the title. Anything besides finishing top of the group will be considered a disappointment for France.
The qualification of Romania is proof that a team doesn’t always need star names to be successful and good old-fashioned hard work can also take help a team achieve new heights.
Even though the bulk of the squad comprises of players who play in the Romanian League, which is not considered a major European League, the defensive steel of the side is the envy of all teams around Europe. In the 10 qualification games that Romania played they let in only 2 goals.
At the centre of this defensive solidity was the pairing of Vlad Chiriches and Dragos Grigore. Chiriches is a former Tottenham Hotspur defender who now plays for Napoli, while Dragos Grigore, is a tough tackling defender who plays in Qatar for Al-Sailiya and the pair are expected to continue to partner in defense during Euro 2016.
Romania lack the quality going forward, and while they will continue to be a threat on the counter-attack, they lack the creativity in attack to really bother any world-class defense.This could prove to be their undoing in the tournament and the Tricolorii are expected to finish no higher than 3rd in the group.
However, the good news for them is that even if Romania finish 3rd, they could still qualify for the Knockout Rounds if they finish among the best four 3rd place teams.
Switzerland possess a very talented squad of players that are capable of giving most teams a run for their money. With the likes of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodríguez at their disposal the Swiss seem well stocked in the full-back department. In midfield, the Swiss have the talents of tough tackling Arsenal new boy Granit Xhaka to call upon, who should be able to provide the bite in midfield.
On the wings, Xherdan Shaqiri, possesses the pace and trickery to unlock defences and will be their chief creative outlet. The responsibility of finishing off the chances that Shaqiri creates are likely to fall on the able shoulders of Basel’s young finisher Breel Embolo, who at the tender age of 19, is already making heads turn with his pace and eye for goal.
Switzerland do seemingly lack the quality in central defence, but that is the only real weakness in their squad.
Switzerland should finish at least second in this group behind France, thereby qualifying for the knockout rounds. With a bit of luck they could even make a push to the Quarterfinals and beyond. However, given that there are teams in the tournament who possess even greater quality in their squads it’s hard to consider the Swiss as real contenders for the trophy.
Conclusion – France should qualify for the knockout stages with relative ease. Romania and Switzerland will vie for the second guaranteed knockout spot from the group, with the Rossocrociati having the edge over the Tricolorii. Albania have done well to qualify for the competition, but lack the quality to make any real impact in this group and it’s hard to see them getting among the points.