With the UEFA EURO 2016 kicking off on Friday, here’s a look at the teams from Group C featuring World Champions Germany, in-form Northern Ireland, big game performers Ukraine and tournament dark horses Poland.
Highlights – World champions Germany are the favourites to top the group followed by Poland who have been very impressive in the qualifying campaign. Having said that, Ukraine and Northern Ireland are more than capable of springing a surprise. Arsenal playmaker Mesut Ozil, Liverpool midfielder Emre Can and Bayern Munich duo Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer are some of the prominent faces that will feature in this group.
It has now become a tradition for Germany to breeze through the qualification stages, lose a couple of friendlies before a tournament and reach the semi-finals. This time around, Die Mannschaft endured a turbulent qualifying campaign and lost more than a couple of friendlies suggesting that the road won’t be too easy for them. Nevertheless, they are being considered as one of the favourites to lift the trophy on July 11th.
Jerome Boateng and Mesut Özil
Strengths: Germany under Joachim Löw have demonstrated that their biggest strength is their creativity in the final third. Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and co. are capable of finding the tightest of spaces between defenders to feed the likes of Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez. Toni Kroos and Jerome Boateng are the best playmakers in the world in their position and simply put, no other team is as capable of dominating the game from midfield as Germany do. Löw has previously experimented with a three-man backline on occasions and we could see Germany’s fluid 4-2-3-1 transform into a 3-4-3 when in possession.
Weaknesses: Defence remains a bit thin especially with Mats Hummels missing the first game against Ukraine. Liverpool FC target Jonas Hector is the only true full-back in the squad although Benedikt Höwedes, Joshua Kimmich and Emre Can are capable of deputizing. World Cup heroes Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose have not been adequately replaced and Manchester United play-maker Bastian Schweinsteiger is no longer the midfield general he once was.
Expected starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Höwedes – Hummels – Boateng – Hector – Khedira – Kroos – Müller – Özil – Draxler – Götze
On the back of a very impressive qualifying campaign in which they finished just one point shy of Germany. Poland were able to outscore every other side in the qualification stage with the help of Robert Lewandowski, who had scored 13 goals to equal the record of most goals scored in the qualifying stage. At the moment, Adam Nawalka’s side are performing better than they have ever been, in their history; calling the Poles the ‘dark horses’ of the tournament will not be an overstatement.
Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik
Strengths: Captain Lewandowski is arguably one of Europe’s best strikers and is obviously Poland’s star man. He was awarded his second top scorer award in Germany for his invaluable 30 league goals which helped Bayern Munich to the domestic double. His strike partner Arkadiusz Milik has also had a fantastic domestic campaign with Ajax (21 goals) and has shown tremendous development in the last year. Further, midfield destroyer Grzegorz Krychowiak and experienced defender Lukasz Piszczek are vital players at their clubs and are just as important to Poland’s campaign as the striker duo. Irrespective of how far they progress, Poland’s possession game and clever use of overlapping full-backs will make for some entertaining viewing.
Weaknesses: Left wing-back Maciej Rybus was impressive in qualification but will miss the tournament through injury. With no direct replacement for him in the squad, opponents could capitalize by concentrating their attacks down their right flank. Krychowiak’s midfield partner – whether Empoli’s Piotr Zielinski or Crakovia’s Bartosz Kaputska – are both inexperienced and may not replicate their club form at the top level.
Expected starting lineup (4-4-2): Szczesny – Piszczek – Glik – Pazdan – Jedrzejczyk – Krychowiak – Zielinski – Blaszczykowski – Grosicki – Milik – Lewandowski
After finishing behind Spain and Slovakia in qualification, Ukraine will hope that their campaign in France turns out better than their last one in 2012, on home soil, when they had finished bottom of their group. A typical counter-attacking side – Ukraine – are more than capable of securing a spot in the knockout phases.
Strengths: Hard working wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka provide Ukraine’s main goal threat as well as being their main creative outlet. A very experienced backline also allows them to play comfortably on the back foot as will most likely be the case against Germany and Poland. Teenagers Oleksandr Zinchenko and Viktor Kovalenko could provide some much needed pace and ideas to complement the 37 year old duo Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Vyacheslav Shevchuk’s leadership and composure.
Weaknesses: Team morale could be low as the domestic Shakhtar Donetsk – Dynamo Kiev rivalry has caused a rift in the dressing room. Taras Stepanenko, Oleksandr Kucher and Andriy Yarmolenko were all involved in a brawl in the last Ukrainian derby and sent off for unsportsmanlike conduct. Their unwillingness to make amends has soured the national team harmony. On the field, the lack of a proven goal scorer could be troubling for coach Mykhailo Fomenko as Konoplyanka, Roman Zozulya and Yevhen Seleznyov have all had erratic seasons domestically in front of goal.
Expected starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Pyatov – Fedetskiy – Khacheridi – Rakitskiy – Shevchuk – Stepanenko -Rotan – Yarmolenko – Harmash – Konoplyanka – Zozulya
As the biggest surprise in the qualifying phase, Northern Ireland topped their group ahead of Greece, Romania and Hungary to make their first appearance in a major tournament since 1986. They are also the most in-form team in Europe (unbeaten in 12 games) and the ‘minnows’ tag may suite them well in France.
Strengths: It is tough to find a player whose form for club and country vary so vastly like Kyle Lafferty. The Norwich striker has struggled in the Premier League and was subsequently loaned out, only for him to score 7 goals in qualifying and create history with his country. Lafferty will surely be the player Northern Ireland’s group rivals will look out for. Tactically, coach Michael O’Neill favours a crowded five man midfield and claims his key to success is to “outrun the opposition” which could work very well against Germany and Poland’s possession based football.
Weaknesses: A cruciate ligament injury to Chris Brunt’s will force O’Neill to field Craig Cathcart or Lee Hodson at left-back with both failing to convince in the friendlies before the tournament. Ultimately, lack of squad depth and reliance on a single system may mean a last placed finish in the group considering their opponents’ superior squads.
Expected starting lineup (4-5-1): McGovern – McLaughlin – McAuley – Evans – Cathcart – Baird – Davis – Norwood – Dallas – Ward – Lafferty