WITH the European football championships having just kicked off, football coach Dan Haswell gives a preview of what to expect:
Hosts France have a sparkling squad with the likes of Pogba and Griezmann but could have defensive issues. You can always tell the strength of a team by looking at their bench, and France’s may contain the likes of Payet & Coman. The last time they hosted a major tournament was World Cup 98 and that turned out to be a vintage year but the temperamental French sometimes get les bleus - we all know what happened in WC 2010 when it turned into sour grapes.
Defending champs Spain will have plenty of possession but will they have the firepower? You don’t even have to look at their bench - the players left out of their tournament squad (Martinez, Mata, Costa) is a sure indication of that. Is Iniesta still a pass master or is he now a past-it master?
Look out for the runs of attacking wide backs Alba and Juanfran, which is a new element to their tactics as they look to add a finishing touch to their possession game. They couldn’t find it at WC 2014 and the expected fiesta turned into a siesta.
Runners-up 4 years ago, Italy will want to give soon-to-be Chelsea coach Antoni Conte a parting gift. They do struggle for goals - just 16 in 10 qualifying games - but if it does turn into a defensive battle, well then Buffon may have an operatic swansong and the defence including the Juve trio of Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci will be harder to untangle than a good bowl of spaghetti.
From Neuer at the back to Muller at the frontlines and just about every player in between, the Germans have battle hardened generals. The World Cup holders are not unbeatable but if the nationalmannschaft blitzkrieg gets going, they will take some stopping.
Belgium can’t be described as big guns but they definitely can’t be classed as underdogs either. They have the most expensive squad (over 300 million POUNDS according to transfer values) and also the highest ranked team in the tournament at second in the FIFA world rankings, behind Argentina. Kevin de Bruyne is one of the as-yet unheralded stars and then they still have Courtois, Hazard, Lukaku. Losing Kompany in defence is a big loss; will they have the confidence to go from wanna-be’s to gonna-bes?
England, or “Inger-lind! Inger-lind! Inger-lind!” will be heard but will they be seen when it matters? They may have 3 Lions on their shirt but they have only one star and that’s from a major tournament win some 50 years ago. They also have one star on the pitch and will need to get the best out of him to have any chance.
Tactical inflexibility has always been their problem and they’ve been unable to get the best out of their talented club players (see: Glenn Hoddle, Matthew le Tissier, John Barnes) due to it. Hodgson has dabbled with new systems but seems unsure going into the tournament.
Portugal, with the phenomenal Cristiano Ronaldo, have to be respected for at least that reason but similarly to England, can they get the best out of him and will his team back him up? They haven’t gotten over 2004 when they weren’t wary of Greeks bearing gifts.
Ukraine only qualified via play-offs after finishing 3rd in their qualifying group but they play a neat passing game and don’t concede many goals. Names like Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko roll off the tongue and if they do well, you heard it here first.
Switzerland have had a good development program in place and this has resulted in a steady rise. Shaqiri’s hips DO lie and if they can get him enough scoring opportunities, ‘keepers will be going the wrong way.
Sweden’s fans may be fit but if they can get 10 fit players to run for Zlatan, then they have a chance of getting somewhere.
Wales (Galles in French) will be like the Gauls of the classic Asterix comics. Curiously, they have also set up team camp in Brittany. Chief Chris Coalmanix will have to find a magic potion if they are to survive. Ashley Williams will be his Obelix at the back but do they have an Asterix? Joe Allen, anyone? Hopefully they don’t Bale early because the singing will be beautiful and they will create a cacofonix.
Albania are also at the Euros for the first time and will play with patriotic pride and fervour - one of their qualifying matches was called off after a fight broke out ... on the pitch.
Northern Ireland, or Norn Iron, will probably drink the most beer per capita but anything more than that will be a shock. They may have won their qualifying group (ahead of Romania) but unless Kyle Lafferty morphs into Jamie Vardy don’t bet on it. 5000-1 teams just don’t win in football.
Iceland, population 300 000, destination unknown. Just qualifying is a major feat for a tiny nation, the smallest at the championships.
Ok, we know about Ronaldo, Muller, Lewandowski and the big stars but who could be the new ones to watch out for? (That is, put these guys in your draft fantasy teams):
Yevgen Konoplyanka (Ukraine)
Renato Sanches (Portugal)
Emre Mor (Turkey)
David Alaba (Austria)
Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland)
* Dan Haswell is an “A” licensed football coach and coaches at academy level. He is the technical director of Soccer Kids Academy in Pietermaritzburg.