Here we stand. League football has had its nine months in the sun.
Now, it’s time to prepare for the palaver that is an international tournament. Incidentally, there are TWO major tournaments occurring semi-simultaneously.
There’s the Copa America, which we’re not too bothered about, to be honest. There’s fewer teams that set the jiggly bits afizz, and it’s being played out in ‘MERICA, which means setting 03:30 alarms to watch Brazil smash Haiti 7-1. This actually happened, by the way. On Wednesday.
The subject of this overwhelmingly thorough and expert analysis is, of course, the Euros. It’s happening in France, which is more time-zone friendly for us savvy South Africans. And there’s more teams that do the business. On paper, at least.
What we’ve done is give you a bite-sized preview of what you can expect from each team.
- Star player – Uhm…
- Player to watch – Hahaha.
- Predicted finish – Pfft.
- Star player – Paul Pogba – the darling of world football has the game at his feet. He could well be the next player to break the transfer record when he does decide that his time at Juventus is over. He combines the power of Yaya Toure and the panache of Zinedine Zidane. The sky’s the limit and he’s not far away.
- Player to watch – Dimitri Payet – West Ham’s wonder is probably the best free-kick taker in Europe at the moment, which could be crucial. He can dance, dink and jink, and is a general pleasure to behold.
- Predicted finish – Expect them to be somewhere between reaching the semis and winning the whole thing. My money’s on losing finalists.
- Star player – Vlad Chiriches – the no-nonsense centre back has a bit of Premier League experience, which is more than the rest of his teammates can say.
- Player to watch – Alexandru Chipciu – number 7, so logically, he must be the Romanian Ronaldo, right?
- Predicted finish – Whilst they’re not as torrid as popular opinion would have you believe, they’ll be one of the first teams on a plane back home.
- Star player – Granit Xhaka – The deep-lying playmaker will be relied upon to screen the defence and create chances from deep. He’s strong, possesses good vision and has a wicked left foot. The 23-year-old just completed a big-money move to Arsenal, but has a propensity to get red cards. Often.
- Player to watch – Breel Embolo – the teenager is one of the most sought-after players in Europe. Strong, fast and a natural finisher, Basel will struggle to hold on to him beyond this season, especially if he has a good tournament.
- Predicted finish – They’re a dark horse and can upset anyone on their day. Surprise quarter-finalists for me.
- Star player – Wayne Rooney – the captain has achieved everything at club level, but is the symbol of an underachieving England side. He’s capable of the subtle and the sublime but at 31, this is his last tournament as England’s best player. He needs to make it count.
- Player to watch – Harry Kane – We thought he would fail to kick on after a breakthrough season in 14/15, but he did just that. He has a lovely, uncluttered way of playing football. Needs to do it on the international stage and hopefully, he does.
- Predicted finish – Hodgson is more uninspiring than casting a Russian as the bad guy. Young team, new England, but still England. And Hodgson. Quarter-finals.
- Star player – Alexandr Kokorin – Quick in body and in mind. He’s sometimes guilty of being selfish, but Russia won’t mind if that means goals.
- Player to watch – Artem Dzyuba – a bullish striker that dominates the 18-yard box. Strong as an ox and at 6ft4, deadly in the air. A classic poacher.
- Predicted finish – Third favourites in the group. Unlikely to make the knockout rounds.
- Star player – Marek Hamsik – the mercurial CAM is Slovakia’s most talented player in a generation. Good with both feet, calm in possession and able to create or take chances, he needs to be at his best if they are to progress.
- Player to watch – Martin Skrtel – a Liverpool exit looks inevitable, as do mistakes against physical forwards. He will want to show that he can stay cool on the big stage, but at 31, doesn’t often appear as experienced as he should be.
- Predicted finish – Unfortunately, Slovakia are doomed. Cheers, guys.
- Star player – Gareth Bale – an Olympic athlete with a maestro’s touch. He can score or create from anywhere and is key to any hope Wales has to do well. He’ll be confident after securing his second Champions League trophy in three seasons.
- Player to watch – Aaron Ramsey – The running Gunner is versatile and capable, but we’re not sure what his best position is. He had an underwhelming end to the season for Arsenal. Bale is Wales’s finest player and Ramsey will want to argue that the gap is not as big as people believe.
- Predicted finish – Round of 16 – They should reach the round of 16, which will be an achievement considering this is their first major tournament in 58 years.
- Star player – Manuel Neuer – Not many players are inarguably the world’s finest in their position, but the Bayern stopper certainly is. His presence fills the outfield players with some of the confidence that he oozes. He can be the difference for Germany.
- Player to watch – Mario Gotze – THE World Cup winner is the subject of intense transfer speculation after failing to kick on during his three years at Bayern. That said, he still does the business when playing for Germany, and will want to show that he deserves to play – whether that’s at Bayern or elsewhere.
- Predicted finish – Winners.
- Northern Ireland
- Star player – Steven Davis – a solid old Premier League performer in central midfield, he’ll have to be at his best if Northern Ireland have any chance of not doing terribly.
- Player to watch – Will Grigg – the 24-year-old scored 25 goals in 40 appearances for Wigan last season. That sounds player-to-watch worthy to us.
- Predicted finish – Bye, bye.
- Star player – Robert Lewandowski – He Bayern striker is second only to Luis Suarez as the finest true 9 in football. He’s capable of scoring five in nine minutes, or staying quiet and securing the game at the death. He scores goals of all types, making him very difficult to stop.
- Player to watch – Grzegorz Krychowiak – his football is far simpler than his name. The’s tough-tackling, clean-passing CDM is a victim of playing in the most undervalued position in football. He’s the second name on the teamsheet for Poland.
- Predicted finish – Round of 16 at best.
- Star player – Yarmolenko – quick, tricky winger that possesses a mean delivery.
- Player to watch – Konoplyanka – quick, tricky winger that possesses a mean delivery, but from the other flank.
- Predicted finish – Not dissimilar to Poland’s situation. They’re fighting for second place in the group but it won’t make a huge difference either way.
- Star player – Luca Modric – The metronomic magician sets the tempo. He’s one of the most gifted playmakers in the game and can split a defence open at will. The 30-year-old is a master of the key pass and often finds himself assisting the assister. He does his share of the dirty work too.
- Player to watch – Ivan Rakitic – The central midfielder has kicked on since joining Barca from Sevilla and proven he is worthy of the club. Together with Modric, he forms a formidable midfield. Compared to his compatriot, he’s more direct, takes more shots and is potent from dead balls.
- Predicted finish – This is not a team to dismiss too quickly, but a quarter final exit looks likely.
- Czech Republic
- Star player – Petr Cech – The captain of his country and stalwart of 120 games. He’s a calming presence at the back and has won everything at club level. He’s not as unerringly reliable as he used to be, but he remains one of the world’s better keepers.
- Player to watch – Tomas Rosicky – at 36, this is his final major tournament and his last chance on the biggest stage. It’s tragic that so gifted a player has had such bad luck with injuries. He deserves a swansong of glory.
- Predicted finish – Unfortunately for Tomas, he won’t get it. The Czechs are definitely the worst team in the group. They won’t make it out the group.
- Star player – Andres Iniesta – the last major tournament that one of football’s true artists can say he’s the main man. He’s won it all, and then some. Whilst he’s no longer at the peak of his powers at 32, he remains one of the finest creative midfielders in recent history.
- Player to watch – Busquets – the most accomplished genuine holding midfielder in world football. He allows the creatives to play with the freedom they thrive on. When he plays badly, Spain don’t win.
- Predicted finish – They possess the most technically gifted squad in the world. However, they lack athleticism and physicality that will see them struggle against tournament favourites such as France and Germany. It’s a semi-final exit for us.
- Star player – Arda Turan – He’s simply world-class. Turan hasn’t featured for Barca as much as he’d have liked, but if Iniesta, Messi and Neymar are keeping you out the team, you’re alright. He’s an excellent decision maker and combines hard graft with sublime technique.
- Player to watch – Hakan Calhanoglu – the young CAM is unerring from dead balls. His shots are devastating and he’s a subtle manipulator of the ball in open play. At 22, he’s only getting better.
- Predicted finish – Croatia will edge them in the group, just.
- Star player – Eden Hazard – Chelsea’s mercurial talent remains Belgium’s best player, despite a hugely disappointing season that saw him score his first league goal in April. He will wear the armband in Kompany’s absence and has a lot to prove.
- Player to watch – Radja Nainggolan – Roma’s warrior is the only world-class player Belgium have in the engine room. He’s physical, mobile, technically gifted and has quietly become one of the world’s foremost box-to-box midfielders.
- Predicted finish – They’re ranked second in the world and have extremely exciting attackers. We’ll say semis.
- Star player – Giorgio Chiellini – Juve’s general is one of the wiliest players in the tournament; a master of the dark arts of defending. He’s strong, quick and experienced, and is key to Italy’s hopes of a successful tournament.
- Player to watch – Alessandro Florenzi – a wildcard of a wideman. He’s got pace, tidy feet and a devastating delivery. Also, he scored that goal in the Champions League against Barca.
- Predicted finish – Chelsea fans will be watching closely, but we don’t see too much joy here. The Azzurri’s lack of properly good forwards means that they’re unlikely to make it past the quarters.
- Republic of Ireland
- Star player – Shane Long – the Southampton striker has pace, work rate and an eye for goal. The first two things are guaranteed. We’ll see about the goals.
- Player to watch – Seamus Coleman – the fullback endured a disappointing season. His form from 2011-2014 has deserted him. He needs to stay cool defensively and bomb forward with meaning.
- Predicted finish – At the pub nearest to where they play their final group game.
- Star player – David Alaba – The serial winner at Bayern is versatile, finding himself playing in midfield as well as left back. Alaba is an athlete and a technician in equal measure.
- Player to watch – Zlatko Junuzovic – the dynamo has gone mostly under the radar playing in the heart of Wolfsburg’s midfield. Accomplished in most areas of the game and has stamina to burn.
- Predicted finish – They’ll get out the group, but don’t hold your breath for more than that.
- Predicted finish – As the great man Drake so eloquently phrased, Hold On, We’re Going Home.
- Star player – Cristiano Ronaldo – The prince of football continues to break records. International glory has eluded him throughout his glittering career. A truly awesome player who, at 31, is still in ridiculously good physical condition. We mostly know that because of the regularity with which he removes his shirt. He’s capable of anything and everything.
- Player to watch – Renato Sanchez – the 18-year-old midfielder has just completed a big-money move to Bayern and will be looking to justify that fee. Unclear whether he will start, but he will hope to make an impact when called upon. There’s a serious, serious player in there.
- Predicted finish – Though Ronnie would love to take his top off after scoring the fifth penalty in a final shootout, we don’t see it happening. Quarter final exit for us