In Focus: EURO 2016 – The ones to watch

With Euro 2016 around the corner, here’s Michael McCann’s handy guide to the key players from each of the competing nations.

Group A

France: Paul Pogba

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Pogba is an absolute beast of a midfielder, with power, pace and strength. The Juventus midfielder has established himself as one of the world’s best all-round midfielders in the last few years.

Manchester United fans must only be more gutted each week that he left Old Trafford on a free transfer in 2012.

At 23, a glittering career awaits, with regular speculation over where he might move to next. Considering he is also joined by Matuidi and Schneiderlin in midfield for Le Blues, their midfield appears one of the strongest in the competition.

Romania: Vlad Chiriches

Yes, you read that right. It is the same defender who had a failed spell at Tottenham not long ago, named as a key player for a side in Euro 2016.

Stick with me on this one though.

Chiriches was a central part of a strong defensive unit in qualifying, where the Romanians won five and drew five, and conceded just two goals. He has been a consistently strong performer for the national squad despite his difficulties at the club level in the last two years.

A first appearance at a major international finals is a different challenge for Chiriches though, and for Romania to make any impact, he will need to perform.

Albania: Taulant Xhaka

Xhaka is not even the best-known footballer in his family, often living in the shadow of younger brother, Granit.

However, Granit himself admits that Taulant is the better player, he just needs to show it now. As a brilliant twist, Taulant will face Granit in the group stages.

Taulant played all age groups inclusive from U-17 to U-21 for Switzerland but has represented the Albanian national side from 2014 onwards. Taulant made that decision on advice from Granit, who had already committed to Switzerland, and urged his brother to stick with Albania.

At club level defender Taulant has been superb for Basel in recent years as they’ve won back-to-back Swiss Super Leagues – now is his time to show it on the big stage.

Switzerland: Xherdan Shaqiri

Playmaker Shaqiri is a standout name in the Swiss line-up, despite having had a difficult season.
After joining Stoke City last summer injuries have stifled his impact on the Premier League, but his class is already proven.

Shaqiri has already had successful spells at Basel and Bayern Munich, and is lethal on set-pieces. The 24 year-old also has a healthy international goal record of 17 goals in 52 games.

It’s clear that for England to overcome the Swiss, their midfielder will have to find a way to contain the little maestro.

Group B

England: Harry Kane

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Given his rapid rise to stardom, it’s often forgotten that Kane is still only 22 years old – a relative baby in his career.

The Spurs striker announced himself with 21 goals from 34 Premier League games in 2014-2015 and 25 more this season has cemented his burgeoning reputation.

Kane already has five England goals in his first dozen games for the national side, a promising start.
Kane is part of a new generation of promising young players, including club-mates Eric Dier and Delle Ali, and Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy and John Stones.

This summer represents Kane’s first major tournament to show his pedigree at an international level. He has all the talent to make an impact as an out-an-out striker, and a system with potentially dangerous support runners, including Ali, could be the perfect for him to thrive.

Russia: Sergei Ignashevich

Ignashevich is a typical Russian centre-half – strong, tough and vocal. The defender has been a consistent performer for both CSKA Moscow and Russia for more than a decade now, racking up comfortably over a hundred appearances on the international stage.

At 36, he is susceptible to pace but has an excellent reading of the game that means he still remains a valuable asset.

Ignashevich is a natural leader for a Russian side lacking creativity, particular with the absence of Alan Dzaegoev.

Wales: Gareth Bale

A pretty easy choice with Wales, who possess the world’s most expensive player.

Don’t let that fool you into thinking Wales are a one-man team though. They’re a side with a solid spine of talented Premier League players, most notably Aaron Ramsey.

Bale is their crown jewel though, two time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, since leaving from Spurs. He is capable of turning a game on a moment of individual brilliance, with blistering pace and a finish to match it.

England’s defence still appears to be the weakest part of their squad so Bale will surely be eyeing a chance to be the difference when Wales meet their old rivals in the group stage.

Slovakia: Marek Hamsik

Hamsik is a class act.

A creator-in-chief with an eye for goal, he is comfortably Slovakia’s biggest threat. Described by Pavel Nedved as his ‘heir’ in terms of style of playing, Hamsik has scored a goal every four or five games with both Napoli and Slovakia.

Anyone who has watched Hamsik in European competitions for Napoli across recent seasons will know his capabilities.

England and Wales should be wary. Slovakia are obdurate opponents and their opponents will have to contain Hamsik.

Group C

Germany: Thomas Muller

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Muller is a versatile attacking-midfielder who can be an absolute nightmare. He has already won the FIFA World Cup in 2014, the Champions League in 2012-2013 and the Bundesliga five times, amongst a glittering array of achievements.

His goal record of 32 in 71 for Germany is outstanding, as is his ability to play either out wide, upfront or in behind, where he is at his best.

He is still only 26. Crazy considering his achievements already. Muller is brilliant at exploiting the space between the lines of midfield and defence, and his ability to arrive late in the box and finish with aplomb is particularly notable.

One of the favourite’s to be top-scorer at the tournament, he is the world champion’s biggest threat.

Ukraine: Andriy Yarmolenko

Yarmolenko is a tall forward/winger whose goal scoring exploits for both Dynamo Kyiv and Ukraine are starting to attract wider attention.

The 26 year-old already has 25 in 59 for Ukraine, and has unsurprisingly been likened to Andriy Shevchenko for his strong physique, shooting and ability to hold the ball up.

Yarmolenko has been attracting headlines for the wrong reasons too, after a brawl with international team-mate Taras Stepaneko. Far from publicly making up, animosity has continued since, so considering they may well play together it could be an interesting sub-plot.

Rumours suggest he will be moving from Kyiv soon, with a host of Premier League sides set to be involved in the bidding war.

Poland: Robert Lewandowski

At Dortmund he was superb, and since moving to rivals Bayern Munich that form has only continued.

103 Bundesliga goals across the last five seasons is an outstanding return, not to mention the 32 goals in European competitions across that time. In September last year Lewandowski scored five goals for Bayern in nine minutes against Wolfsburg.

He has rarely disappointed for his country either, currently sitting on 34 from 76 for Poland, boosted by 13 in the qualifying campaign for this tournament, a record.

At 27, he should only now be just hitting his peak years, a thought to terrify defences across the world.

Northern Ireland: Kyle Lafferty

Lafferty had an injury scare in training this week, and the outbreak of worry from Northern Ireland should tell you all you need to know.

The 28 year-old striker has pace to burn, and his six goals in qualifying where a huge factor in allowing his side to even reach this side.

Lafferty might have misunderstood the format of the EURO’s when wishing his side were drawn with Brazil in a hilarious interview, but regardless he is a talisman for his side.

Though his move to Norwich City has not worked out as planned due to a lack of playing time, leading to loan spells at Rizespor and Birmingham City, the Northern Ireland shirt brings something different out of Lafferty.

To get out of what is a hideously difficult group Northern Ireland will be looking to Lafferty for inspiration.

Group D

Spain: David Silva

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Silva is a silky and beautiful magician when a football is at his feet. The little Spaniard is just two caps short of a century for the national side, and comes into the tournament as an established star of the side.

He notched five goals in qualifying and will seek to add a third Euros title to go with his from 2008 and 2012, alongside a glittering array of silverware.

This Spanish side are rightly contenders: though possibly not quite at the heady heights they have been recently, making Silva all the more important for them.

Turkey: Arda Turan

Turan is an attacking midfielder with an eye for a pass. He is not a natural goal scorer but can run the game.

The 29 year-old was a key part of the Atletico Madrid side that shocked Barca and Real to win the 2013-2014 La Liga title.

The midfielder then joined Barcelona last summer but has had to wait five months for his debut due to the Catalans transfer ban – before helping them to win La Liga. Could that five-month break be a blessing his disguise through leaving his fresher for this tournament?

Turan already has strong experience from Euro 2008, scoring twice as Turkey finished third.

Czech Republic: Petr Cech

The only goalkeeper on my list, and that in itself says a lot.

Cech is a world-class goalkeeper who can produce saves that change games. A winner of 14 trophies with Chelsea including four Premier League titles, before leaving to Arsenal for regular football. He is an absolute class act.

For his country to make it out of a challenging group, Cech needs to have a blinder.

He has won Czech Footballer of the Year for five of the last six years: a sure-fire sign of just how important the 34 year-old is to his country.

Croatia: Luka Modric

Modric is a midfielder playmaker who is a delight to watch. The conductor of the Croatian orchestra, Modric dictates play with grace and poise.

Continuing the musical metaphor, he’s a metronome, deciding the tempo at which others around his should play.

Last season he completed over 2,000 passes for Real Madrid and offers plenty of attacking intent within that stability.

Modric will probably have his Madrid teammate Matoe Kovacic and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic ahead of him, making for a formidable Croatian midfield.

Group E

Belgium: Kevin De Bruyne

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De Bruyne is a good metaphor for much of the Belgium squad – young, talented, and establishing himself worldwide across recent years.

De Bruyne’s first time in England under Chelsea didn’t work out – but the rest is history – as the cliché goes.

At Wolfsburg De Buryne showed his talent, ending the 2014-2015 season with 10 goals and 21 assists.

A £55 million move to Manchester City followed, and a successful first season despite the team under-performing. The winger has excellent movement and can beat a defender off both shoulders, and score with both feet.

With a strong team around him, Belgians will rightly believe De Bruyne can lead their side deep into the tournament.

Italy: Graziano Pelle

Football is never played on paper and never should be, but looking at the A4, this Italian side don’t look like one of the best vintages.

Graziano Pelle appears the Italian’s goal threat though, in a campaign they will probably build on their traditionally strong defence, with Gianluigi Buffon still going strong between the posts.

Pelle is a familiar name with Premier League fans, scoring 23 goals across a successful past two seasons with Southampton.

Though by no means world-class, he is a strong frontman and comfortable playing as a lone striker, which suits the Italians system.

With Pelle out of contract next summer, Azurri manager Antonio Conte might well be wondering if the striker could be a useful addition when he takes over the reigns at Chelsea after this tournament.

Republic of Ireland: Jon Walters

Striker Walters is a solid club pro and his selfless hold up play and work-rate is important to his national side too.

The 32 year-old is currently a fitness doubt for the Republic’s opening match against Sweden due to an Achilles tendon problem.

Walters scored both goals in a 2-0 play-off victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina last November to get Ireland to this stage.

Walters also has 58 goals in all competitions across the last six years for Stoke.

Given the Irish face Belgium and Italy, who are likely to dominate possession, Walters will be important in relieving pressure on his side by holding the ball up to mount attacks. After qualifying four years ago but crashing out without winning a point in the group stage, Ireland will be desperate to improve, though they face a hideously difficult group.

Sweden: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan, Zlatan, Zlatan. Where to start.

The man, the myth, the legend. Is not signing him Arsene Wenger’s greatest regret?

An outrageously talented player who is a fascinating figure both on and off the pitch. England fans will particularly remember that overhead kick.

He has 62 goals in 113 games for Sweden and almost single-handedly dragged them into the tournament, scoring three times across their victory in the play-offs.

Ibrahmovic is a truly complete striker whose individual and team achievements are matched by very few. He managed more than a goal-a-game for the first time in his career this season, notching 51 in 50 for PSG – like a fine wine he seems to be maturing with age.

A proven talent across Europe with Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Milan and PSG after his signature Ibrahimovic looks set to link up with Jose Mourinho at Manchester United next season.

Group F

Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo

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Much like Zlatan, Christian Ronaldo is another world superstar who hardly needs introduction.
Considered to be one of the greatest players of all-time, he can win a game on his own. A three-time Ballon d’Or winner with 400 goals for top-tier club sides and Portugal, he’s pretty handy.

Portugal’s recent friendly against England at Wembley showed just how much they miss Ronaldo when he’s not around. The forward was injured, though will be fit for the start of the tournament.

Iceland: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Sigurdsson is a playmaker whose name will be familiar to English fans, having played all his football here since 2008, bar a short spell with Hoffenhiem.

Sigurdsson had a strong loan spell at Swansea in 2012, and since returning to the Liberty Stadium on a permanent deal from Spurs in 2014, has improved significantly.

The midfielder has got forward more often and significantly improved his goal ratio, currently sitting on 18 from 63 in the Premier League for the Swans.

Alongside that, he has been the star player in Iceland’s magnificent journey to get here, becoming the smallest country to ever reach a major tournament. Their population is only 330,000, the equivalent of
Wigan, but five goals from Sigurdsson helped them qualify, losing only away to Turkey and the Czech
Republic across ten matches.

Austria: David Alaba

Alaba is a full-back and midfielder who is by a distance Austria’s best and most high-profile player.
At 23, he is already an established fixture at Bayern Munich and for his country, nearing 50 caps already.

He scored four goals in Austria’s qualification, as he plays in a more advanced role than for the Bavarians. Alaba has impressive versatility, whether as a full-back, pushing further forward up the flanks or in midfield.

Alaba has already won five Bundesliga titles and the Champions League, amongst a range of honours, including Austrian Footballer of the Year on five successive occasions.

Hungary: Balazs Dzsudzsak

Hungary are considered one of, if not the least likely team to win this tournament, though to make any impact at all Dzsudzsak appears crucial.

The Hungarians finished third behind Romania and Northern ireland in qualifying, before defeating Norway in the play-offs.

Winger Dzsudzsak has won the Hungarian Footballer of the Year twice and is the most expensive Hungarian player ever, joining Dynamo Mscow for €19 million in 2012.

When Dzsudzsak scored 55 goals in 156 games with PSV from 2007-2011, including the most goals, and assists in the Eredivise in 2009, he appeared set for greater things. However, a move to Anzhi didn’t work out and despite a reasonable five years at Dynamo Moscow and recent move to Bursaspor, his career has never kicked on.

The Hungarians are in a group that, on paper at least, appears one of the less difficult, so will be hopeful of springing a surprise.

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