Host French clear favorites in weak Group A
With the expanded 24-team European Championship set to kick off ton Friday in France, we will present a group-by-group breakdown of the teams this week, beginning with Group A.
Rather like 1998 World Cup-winning coach Aime Jacquet, Didier Deschamps is using a pragmatic, all-about-the-team approach to Euro 2016 as host France looks to capture its first major title since Euro 2000.
Deschamps, who captained Les Bleus in 1998 and 2000, left out Karim Benzema after the Real Madrid striker was embroiled in an alleged blackmail scandal and did not even consider Franck Ribery after the Bayern Munich forward hinted he could be willing to come back.
Defender Mamadou Sakho was not considered, either, as Deschamps would not risk losing the Liverpool player to a suspension after he was provisionally banned for failing a dope test.
France will kick off the monthlong tournament on Friday with its Group A opener against Romania before taking on Albania and Switzerland.
Even without Benzema, France is well-equipped up front with Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet, Antoine Griezmann, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Anthony Martial, as well as Bayern Munich prodigy Kingsley Coman.
While France built its 1998 World Cup success on a rock-solid defense, notably because it was lacking firepower at the other end, the current squad has a tendency to be shaky at the back.
Switzerland’s young, multicultural team is often regarded as a success story both in sporting and political terms, yet a cloud has descended over it as it heads into the Euros.
The future certainly looked bright for Switzerland two years ago when it beat Ecuador and Honduras at the World Cup and took Argentina to within a minute of a penalty shootout.
However, the Swiss seem to have lost their way since veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld retired and was replaced by Vladimir Petkovic.
The club form of many players, a perennial problem, has also dipped.
Captain Gokhan Inler was unable to force his way into the Leicester City team this season following his move from Napoli, while the form of Switzerland’s forwards, who all play in the Bundesliga, is another worry with Haris Seferovic and Admir Mehmedi both struggling for goals and Josip Drmic likely to miss the tournament through injury.
With a team ethic built on discipline plus a strong defense, Romania bears more than a passing resemblance to the Greece team which sprang out of nowhere to win Euro 2004.
While few observers expect Anghel Iordanescu’s side to emulate that success, his players’ ability to prevent other teams scoring ensures they will be one of the most difficult sides to break down in France.
Undefeated in 15 matches since June 2014, Romania kept clean sheets in 12 of those games including a goalless friendly against Spain last March.
So Group A rival France, Albania and Switzerland knows that even scoring against Romania will be an achievement when the action kicks off this week.
The problem for Romania will be at the other end and a qualifying record of 11 goals from 10 matches – including a record goal drought of 428 minutes – suggests its games will be short on goalmouth thrills.
Albania has already achieved its dream by simply qualifying for its first major tournament, and it hopes that the lack of psychological pressure in France might even take it beyond the group stage.
Seemingly the eternal also-ran, Albania had never previously reached the World Cup or European Championship and the 3-0 win over Armenia that clinched its place in Euro 2016 sparked wild scenes at home and among thousands of Albanians abroad.
Albania will play host France, Romania and Switzerland and, outgunned by rivals with more experience and international stars, no-one is setting their sights absurdly high.
All the same, Italian coach Gianni De Biasi and soccer federation chief Armando Duka harbor hopes of making it through the group stage.
In his four years as coach, De Biasi has tried various players to find the perfect combination, but though Albania plays a strong defensive game its attack lacks punch.
With those limitations in mind, Astrit Hafizi, who coached the side from 1996 to 1999, offered a more realistic appraisal of prospects.