The Euros always make for fantastic viewing and can often spring a surprise on football fans when they see the likes of Greece and Denmark upstaging Europe’s biggest nations to win the competition.
And with this year being the first in which the tournament shall contain 24 teams, there’s a bigger chance than ever of a ‘lesser’ nation claiming victory in France.
If qualification is anything to go by, football is indeed coming home. The only side to have currently won 100% of their games is England, taking maximum points thus far from Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino.
In qualifying for Euro 2012, just two teams won all of their games, Germany and Spain, semi-finalists and champions. In qualifying for Euro 2008, no teams took maximum points. So we’ve established England will, at the worst, be eliminated semi-finalists.
I could go on for hours about Spain and Italy being uninspiring, Mark Wilmots being clueless, Germany not having a chance because they lost to Ireland, or France and Portugal looking bang average, but Paul Doherty has already done that, so there’s no need.
Instead, lets look at who could take advantage of the many problems the bigger nations face.
First up, from qualifying Group A – Iceland and Czech Republic. Both nations are confirmed as qualified having cruised through a group featuring both Turkey and the Netherlands, impressing everyone on the way.
Their only respective defeats in the group have come against each other and both look more than capable of grinding out results, which will be important if they are to reach the latter stages.
While we’re on the topic of grinding out results, group B leaders Wales are another surprise of qualification. Any side with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey as regulars are in with a shout of qualification, but to have done so unbeaten thus far, with an incredible victory over Belgium in Wales to boot, is no mean feat.
Neither Slovakia or Poland are confirmed as qualified yet, but they have also impressed in groups they were not expected to. Both nations have just one defeat each to their names and we’ll forgive them, considering those defeats came against Spain and Germany respectively.
What should be noted is that they have also beaten those sides, so on their day they’re no pushovers.
It’s difficult to see the likes of Northern Ireland, Romania and Norway truly threatening, but I would feel bad leaving them out of this article, considering what a huge achievement it is for each of these sides to make a major competition, should they maintain their current positions in their groups.
Switzerland, Croatia, Sweden and Russia are all hovering around qualification places and all have strong potential, however, they haven’t captured the imagination in a way akin to the likes of Wales, Iceland and Slovakia.
If you’ve gotten this far without rushing off to place a bet on Slovakia to win Euro 2016, congratulations, you will be rewarded. I’m about to tell you who shall win the tournament.
They’re ranked 13th in the world, are best priced 80/1 to lift the trophy in France, have scored 16 goals in qualifying from six different scorers and are being guided by one of Bayern’s star men.
Of course I’m talking about the mighty Austria. They’ve shown a remarkable versatility in qualifying having gone unbeaten until now and an understanding of how to set up against different strength sides.
Marcel Koller’s men have battled past Russia home and away, as well as Montenegro in Vienna, while putting a combined nine goals past Liechtenstein and Sweden on their travels and concededing just three times on their journey to winning their group.
Austria are a vastly experienced squad, with plenty of players having already achieved at least 30 caps for their country, but they’re not an old squad. They can boast of very few ‘stars’, yet perform strongly as a team.
Many football fans could be forgiven for being unfamiliar with a number of the names on the team sheet – that can often mean very little. Most probably couldn’t reel off more than three names from the Zagreb team that recently humiliated Arsenal in the Champions League.
Austria are Euro 2016’s answer to the great Greece side of Otto Rehhagel, so remember this article when they are crowned champions of Europe in 10 months time.