International football in Europe has seen much change within recent years. Below Germany a power vacuum has opened up. Cast your mind back to the European Championships of 2012 and there was clear ladder of power for the countries of Europe.
England, a good team were knocked out by a very good one in the shape of Italy, despite only winning on penalties there was a gulf in class between the two teams.
This contrast was most evident in a comparison between two central midfield players. Scott Parker, at best a good player, trying and miserably failing to stifle Italy’s star man Andrea Pirlo, who simply oozed class.
The gap in quality between the two midfield players almost represented the gap between the two national sides themselves. Italy would go to the final, but only for European international football to give another example of the then power ladder.
Italy were not beaten by Spain, they were completely dismantled. Andrea Pirlo who everyone from the locals in the pubs to pundits on the television had rightly raved about was non-existent as Spain’s midfield simply dominated the game, helping them to a convincing four nil win.
Spain had taught Italy a footballing lesson just like the Italians themselves had done to England a week earlier. Two examples of games that represented the power ladder that existed at the time, but that was then, much has changed.
Out of the four semi-finalists of Euro 2012 only Germany would make it past the group stages of the 2014 World Cup. As the Spanish empire crumbled in Brazil it would be Germany who would rise to claim the crown.
As world champions, Germany now sit at the top of the international footballing table. While they will of course be the favourites next summer for the European Championships, Germany have not had it all plane sailing since winning in Brazil.
Philip Lahm, Per Mertesacker and prolific goal scorer Miroslav Klose all retired soon after the World Cup. Three players who had once been at the core of their national side for years were no longer present. The jury is still out to see if the retirement of these three key players will have an effect on the German side.
Since they triumphed in Brazil, Germany have produced a mixture of performances and results. Lack lustre performances in friendlies against USA and Australia have resulted in a loss and draw respectively while they also loss to Argentina in Berlin (granted they are friendlies) not too long after they had beaten the Argentineans in the World Cup final.
In addition, they started the qualifying stages for the European Championships poorly with a two nil defeat in Poland, a scrappy win at home against Scotland and a draw at home against Ireland.
Yet they also managed to beat Spain in a friendly back in November last year and have managed to get their qualification back on track with a 100% record since that draw at home to Ireland.
Germany haven’t been fantastic nor awful in recent months, simply fairly professional (like they are always are) in getting the results they needed.
Winning a trophy in international football is hard, winning back to back trophies is even harder, whether this German side can do that seems questionable at this stage but I am sure I will look back at this article with embarrassment next summer as my television is filled with images of Bastian Schweinsteiger lifting the European trophy.
What may give any German fan hope of their side being victorious next summer is a gaze down the hierarchy of the other European nations. Spain will no doubt be one of bookies favourites once more.
However, the aura of invincibility that Spain had from 2008 to 2012/2013 is no longer there. Quite simply, as holders they had a disastrous tournament in Brazil.
Not getting out of a group is poor for any big footballing nation, but for one that dominated international football to fall so quickly was both shocking and revealing.
It showed that no one is immortal in sport, especially in football. Since the summer of 2014 Spain have been rebuilding and in the main they seem to be doing a good job. Other than a loss away in Slovakia Spain have won every other game in qualifying.
Yet a closer look at their games, both qualifying and friendly games Spain have been a somewhat flat track bully. They dispose of the lesser national sides with ease but when a bigger power is in town they crumble. They lost all three games against France, Netherlands and Germany.
The Spanish national side are haunted by a problem that can destabilise any good footballing team; a lack of a goal scorer. Diego Costa has struggled to fill the boots of David Villa and can’t replicate his domestic form on the international stage.
One goal in nine games reveals Costa’s struggles on the International scene. If Spain continue to struggle to score goals and not turn up against the other titans of European football they will not be triumphant in France next year.
Spain’s neighbours Portugal have also struggled in the goal scoring department. Since the World Cup Portugal have only scored more than one goal in a game twice and they were against Armenia and Serbia.
While a certain Portuguese number seven seems inconsistent at times in a red shirt of Portugal, a hat-trick against Armenia while in other games he seems isolated and has little effect on the game.
Inconsistency is not just a characteristic of Cristiano Ronaldo. The team itself goes from losing at home to the low ranking Cape Verde to beating Italy three months later on neutral ground.
If Ronaldo plays to his ability and the team itself finds a way to score more goals, Portugal will be a threat, if not, they will simply be brushed aside by better footballing teams.
Inconsistency seems a notable characteristic of France as well. In 2015, losses to Belgium, Brazil and Albania have come along with wins against Portugal, Denmark and Serbia.
The difference between France and any other nation is that France have only played friendlies, so their results are the hardest to judge their performances by.
The French team’s performances will be most influenced by one factor more than any other; how they can deal with the huge pressure of being the home nation.
If they utilize their home advantage through performances, they could turn their fans support into giving them huge momentum and confidence. While if they crumble under the pressure of being the hosts, their tournament could turn into a disaster.
Two other international footballing powerhouses, Italy and England seem to be sides with the same problem; a lack of quality. Italy, other than one game against Portugal have been unbeaten for a long run of games, while England have been even better, winning all eight of their qualifying games.
Yet, when England came up against a team of better quality than the ones in their qualifying group they played out to a miserable draw against Italy. Their opponents Italy were not much better in the game. In addition, Italy lost their only other game against quality opposition in the form of Portugal.
It will be interesting to see in the coming months whether both national sides can play and win against the better sides around Europe. Essentially, it’s questionable whether both teams have enough quality especially in the attacking positions/areas to win against the better teams on the continent.
Both look set to qualify, but utilizing all the quality they do possess at the actual tournament next summer will determine how well they do.
A lack of quality is not a problem for Belgium. Some will call them their dark horse, they are not a dark horse. In fact the opposite, they have a star studded team and are now a serious international powerhouse.
Yet, watching Belgium remind me on a lesser scale of the Galácticos team of Real Madrid between 2003 and 2006, a team full of individual talent but struggled to play as a team.
The same seems to true of the current Belgium side, full of ability but struggle to play together in a formation that suits all their quality. This will restrict the success Belgium will have, they must address it and address it fast.
All the big sides have had their issues. However, none like Netherlands who look like they won’t even be present in France. That must hurt for the Dutch fans considering they are the masters of total football and the pain of not being present at a tournament being held geographically next door to them.
The Dutch national side have numerous problems; a lack of top class defenders, star players not playing to their potential, no identity as a team, poor home form and generally a team who have not played good enough against sides they should be beating. Average is not a term used to describe many Dutch sides in the past, but it can be associated with this one.
It looks like the Orange Army won’t be at France next summer; of course they could still turn it around, but whether they qualify or not the Dutch represent more than any how there is a power vacuum opening up in Europe, semi-finalists at the last World Cup, now struggling to even make it to the European Championships, quite a fall from grace.
I will probably look back at this article next summer with a sigh in a realisation that one of the usual powerhouses mentioned above reigns victorious in France, after all I am only making assessments on qualifying and friendly games. Most probably it will be one of Germany, Spain and Italy who will win the tournament next summer.
Yet the qualifying stages so far as well as numerous friendlies have indicated the European championships next summer could be the most open yet, maybe even England have a chance, actually apologies that’s a step too far.