With the domestic season coming to a close across Europe, attention and anticipation is beginning to turn to the upcoming European Championship in France.

The tournament, which takes place every four years, will commence on 10 June in the Stade de France, as the host nation take on Romania.

Didier Deschamps’s side are the current favourites to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy when the competition closes on 10 July. Other fancied teams include reigning champions Spain, World Cup winners Germany and the usual cast of established footballing nations like Italy, Belgium and England.

This year’s incarnation of the tournament will, for the first time, feature an expanded cast of 24 nations, opposed to the usual 16. This has meant that some countries who usually fall in the qualifying stage, will now be represented in the finals.

The greater number of teams means that there is added potential for some giant-killing upsets. And aside from the odd freak result that often occurs during knockout competitions, there are a few teams who could be considered dark horses, with the potential to go further than many would expect.


This Austria side is one built on solidity. Having qualified unbeaten (nine wins and one draw) and top of a group which included Russia, Sweden and Montenegro, Marcel Koller’s men conceded only three goals.

Despite still being only 23-years-old, Bayern Munich player David Alaba has already amassed 42 caps for the Austrian national side. The Vienna-born star is undoubtedly Austria’s key man. Despite playing as a left-back with his club – and being perhaps the best player in the world in that position – Koller has utilised Alaba in the centre of midfield. This has proven to be a shrewd move, as Alaba possesses all of the requisite technical ability to operate as a midfielder, and his energy and experience has driven Austria to Euro 2016 qualification.

Ahead of Alaba, the main creative force of Koller’s side is Werder Bremen playmaker Zlatko Junuzović. The 28-year-old former Austria Wien player acts as the main supply-line to FC Basel forward Marko Janko, who was his nation’s top scorer in qualifying with seven goals.

Austria’s Group F opponents Portugal, Iceland and Hungary should provide little resistance to their progression to the knockout stages, at which point they will be a side no one will relish facing.


Chris Coleman’s Wales side is designed with the express intention of squeezing every last drop of productivity from their star man, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale.

Although the Welsh Dragons can rely on the likes of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Swansea City’s Ashley Williams to add quality and experience, Bale is their not-so-secret weapon.

The 26-year-old former Tottenham Hotspur player, since progressing from left-back in his early career, has largely been a winger at club level for some time now. But Coleman has constructed a system which gives Bale licence to roam, finding space and causing damage wherever he sees fit.

And the move has been an unqualified success, as Bale netted seven goals during qualification to fire Wales to their first major tournament since 1958.

In their group, Wales will face off against England Russia and Slovakia. Despite having the competitions fourth favourites England to contend with, this Welsh side, powered by the irrepressible Bale, will fancy their chances.


Poland boast the top scorer through all of qualification among their ranks, and arguably the deadliest marksman on the planet. Bayern Munich’s 27-year-old striker Robert Lewandowski is set to take the European Championship by storm this summer, coming off the back of the most productive season of his career.

The former Borussia Dortmund striker has (at the time of writing) scored 41 times in 49 games this season. Lewandowski is the complete striker: he’s fast, moves intelligently, heads well, can sniff out tap-ins and score from any angle.

Backed up by the likes of Dortmund pair Jakub Błaszczykowski (who spent this season on loan at Fiorentina), Łukasz Piszczek and Sevilla’s sought after defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, Lewandowski can rely on a strong supporting cast.

Having progressed from what was widely considered the toughest of all the qualifying groups (their opponents included world champions Germany, Scotland and Ireland), Poland will be unafraid of their Group C rivals in the finals. They will again face Germany, as well as Northern Ireland and Ukraine. A difficult task, but with Bayern’s number 9 up front, Poland will be confident that they can score against anyone.

About the author – Ryan Baldi

Ryan is a Midlands based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 years old whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ printed on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications. Ryan’s musings on European football can be found here.

twitter: @RyanBaldiEFB


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Identity is underrated in football, but style is revered. However, style comes directly from the identity of a team, which can come in two forms – formation and player type. Over the years so many successful teams have had a strong identity coupled with a unique style of play, stemming from a good relationship between the formation and players used within it. In short, think of Barcelona from 2009-2011.

Identity is the nitty-gritty aspects of the game. Drills, formation training, the thinking behind how quickly opponents should be shut down, who to mark at set pieces – zonal or man mark? The basics that come with identity allow for style – the tricks and flicks.

That Barcelona team had a formation that was implemented and perfected over a number of years under Rijkaard and to a more prominent extent, Guardiola. Guardiola in particular was especially good at identifying the correct style of player to use in his formation. A simple square peg, square hole philosophy. Over time, Barcelona grew an identity that was desired by clubs worldwide; their high pressing, quick passing, through the lines football was quite simply breathtaking. No club side has come close to emulating the Catalans so far.

In South America, we’ll include Mexico for now, international teams are steeped in tradition. Managers will come and go on a regular basis, but formation and player type will almost always remain. Chile and Mexico are prime examples of sides who have used the same formations for a number of years and as such have claimed success in recent times. Using the 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 systems, each team built on their impressive World Cup appearances with silverware over the summer.

Chile have been particularly impressive and under Marcelo Bielsa disciple Jorge Sampaoli have really pushed on in the last two years, culminating in Copa America success this summer. Their style is derived from a formation that concentrates on utilising the players to the best of their ability. Although they rely heavily on Sanchez, Vidal and Vargas as a collective they are a force to be reckoned with and their defeat of Australia in the World Cup demonstrated how Chile can turn on the style at the drop of a hat. Their high pressure game draws similarities with Barcelona, but the style is wholly different as their ball retention is a slower and a lot less methodical. It can be argued that with their 2-0 victory over Brazil in the opening stages of CONMEBOL qualifying that Chile are now the strongest force in South America, in a formation and philosophy they have implemented over a number of years.

Mexico have also been under long-term guidance but this has changed in very recent times, since Miguel Herrera was removed from the hot seat after punching a reporter post their Gold Cup win. El Tri were desperately unlucky to lose to a resurgent Netherlands in the last 16 of the World Cup, but their electric style won them many fans. However, after Herrera’s dismissal Mexico have struggled for form, mainly due to a change in formation. Ricardo Ferretti is current caretaker boss and his orthodox 4-4-2 style is not suited to his squad, as a result Mexico suffered a humiliating draw with Trinidad and Tobago. With a crucial play off against the USA for the final Conferations Cup spot just around the corner it is almost certain that they will revert back to their traditional 5-3-2.

In Europe, things are starting to change. Long term philosophy was not necessarily the key for a number of sides, rather trying to fit players into formations that they were not suited to. However, Wales have taken the first steps to implementing a long-term identity by changing their formation to suit a squad, that outside of Bale and Ramsey, is really quite limited. Their adaptation of the 3-5-2 has come with a ‘hint of World Cup 2014′, as their use of wing-backs echoes the playing styles of Mexico, Chile and the Netherlands in the tournament. As such, their defensive record has improved massively, as two goals conceded in seven goals certainly suggests. Players such as Jazz Richard (full-back), Joe Ledley and of course Gareth Bale have particularly impressed over Wales’ outstanding qualifying campaign.

The Netherlands, have gone in a completely opposite direction. The team that impressed so greatly in the World Cup has been dismantled and reverted back to a 4-3-3 that simply no longer suits them or the player pool available to Danny Blind. It is noticeable that Blind is well out of his depth at this level.

Success almost always comes from long-term processes that are put in place, continuity between formations and playing style is wholly undervalued. Smaller teams are starting to adapt to long-term strategies and are achieving success, thus closing the gap in world football. Until big teams adapt this strategy, there will continue to be upsets.

About the Author – Ben Jarman

Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.

Twitter: @sonikkicks


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A hat-trick from a widely unknown 17-year-old in the semi-final with France was followed by a brace in the final against hosts Sweden. The year was 1958, with the teenager in question inspiring Brazil to their first ever World Cup and kick-starting a spell of dominance that would see the Selecao triumph in two of the next three editions of football’s biggest tournament.

Things could have been very different, though: Pele, the young striker who wowed the watching public that summer in Scandinavia, went on to establish himself as one of the greatest footballers to have ever played the game, but even the man himself later acknowledged that his winning goal in the narrow 1-0 win over Wales in the first knockout round game was the most important he ever scored. Having begun the tournament sidelined with a knee injury, that strike guaranteed Pele’s place in the team for the encounters with France and Sweden that did so much for his personal profile.

A man of the Brazilian’s extraordinary talent would surely have made his mark at some point in the future anyway, but it is interesting that Pele highlights the clash with Wales as integral to the magnificent career he went on to have.

“It was a difficult game but I have good memories as I scored the goal that took Brazil to the semi-finals and, eventually, led us to win the Cup,” he later said. “That goal gave me confidence. Wales marked very tightly at the back and I remember getting the ball, turning and squeezing it into the corner of the net. I consider it the most important goal I’ve ever scored – it gave me the confidence to continue my career.”

On the other side of the coin, Wales were somewhat unfortunate to lose. John Charles, the legendary former Leeds United, Juventus and Cardiff City striker, was missing through injury, with many of his team-mates believing that the presence of the burly frontman could have made the difference. 57 years on, Wales have yet to appear in another major international tournament.

All of that could be about to change, however: Chris Coleman’s side, who lead Group B in qualification for next summer’s European Championship in France, require just a single point from their final two games with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Andorra to reach the competition proper.

It has been a truly fantastic campaign for the Welsh. Critics of the expansion of the Euros from 16 teams to 24 have argued that the inclusion of eight more sides will lead to a dilution in quality as smaller nations sneak in through the back door; Wales, though, currently top their group and would therefore be on course to qualify under the old format too.

Gareth Bale has clearly been pivotal to their progress – Wales are now ranked eighth in the world after finding themselves in 117th place in 2011 – but labelling them a one-man team is harsh. Indeed, the fact that Coleman’s charges have kept five consecutive clean sheets and conceded no goals from open play in eight matches is evidence of their terrific defensive organisation and commitment, while the former Fulham and Real Sociedad boss also deserves praise for finding a system and approach that gets the best out of the Real Madrid star – after all, despite Ryan Giggs’ exploits at the highest level for Manchester United, his country were never able to successfully build a competitive team around him.

Wales are almost certain to reach Euro 2016 given that Andorra await next Tuesday, but the Dragons will be desperate to confirm their qualification as soon as possible with a draw against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday.

The whole of Wales will be watching the drama unfold in Sarajevo, hoping that their nation completes what would be a remarkable accomplishment. Somewhere in Brazil, maybe even Pele will be following the action with interest.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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