Time for the next team profile, and this time I’m looking at the hosts, France.

It’s been 18 years since France hosted (and won) the 1998 World Cup, and 16 years since they triumphed at Euro 2000. Since then, they have been decidedly up and down with their tournament form. In 2002 they crashed out of the World Cup at the group stage, something they would repeat in 2010, but in-between they would reach the 2006 World Cup final, and they were quarter-finalists in Brazil in 2014.

The last time the French hosted the Euros (in 1984) they won it, whilst since their last success they have been quarter-finalists in 2004, out at the group stage in 2008 and out in the quarter finals again in 2012. All of this adds up to France being hard to predict.

Key Players

Much has been made of Juventus star Paul Pogba, who has become a highly rated and sought after midfielder. He is skillful and capable of scoring goals, whilst alongside him could be West Ham’s Dimitri Payet, who has been a revelation this season (as well as something of a dead ball specialist). Patrice Evra (also of Juventus) is an experienced defender whilst Karim Benzema is an accomplished goal scorer for Real Madrid. Joining him upfront could be Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud, though Manchester United youngster Anthony Martial has been quite good this season and might get an opportunity.

It would be fair to say that this French side doesn’t stand out in the way previous teams have. They once had the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and of course Zinedine Zidane in their ranks (to name but a few). I can’t help but think this French side is still developing, and therefore winning the tournament may be a step beyond them. They will be in the latter stages, but they won’t win it.

After what feels like a long, drawn out past few weeks, where Leicester City have sat on the edge of unprecedented glory, the Premier League title finally ended up at the King Power Stadium, following a bad-tempered 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Spurs at Stamford Bridge.

Riyad-Mahrez-Jamie-Vardy(Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy have been instrumental in Leicester’s title success)

No one expected this of the Foxes. After a narrow escape from relegation last season, Leicester appointed Claudio Ranieri to try and ensure they would survive in the Premier League a little longer, but the bookies believed he would be the first manager to be sacked. The odds of Leicester City winning the title? 5000 to 1. So, to win the title in those circumstances is beyond any words I can find to describe.

Their squad cost a fraction of the teams around them, yet for all their star players, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool all lacked the cohesion and spirit that Leicester have had in droves. Watching the celebrations among the Leicester players, it was clear this was a triumph of hard work and togetherness, on a level not seen in other squads.

Every week, they were expected to drop points. The so-called experts predicted they’d start to fall away as the season wore on. Every week, they defied expectations to keep on winning, and the occasional setback did nothing except provide a platform for them to bounce off.

Ranieri, often doubted, showed he could switch things around tactically, with Leicester winning matches via pacey, blitzkrieg football, via battling back when behind, and grinding out results. Different sides to their game – and their ability to win even when key players weren’t firing on all cylinders – underpinned their understanding as a team.

Leicester offer Hope

In an era where football is dominated by big money and big egos, the sight of Leicester marching on quickly caught the imagination of the public. It’s all too easy to be cynical about life in general (let alone football), so the Foxes were a breath of fresh air. From their likeable and charming manager, to the stature of the club, their turnaround from last season and even the stories of their players, Leicester have been remarkable.

In the end, every neutral was rooting for them, whilst even fans of other clubs fighting for the title won’t begrudge what Leicester have achieved. It sends a message to other players and clubs that the so-called ‘elite’ is not invincible, and that money cannot guarantee success. It emphasises the value of hard work and teamwork, something football needed to see.

What happens next?

To be honest, this question can wait. It will pop up in the coming days and weeks, but for this moment Leicester and their fans should enjoy this. They are champions, and no one can ever take that away from them.

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27 years ago 96 people who went to a football match at Hillsborough never came home. Today, after years of lies, a jury in Warrington, Cheshire concluded that those who died were unlawfully killed through the negligence and errors in police planning and responses (among other factors). The fans were completely exonerated, ruining the Sun’s regurgitation of lies spread by Yorkshire Police shortly after the tragedy.

It’s about time. The web of lies that spread after the disaster may have involved the government of the time, and is certainly a low point in the integrity of the British press. Now the truth is known, I hope the families of the lost can know some peace.

You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Having just watched Spurs draw 1-1 at home to West Brom in a game they needed to win to keep pressure on Leicester, I sit here knowing the Foxes are just one win away from the most unlikely title win in the history of the English game. From narrowly avoiding relegation last season, to being on the brink of Premier League champions the next, is virtually unheard of, especially in an era where wealthy clubs tend to monopolise trophies. Leicester could clinch the title next Sunday if they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford – it won’t be easy (Utd have improved in recent weeks and are still fighting to qualify for the Champions League), but Leicester have defied expectations all season, and with the finish line now tantalisingly close, they are bound to give it everything they’ve got to get over that mark.

Truly incredible.

Having just watched Leicester City thrash Swansea 4-0 to reopen an eight point lead at the top of the Premier League table (Spurs host West Brom tomorrow), I can only continue to marvel at a season that has defied convention almost every step of the way.

Leicester are already guaranteed Champions League football next season – this time last season they were fighting to avoid relegation. Their transformation is the most meteoric surge upwards that I can think of in any sport, and Claudio Ranieri deserves every bit of credit and praise that comes his way for overseeing this incredible journey. His side are now at the stage where they need five points from their last three games to clinch the title – assuming Spurs win every one of their remaining games. Should Tottenham fail to beat West Brom on Monday, a Leicester win at Manchester United would see them crowned champions (what an atmosphere that game would have).

Tottenham themselves would be worthy champions in their own right, and with Harry Kane blasting in the goals and Dele Ali proving to be a dynamic dynamo in midfield, they have played very well all season. The prospect of finishing above hated local rivals Arsenal for the first time in 22 years would be powerful motivation enough, but they are not out of the title fight yet (indeed, they are realistically the only ones who can stop Leicester). In any other season, they’d be roared on by most neutrals, given the style of football they’ve played.

Arsenal slipped up yet again at Sunderland, outplaying the home side in the first half but lacking the composure to score, whilst in the second half they were very much under the cosh, and might be grateful for the point they got. The possibility of missing out on Champions League football still very much exists for Wenger’s men; they need to sharpen up quickly if they are to avoid not only seeing Spurs finish above them, but also missing out on Europe’s premier competition.

So, will Leicester hold their nerve? Can Spurs catch them? Will Manchester United yet snatch a top four place? And who will join Aston Villa in the Championship next season?

Another week, another set of results in the Premier League and beyond that keeps alive a season that lost any sense of normality months ago.

Firstly, Aston Villa waved goodbye to their top-flight status as they went down 1-0 at Old Trafford, unable to muster any real fight as their inevitable relegation was confirmed – a thumping 3-0 win for Sunderland at fellow strugglers Norwich had given them a brief stay of execution (and also puts Sunderland right back in the mix for survival), but Villa have been woeful all season, and there are serious doubts they’ll survive in the Championship, much less bounce back.

Manchester United briefly closed the gap on Manchester City in the battle for fourth place, but City won emphatically at Chelsea (thanks to an Aguero hat-trick), and after Arsenal could only draw at home against Palace, City are now pushing for third.

Liverpool, fresh from their exhilerating win over Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League, might have been forgiven for lacking energy in their trip to Bournemouth, but goals from Firmino and Sturridge mean Liverpool have won 5 of their last 7 Premier League games, keeping them with an outside chance of a top four finish.

They were aided in their quest by West Ham failing to win at Leicester – though the Hammers did put a dent in the Foxes’ title challenge, after a 2-2 draw that saw some questionable referee decisions draw ire from both sets of fans. If Spurs should win at Stoke on Monday, they will reduce Leicester’s advantage to five points, setting up a nervy finish.

Elsewhere, previously runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona crashed to a third straight league defeat (having also gone out of the Champions League in that time), to find themselves level on points with Atlético Madrid and only one point of Real Madrid. Everywhere we look, football throws up surprises, and this season has seen more than most, with talking points that will occupy us for years to come – and we haven’t gotten to Euro 2016 yet!

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Spain have a strong recent history in international football, with success coming their way at Euro 08, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. The reigning champions of Europe could well be expected to put on a good show in France, but they are not automatically assured of doing so – not if the previous World Cup is anything to go by.

Spain went out of Brazil 2014 following a 5-1 hammering in their opening game against Holland, and a 2-0 defeat to Chile in their next fixture, which left them unable to get out of the group stages. For a team that brims with experience and talent, this was a horror story, and two years on, they will be anxious to avoid a repeat.

So, who will Spain look at to deliver the goods?

In goal they boast one of the most experienced and highly rated ‘keepers in the world – Iker Casillas. At the time of writing this he has 166 caps for his country, and is also the captain. A veteran of Real Madrid (having left to join Porto at the start of this season), Casillas brims with an understanding of the game at the highest level.

His chief understudy is David De Gea, currently at Manchester United and admired by Real. De Gea has often been the vital difference for an indifferent United and whilst he only has 8 caps, it’s inevitable that he will earn more.

Defensively Spain once again possess a lot of experience. Sergio Ramos has 131 caps, whilst Gerard Piqué has played 76 times for his country, and Jordi Alba has featured 42 times. A number of players have earned caps as Spain seek to broaden their pool of players with international experience, but these three are likely to be the key ones in their back line at the Euros.

It’s in midfield though, that Spain have an embarrassment of riches. Players like Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fàbregas (all Barcelona players) and David Silva all have over eighty caps at least, with Fàbregas and Iniesta both with over 100 caps. Their experience – especially playing alongside one another at club level – has given Spain an invaluable platform of creative talent and midfield strength – there are also players like Juan Mata, Koke and Isco, who are all getting more experience all the time.

Up front, Spain have struggled. Their World Cup success in 2010 was built on a number of 1-0 wins that didn’t really see much attacking intent from their strikers, with notable hot and cold forwards like Diego Costa and Fernando Torres failing to deliver. Pedro has scored 16 times in 56 games – not an especially spectacular strike rate – Valencia youngster Paco Alcácer might be one to watch (assuming he makes the squad), as he has six goals in 13 games for Spain.

Prospects

I don’t think Spain will win the tournament. They have some fine players and more importantly, players who are used to working together, but their lack of flexibility and emerging talent caught up to them in Brazil, when they were badly beaten by the Dutch, a result that rocked them and left them unable to lift themselves before a do or die clash with Chile. I would fully expect them to reach at least the quarter-finals, but they are unlikely to go much further.

Back to Euro 2016

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I include England as the first possible dark horse, albeit speaking as an Englishman I am not confident we even qualify as that.

Speaking of qualifying, this went quite well for England, with the side winning all ten of their matches, though the group wasn’t exactly formidable. Has this given rise to unfettered optimism? Not for me it hasn’t. England’s record in major tournaments since 2002 is:

2002 World Cup quarter-finalists, Euro 2004 quarter-finalists, 2006 quarter-finalists, 2008 did not qualify, 2010 2nd round, 2012 quarter-finalists, 2014 group stage. Not exactly formidable or awe-inspiring.

Can Roy Hodgson turn England’s fortunes around in France, and who will be his key players?

Wayne Rooney is often presented as crucial to England but injuries have left him devoid of the pace he once had. He is England’s all-time top scorer but most of these goals have come against minnows, and he hasn’t exactly been in sparkling form of late. To cap things off, he is currently injured – he’ll be fit in time for the Euros but what sort of form will he be in? The trouble is, Hodgson will probably pick him regardless.

Harry Kane burst onto the scene last season and has continued to score goals for Spurs. He is, in my view, a must, as is his Tottenham colleague Dele Alli. The two of them have struck up a good working relationship and barring injury, both need to be in the squad. Another player who may yet be in the squad is Leicester forward Jamie Vardy, who has been in good form for the table toppers. His Leicester colleague Danny Drinkwater could yet also be in contention, and given his form, deserves to be considered.

All in all though, it’s difficult to work England out for sure. I couldn’t begin to work out who truly deserves to go, and even if I could, it doesn’t mean they will go. After a miserable World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals would be progress.

Back to Euro 2016

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This summer the European Championships return, four years on from Spain triumphing in the competition and two years on from Germany being crowned world champions. France are the hosts in an expanded championship that sees 24 teams contest the title.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the key contenders to win the tournament, as well as evaluating the chances of a few dark horses as well. I hope you enjoy!

Team Profiles: Germany

Team Profiles: Spain

Team Profiles: France

Team Profiles: England

Team Profiles: Italy