Euro 2016 Group E preview: Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Sweden
Ian Hawkey breaks down the four teams in Group E of Euro 2016.
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Among the more intriguing groups, and the more stellar. Almost every scenario for the final placings means that there will be an elegiac feeling in the last week of June, as a veteran contemplates the possible final curtain on a long career in international football. That man might be Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of Sweden, or Robbie Keane, of Ireland, or even Gigi Buffon, of Italy.
Belgium may appear weakened by the injury absence of their totem, Vincent Kompany, but they have strength in depth in his central defensive position, ruggedness at the base of midfield and the talent to go all the way in the tournament. Italy do not look especially blessed but have know-how, and Ireland and Sweden can upset any heavyweight when they play to their strengths.
Group E fixtures: (all kick-off times UAE)
*Correction: Times earlier were incorrectly shown as an hour later.
• June 13: Republic of Ireland v Sweden, 8pm
• June 13: Belgium v Italy, 11pm
• June 17: Italy v Sweden, 5pm
• June 18: Belgium v Republic of Ireland, 5pm
• June 22: Sweden v Belgium, 11pm
• June 22: Italy v Republic of Ireland, 11pm
• Predicted order of finish: Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Ireland
Ranked second in the world according to Fifa, their so-called “golden generation” of players are well draped with medals of every hue in their club careers, from Eden Hazard, former Premier League Player of the Year, to Thibaut Courtois, former league champion in Spain and England.
But as a national team with such a star-studded cast, they have yet to impact in the way they ought to on a major tournament. Belgium have just completed a first successful qualification for a European Championship since 1984, having missed out on all the tournaments since then, apart from 2000, where they entered as co-hosts. At the last World Cup, they fell away in the quarter-finals, losing 1-0 to Argentina.
• The manager: Marc Wilmots
A popular Belgian player in the 1990s and early 2000s, hard-working, but also creative and all-action in midfield. As a coach, he has shown a sure touch in dealing with a squad of many talents and diverse backgrounds. Has a nice, dry sense of humour in his press conferences, but knows it is time, after four years in the post, to deliver on great expectations.
• Star player: Eden Hazard
France remembers Hazard as a teenaged prodigy, a nimble dribbler with an eye for goal who grew up with Lille and was named Ligue 1’s Player of the Year twice before he turned 22. He then joined Chelsea, and was England’s Footballer of the Year when they won the title last season. Hazard’s club form has been below his usual high standards for much of the past 10 months, but it picked up in April and May. He should captain Belgium in the absence of the injured Vicent Kompany
• Wild card: Michy Batshuayi
Competition for striking berths is fierce in the Belgian squad, so Batshuayi, 22, may have to settle initially for opportunities from the bench. But with his pace and aggression, The Marseille forward can be a match-winner from there.
• Most likely to: Go through, as group winners.
Italy are notoriously tepid starters at tournaments, and their problem over the past decade is that, as often as not, their tepid first few outings have been too lacklustre and too many. For a great football nation, the following record is scandalously poor: Euro 2008, first round; World Cup 2010, first round; World Cup 2014, first round.
Yet Italy have also shone within the past decade, winners of the 2006 World Cup, finalists at the last European Championship, albeit that they were hammered by Spain in that final. They still have the evergreen Gigi Buffon in goal and as captain, but will worry about a shortage of high-class punch up front.
• The manager: Antonio Conte
Fierce, immensely competitive, Conte can seem very distinct from his predecessor, the urbane, thoughtful Cesare Prandelli, who was obliged to quit after the poor showing at the Brazil World Cup. Conte will leave, too, after these Euros, to take up the managerial job at Chelsea.
He achieved sustained success at Juventus, where he was once captain, by managing them to three successive scudetti, Italian titles between 2012 and 2014. His Italy eased their way through qualifying for Euro 2016 too.
• Star man: Gigi Buffon
At 38, Buffon shows no inclination to retire or even move to a less demanding league for the winter of his career. A survivor of the 2006 World Cup-winning squad he will pass 160 caps for his country at these Euros. He made his debut in 1997. His leadership, valued by Conte while they were together at Juventus, is an asset to rank alongside his reflexes and command of his penalty area.
• Wild card: Stephan El Sharaawy
An unhappy first six months of last season at Monaco threatened El Sharaawy’s place in Italy’s plans, but since joining Roma in January, his speed and trickery have been productive again. At 23, he goes into the tournament having rediscovered some of the confidence and dash that made him a budding star at AC Milan.
• Most likely to: Progress to knockout rounds after a sluggish game or two.
How to look beyond the big man? Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose contract with Paris Saint-Germain has terminated, has towered over French domestic football for the past four years, and will, from August, choose a new environment in which to make his remarkable presence as a club footballer felt. But he will want to leave France with something to remember him by in a Sweden jersey.
Around him are players accustomed to building the game around their captain, and reliant on Ibrahimovic to turn them into something more than just solid middleweights.
• Manager: Erik Hamren
The Swedish Football Federation are among the game’s most patient employers. Lars Lagerback was national coach for 11 years. His successor, Hamren, appointed after Sweden’s failure to reach the 2010 World Cup, is six years into the post and survived missing out, via the play-offs, on the Brazil World Cup. Hamren, a Swede, had his best clubs successes in Norway and Denmark, winning championships with Rosenborg and Aalborg. He remains reliant on a spine of veteran players, although he has been ready to cast his net wider in the lead up to Euro 2016.
• Star man: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Domineering, dazzling in front of goal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be in his mid-30s but is coming off one of the most prolific seasons of his career, with Paris Saint-Germain. He can expect to be tightly marked. There’s a possibility this might be his last major international tournament, and there will be a desire to make up for the deflation of not reaching the last World Cup.
• Wild Card: John Guidetti
For a 24-year-old striker, Guidetti is strikingly well-travelled. He played his early football in Kenya and Sweden and has had stints in England, Netherlands, Scotland and, last season, in Spain, where the forward made some telling contributions to Celta Vigo’s strong league and cup campaign. With his strength and enthusiasm, a handy extra option up front for Sweden.
• Most likely to: Joust with Ireland for third spot.
Republic of Ireland reached the championships via the play-offs, which has become their customary fate on the way to, or out of, major tournaments. The triumph, 3-1 on aggregate, over Bosnia-Herzegovina, was an impressive coup and though the squad has limitations in key areas, manager Martin O’Neill seems to have instilled a positive spirit.
There is experience through the spine of the team, too, and the fact that Germany, the world champions, were also beaten in the qualifying group should embolden the players, as well as making Italy and Belgium wary of Ireland’s deserved reputation for not bowing to traditional hierarchy.
• Manager: Martin O’Neill
A charismatic Northern Irishman who played in midfield at World Cups for Northern Ireland and won the European Cup with Nottingham Forest, under Brian Clough, the bold manager who O’Neill cites as a mentor. Articulate and a strong motivator, he gained a reputation for building teams who could punch above their financial weight with Leicester City in England and by guiding Celtic to a Uefa Cup final. He has been criticised for Ireland’s pragmatic football at times, but coming through a tough qualifying group and a taxing play-off to reach the France tournament represents an upturn in the Republic’s fortunes, after they missed out on the 2014 World Cup.
• Star Man: Robbie Keane
It’s almost half a lifetime ago that a diminutive, pale Keane was “Baby Irish”, a teenaged striker recruited by Inter Milan. He has been at many clubs since, the latest Los Angeles Galaxy and served Ireland determinedly. He should reach the milestone of 150 caps at these Euros. At 35, his zip has faded, but he knows the geometry of the penalty box instinctively. He will be targeting a 70th international goal before he leaves France; he went into the preparation matches on 67.
• Wild Card: James McClean
The 27-year-old winger has been a magnet for controversy because of his willing expression of republican sentiments, sympathies which encouraged him to turn out for Eire rather than the Northern Ireland of his birth. Not always consistent, but can be an exciting penetrative attacker.
• Most likely to: Scuffle for third place in the group.
Updated: May 23, 2016 04:00 AM