TOM SMITHIES, Football Editor, The Daily Telegraph
June 10, 2016 8:20am
IT’S the biggest European Championships ever — and just possibly the most open.
France kick off the newly expanded Euros in Paris early on Saturday morning against Romania, and former Spain and Barcelona winger Luis Garcia believes it’s impossible to pick out an obvious winner, with a clutch of teams preparing in confidence.
With 24 teams across six groups, established favourites like Germany and Spain need to beware falling down even in the group stages, Garcia believes, while France may feel the weight of history and expectation on their shoulders.
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Having wound up his career with an unlikely stint at the Central Coast Mariners, Garcia will enjoy watching the tournament as a fan and TV pundit — especially as the field is apparently wide open.
“There’s a few teams with fantastic squads, but there is no one team that you can say for sure will make at least the semi-finals,” Garcia said.
“Germany is very strong and the World Cup champions of course, Spain is the holder of the European Championship trophy, but even they can struggle in the groups, or in the Round of 16 or quarter-finals when they arrive.
“There’s more teams that can be very dangerous — we’re talking about France, about Belgium, about England with a young squad. They’re very good teams who will be difficult to beat.”
France’s obstacles may be mental ones, Garcia believes, especially with the decision to exclude Karim Benzema over an alleged blackmail plot.
“France know they have to do well, after a long time in which they haven’t won an important championship,” he said.
“They come into this one where they are at home, with all the supporters, with a fantastic team full of quality players. But they also know they have to do well, and that can create its own pressure if you don’t know how to control it.
“With all that has happened around Benzema, he was such an important player of the team, can also be very distracting for the team. If they can start well it will breed confidence and that will help them deal with the pressure — which will make them a contender for sure.”
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Of the other leading sides, Garcia believes England, Belgium and Portugal all have the potential to cause damage.
“The defence is the weakest point for England, but they actually have very good defenders — it’s when they have to play together that everything is not the same,” he said.
“If they can build on the last few weeks they have a very strong squad and a lot of talent. They have very good, very technically gifted players upfront, players who can define a game.
Belgium’s Eden Hazard finished the season strongly with Chelsea.
“Belgium could be dark horses. They were expected to do well at the World Cup and in the end it didn’t work for them. They do have Eden Hazard of course, who finished the season really well for Chelsea and is a very important player for them.
“Now they have some experience which they didn’t have at the World Cup — now they know how they have to behave and what they need to find to do well at the competition.
“Portugal too have the experience of players like Ricardo Quaresma and Cristiano Ronaldo — even though he didn’t finish the season at 100% and struggled in the Champions League and La Liga, Ronaldo remains a very important player for them. They could be a team that gives a lot of trouble to the very top sides.”
Garcia also noted the shock results in pre-tournament friendlies, with Germany losing to Slovakia and Spain to Georgia — evidence, he said, of the possible upsets ahead.
“Coaches want to try players, see how they will fit, and try a Plan B in these friendlies, but the results are still a warning that there will be no easy games in the tournament itself,” he said.
“You will have to work hard every single game, no matter who the opponent.