Euro 2016: Just how cushy is France’s group?
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The French hosts kick off their Euro 2016 campaign on Friday against Romania, before taking on newcomers Albania and Switzerland. We take a look at the teams' strengths and weaknesses.
France are aiming for a hat-trick of titles on home soil, after their triumphs at Euro 1984 and the 1998 World Cup. On paper, the hosts have been drawn in one of the tournament’s weaker groups. But coach Didier Deschamps has been keen to douse expectations, stressing that there is no such thing as an "easy draw". Here's a look at their foes.
Romania haven’t played a Euro match since 2008. They also haven’t lost a game since June 2014, a feat that underlines their rock-solid defensive credentials. The squad no longer boasts stars like Gheorghe Hagi or Adrian Mutu, but it has proved formidable at frustrating the most prolific strikers. The cautious tactics espoused by veteran coach Anghel Iordanescu will present France’s attacking armada with the perfect test.
Romania’s presence at Euro 2016 is largely down to the team’s defensive prowess, starring Napoli centre-back Vlad Chiriches. Iordanescu’s men conceded just two goals in qualifying, the best defensive record of any qualifier – though their group, won by Northern Ireland, was also one of the weakest.
The flipside of Romania’s defensive solidity is a lack of firepower. Gone are the days of the free-scoring Raducioiu, Dumitrescu and Moldovan. None of Romania’s current forwards – Claudiu Keseru, Bogdan Stancu, Florin Andone and Denis Alibec – play in a major European club. They are likely to sit back and wait for opportunities to score on the counter-attack.
Key player: Ciprian Tatarusanu
At 30, the Fiorentina goalkeeper is a trusted rock in Romania’s formidable defensive shield. Known for eschewing flamboyance and getting the job done, Tatarusanu was voted Romanian Footballer of the Year in 2015. This season he has kept a clean sheet in 14 Serie A games, despite his club’s wobbly defence.
Albania were hailed as heroes last October when they qualified for their very first major international tournament at the expense of bitter foes Serbia, though they were helped by a riot in Belgrade that automatically handed them three points. In theory, the tournament underdogs should pose no threat to France. But they did qualify from a group that included the likes of Portugal and Denmark, and they also beat the Euro hosts in a friendly exactly one year ago…
Coach Giovanni de Biasi has instilled classic Italian virtues into the team, including caution, cohesion and bunker-style tactics. But sheer passion is likely to be their main asset. Albania’s players are well aware they are carrying the hopes and aspirations of a nation starved of sporting success, and thousands of fans from Europe’s large Albanian diaspora are expected to converge on France to push the “Eagles” to further glory.
Like Romania, the Albanian squad is blighted by a lack of firepower up front. Unlike Romania, it also has a dearth of reliable goalies. None of the three keepers picked for Euro 2016 has much experience of top-level football. The number-one choice, Etrit Berisha, has spent most of the season on the bench for Italian club Lazio.
Key player: Lorik Cana
Nantes defender Lorik Cana is Albania’s emblematic skipper and their most capped player, with 90 appearances to his name. Cana has plenty of experience of European football, with stints at Paris Saint-Germain, Galatasaray and Marseille. The charismatic 32-year-old embodies the work ethic and toughness that make Albania’s defence so hard to overcome.
At the very least, the Swiss will be hoping they can improve on their three previous appearances at the Euros. That shouldn’t be too hard given that they’ve always finished bottom of their group. On paper, Switzerland have the second-best team after France and the best chance ever of reaching the knock-out stage. The presence in the squad of midfielder Granit Xhaka, whose brother Taulant plays for Albania, will make for an intriguing family clash when the two teams meet on June 11.
The Swiss squad boasts two of Europe’s best wingers in Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez. The former has long been a cornerstone of Italian serial winners Juventus, while the latter has emerged as one of the most reliable players in the Bundesliga with his club Wolfsburg. And he’s a wizard at free kicks, too.
Ten years ago, Switzerland set the unwanted record of being dumped out of the World Cup without conceding a single goal (they lost in a penalty shootout in the last 16). They are unlikely to repeat the feat this year: the country’s own press has singled out the central defence as the squad’s main cause for concern.
Key player: Xherdan Shaqiri
Like the Xhaka brothers, Kosovo-born Xherdan Shaqiri could have played for either Albania or Switzerland (he has both passports, as well as Kosovar nationality). At 24, the Stoke City midfielder is the rising star of a multicultural squad that includes Cameroon-born Breel Embolo. Shaqiri has been nicknamed the “Alpine Messi” for his attacking flair and ability to unlock the tightest defences.