With the best countries in Europe set to compete in France starting on Friday, the world will be treated to top-shelf football competition. When the competition began in 2014, there were 53 teams competing (host country France receives an automatic bye prior to this stage). With 24 teams fighting to advance in six groups, the top two teams in each group along with the four best third place teams overall will advance to the knock-out stage. Let’s take a closer look at which teams can be expected to advance beyond the initial group stage.
Group A- Albania, France, Romania and Switzerland
Expect host country France to finish first in the group, followed by Switzerland, Romania and Albania. Les Bleus will garner all nine points, with only the Swiss putting up token resistance. New manager Didier Deschamps has employed an open style of football that will see his club deep into finals contention. For Romania and Albania, the road beyond the group stage ends here.
Group B- England, Russia, Slovakia and Wales
A resurgent England will lead the group, followed by Russia, Wales and Slovakia. The Three Lions won all ten of their Euro qualifying matches under manager Roy Hodgson, and will take the top group spot. Russia will edge out Slovakia for second place, but Slovakia will take one of the four third place spots and advance beyond the group stage. Wales, while even with star Gareth Bale, will be ending their Euro 2016 run in the group stage.
Group C- Germany, Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland
Germany is the cream of the crop in Group C, with Poland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland trailing in spots two through four. Die Mannschaft lost to Poland in the qualifiers, but don’t expect a repetition of that result. Germany will take the top spot, with Poland right behind them and Ukraine earning a third place berth and continuing into the knock-out stage. Look for Northern Ireland to make an early exit and not advance beyond this stage.
Group D- Croatia, Czech Republic, Spain and Turkey
While not the powerhouse they’ve been in the past, look for Spain to take the top spot, followed by Croatia, Turkey and the Czech Republic. With Spain clearly the top team, the real battle is for the next two spots. With the remaining three teams battling to advance beyond the group stage, look for Croatia to advance along with Turkey in a third place berth. The Czech Republic will be sent home through the tie-breaker rules. It will be that close.
Group E- Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden
With a battle looming in this “Group of Death”, look for Belgium to edge out Italy, with Sweden and the Republic of Ireland rounding out the group. Expect a young Belgian squad to have learned a lot from the last World Cup experience and advance in the top spot. A strong Italian team will follow right on their heels, with Ireland and Sweden making an early exit. Sweden, much like Gareth Bale and Wales, cannot advance solely on the talent of star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Group F- Austria, Hungary, Iceland and Portugal
Look for Portugal to take top honors in Group F, followed by Austria, Iceland and Hungary. While A Seleccao are not the powerhouse they once were, they are in a weak group overall. Austria is the clear favorite for the second spot, with Iceland and Hungary watching the rest of the matches as spectators.