The Euro 2016 qualifying campaign finally came to an end this week as the final play off matches took place.
While the spotlight was on the European giants such as Germany, Spain, Italy and England, there were certainly signs from the qualifying games that there remains plenty of Nations capable of causing an upset.
Poland’s 33 goals in qualifying was the highest tally for any European side, bettering England who scored the second highest with 31. These 33 goals came from 162 attempts- fewer than that of England who made 195 attempts on goal and even the likes of Germany and Belgium who made 232 and 207 attempts on goal, respectively. Ultimately, this Polish side poses an undeniable goal threat and the presence of Robert Lewandowski in attack means their goal scoring success if pretty much self-explanatory.
The Bayern Munich striker finished the qualifying campaign as top scorer with 13 goals from 10 games, diminishing any suggestion that his goal scoring record in the Bundesliga was thanks to the level of quality around him. His 13 goals came from 42 attempts on goal in which 25 were on target- more than any other player.
Ajax forward Arkadiusz Milik is equally as important, as evidenced by his 6 goals and 6 assists that put him joint top of most assists along with Slovakia’s Vladimir Weiss and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Senad Lulic.Poland coach Adam Nawalka will enter the tournament with the freedom to continue playing the intense and confident attacking football that has been proven to punish teams. Gibraltar leant the hard way after Poland thrashed them 0-7 and 8-1. This Polish side is one to be feared, as demonstrated by their 2-0 victory over Germany.
Prediction: Poland will reach the quarter finals of the tournament.
The ease at which Austria won group G also bodes well in terms of the level of competition fans can expect next summer. Bayern Munich left back David Alaba featured as a primary figure for his country and scored 4 goals and made 3 assists in 8 games.
His importance in the Austria set up is recognised by his tendency to play in central midfield for his country- a tactic that could prove to be genius having seen the success of Philipp Lahm in both the full back and midfield position for Germany and Bayern Munich. Alaba’s pace and ability on the ball provides the team with an unorthodox attacking threat in addition to a defensive asset.
Like Alaba, Stoke’s Marko Arnautovic stands as another technician within the Austria side. Both his and Alaba’s crossing expertise will be essential when it comes to creating opportunities for 6ft 5” Basel striker Marc Janko, who scored 7 goals and made 2 assists in qualifying. Dynamo Kiev’s in demand centre back Aleksandar Dragović also provides reliability and experience at the heart of an Austrian defence that conceded just 5 goals on the route towards finals in France next year.
Prediction: Austria will make it to the last 16 of the competition.
Wales will be heavily reliant on Gareth Bale to bring them success next summer after they reached their first major finals in 57 years.
Bale scored 7 goals in 10 games compared to the team’s second top scorer Aaron Ramsey who scored just 2. The team scored just 11 goals overall, which will be a main worry for Chris Coleman. The rest of the team has to take greater responsibility if Wales are to achieve anything next year.
At the other end of the pitch, Wales did only concede 4 goals, putting them 4th on the list of goals conceded. This is down to the defensive stability offered by Swansea’s Ashley Williams at centre back. His commanding nature and leadership qualities as Captain in addition to his experience at the highest level has helped fellow defenders Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor perform well.
While Bale will undoubtedly catch the eye, Aaron Ramsey will be an integral part of the Wales set up in France. He will have to provide goals from midfield in the way he has at Arsenal in order to offer some support to the under pressure Gareth Bale. Ramsey will also have to use the intelligence he so often shows when it comes to coming up against the best teams. He isn’t surrounded by Premier League standard players and has to realise that he needs to take responsibility.
Bale’s direct attacking style when on the ball, his pace and conviction in front of goal will be a nightmare for Europe’s defenders to deal with. Ramsey’s ability to occupy pockets of space in between midfield and defence as well as his runs into the penalty area will also be key in dissecting the defensive shape of opponents.
Prediction: Wales will make it to the last 16.
As for Sweden, only two words are needed- Zlatan Ibrahimović. Never can the term ‘one man team’ be so easily applied than when discussing Sweden’s national football team.
He can still safely be named as one of the best strikers in the world, even at 34 years old. His sublime free kick in the play-off match against Denmark earned Sweden their spot in France while taking his goal tally in the qualifiers to 11 out of 10 games- second to Lewandowski.
The Paris St Germain forward will strike fear into the minds of opposition defenders simply with his towering presence and well known ego. His teammates can expect him to make something happen every time he touches the ball and will enter the competition with confidence from just knowing he is amongst them.
Of course, the added experience of Sebastian Larsson and Kim Källström will be helpful but at the end of the day, Sweden will simply struggle if Ibrahimović isn’t at his best or somewhere near his best.
If he can hit top form at the right time, Sweden can produce an upset providing they carry out their defensive roles correctly. Teams will hope there isn’t an opportunity for an overhead bicycle kick from around 30 yards out, as England fans will explain.
Prediction: Sweden will score goals, but fail to get out of their group.
Slovakia’s efforts in group C also caught the eye. Vladimir Weiss’s 6 assists stand out as a main positive. The former Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers and Rangers winger has been a forgotten man for the past few years and he now plays for Lekhwiya SC in the Qatar Stars League. He will be a man on a mission at Euro 2016 in the hope he can attract the attention of European clubs.
The main man, however, is Napoli’s Marek Hamšík who contributed 5 goals to Slovakia’s overall tally of 17, which helped them to a second place finish in group C- just 5 points behind winners Spain.
The shortage of recognised names throughout the squad makes their strong displays all the more surprising. Their qualifying campaign even featured a 2-1 win over Spain. Jan Kozak’s side don’t score many goals but they don’t concede many either. The likes of Marek Hamšík, Vladimir Weiss and Martin Skrtel will be hopeful they can cause an upset or two with many likely to underestimate the surprise Euro 2016 finalists.
Prediction: Slovakia will be knocked out at the group stages but not without beating one of Europe’s top sides.