HAVING qualified for the European Championships for the first time, Northern Ireland supporters would be forgiven for not worrying about their group opponents too much, rather being content with the overjoy at finally reaching the finals in France.
However, after such an impressive qualifying campaign which saw only one defeat in topping the group, Michael O’Neill’s men will certainly be going into the tournament with high hopes of pulling off a surprise in what looks like being a challenging group on paper.
Here, we examine the mission in front of Michael O’Neill’s men in Group C.
Manager: Joachim Low
Star Player: Thomas Muller
World Ranking: 4
Previous best: Winners (1972, 1980 & 1996)
Tournament odds: 7/2
The world champions, as of late, are in poor form. Recent defeats to England and Slovakia, albeit friendlies, have raised question marks over this German side’s desire and mentality heading into Euro 2016.
The retirements of Per Mertesacker, Philip Lahm and Miroslav Klose (who had over 350 appearances between them) after the World Cup win in 2014, appears to have removed an experienced spine from the squad which has left a hole which reflects in their performances.
However, there still lies outstanding quality in Germany’s camp despite the recent form guide. It’s a squad which retains the guile of Mesut Ozil, the clinical Thomas Muller and the sublime passing of Toni Kroos, along with perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world in Manuel Neuer. So it is still very much a special set of players.
But, as the Republic showed in qualification, the three-time winners can be beaten and are currently not playing like the side that won the World Cup two years ago. Then again, as with every great team, the Germans often preserve their best for the big time and will still present the most difficult hurdle in the group for Northern Ireland.
TEAM STAT: Thomas Muller was Germany’s top scorer with nine goals during qualification
Manager: Adam Nawalka
Star Player: Robert Lewandowski
World Ranking: 27
Previous best: Group stage (2008 & 2012)
Tournament odds: 50/1
Like many other nations, Poland will be entering the tournament reliant on the single world class player they have in Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich striker was the top scorer in qualification after netting 13 times and will be viewed as the Poles’ jewel in what is a very flamboyant and offensive side which notched up over 30 goals in reaching the finals in France.
The White Eagles’ attacking potent is well balanced by the defensive discipline in midfield by Sevilla’s anchorman Grzegorz Krychowiak, who having been named in the La Liga team of the season, is also being touted for an impressive tournament.
The 2-0 defeat of Germany during qualification, whilst finishing second ahead of the Republic of Ireland, demonstrates that this Polish outfit is well capable of competing with the big boys and pulling off a surprise.
However, the one flaw which is perhaps obvious for the Poles, is the lack of experience and nerves required to go far in a European Championships. Having departed at the group stage in their last four major tournaments and failing to win a single match in Euro 2008 and 2012, there is justified scrutiny over the bottle of this Polish team leading into this year’s tournament.
TEAM STAT: Poland averaged over three goals per game during qualification
Manager: Mykhaylo Fomenko
Star Player: Yevhen Konoplyanka
World Ranking: 19
Previous best: Group stage (2012)
Tournament odds: 100/1
Unlike Poland, Ukraine do not cling their hopes on a single player and instead have a well-balanced side with similar ability throughout the squad. Having conceded just five goals during qualification whilst keeping seven clean sheets, this Ukrainian outfit has a very solid structure and will be difficult to break down.
The defence and midfield looks to break quickly on the counter attack, possessing two wingers in Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko who are well capable of scoring goals after bagging six between them in the ten qualifying games.
Entering Euro 2016 on the back of beating Slovenia convincingly 3-1 on aggregate in a play-off for the first time in six attempts, Ukraine will have their tails firmly up. However, after failing to score a goal against Spain and Slovakia, who they finished behind in qualifying, there will be doubts over their ability to create and open up the better teams which may turn out to be Ukraine’s downfall in a competitive Group C.
TEAM STAT: Ukraine conceded only one more goal than championship holders Spain in qualification